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My “famous” friend

Howard Walker never considered himself a wartime hero. But he was to a lot of Centennial College students.

Howard Walker never considered himself a wartime hero. But he was to a lot of Centennial College students.

With some people I know, there are delicious rituals enjoyed when we meet after not seeing each other for a while. For some it’s a real bear hug or a genuine slap on the back. With others it’s a heart-felt handshake. Then, there is one friend with whom I’ve established a unique greeting, in this case an exchange on the telephone. Depending upon who’s calling whom, our phone conversations always began the same way.

“Is this the famous Ted Barris?” he would ask.

To which I’d respond, “Is this the famous Howard Walker?”

Of course, a loud guffaw would follow on both ends of the phone line as Howard and I realized how corny our greetings were. In fact, for me the best part of our patented greeting exchange was listening to Howard’s laughter after we’d delivered our lines. His chortle always sounded like Mr. Magoo.

But when our chuckling ended, Howard and I always got down to business… the business of honouring, remembering and educating. You see, for the past 15 years, Howard Walker and I have regularly met each Nov. 11, to share our respect and passion to keep Remembrance Day tangible among young people.

In fact, the first time I telephoned Howard, back in 1999, it was on a hunch. During that first autumn I taught journalism at Centennial College I was informed the only specific reference to Remembrance Day on our East York campus would be a moment’s silence. I was stunned that a major Toronto post-secondary institution with about 600 students had no planned acknowledgment of Canadians’ service and sacrifice in the world wars, peacekeeping or NATO operations. Picking one of the Legion branches in our area – the Dambusters Legion Branch 617 – I phoned. At that time, Howard Walker was the sergeant-at-arms for his branch’s Nov. 11 observances. I asked if the branch might provide some pictures or flags for our modest campus observance.

Colour Guard supplied by Dambusters Legion Branch 617

Colour Guard supplied by Dambusters Legion Branch 617

“Better than that,” Howard said. “We can bring you poppies, a memorial wreath and a full colour party to the college.”

“Bring?” I asked.

“Sure. We can have some of our veterans there to carry the Canadian and Legion flags and, if you like, our vets can even meet your students.”

It was a brilliant notion. And Howard and I ran with it. I suggested, in addition to the customary playing of “The Last Post,” two minutes of silence and “Reveille,” maybe I could interview some of his veteran comrades in front of the assembly. That way our students – ranging in age from 17 to 35 and from every culture on the planet – could recognize what they were supposed to be remembering on Nov. 11.

Thus began a tradition of annual visits from Howard Walker and his comrades from the Dambusters Legion (and from elsewhere) to speak one-on-one with students about the meaning of service, the essence of loss and the need for remembrance. Indeed, either the first or second year, I interviewed Howard (in front of the assembly) about his service in the RCAF during the Second World War. He insisted that he hadn’t faced danger. He hadn’t gone overseas. He’d been an aero-engine mechanic at a repair depot in New Brunswick throughout the war.

“So, don’t try to paint me as a hero,” he said.

And I remembered one of the air force ground crew mottos of commitment during those war years when the aircraft of Coastal Command and Training Command in Canada very much depended on the skills of fitters and riggers such as Howard.

“Didn’t you guys always say: ‘You bend ’em. We mend ’em’?”

Bill Walker beside his father Howard during Centennial College's Remembrance Day observance.

Bill Walker beside his father Howard during Centennial College’s Remembrance Day observance.

And he laughed that wonderful Mr. Magoo laugh. Howard admitted that without the round-the-clock attention he and others on the ground had committed during the war, such things as North Atlantic fighter escort, anti-submarine patrols, and flights to rescue downed airmen at sea, could never have succeeded.

And if Howard wasn’t prepared to point that out, his wife Joyce sure did. Because, you see, we didn’t just get Howard and the Legionnaires at our Remembrance Day observances. Joyce came along to every one too. Joyce and Howard were as much a part of our Nov. 11 ceremony as the Legion vets parading the colours. In recent years, the tradition of involving the Walker family expanded to include their son Bill and their grandsons Matthew and Luke. And despite Joyce’s passing in 2012, Howard continued to attend our Centennial ceremony without fail.

However, this Nov. 11, we’ll have to do it without him. Howard Walker died suddenly on Saturday at age 90. Now, we’ll have to remember the poppies and wreath without him. We’ll have to show students the meaning of service, the need for remembrance and the essence of loss, without him. And I’ll have to do without our phone exchanges about being “famous” and have to try to teach my students on my own.

It won’t be easy. Like Remembrance, it will hurt for some time yet.

Demonstrating change

Anti-Vietnam War demonstration c.1970.

Anti-Vietnam War demonstration c.1970.

It began rather innocently as a group of students naively wanting change. It was the ninth year of the war in Vietnam. I was in my second year at Ryerson. The U.S. National Guard shootings of four students at Kent State had just happened. On University Avenue in Toronto, we joined others whose agendas were wide-ranging. Some wanted world anarchy. Others were Americans burning their draft notices. Most were like us, just students wanting to change things for the better. Then, things went haywire.

“The police are on horses,” somebody shouted, “and they’re coming at us.”

