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Playing it safe

Over the weekend, my wife and I arrived at our daughter’s and son-in-law’s house. As usual, we brought the coffee and donuts. Our grandchildren supplied the entertainment. Last Saturday, Wyatt (who’s nearly two) and I played a little floor hockey in the kitchen. I flipped a rubber ball his way. He chased it – arms and stick flailing every which way – and then he whacked the ball back to me. It wasn’t too long before I cautioned him out loud.

“Be careful,” I said. And then almost instinctively, I added, “I don’t want you knocking somebody’s eye out.”

A playground in Washington, D.C., deemed unsafe was cordoned off by police.

A playground in Washington, D.C., deemed unsafe was cordoned off by police.

 

It wasn’t a really serious warning. In fact, he’s not old enough to understand many of the words in the warning. And, in truth, the only damage he might have inflicted would have been chipping a bit of plaster from a wall or denting a baseboard or two. My blurting out the warning was just a grandparent being protective and playing it safe.

But isn’t that a telltale sign of the times? We’re always telling our kids to take care, watch out and be safe. Funny, I don’t remember my parents ever saying that to my sister and me when we were growing up. In fact, like most parents back in the 1950s and ’60s, our folks pretty much kicked us out of the house most early evenings and weekends just to get us out of their hair.

BALLHOCKEY_PROHIBITED_SIGNAs long as we came back for suppertime or bedtime, I don’t think our parents ever worried where we went, because we were often in the company of the rest of the kids on the block. I don’t imagine they cared what we did, because we generally played in the backyard of one set of parents or another. And nobody worried just when we got home, since somebody along the block would call one of the kids inside and that would usually break up the playmaking for another day. Safety never really became an issue, unless somebody got more than a bruised knee or a cut lip. Those were just flesh wounds and to most families that seemed par for the course.

The other thought I had when I warned my grandson about his flailing stick was that scene in the movie “A Christmas Story.” That’s when the character Ralphie says, “I want an official Red Ryder air rifle.” To which one of his parents says, “No way. You’ll shoot your eye out!” And I guess that was the genesis of the paranoiac parent, who fussed and worried over everything his/her children explored for fear it could kill him. (Frankly, I’d have used the “shoot your eye out” line just to keep my kids away from any real firearms or even toy guns, but that’s a different discussion.)

In the 1970s and ’80s, as parents of young children, my wife and I were very conscious of the need for safe playgrounds and even safer streets. I remember “street-proofing” our kids not to talk the strangers and on occasion volunteering to stand around teeter-totters and swings just to make sure nobody got hurt to make the school liable for damages. It was the beginning of the era when municipalities, school boards and parents suddenly felt kids had to be protected from everything.

But wasn’t it our moms who told us, “You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die”?

And we often did eat dirt in pursuit of being king of the castle. I remember with both horror and gratefulness one occasion when a bunch of us kids went off into the woods to climb the tallest and most accessible of the trees – the cedars. My sister had absolutely no fear of heights. I was just the opposite. She scampered up the oldest, driest cedar tree, while I just hung upside down from the lowest, thickest branches.

Then it happened. I heard a crack above me and my sister came crashing down breaking through every cedar branch en route to the ground; in retrospect I guess the cedar limbs probably saved her. On the ground, she was screaming in pain, but she was very conscious. No matter. I was off like shot to retrieve the doctor who lived next door. And he was back just as rapidly, only to find my sister cut and sore, but with all the climbing kids gathered around her laughing about the commotion she’d caused.

There was something about play 50 years ago. Rightly or wrongly, we never considered the danger – either real or imagined. We all looked out for each other. And we never worried because our parents never appeared to worry. Today, I guess everything’s reversed. We teach our kids (or their kids) to worry because we worry, whether danger lurks or not. We want everybody to be safe from all risk at all cost.

In so doing, we may have taken away our kids’ best defence mechanism – lack of fear.

How history survives

50 young RAF officers marched with pictures of the 50 murdered officers.

50 young RAF officers marched with pictures of the 50 murdered officers.

The rain was steady. The air must have been as cold as the day they were commemorating – a few degrees just above zero. The years had changed the way the place looked. But neither the weather nor time had washed away the memory. During the 70th anniversary ceremony of The Great Escape, I witnessed, 50 young Royal Air Force officers marched in single file past the reviewing stand. Each contemporary soldier carried the photo of one of the 50 air officers murdered following famous prison breakout in March 1944. One of the commemorating airmen was Simon Flynn.

Simon Flynn

Simon Flynn

“I loved the movie, but I knew it wasn’t fact,” Flynn said. “But I feel honoured to be part of the commemoration.”

The more I attend these observances harkening back to wartime events of the 20th century, the more I’m reminded that these conflicts happened nearly two generations ago. People wonder out loud to me in another generation whether anyone will remember, whether anyone will care. If you’ll allow me this column to respond to that suggestion, I’d like to illustrate why stories such as The Great Escape will not die with its last witnesses, but will continue to capture the public’s imagination and prompt further questions, research and more stories.

Simon Flynn, a 25-year-old helicopter pilot in the RAF, is a primary example. Yes, he is military. Yes, he does have a direct armed forces connection – via the air force – with the story of the Commonwealth air officers who built the famous tunnels out of Stalag Luft III in 1943-44. And yes, he’s been taught to preserve the past while serving the future.

But the difference was that on the day following the commemoration of the escape – March 24 – he and the other 49 RAF air officers marching in that rainy ceremony were going further. On March 25, they packed up their kit bags and marched for four days on foot 107 miles to the town of Poznan where the cremated remains of the 50 murdered officers are housed today. And Flynn wasn’t just following his superior’s orders. He’d volunteered.