Suddenly, what we thought would be a peaceful demonstration of our discontent over foreign police in South East Asia, turned into a confrontation with police horseback. We later learned the stampede of people and police resulted in smashed windows up Yonge Street, ink stains on the walls at the U.S. Embassy on University Avenue, and a black eye for the City of Toronto. So it goes in the world of demonstrations when intentions get trampled by the realities of a street protest.

Anti-tank demonstrator in Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989.

Anti-tank demonstrator in Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989.

I suspect the same could be said about demonstrations such as Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement in Soviet-dominated Poland 40 years ago, the anti-Vietnam War protest at Kent State University in May of 1970, the student occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing in May of 1989 or this week’s night-long protests over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. What began as one intention – a shipyard strike, a student peace rally, an assembly of students inside a totalitarian state, or anger over the shooting of a young black man – became something completely different because of on-site conditions, personalities involved, reportage by media and response of the powers that be. Maybe Robert Burns said it best:

“The best laid schemes of mice and men / Gang aft agley,” he wrote in his poem “To a Mouse.”

It’s been nearly 300 years since the Scottish Bard wrote those lines after discovering a mouse nest during the winter. Coincidentally, some of history’s momentous demonstrations-cum-protests began in winter. The so-called “Prague Spring” actually began in January 1968 when Alexander Dubcek became the first elected secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Of course, the loosening of restrictions against free speech, freedom of the press and freedom to travel ended in August that year when Soviet forces invaded the country and killed the reforms. This decade’s “Arab Spring” actually began in December 2010 when popular uprisings in the Middle East eventually forced rulers from power in Tunisia, Libya and twice in Egypt.

Demonstrators tangle with Toronto police during G20 protest in 2010.

Demonstrators tangle with Toronto police during G20 protest in 2010.

Demonstrations, protests and uprisings vary in degree, but are most often characterized by movements of large numbers of people – Walesa’s Solidarity, Dubcek’s citizen support in Prague, the hundreds of thousands in Egypt’s Tahrir Square – and by the response of authorities.

The sour aftermath of the G20 summit protests that turned into riots in Toronto still haven’t faded in the minds of police, politicians or the public. Most agree that while the worst of the violence was initiated by a handful “black bloc” instigators (who covered their bodies in black clothing and their faces with black bandanas), response by law enforcement authorities went way over the top. If we weren’t ourselves eyewitness to the events, many of us have family or friends who will never forgive either the window-smashers or the police for the events of June 26-27, 2010.

Of course, many demonstrators do so in public knowing the media will cover such things for the 6 o’clock news or that social media will make sounds and images go viral. In this fashion, some demonstrators hope to get their so-called “15 minutes of fame.” The problem in such places as Ferguson, however, is that the protesters appear to be friends and family of the victim, and the anti-protesters – the police – appear to be friends (“family”) of the perpetrator. And everybody is armed.

This week, when things flared up at Ferguson, the former police chief of Seattle spoke out about what should have been learned from the World Trade Organization experience in his city 15 years ago. Norm Stamper told CBC Radio that back in 1999 in Seattle his “first and biggest mistake was to allow the use of chemical agents [tear gas] in a non-violent demonstration of protest.” He pointed out that Americans are allowed to demonstrate; it’s a First Amendment right. But confronting a civil protest with a military response, he said, was dead wrong and the mistake has been repeated in Ferguson.

I just remember our peaceful intentions in the streets of Toronto trying to stop the war in Vietnam and what the mounted police response appeared to trigger instead. Author Myrna Kostash interviewed one of the witnesses to that day, May 11, 1970.

“I was standing beside a kid whose head was split open,” her source said. “He was gushing blood… A cop came after me, flailing away. It was positively American.”

Death by more than old age

Sunrise at St. Mark's Square in Venice, where neither the hustle of tourists or tour boats have stirred the city.

Sunrise at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, where neither the hustle of tourists or tour boats have stirred the city.

We arrived before the city was awake. The sun had just slipped above the eastern entrance to the lagoons of Venice, where our cruise ship was met by a speedboat bringing the required harbour pilot to guide us into port. Minutes later, we passed some of the historic sites of the city – the Grand Canal, St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. Someone beside me on deck noticed how few people there seemed to be walking along the canals or through the campos (squares).

“Seems so peaceful and untouched,” he said.

“The really big cruise ships haven’t arrived yet,” another traveller commented sarcastically.

Skyscrapers of the sea.

Skyscrapers of the sea loom over the Venice skyline.

He was right. Our ship, M/V Aegean Odyssey with a modest complement of perhaps 300 passengers, hadn’t been moored at the Marittima Pier at the western edge of the city more than a couple of hours, when suddenly it became surrounded by a fleet of recently arrived cruise ships – Silver Wind, Celebrity Sihouette and Sovereign Pullmantur, to name a few. With lengths as great as that of Titanic and a passenger capacity of 4,000-plus, these floating hotels at first seemed the lifeblood of the city’s vital tourism industry. But according to a lecturer aboard Aegean Odyssey, the large ships may ultimately be contributing to Venice’s demise.

“Venice is now attracting as many as 30 million tourists a year,” said Gregory Dowling, a professor at the University of Venice. “The city has the highest tourist-to-resident ratio in Europe.”

Once the cruise ships discharge their passengers, St. Mark's Square becomes a mob scene.

Once the cruise ships discharge their passengers, St. Mark’s Square becomes a mob scene.

Why is that such a bad thing in a Europe struggling to right itself after the economic crash of 2008? Well, among other things, the rising tourism in Venice, Dowling pointed out, has overwhelmed services (including such basics as public toilets), closed schools and driven residents from the city.

In 1951 Venice was home to 175,000 permanent citizens; in 2012, that number had shrunk to 58,000. That’s not to say that the trend has gone unnoticed; last year, local demonstrators swam in the canals and marched on city squares protesting cruise ships using the historic Giudecca Canal as a highway. The city responded in January, reducing by 20 per cent the number of ships weighing more than 40,000 tonnes.

But the invasion of Venetian canals by so-called “skyscrapers of the sea” is not the only assault on Europe’s antiquities.

Earlier during our recent tour to the eastern Mediterranean, we visited the Acropolis. The iconic mountain top above Athens has stood since the 5th century BC as a symbol of Greece’s “golden age” of enlightenment, democracy and architecture. But it too has suffered from centuries of popularity. As recently as when I was a teenager, in the 1960s, my parents took my sister and me to visit relatives in Athens, where my dad’s cousin led us throughout the Acropolis; back then, we were allowed to wander among the ruins of the Temple of Athena, the Porch of Caryatids and every metre of the Parthenon itself. Not today.

Tourists by the millions have worn the marble path atop the Acropolis to nothing.

Tourists by the millions have worn the marble path atop the Acropolis to nothing.

“We are restricted to stay within the fenced pathway,” our Athenian guide told us on our recent visit. “They are very serious about this.”

Indeed, when I ventured to the top of an ancient stone piece to photograph our group (seen here), one of the volunteer guardians of the Acropolis blew a whistle at me shouting at me to get down. As I walked the marble pathway, which I remember being jagged and coarse in 1964, I realized the surface is now worn so smooth as to nearly shine in the Athenian sun. And all around the ancient Grecian ruins are cranes and artisans working to repair and restore some of the Acropolis’s former glory.

“The Parthenon took six years to build [in 5th C BC],” our guide informed us. “Restoration has been going on for 80 years; there are still 40 more years to go before it’s complete.”

The Parthenon took six years to build, but 120 to restore.

The Parthenon took six years to build, but will need 120 to be restored.

The restorers of Europe’s antiquities are serious in every respect. As well as restricting movement among the ruins, in most basilicas, churches and mausoleums we explored recently, there were prohibitive signs posted everywhere. Visitors cannot touch, lean on or photograph with flash any of the religious icons and frescos. Clearly the free-access attitudes of the past are gone. Exhibitors, guides and museum curators all fear the damaging potential effects of their attractions’ popularity.

As far as preserving the Venetian canals, I noticed the day after we left the city once dominated only by gondolas, that Italy’s transport minister has clamped down even more.

Are these the last of the skyscrapers of the sea to visit Venice?

Are these the last of the “skyscrapers of the sea” to visit Venice?

After civic petitions and celebrity press conferences (involving Michael Douglas and Cate Blanchett), Maurizio Lupi, announced further restrictions on the mega cruise ship invasion. Soon, no ocean liners over 96,000 tonnes will be allowed to sail the Giudecca Canal in front of St. Mark’s Basilica.

“[It’s] our duty to remove the skyscrapers of the sea from the canals of Venice,” he said, “safeguarding a world heritage city … [while] protecting the city’s economy so linked to cruise tourism.”

But is it a case of fiddling while Rome burns?

Where East meets West

Tour guide Ertan S led us through the streets of Istanbul and several thousand years of religious history.

Tour guide Ertan Sandikcioglu led us through the streets of Istanbul and several thousand years of religious history.

They say if you want to keep a conversation from getting out of hand, it’s best to avoid any reference to religion, politics or sex. And you’d think particularly in the Middle East that would be so. Still, a couple of days into my recent visit to Istanbul, I broke that convention and asked my guide if he was a practising Muslim. Ertan Sandikcioglu flicked his eyes skyward a quick second and offered his answer.

“I hope God will forgive me,” he said. “I am a Muslim, but I don’t pray five times a day.”

During my stay in Istanbul, I heard the traditional call to prayer, it seemed, every other minute. But with so many mosques in the city – Ertan said there were 1,800 of them – and loudspeakers in hundreds of minarets calling the faithful on most corners, it’s not difficult to see why some Muslims, including a tour guide, might find it difficult to earn a living if he was devout. So talking religion isn’t a taboo in Istanbul.

Of the 17 million people who live in Istanbul today, my guide explained, about 40 per cent live on the Asia (or eastern) side of the city and the other 60 per cent live on the European (or western) side. The story of Istanbul (or Constantinople) is a struggle between Asia and Europe, between rural and urban lifestyle, and between Islam and Christianity.