“We all went through 10 weeks of training,” he said. “We walked four-to-five miles a day at first; but then we worked up to 18 miles a day near the end.”

Jon England beside his line of portraits of the 50.

Jon England beside his line of portraits of the 50.

But the unique commemoration instinct was not limited to the RAF officers. The first day I spent in Zagan, Poland, the town adjacent to the wartime German POW camp, I met a young contemporary artist named Jon England. In fact, he joined me over dinner at a reception staged by Alexandra Bugailiskis, the Canadian ambassador to Poland. I asked why a man as young as he – in his 20s – cared about something as apparently ancient as The Great Escape.

“The story,” he said. “It’s such a compelling story.”

An artist from Somerset, England, Jon England had originally become interested in the story because of its ties to his part of the U.K. But more than that, the young artist became curious about the day-to-day life among the POWs at Stalag Luft III during the war. In particular, he was drawn to the product called “Klim” (milk spelled backwards) and its versatility in the lives of the prisoners-of-war.

Not only did the contents of the Klim cans – powdered milk – sustain the men in their diets. But 750 of the empty tins (when put together) became the ventilation duct for the tunnellers in the escape Tunnel “Harry.” Jon England felt so inspired by the Klim, that he reconstituted the milk powder into sepia-toned paint, which he then used to paint portraits of the 50 slain officers.

“There’s a particular physical and metaphorical resonance in utilizing milk to reproduce the identity card photos of the 50,” England said. “It is the most basic, humble, elemental foodstuff, sustaining life by multiple means.”

The portraits lined the reception hall on the anniversary of the escape.

WO Maxine Staple

WO Maxine Staple

And beside me as we dined that night in our best bib and tucker, I met British Warrant Officer Maxine Staple, the young woman who had assisted RAF Group Captain David Houghton orchestrate the formal reception on the anniversary. Not unlike artist Jon England WO Staple had dedicated much time and effort to this event. She had helped arrange for the RAF band, the food catering, the speakers’ list and even the civilian guest list, including myself and another dozen Canadians who’d travelled 3,000 miles to pay our respects to the survivors of Stalag Luft III and the murdered 50 officers. Yes, it was her duty, as an officer in the Royal Army, but like RAF chopper pilot Simon Flynn there was more than duty here.

“We are here to honour the men who were killed,” Flynn said. “But we’re also here to learn what gave them the spirit, the strength, the courage to survive and become the actual legend of The Great Escape.”

Memorial to the 50 at Stalag Luft III POW compound

Memorial to the 50 at Stalag Luft III POW compound

Anatomy of a tribute

 

March 24, 2014, ceremony at Stalag Luft III with the newly built replica sentry tower.

March 24, 2014, ceremony at Stalag Luft III with the newly built replica sentry tower in background.

 

When two recent acquaintances of mine arrived at the former Stalag Luft III location, in September 2013, they expected that the former German prison camp, while now a museum site near the town of Zagan in western Poland, would be fairly peaceful. The two Britons (as well as builder David Dunn and painter Johnnie Tait) had plans to erect a replica sentry tower in time for the upcoming 70th anniversary commemoration of The Great Escape eight months later. Andy Hunter, one of the two tower builders, was suddenly startled by what he saw.

Re-enactors at Stalag Luft III provided frighteningly real portrayals of 70 years ago.

Re-enactors at Stalag Luft III provide frighteningly real portrayals.

“The day we arrived, we were suddenly confronted by a World War II German military motorcycle and sidecar,” Hunter said. “The occupants were dressed in German military uniform. And they had guns pointed at us.”

Hunter’s heart palpitations, while understandable, were unnecessary. He soon discovered that the entire area around Zagan, including Stalag Luft III (the location of The Great Escape in 1944,) was in overdrive preparing for the commemorative ceremony, scheduled to happen right next to the replica sentry tower. And the men with German uniforms, motorcycle and guns were simply re-enactors also preparing for the 70th anniversary observances. In fact, the curator of the site, the Museum of Allied Forces Prisoners of War Martyrdom, Marek Lazarz, when I caught up with him just before the commemoration on Monday, seemed startled by the momentum.

Museum director in RAF uniform escorts real kriegie Andy Wiseman to mock inspection at the camp.

Museum director in RAF uniform, Marek Lazarz, escorts real kriegie Andy Wiseman to mock inspection at the camp.

“We’ve had more visitors here in the past few days,” Lazarz said, “than we’ve had in a year.”

Lazarz and I first met three years ago as I prepared my telling of The Great Escape story with a Canadian perspective. Even then, the tall and lean director of the museum explained that he prayed everything would be ready for the anniversary – the new exhibits hall, the souvenir sales area, the replica of Hut 104 (from which the famous Great Escape tunnel “Harry” was excavated to deliver 80 Commonwealth air officers outside the wire on March 24/25, 1944), the ceremony site near the exit shaft of tunnel “Harry,” the military personnel, the ambassadorial dignitaries, any surviving POW vets, and the re-enactors.

In fact, when I caught up with Lazarz on Sunday afternoon he was dressed in an RAF officer’s uniform as part of the re-enacting team himself. At that moment, he’d found Stalag Luft III POW veteran Andy Wiseman, who’d come in from the U.K. for the commemoration. Lazarz was escorting the 90-year-old Stalag Luft III alumnus to a mock inspection.

Wiseman took great delight as a kriegie unravelling guard systems and protocol.

Wiseman took great delight as a kriegie unravelling guard systems and protocol.

“The Germans conducted a roll call twice a day,” Wiseman told me. He further explained that the Luftwaffe guards in the camp counted each row of POWs calling out the total from front to back to front. Whenever they could the Canadian, British, New Zealand, Australian and South African air officer inmates moved around in mid-count.

“We did our level best to mess things up for them,” Wiseman said. “It was our job to confuse the enemy as often as we could.”

Later that Sunday evening, my fellow travellers to Stalag Luft III – Mark Christoff from Uxbridge and Gord Kidder (whose uncle RCAF navigator Gordon Kidder escaped through the tunnel, but was later killed) – attended a reception hosted by the Canadian ambassador to Poland. Besides the requisite diplomats, civic officials and military dignitaries, Ambassador Alexandra Bugailiskis acknowledged another important volunteer component in the anniversary.

(l-r) Author, Keith Ogilvie, Casey Ogilvie, Ambassador Alexander Bailiskis, Peter McGill, Paul Tibolski, Jean Ogilvie.

(l-r) Myself, Keith Ogilvie, Casey Ogilvie, Ambassador Alexandra Bugailiskis, Peter McGill, Paul Tibolski and Jean Ogilvie.

“I remember seeing the Great Escape movie as a little girl,” she said. “But I had no idea the extent to which the POWs families contributed to their survival of Stalag Luft III.”

Among her invited guests, brother and sister Keith and Jean Ogilvie were representing their father Keith (who was recaptured, but survived); Peter McGill and son Adam attended in remembrance of Peter’s grandfather, George McGill (murdered by Gestapo); and Gord Kidder was honouring his namesake, Gordon Kidder (killed by Gestapo after the escape).

“We often forget the impact of these events on their families,” Ambassador Bugailiskis said. “And yet the families’ connection to these POWs likely gave them hope to get through their days as POWs.”

Andy Hunter, with the British Ministry of Defence, and British Army Col. Phil Westwood, his team leader in the construction of the replica sentry tower at Stalag Luft III, represented another blood connection to events this week near Zagan. Westwood served 38 years in the British Army with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Falkland Islands and Northern Ireland, he told me.

Joining me at a post-reception part were Phil Westwood (l) and Andy Hunter ®.

At a post-reception party were Phil Westwood (l) and Andy Hunter (r).

“We built the replica of Hut 104 (with the trapdoor to Tunnel “Harry” under a stove,)” Westwood said, “and with some of the donations leftover, we came up with the idea of building the sentry tower… It just seemed the right thing to do.”

Monday’s commemoration at Stalag Luft III and tribute to the 50 murdered Commonwealth officers succeeded because the re-enactments and artifacts were frighteningly believable… but more because volunteers involved knew a legacy was at stake and felt moved to contribute.

Destructive driving

 

My Corolla sitting in a wrecking yard the afternoon of Dec. 30, 2009. I was hit by a distracted driver.

My Corolla sitting in a wrecking yard the afternoon of Dec. 30, 2009. I was hit by a distracted driver.

The man was driving his pickup that day, as I remember it, with his young daughter in the car seat beside him. Maybe he was in a hurry. Maybe he had too many things on the go. But – like too many of us – he decided to do some of his business while driving, on the phone. He happened to be driving along Brock Road in Pickering, Not., back in the days when the railway line below Taunton Road was a level crossing. He didn’t see the train in time and plowed into it. Bad enough, as I recall, he killed himself, but I remember the newspaper headline.

“Man drives truck into moving train,” it said. “Kills infant daughter.”

While the details were a bit foggy, I recalled the story (from maybe a decade ago) as I thought about making what I considered an important phone call while driving to the city this week. Even though I’ve got hands-free capability in my car, the recollection of that innocent kid paying the price of a father’s need to multi-task gave me pause. I considered how an inappropriate decision had cost that family dearly. Not to mention the trauma that first responders likely experienced when they arrived on the scene to deal with the death and destruction. Indeed, the CBC spoke to a retired B.C. firefighter, Tim Baillie, this week, about distracted driving.

“Ever since those damned (cell phones) came in, there’s been distractions,” Baillie told reporter Amber Hildebrandt. “You pick up bodies for 27 years, it pisses you off.”

It likely won’t placate firefighter Baillie, but this week his fellow law enforcers – Ontario provincial and municipal police – began levying stiffer fines ($280 up from $155) in an effort to curb the problem. It’s probably no surprise, but Canadian studies indicate up to 80 per cent of vehicle collisions in this country come as a result of inappropriate cell-phone use. Related fatalities are up 17 per cent (from 302 to 352 deaths) between the years 2006 and 2010. Police in Ontario hope a further penalty of assessing demerit points will help deter drivers even more. But according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, hitting distracted drivers’ bank accounts may be the only way.

“Demerit points will certainly cause an insurer to look at a driver as a greater risk,” an IBC representative told the Toronto Star this week.

As I suggest, I support the idea of making distracted drivers feel like pariah. But – in our haste to reduce inappropriate cell-phone use – I do wonder about definitions here. I listened to a number of radio hosts this week going on about the police blitz and new fines. They wanted everybody to chime in on the issue. And, well, they did. What I heard were some intriguing contradictions about the definition of “distracted driving.”

It appears people are bothered that simply holding a cell phone constitutes “distracted driving,” while other activities do not. Among examples cited were: people who eat and drive, people who do their make-up and drive, people who scan the newspaper and drive. One person wondered why having a dog in one’s lap would not constitute “distracted driving” under the law, but simply having a cell phone lying between one’s legs would.