The Santa Sophia basilica illustrates the point. Built in 325 by Emperor Constantine, the church was converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of 1453. After Turkey’s war of independence in the 1920s, however, the first president Ataturk determined the religious building’s fate. “He decided to separate church and state in Turkey,” Ertan said. “And he turned Hagia Sophia into a permanent museum.”

The ancient Roman arch built by Emperor Gelereus across from apartments whose tenants pay rent on time.

The ancient Roman arch built by Emperor Galereus across from apartments whose tenants pay rent on time.

So much for religion. How about the second taboo, politics? A few days after my tour of Istanbul, I travelled into eastern Greece to Thessalonica, a city second only in importance (for Byzantine emperors) to Constantinople, but also said to be one of the first bases for the spread of Christianity beginning in 395 AD.

Never mind that, my guide, a very proud Greek Orthodox Christian woman named Varvara Chatzivakaleli felt compelled to offer her feelings about the political and economic state of modern Greece.

“Life is impossible in our country these days,” she said, lamenting the austerity measures that have left many fellow citizens out of work. “Well over 85,000 of people under the age of 30 have gone to Australia to find work.”

During a delay in traffic, at one point, Varvara pointed to what looked like empty apartments in downtown Thessalonica. She explained that most citizens in those addresses were likely unemployed, had no money for furnishings and were paying for rent on credit. She quite unashamedly blamed neighbouring lower-income Eastern Europeans for invading her city, in her opinion, a totally irresponsible Greek government, and unfair taxation.

“Most (apartment dwellers) are paying as much as 500 euros ($635) in taxes,” she said. “Who can live like that?”

Tour guide Vera Sakka believes her work is not only an occupation, but a mission as well.

Tour guide Vera Sakka believes her work is not only an occupation, but a mission as well.

And now you’re wondering about the sex taboo, I mentioned at the beginning. Well, it came up indirectly. Of course, one doesn’t have to dig too deeply into either religion or politics to find sex. Religious icons in Turkey and Greece constantly deal with the Virgin Mary or the symbolism of religious crusaders destroying their enemies by raping and pillaging.

Indeed, one of my stops this week included a cave on the Greek island of Patmos. Christians believe that the voice of God broke through the stone of the cave to deliver to St. John such images for the biblical Book of Revelations as a prostitute “drunk on the blood of saints.”

My guide during this particular tour was a vivacious and religious woman named Maria Vera Sakka, who went out of her way to point out she was named after the Virgin Mary, that she lived on Virgin Street in Athens, and that among her chosen careers in life had once been as a midwife assisting pregnant women with birth.

“I have other qualities of Artemis (the goddess of virginity),” she said. “I never got married and I never had children… but I feel a special relationship with God.”

Political posters hang as prominently as the Turkish flag above the streets in Istanbul.

Political posters hang as prominently as the Turkish flag above the streets in Istanbul.

I know that’s not the sexual content you were expecting. But here was a woman with very clear impressions of her spirituality, passionately involved with the creation of the Book of the Apocalypse in all its depravity, and unafraid to expose her deepest feelings about the content of her work.

One other thought about my contact with the three taboos of civil conversation this week… After having broached the subject of religion and politics with my Turkish guide Ertan Sandikcioglu, eventually I asked him about upcoming elections in his country and the fate of the Islamic president.

“The government is working hard to get it right,” he said. “But for us (in Istanbul) the future is West, not East.”

Canada at the outbreak

Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, just before they were assassinated, sparking WWI.

Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, just before they were assassinated, sparking WWI.

It was a time when every man wore a hat, or as one historian described it, “silk toppers for the privileged, cloth caps for working men and straw boaters for the younger rakes.” It didn’t matter which one Canadians were wearing, 100 years ago this week, since most of them were airborne during the first week of August. Hats were in the air in celebration because Canadians had heard the news from Europe. Here’s the way the Toronto Telegram described it:

“A booming roar … rose and fell in the narrow canyon of streets,” the newspaper reported in August 1914. “It was the voice of Toronto carried away with patriotic enthusiasm. Britain had determined to give the bully of Europe a trouncing.”

In short, it was exactly a century ago that Canadians learned their nation of eight million citizens would follow Mother England into a war to end all wars against Germany. In fact, when I did some research for this column on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I learned a great deal. I discovered, for example, that instead of reporting events surrounding the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the archduke and duchess of Austria-Hungary on June 28, 1914, Canadian newspapers quite unabashedly fomented public opinion in support the war.

Not only that, but the papers quite literally beat the drum of war in Canadian city streets. Pierre Berton noted in his book “Marching as to War” that in Hamilton, the Spectator newspaper projected slides on the exterior walls of its downtown building pointing out the good English King and the villainous German Kaiser. In Winnipeg, demonstrations resulted and they led young men to the local military barracks to enlist. And in Quebec, where I thought nobody wanted to fight in a war to defend the King of England, La Patrie, a Montreal newspaper, editorialized this way:

“There are no longer French Canadians and English Canadians. Only one race now exists, united by the closest bonds in a common cause.”

Col. Sam Sharpe campaigned for, financed and led the 116th Bn to war in 1916.