I have a vivid memory of the most extraordinary combination of distractions happening right in front of me. I was stopped at a light northbound on Kennedy Road (just below Hwy 401) and when the light turned green, a woman in the southbound left-turn lane did a complete u-turn in front of us northbound drivers. And as she wheeled her Mercedes across our lanes, I noticed she was also applying lip stick in mid-manoeuvre. Had I been the cop, I’d have charged her with three offences, none involving a cell phone, but all exhibiting forms of distracted driving.

I hasten to add the story I’ve repeated here a couple of times. En route home from Whitby a few days before New Year’s back in 2009, I was t-boned by a pickup truck that came through a red light and plowed into the right side of my Toyota. The driver, I learned from a witness, was on a cell phone, but because the grace period for warning drivers against such activity was still in effect, the driver managed to get off on a lesser charge. I still had to replace my car totaled by the collision. However, I counted my lucky stars that the pickup had hit the passenger’s side (where there was no one sitting), not the driver’s side.

So I think the increased fines and the potential for demerit points may be effective, but until distracted driving becomes as unacceptable as drunk driving or driving without a seatbelt, the legislators, the police and innocent victims will continue to lose out to multi-taskers who believe they’re not the problem.

When the stars align

The Great Escape talk incorporated story of Gordon Kidder, who taught POWs German to eventual escapers.

The Great Escape talk incorporated story of Gordon Kidder, who taught German to eventual escapers. Photo Bev McMullen.

I had just completed one of my talks on The Great Escape. It was about an hour’s presentation at the Legion hall in Port Carling (in Muskoka) last Saturday. I asked someone to turn up the lights, so I could see the audience and take some questions. It’s in those moments that I prepare myself for a tough question and maybe some criticism. And I’m OK with that. Then, a man in the front row put up his hand to speak and the room went silent.

“I spent months in a POW camp just outside Munich during the war,” Jack Patterson said quietly, but steadily. “It was exactly the way you said.”

I walked over to him, shook his hand and asked him to stand and face the audience of about a hundred people. Then I asked if he would explain. He offered an abbreviated story of his capture by German troops in Normandy in July 1944.

Ultimately, he said, he and other members of his Algonquin Regiment (from central Ontario) wound up at a place called Stalag (German for Straflager, or prison) VII-A at Moosburg, near Munich. He was tossed into a prison compound there with Americans, South Africans, British and Arab troops – all prisoners of war. He called the compound “a real league of nations.”

When he was done, everyone in the hall stood and applauded his service. Later, Patterson offered me a number of additional anecdotes – including deprivation, isolation, and near annihilation – as a prisoner of war. I’d heard many of his experiences before. But the one flashback he shared that stood out for me was his liberation. Patterson said the U.S. Third Army under Gen. George Patton freed him and his fellow Algonquins. On May 5, 1945, with the war ending in Europe, all POWs were taken to a German aerodrome for transport back home.

“We boarded Lancaster bombers to take us back to England,” he said. They weren’t made for carrying troops, so I was sitting on a (navigator’s) desk where I could look out a window, and it wasn’t long before I saw the white cliffs of Dover. … It was great to have our feet back in England.”

Another encounter from that very same audience, on Saturday afternoon, occurred when a man approached me with a plastic bag. It contained a book, entitled “Drei Tage I’m September” (Three Days in September), written by German author Cay Rademacher. The man with the plastic bag was Philip Gunyon and the book was about the three days surrounding the sinking of the British cruise vessel S.S. Athenia by a German U-boat on Sept. 3, 1939, the very day Britain declared war on Germany. Gunyon opened the book to the photo section and pointed to an image of a woman and her three children. Gunyon’s family (exluding his father) had all been aboard Athenia when it was torpedoed.

“I was seven when it happened,” Gunyon said.

The book details the events leading up to submarine commander Fritz-Julius Lemp’s decision to fire a torpedo from U-30 at Athenia, mistaking the passenger liner for a British armed merchant cruiser. The ship was sailing with 1,100 passengers aboard (60 kilometres off the coast of Ireland) on a regularly scheduled passage from Glasgow to Montreal. Though the passenger vessel remained afloat for 14 hours after the attack, 98 passengers and 19 crew died in the wreck.

“Liner Athenia torpedoed and sunk,” read the headline in the Halifax Herald on Sept. 4. And across the centre of the page, “Empire at War!”

History records that a Canadian girl, 10-year-old Margaret Hayword, was killed in the sinking. She was the perhaps the first Canadian to die, the result of enemy action in the Second World War. Philip Gunyon, showing me the book in its original German script, pointed out that his mother, two siblings and he had survived.

One more surprise awaited me Saturday afternoon at the Port Carling Legion. After my talk about The Great Escape by tunnel from German POW camp Stalag Luft III, another man approached me to comment on the book.

“My name is Frank Pengelly. I’m a cousin of Tony Pengelly, the man in charge of forging documents in the Great Escape,” he said.

He explained that his cousin, as I described in the book, had led a stable of 100 artists and calligraphers in the creation of phony documents (looking exactly like originals) that would allow the Great Escapers to get through train stations and across borders because they had look-alike passes and visas.

“The story is exactly as you wrote it,” Pengelly said.

Saturday afternoon proved to be one of those remarkable moments one imagines when the stars align. I had chosen to speak in a room where much of the history I was recounting had been experienced first-hand by some of those present. I marveled at the history. I reveled in the coincidence.

G.B. Shaw got it wrong

George Bernard Shaw earned the Nobel Peace Prize for literature, but didn't make many friends among teachers.

George Bernard Shaw earned the Nobel Peace Prize for literature (1925), but didn’t make many friends among teachers.

Stepping up to a music stand, last Saturday night, I realized it was the worst possible phrase to use. And it was the best possible phrase to use. I wanted to draw the audience in. I wanted to provoke it a bit too. I wondered how best to capture the essence of the evening. Then it hit me. I glanced down at my script on the music stand, and I finally blurted it out in one of my introductions.

“You know that old George Bernard Shaw quote?” I asked. “It says, ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’”

The audible groan was entirely predictable. The St. Andrew’s Chalmers Presbyterian Church on Toronto Street was full of music-loving parents, music-practising youngsters and music-teaching instructors. It was the annual winter concert to raise funds for the Uxbridge Music Scholarship Trust, on this occasion featuring some of our community’s top-notch music teachers – including Rebecca and Tim Bastmeyer, Michelle Charlton, Carlie Laidlaw, Susan Luke, Jennifer Neveu-Cooke, Cynthia Nidd, Chris Saunders and Amy Peck. But this time they were performing, not professing. And the partisan audience didn’t like Shaw’s cryptic quotation one bit. Nor did I.

“Frankly, I think that’s hogwash,” I added. And then I went on to introduce Carlie Laidlaw, the lead singer with a group called Parental Discretion Band and another called Saunders Road. I continued by explaining that she’s the vocalist responsible for singing the national anthem at events around town and for recording a CD called “Hummingbird,” whose proceeds fund three hospitals around the GTA. I pointed out that Laidlaw provided warm-up for a concert headlining Murray McLauchlan. Finally, I reminded everyone, she also teaches music.

“Stick that in your pipe, G.B. Shaw, and smoke it,” I thought.

Then, I began to think about all the teachers in my life who’ve offered me those three vital dimensions of the teaching/learning equation. First, they knew what it was they needed to teach. Then, they understood how to explain it to others. Finally, they knew how to show others exactly the way it was done with the simplicity of kindergarten teacher, but with the expertise of a professor emeritus. Contrary to Mr. Shaw’s perception, teachers I’ve known could both teach and do.

Probably the earliest teacher in my life on those counts was the man who taught me both Grade 5 and Grade 7 at elementary school. Mike Malott couldn’t have been more than 10 years my senior, but he knew the pathways to hearts and minds of my classroom of 11-year-olds and then 13-year-olds better than anyone I’ve ever encountered. He inspired our fascination for history by showing us its characters. And on the sports playground, Malott imparted the skills of baseball and soccer by making us believe in each other as teammates and because we knew he could play any one of the positions around the field better than anyone in town. We knew he could show us as well as tell us anything the game had to offer.

At Ryerson, I experienced the brilliance of broadcast writer Christina MacBeth. She taught the craft of writing for advertisers, by showing us how they determined consumers’ needs. She delivered the basics of writing to time, by helping us see the language not just as bits of copy, but as split-seconds of a ticking clock. And she made us respect the vitality of English by forcing us not to write passively, but to construct images actively. I remember the day she came into a class, told us all our assignments were lame and boring, and then took away the best crutch we’d ever known – the passive verb “to be.”

“For the rest of the semester you cannot use any form of the verb ‘to be’ in any script assignment you hand in,” she said.

And we thought she was crazy. She was. Crazy like a fox. By the end of the semester, because MacBeth had forced us to employ words of action and impact, we were writing the best copy of our lives, all because she knew from doing it, how to teach it.

And I guess I need to thank my father – the greatest teacher of my life. I’ll never forget that day in elementary school, when, after typing my umpteenth essay to help me get a passing grade, he put his foot down.

“That’s the last one,” he said. “From now on you do the typing.”

By understanding I needed to learn by doing it myself, he forced me to sit at the practise pads. He showed me the concept of touch-typing. And he illustrated that axiom our entire family of writers has come to live by. “Nothing ever gets done,” he always said, “until the seat of the pants hits the seat of the chair.” Classic words from a man who knew how to teach, but even better, how to do.

Canadian Gothic

When Brendan Shanahan took his turn parading the Cup, it was a bittersweet moment.

When Brendan Shanahan took his turn parading the Cup, it was a bittersweet moment.

On Saturdays, 35 years ago, Brendan Shanahan the former NHL star forward, travelled to minor hockey games in west-end Toronto with his father. On those mornings at the arena, Donal Shanahan carried a newspaper under his arm; before each game “Father Don,” as he was known, would tap Brendan’s boyhood teammates on the head for good luck.

“For all those times … he got up in the morning (and) took me to the rink as a kid and tied my skates … or drove me to tournaments,” Brendan Shanahan told me in 1997, “I owe him.”

And 1997 was the year Shanahan won the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings. It was the first time Detroit had won the Cup in more than 40 years.

The image of Brendan going to the minor hockey rink a generation ago, and kids like him the generation before that, are what I call “Canadian Gothic,” not unlike the 1930s classic American painting by Grant Wood. Only in this case, the two figures are not a farmer’s wife and a farmer with a pitchfork, but rather a father with a hockey stick and a son or daughter with a hockey bag.

That’s Canadian Gothic, a vision and a symbolism I kept imagining all this past week as Canada’s men’s and women’s national hockey teams won gold medals at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Contrary to Don Cherry’s rock ’em sock ’em attitude being credited with the Canadian victories, I’d suggest to you that credit for Canada’s hockey gold medals at Sochi should be given to the players’ moms and dads.

Canadian women's Team Canada.

Canadian women’s Team Canada.

Case in point. A few months before the women’s hockey Team Canada left for Russia, the team’s sponsor (Procter & Gamble’s “Thank You Moms campaign) arranged a special bonding dinner for the players in Laval, Quebec. My wife – a senior editor for Zoomer magazine – attended the dinner because she’d learned that the team brass had planned something different for the young women players – a surprise visit from the mothers.