Col. Sam Sharpe campaigned for, financed and led the 116th Bn to war in 1916.

Strange too, since it had only been 15 years since 6,000 Canadians had served with distinction (four won the Victoria Cross) in the South African War. And by 1914, statistics showed that Canada’s regular army had shrunk to only 3,000 men. Still, in 1913, a full year before the assassinations in Sarajevo, Sam Hughes, the minister of militia, had invited Canadians to bolster the country’s militia. No fewer than 60,000 men showed up at training centres across the country to become so-called “weekend soldiers,” reservists preparing for what seemed an inevitable European war. Clearly the Canadian male population was either bored or eager for a fight.

Just look at this community as proof. As I discovered when I researched my book about the First World War battle at Vimy Ridge, (thanks to files at the Uxbridge Historical Centre) local lawyer and MP Samuel Sharpe had no trouble getting Parliament to give its blessing for the formation of the 116th (Ontario County) Battalion in 1916.

Lyman Nicholls, from Uxbridge, was one of the lucky ones in a lost generation.

Lyman Nicholls, from Uxbridge, was one of the lucky ones in a lost generation.

And when Col. Sharpe took his message of serving King and Empire in the Great War to towns and villages across what is now Durham Region, he couldn’t keep up with the flood of enlistment. Typical was teenager Lyman Nicholls. In 1914 he’d responded to a couple of recruiting sergeants from the Mississauga Horse to become a boy soldier playing trumpet in the regimental band. But the next spring, in June 1915 while in class at Uxbridge Secondary School, he really got the bug.

“We were having a French lesson,” Nicholls said. “Our teacher went out of the classroom for a few minutes and I stood up and started for the window. I said, ‘This is our chance, fellows,’ and climbed out the window. Seven others followed me.”

At the Uxbridge post office they took medical exams, signed enlistment papers to join Col. Sharpe’s 116th and went to the quartermaster’s office to pick up boots and uniforms. And even though his parents withdrew him that night because he was underage, Nicholls joined legitimately that summer when he graduated from high school. Later that year, when Sharpe’s volunteers conducted target practice with Ross rifles on a shooting range (along what is now the Brookdale Road) and were photographed in Elgin Park during a drill demonstration, they were 1,100 strong.

As part of their formal send-off, Uxbridge residents erected arches and banners over the downtown streets with religious and patriotic slogans, including: “God bless our splendid men” and “Send them safe home again.” Except that the recruiting of young men, tossing of hats and shouting of slogans did NOT keep them safe. Of the 1,100 members of Col. Sharpe’s 116th Battalion only 160 returned alive. Sharpe himself committed suicide, it’s said, unable to face the families of his county.

The death of a generation began 100 years ago this week.

Origin of words

Marjorie Doyle

Marjorie Doyle

In the introduction to a book, “A Doyle Reader” by Newfoundlander Marjorie Doyle, CBC Radio host Shelagh Rogers described a get-together between the two longtime friends. Shelagh said, on this particular visit, that she presented Marjorie with a couple of ceramic coffee mugs with the title (of the show Shelagh was then hosting) “Sounds Like Canada” on them.

In accepting the gift, Rogers said Doyle immediately ran to her office, returned with a thick black Magic Marker pen and crossed out the word “Canada” and scribbled in “Newfoundland.”

“Now I can use them,” she told Rogers. “I’m stuck with what I am, who I am,” Doyle recently told a panel discussion I attended in Newfoundland. “On an island, borders are intractable.”

Back in May, The Writers’ Union of Canada gathered its executive, its administrators and several hundred of its members (myself included) in St. John’s for its annual general meeting. Traditionally, TWUC holds workshops on the first day the union meets. Marjorie Doyle appeared on the panel entitled “Writing From My Centre.” She admitted that her home province did not appear in her earliest work as a journalist for the Globe and Mail, the National Post or even on her late night CBC Radio show “That Time of the Night.”

But eventually – perhaps because she often worked away from Newfoundland, in Toronto, Montreal or on Vancouver Island – she realized how much her home island affected her.

“When I was away,” she said, “ I was very aware I wasn’t from that place.” Newfoundland shaped her taste in music, in travel and in language, so she embraced it and celebrated it. I suspect place has a lot to do with the works of many Canadian writers.

Pierre Berton

Pierre Berton

As well as Marjorie Doyle, author Wayne Johnston has always captured the political and social bloodlines of Newfoundland. The writings of Earl Birney, Dorothy Livesay, George Woodcock and P.K. Page have almost always been associated with British Columbia, just as Pierre Berton’s and Farley Mowat’s works of non-fiction are often linked to Yukon and the Northwest Territories respectively. Think of some of this country’s best fiction or poetry with Montreal as a setting and you read Mordecai Richler, Gabrielle Roy or Roch Carrier. Similarly, W.O. Mitchell, Margaret Laurence and Guy Vanderhaeghe are Canadian writers with their feet and creativity firmly planted in the Prairies.

Over the weekend I joined the 18th annual Saskatchewan Festival of Words in Moose Jaw. For a time – back in the 1970s – I lived and worked in Saskatchewan; I have enjoyed a following there and have twice presented at the festival. But a new generation of Prairie writers has emerged in recent years. They too have found their fictional characters, non-fictional stories, plot lines, settings and even their muses in what one character described as “this dry and barren landscape.”

In her adopted home, Regina, Gail Bowen has written 15 books known as “the Joanne Kilbourn mystery series.” Six of her books have been adapted to television movies; she has also written stage plays and radio dramas. Throughout, she has remained in content and in voice a Prairie writer. Nor has Bowen ever shied away from dealing with contemporary Prairie urban issues, such as the poverty, prostitution and low-rental housing in a Regina neighbourhood known as North Central.

“I always try to portray my locations accurately,” she told a writing panel about the Prairie landscape. “When I write about North Central, I write about it warts and all.”

Anthony Budulka

Anthony Budulka

Seated next to Bowen on the panel was celebrated crime writer Anthony Bidulka, known best for his mystery series featuring detective Russell Quant. On his website, Bidulka describes his hero as “a world-travelling, wine-swilling, wise-cracking, gay PI.” He remembered a unique moment when Quant’s origins suddenly emerged as an issue during a Q & A session in the U.S.

“This big Texan got up to the mike and began to speak,” Bidulka said. “He said, ‘I would like to know how you can write a series about a detective who is … from Saskatchewan?’” That’s when Anthony Bidulka realized how powerfully his home in Saskatoon affected his personality and writing. “We’re a fly-over province,” he added, “but I’m driven to write about Saskatchewan.”

Signal Hill just outside St. John's is a reminder of just how rugged this island province can appear.

Signal Hill just outside St. John’s is a reminder of just how rugged this island province can appear.

Similarly, as I pointed out in the beginning, Marjorie Doyle is a proud Newfoundlander. She writes critically about her home. She writes passionately about her home. She has strong feelings about its past and its future. She’s even been known to profess that her island province should eventually secede from Canada and return to Dominion status (as Newfoundland was prior to its joining Confederation in 1949).

However, Marjorie is realistic enough to recognize where she is and from where she writes (at least for now).

“I’m the only member of my family born in Canada,” she said at the St. John’s writers’ conference. “The rest of my family was born in Newfoundland (before 1949). Still, I’m rooted to this place … in all I think and write.”

Custodians of the past

 

Monument marks the spot where Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was shot.

Monument (just off I-95) marks the spot where Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded.

Travellers whiz along this stretch of the U.S. interstate highway in central Virginia without blinking an eye. Most are driving the few miles on I-95 to shop or dine in Richmond, Virginia, or are commuting the short hour to work in Washington, D.C. Only history buffs realize that near this turnoff, just north of the former capital of the Confederate States of America, stands a monument marking a critical moment in the American Civil War. Paul Van Nest, a Civil War guide from Kingston, Ont., never passes this spot without stopping to remember events here.

“At this spot,” he described to my tour group this week, “a Federal soldier sees no less than Confederate commander J.E.B. Stuart, aims his revolver and fires a deadly shot that passes right through Stuart’s body.”

The day Stuart died, May 12, 1864, the war between the Union and the Confederacy had raged for more than three years. It would go on for another year, cost a recently revised estimate of 750,000 soldiers’ and civilians’ lives, and take the life of President Abraham Lincoln.

Civil War specialist Paul Van Nest describes the final moments of J.E.B. Stuart's military career.

Civil War specialist Paul Van Nest describes the final moments of J.E.B. Stuart’s military career.

In addition, for guide Paul Van Nest, now 75, Gen. Stuart’s passing was a bleak turning point in the life of the Confederacy. In just a matter of months, he pointed out, Southern commander Robert E. Lee had endured repeated military setbacks in his home state of Virginia and lost upwards of 20,000 casualties, nearly a third of his army. Perhaps most devastating, as tour guide Van Nest saw it, Gen. Lee had sustained a personal loss here.

“Lee felt very close to J.E.B. Stuart,” he said. “Losing him was like losing a son.”

Historian Paul Van Nest, who has led no fewer than 55 different Civil War tours in some 27 years, doesn’t gloss over the equally catastrophic aspects of the U.S. war of secession – state versus federal rights, plantation economy versus industrial economy, and slave versus non-slave proponents. To be sure, discussion among those travelling on this tour has been continuous, constructive and occasionally contentious.

Like so much else in our neighbouring cultures, whenever Americans have experienced upheaval, Canadians have always paid attention. One member of our group even picked up a book entitled “The South Was Right!” by Ronald and Donald Kennedy, who claim most Civil War history is untrue because it was written by the victors. I tend to endorse the sentiment in “Fields of Honor,” a book I picked up by Edwin Bearss, historian emeritus with the U.S. National Park Service.

National Park Service interpreter Richard Champman Jr. remembers his great grandfather, Civil War soldier James Chapman.

National Park Service interpreter Richard Champman Jr. remembers his great grandfather, Civil War soldier James Chapman.

“The enduring interest in America’s Civil War,” Bearss wrote, “comes from the direct connection many people feel with the people who fought in it.”