The golden feeling went right round the room, as Anne Apps, who had not seen Gillian Apps since training camp in August, heartily embraced her daughter; as Nathalie Saviolidis caught up with her daughter Geneviéve Lacasse so that the two could share conversation about the goaltender’s prospects against the arch-rival Americans; and as veteran player Hayley Wickenheiser and her mom, Marilyn, talked of hers and Team Canada’s pursuit of a fourth straight gold medal.

“I’ve never met so many young women who appear so comfortable in their own skins,” Jayne MacAulay wrote in Zoomer. “Elite hockey, it appears, is a college for confidence and leadership.”

While not exactly the same – because there are fat NHL salaries attached – I remember at the beginning of February, when the Leafs brass continued an annual tradition of bringing the players’ fathers along for a road-trip to Florida; on the junket the fathers watched their sons play the Panthers in Miami and two nights later the Lightning in Tampa Bay. The atmosphere of the trip some likened to a tailgate party, during which the players roomed with their dads, attended father-and-son dinners and did a little fishing. Toronto Star reporter Curtis Rush talked to Randy Carlyle about the value of such an investment.

“It’s an opportunity where we can use (the players’) dads as a catalyst and say, ‘Hey, play well for your father.’”

The record shows that the Leafs got dumped by the Panthers 4-1 on the Tuesday night. But after the hoped-for pep talk from their dads and a couple of days’ R and R, on Thursday night the Leafs came through with a convincing 4-1 win over Tampa.

Parents and coaches volunteering time and support have as much to do with the game as winning.

Parents and coaches volunteering time and support have as much to do with the game as winning.

Over the past five months or so, I’ve carried on something of a tradition in our family. Back before Donal and Brendan Shanahan’s early Saturday trips to the rink in Mimico, back the 1960s, my dad – despite his newspaperman’s late-night hours – accompanied me to the outdoor rink in Agincourt to watch me play early-morning house-league hockey. Two generations later, this winter, I’ve accompanied my son-in-law as we watch his son Sawyer and his teal-jersey Sharks learn the skills of skating, stick-handling and shooting.

“Just like my own minor hockey days back in Agincourt,” I said to my son-in-law, “we learned it wasn’t about winning, but being there.”

Finally, I guess I should point out the irony of Brendan Shanahan’s NHL championship with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997. His traditional victory skate around Joe Louis Arena, that spring night in 1997, must have felt bittersweet.

“I regret that (my dad) wasn’t able to see me play in the NHL,” Brendan Shanahan said, “or watch me win the Stanley Cup.”

“Father Don” Shanahan, who had always “taken his son to the rink” in Brendan’s minor hockey days, died of Alzheimer’s disease six years before his son won the Stanley Cup.

Sometimes Canadian Gothic is not picture perfect.

Magic on the screen and off

 

Steve McQueen, Jud Taylor and James Garner - as POWs in Stalag Luft III - celebrate the 4th of July in the movie "The Great Escape."

Steve McQueen, Jud Taylor and James Garner – as POWs in Stalag Luft III – celebrate the 4th of July in the movie “The Great Escape.”

About two-thirds the way through the screening of “The Great Escape” movie last weekend at the Roxy Theatre in Uxbridge, there was a scene in which the American POWs break out a batch of potato-based hooch. They’re celebrating July 4, 1943, even though they’re prisoners in the famous Stalag Luft III POW camp.

In the famous scene, actors James Garner, Steve McQueen and Jud Taylor play three shot-down U.S. airmen (in the mostly British Commonwealth prison camp) celebrating Independence Day. McQueen dispenses the booze as he spouts epithets such as “Down the British” and “Up the Colonies,” when Taylor turns to McQueen.

“Representation by population,” Taylor shouts.

McQueen does a double take, knowing Taylor has just delivered an unplanned ad lib, but since nobody broke up during the shooting of the scene 50 years ago, it remained in the film. And the only reason that the Roxy audience caught the ad lib was because our host that afternoon, Mark Christoff, alerted us to watch for it. Taylor’s off-the-cuff comment and McQueen’s response got a bigger laugh last weekend, than the scene probably ever got when “The Great Escape” premiered in 1963. Thanks to Christoff, we enjoyed one of those magical moments that occasionally occur in a movie theatre.

WAIT_UNTIL_DARK_POSTER_EI’ve experienced a number of such moments over the years. They are perfectly spontaneous things, such as the audience shrieking out loud in the final few minutes of “Wait Until Dark,” (1967) when Alan Arkin lunges out of the basement apartment shadows at a defenseless Audrey Hepburn, the blind tenant attempting to defend herself against a murderous invader. I remember the theatre growing cloudier by the minute as illegal pot smokers lit up during the psychedelic re-entry scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s (1968) classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I guess those are kind of iconic movie-audience moments.

But here’s one that could only have happened once. Remember the 70-millimetre IMAX movie that inaugurated the Ontario Place Cinesphere in 1971? The documentary was “North of Superior,” a kind of travelogue – featuring Graeme Ferguson’s classic nearly 360-degree almost wrap-around imagery – showcasing the wilderness north of Lake Superior.

An inferno North of Superior blown out at the Ontario Place Cinesphere.

An inferno North of Superior blown out at the Ontario Place Cinesphere.

Well, as I recall the night we all watched it in the brand new Cinesphere, there was that sequence about halfway through the film in which the IMAX cameras take us to the heart of a northern Ontario forest fire. But then almost as quickly as the movie throws us into the heat and flames, the intensity of the blaze and the roar end in a split-second… with a close-up image of a forester’s boot planting a pine seedling in soil still scarred by the fire.