That’s likely one of the reasons why Richard Chapman Jr., a National Park Service historian, has invested a decade of his life in storytelling around events of the Civil War. His great grandfather James Chapman fought with the 42nd Virginia Volunteer Infantry at such landmark battlefields as Manassas, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. We met Chapman Jr. at a place called Saunders’ Field, where on May 5, 1864, his ancestor had assisted in repulsing a Federal Army attack during what was known as the Battle of the Wilderness. Walking us across what had been a bramble-choked cornfield 150 years ago, Chapman described the slaughter of Union troops as witnessed by attacking Col. George Ryan of a New York regiment.

Richard Chapman Jr. illustrates the ground where Union troops disappeared like "snow flakes."

Richard Chapman Jr. illustrates the ground in Saunders’ field where Union troops were cut down by Confederate infantry.

“I saw my men melt away like snow,” said Chapman quoting Ryan. “Men disappeared as if the earth had swallowed them.”

Chapman, now 62, remembered learning Civil War history as a kid. He even admitted, in a childhood fantasy, writing in his notebook, “the next president of the Confederacy, Richard Chapman Jr.” He went on to earn his master’s degree in history at the University of North Carolina and another degree in communications at James Madison University. He’d even served in the U.S. Army in Germany in the 1970s. But he said merely being a Virginian and knowing all this history had happened in his backyard drew him to telling war history for a living. And Chapman didn’t mind offering his own what-if scenario of Saunders’ Field.

Image of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at the monument marking his last stand.

Image of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at the monument marking his last stand.

“Had the Confederates’ counter-attack not been halted by darkness,” Chapman mused, “that famous quote by [Gen. Ulysses S.] Grant, ‘Some of you think that Lee is all of sudden going to do a somersault and land in our rear on both flanks,’ might actually have come true.”

In America, whether Blue or Grey, they explore, expound and extrapolate their past. Paul Van Nest, our Canadian tour leader, made sure we understood that as we explored the battlefields of southern Virginia. He also shared the burden that all war historians carry. As he stood beside the stone monument that memorialized J.E.B. Stuart’s death at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, tears welled up.

“I feel for both sides,” he said. “Because this story was repeated over and over again. Sometimes, all you can say is, ‘Why?’”

 

Conscience and conflict

 

George Weber and I posed in front of his favourite aircraft - the Spitfire - where he spent mot of his WWII career.

At the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, George Weber and I posed in front of his favourite aircraft – the Spitfire – where he spent mot of his WWII career.

He wasn’t wearing his medals when I met George Weber, this week. Had he worn the ribbons and gongs – for his service in the U.K., the Mediterranean and Burma in the Second World War – they’d have no doubt looked pretty impressive. But his blazer with its air force pilot’s brevet and fighter squadron crest offered ample evidence of his wartime service.

Still, one aspect of Weber’s life in the war was not so obvious. He came from a Mennonite home near Kitchener and the Webers, he told me, did not believe in the use of guns. But as it turned out he was able to reconcile his religious beliefs and his loyalty to Canada.

“I didn’t shoot people during the war,” he said. “I ended up shooting pictures.”

In 1941, very much against his father’s wishes, a 22-year-old George Weber went to a recruiting office in western Ontario and enlisted in the army. It became evident very quickly that his family’s “conscientious objector” philosophy (a general condemnation of war for the bloodshed involved) conflicted with his basic army training. A cousin assisted his transfer to air force. And for a while, all George had to worry about were his flight controls, navigation skills, takeoffs and landings.

Then, his Elementary Flying Training School was visited by none other than former WWI fighter pilot Billy Bishop, who’d arrived to ensure the young air cadets were up to snuff. Bishop (the instruction inspector) and Weber (the guinea pig student) took off in a two-seater Fleet Finch.

“Bishop took me up to a thousand feet and told me to do a slow roll,” Weber said. “Well, I’d never done any aerobatics … but I ended up doing some unexpected low flying. … and I guess that’s why I ended up doing photo reconnaissance [in an unarmed Spitfire].”

With your understanding of my preoccupation of such things (and since I’ve just come back from D-Day observances overseas) I’ve often wondered how some men and women served in the armed forces, when their religious convictions in life did not align with the demands of their service. In particular, religious groups such as Quakers, Mennonites and Amish (among others) have historically refused to participate in armed service. Generally, such religions have believed they should remain neutral in worldly conflicts, that they had greater respect for humanity as a whole, or that no government had the right to command its citizens to go to war.

“Neither shall [we] learn war anymore,” they might quote from the Bible.

I never asked my father about such things (and I should have), but I sense his service as a medic in the Second World War might well have resulted from a form of conscientious objection. He’d grown up in a non-violent family environment. I know there was never a gun in his mother’s house (as there was never one in the house where my sister and I grew up). And while he went to Greek Orthodox Church most Sundays, my father’s view of war I don’t think was influenced by his religion. Years later, when I came across his attestation (enlistment) papers, I noticed in the “occupation” box he had written “sewing machine operator.”