It so happened at precisely that moment – as the movie soundtrack switched from deafening roar to nearly silent close-up of the boot pressing the seedling into the soil – one member of our group in the Cinesphere let go with a loud sneeze. For all the world, it seemed as if his sneeze had blown out the inferno. His timing was perfect. The memory of our laughing at his timing stays with me to this day.

Then, there was one of the climactic scenes in “The Guns of Navarone,” the action war movie, starring Anthony Quinn, David Niven and Gregory Peck among others. The 1961 feature depicts a team of British commandos dispatched to destroy gigantic naval guns guarding a vital channel in the Mediterranean. As the group makes its way up the cliffs and through the Nazi-occupied towns of the Greek island housing the guns, it becomes clear there’s a spy among the civilian guides.

Gia Scala, at the moment her untrue story of torture is revealed in "The Guns of Navarone."

Gia Scala, at the moment her untrue story of torture is revealed in “The Guns of Navarone.”

Suddenly, Anna (played by Gia Scala) the beautiful, young mountain guide (apparently tortured earlier in the war by whipping across her back) is suspect. Someone challenges the back whipping scenario and rips open the back of her dress right in front of the camera. There’s no blood, no scars, nothing. In the silence of the shocking discovery, someone in the movie theatre couldn’t resist speaking the obvious.

“She’s got a gorgeous back!” he said. And the theatre erupted in laughter, totally destroying the drama of the scene. Moments later the Irene Papas character pulls out a revolver and shoots the young girl to ensure the safety of the mission.

James Coburn, in his Great Escape outfit, accompanied by Canadian airman Wally Floody who acted as technical advisor on the movie.

James Coburn, in his Great Escape outfit, accompanied by Canadian airman Wally Floody who acted as technical advisor on the movie.

There was one other magical moment we enjoyed during the Roxy screening of “The Great Escape” last weekend. As many of you know, I’ve made a recent crusade of illustrating how much of the extraordinary effort to tunnel out of Stalag Luft III was directed by Canadians. And yet the movie makes mention of “Canada” only once in the entire movie. The scene involves James Coburn creating a diversion while other POWs attempt to break out of the camp. He spontaneously grabs a fellow prisoner’s jacket, winds up to punch him, and shouts: “You rotten Canadian!”

Hollywood never let facts get in the way of filming a good story. But sometimes the magic happened out in the audience as well as on the screen.

Complaining in perspective

 

The Pearson tarmac showed the ill effects of an ice storm on airline traffic.

The Pearson tarmac showed the ill effects of an ice storm on airline traffic. Courtesy Sun News.

Not so long ago, the talk in our oldtimers’ hockey dressing room turned to the usual grousing. The Leafs likely won’t make the playoffs, one guy moaned. Somebody else complained that township roads weren’t being ploughed quickly or thoroughly enough this winter. Then, Pearson airport became the target. In the recent ice storm, weren’t the delays horrendous? Wasn’t it criminal that travellers were forced to remain on the tarmac for hours?

And, just for good measure, aren’t those sunshine destination airfares outrageous? And I thought about something one of our daughters had said, when I complained about a similar problem, delay or cost.

“It’s a First World problem, Dad,” she pointed out quietly.

“Yes, but…” and I stopped myself. She was absolutely right.

This week, I caught both the federal budget unveiling in the House of Commons and the political and public response. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that he would run the country’s business for about $250 billion, running a $2.9 billion deficit with an additional $3 billion contingency just in case the economy goes south. He suggested he would stay the course “to weather any future global economic storms,” in his speech in the

Commons. I’m sure Flaherty’s done the math, but Canada’s deficit and contingency alone would cover much of the assets of many Third World countries such as Bangladesh, Congo, Liberia, Eritrea and Afghanistan combined. In other words, deficits and contingencies and economic storms are all relative.

I watched Global TV’s coverage of Opposition leader Tom Mulcair assess the budget. The NDP leader complained that there are 300,000 more Canadians looking for work than during the economic crisis of 2008; in particular, he worried that 260,000 young Canadians are still looking for work. Down the hall, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau worried the budget didn’t offer any hope of growth or a vision for the future; he scoffed that it was an electoral budget, promising to balance the books just in time for next year’s federal election.

“We’re not seeing any vision,” Trudeau scolded, but then, that’s what Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’s job is – to complain.

This week, I conducted a bit of a state-of-the-union survey among my journalism students at the college where I teach. They decried tuition fees. They wished cell phone rates weren’t so high. They hated the cafeteria food. And when I asked why some of them hadn’t arrived on time for their news reporting class, they said it was scheduled too early in the day.

It was just after 11:30 a.m. and – to some – that was an ungodly hour to be expected to perform thinking, reasoning or any other creative skills. When I informed them that I had originally intended to schedule the class for 8:30 a.m., they responded with such indignation, you’d have thought I’d insulted their family name.

By the end of the tour, the rain and the reality had scared off most of the tourists.

By the end of the tour, the rain and the reality had scared off most of the tourists.

“That’s ridiculous,” one of them said. “How could anybody function under those conditions?”

The reaction gave me pause. I remembered a personal experience that had profoundly affected my sense of perspective. In the summer of 2010, I travelled to Krakow, Poland. I met a guide, who had offered to assist me as I planned a subsequent trip leading a tour of Canadians through that part of Eastern Europe. I asked him if he would get me to a small town just outside Krakow, called Oświęcim, where during the Second World War, the Nazis constructed a prison (Auschwitz) and concentration camp (Birkenau) to systematically exterminate political prisoners and the Jews of Europe.

The railway in did not indicate it was a one-way trip.

The railway in did not indicate it was a one-way trip.

“The tour will last three hours,” the on-site guide told us at the Auschwitz interpretive centre. “And I hope you brought umbrellas.”

I hadn’t. But it didn’t matter. The rain was pouring down with such intensity and volume as we began the tour of Auschwitz prison, that most of the people in our group were drenched within the first 10 minutes of the visit. And because the content of the tour was so severe and depressing, only a handful of us remained by the time the three-hour tour had concluded.

Much of what the former prison contained haunted me. The cells in which the condemned spent their last hours depressed me for days. The photographs of the men and women tortured and killed stick in my head even now. And when I got to Birkenau and realized how many thousands of Jews the Nazis had crammed inside those former horse barns, I cried. But what stays with me most of all, was the sight inside one of the prison barns of a lone faucet and basin, the sole washing facility for hundreds and hundreds of prisoners there.

To this day, I cannot turn on a tap, brush my teeth, take a shower or pour a glass of water without flashing back to that solitary faucet and basin. I guess it’s the mental equivalent of reminding myself – anytime I complain – that mine are “are just First World problems.”

 

Long trip to short thinking

 

Stephen Bell served Canada at the Dieppe raid in 1942, spent most of the war as a POW, then fell through the cracks of the demobilization system.

Stephen Bell served Canada at the Dieppe raid in 1942, spent most of the war as a POW, then fell through the cracks of the demobilization system.

When my veteran friend Stephen Bell came home from war in 1945, he only weighed 97 pounds (when he enlisted in 1940 he’d weighed 180). In ’45, military doctors conducted a short debriefing. They didn’t ask him about his eardrums, broken during the battle at Dieppe where he was captured in August 1942. He still had shrapnel in his back and because the Nazis had shackled him while he was a POW, his wrists were arthritic.

“I was eventually placed on 100 per cent pension,” Bell told me back in the 1990s.

Stephen Bell, who died at age 85 in 2009, didn’t have much good to say about his military experience. On Aug. 19, 1942, he’d been part of the disastrous raid on Dieppe, France, where more than 3,500 Canadians became casualties. After his capture there he spent the rest of the war in POW camps in sub-human conditions.

“If it weren’t for my arthritis I would be in great shape,” Bell told me 20 years ago. He added, however, that he had “a lot to be thankful for.”

Today, he and many of his Second World War comrades would be appalled by what’s gone from bad to worse in the public service of Canadian vets. Next Monday, an Opposition motion in the House of Commons will attempt to block a money-saving measure by the federal government to close Veterans Affairs Canada offices in eight Canadian communities. The Conservative majority will defeat the motion.

Ironically, had Stephen Bell sought assistance today in his native Saskatchewan, where the Harper Conservatives plan to close the Saskatoon office, he would have had to travel nearly twice the distance from his home to seek VAC attention.

Last month, when a group of contemporary veterans arranged a meeting with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, he arrived late, got into a shouting match and walked away from the vets who were attempting to dissuade the government from closing VAC offices in Sydney, N.S., Thunder Bay, Windsor, Corner Brook, N.L., Charlottetown, Kelowna, B.C., Brandon, Man., and Saskatoon. Fantino symbolically abandoned those he’s supposed to be serving.

Grace MacPherson challenged authority, but still lived up to the responsibilities of a Red Cross volunteer.

Grace MacPherson challenged authority, but still lived up to the responsibilities of a Red Cross volunteer.

During the Great War, Grace MacPherson had a confrontation with the man she was serving. A Vancouver volunteer in the Red Cross, she wanted to drive ambulances behind the front lines at the Western Front where the Canadian Expeditionary Force prepared to take Vimy Ridge in 1917. To make her case MacPherson secured an interview with the Minister of Militia at the Savoy Hotel in London, England.

“I’ve come from Canada to drive an ambulance,” she announced to Sir Sam Hughes in the meeting.

“I’ll stop any woman from going to France,” he said. “And I’ll stop you too.”

Grace MacPherson accepted his judgment and went back to work in the Red Cross office dispensing pay chits to Canadians on leave in London. But she never gave up hope to serve closer to the action. Coincidentally, conditions in France superseded Sam Hughes’ resistance to MacPherson’s idea. The war office decided that men in the ambulance corps could better serve the war effort closer to the front, so the driving jobs were re-assigned to women volunteers. Grace served a year and a half loading wounded into her ambulance, driving them to aid stations, while maintaining the ambulance’s engine and repairing its flats… all for a paltry 14 shillings a week.

“Didn’t matter,” MacPherson wrote in diary. “I was most proud of the Canadian patch I wore on my shoulder.”

Veterans are like that, I’ve discovered. They recognize the realities of their service. Even if they don’t agree with decision-making, they live up to their responsibilities. They have a high regard for punctuality. And above all they never let down their peers in the service of Canada. It’s the credo by which they live and die. Apparently, such qualities are tougher to find among those administering Veterans Affairs Canada.

By the way, a few weeks after my Dieppe vet friend Stephen Bell left the Toronto office that had discharged him with a clean bill of health in 1945, he collapsed on Bay Street. X-rays revealed that he had both pneumonia and pleurisy. He spent the next 17 months in and out of the Christie Street Veterans Hospital.

“After six months, I was called (to a Toronto army office) for a review of my health. I told them I felt fine most of the time, so my pension was reduced to 10 per cent. … It didn’t bother me that my pension was cut off. I could make it on my own.”

Most veterans – then or now – would exhibit the same kind of fortitude. They can and do suck it up. If they have to they can make it on their own. But like Stephen Bell then, veterans now need the help they’re entitled to – close by, uninterrupted, unchallenged by politicians or bureaucrats, unsullied by fiscal conservatism and its shortsighted view of Canadian values.