It never occurred to me until someone made the connection between his occasional piecemeal work sewing furs (like his mother and future mother-in-law) and his wartime role of patching people up, that maybe his needlework had landed him in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, not his anti-war sentiment. Whatever the reason, I sensed my father survived the war very much the way George Weber did, by coping with its realities and putting up with its inconsistencies until clearly the bad guys were put out of action.

As I suggested, RCAF pilot George Weber adhered to his family’s abhorrence of violence and the principles of warfare pretty loyally. On almost every operation – more than 70 photo reconnaissance flights during the war – Warrant Officer Weber never pressed the button on his Spitfire control column with any other intention than to capture images of enemy positions.

He did however admit, in our interview this week, that he carried a 45-callibre pistol on his hip, just in case. And when pressed he said he’d used it once. On one of his flights over Japanese military positions in Burma, he attracted the attention of a Japanese Zero pilot. Weber said he managed to evade the enemy fire. But in an act of frustration – to ward off the enemy pilot – Weber said he was suddenly alongside the Japanese fighter pilot.

“I opened my cockpit cover enough to fire a couple of shots at the guy with my 45 to scare him off,” Weber said. “But my dad never heard about it.”

I guess a few warning shots across the bow of an enemy fighter didn’t violate either his promise to his father or the tenets of his Mennonite faith.

Strike up the band

View from the back of the Agincourt Collegiate Institute band... with music teacher John Rutherford conducting. (May 1967)

View from the back of the Agincourt Collegiate Institute band… with music teacher John Rutherford conducting. (May 1967)

I really had no idea what was going on. I was a long way from being in the front row, or being in the know. As a member of the supporting cast, I didn’t really understand the point of the exercise. But then band leader John Rutherford invited me down to the front where he stood and instead of having me play my instrument, he asked me to listen to everything from where he stood. And after he led the band through the same musical number again, he explained.

“You see, Ted, while you’re going um-pah, um-pah, um-pah, um-pah,” he said imitating my trumpet part, “the rest of us are down here playing Howard Cable’s ‘Newfoundland Rhapsody.’”

I had to admit, sitting in the back row of the third trumpet section of the school band, I had no idea what the rest of the student musicians were playing. I was just reading my part as diligently as possible, making sure I didn’t lose my place in the music and (most important) ensuring I didn’t play any of my “um-pahs” in the wrong place. John Rutherford knew I’d never amount to much of a trumpet player, that I had achieved in brass-instrument performance terms the equivalent of the Peter Principle. More important he understand that, up to that point, the orchestral results of our rehearsal were kind of lost on me. But in that sudden Eureka moment, our band leader and music teacher, Mr. Rutherford, realized if I could see and hear how I was contributing, that I would realize the value of my input, in short, why I mattered.

Memories of Rutherford and our Agincourt Collegiate Institute concert band came rushing back to me this week as I read some rather disturbing statistics about the decline of music in Ontario elementary schools. For example, according to a report on “The Arts in Ontario Schools,” just issued by the People For Education (PFE) lobby group in Toronto, while in 2012 nearly half of all grade schools in the province had a teacher dedicated to instructing music, last year (2013) that number slipped to just above 40 per cent. Is that significant? Sure it is when you consider that in the late 1990s as many as 60 per cent of schools had specialist music teachers such as Mr. Rutherford.

The study goes on to say that those of us in the Greater Toronto Area may have it better than in rural Ontario. It points out that about six in 10 GTA schools have some kind of music instruction going on. In northern Ontario learning about bass and treble clefs, key signatures, melody and harmony is restricted to just over a quarter of all schools. And while the study is designed to sound an alarm about how music training has declined, Annie Kidder, a spokeswoman for PFE, warns that a fading music curriculum may also have an economic impact on society.

“When you talk to people in business now,” she told Canadian Press, “they feel that capacity to think creatively, to innovate, is a core part of being an entrepreneur – being able to lead a change in a knowledge economy.” In other words, Kidder says music gives kids 21st vocational century skills.

I wholehearted agree. Anybody who can read music charts, pick up tempo, translate that to a motor skill and make the results come to a musical conclusion, must have an arithmetic capacity. And that can’t hurt when it comes to deductive reasoning or motivational capacity either. Good musicians can certainly make successful business leaders.

But I think the value of music goes beyond quarter notes and time signatures. Music, some say, also heals. I know a dozen years ago, when my own father suffered a series of strokes in the last year of his life, resulting in aphasia and limiting our ability to communicate with him, that music helped us get through to him. If we played a bit of Jean Sibelius or Benny Goodman into his headset, that music almost always brought a smile to his face and a sense of calm to his demeanor.

Occasionally, a student musician got a chance to substitute conduct. That certainly built a kid's self-esteem!

Occasionally, a student musician got a chance to substitute conduct. That certainly built a kid’s self-esteem!

Just this week, Toronto played host to a conference on music and health research. Dr. Jane Edwards, who works with neuro-scientists in Europe, told CBC Radio that her members are exploring ways in which music is used as a standard treatment against depression and even as means of assisting young people to fight cancer.

“Teenagers in music therapy have an increased resilience against the disease,” she said. “Doing such things as music videos during traditional cancer treatment, helps them get back to school and get on with their lives.”

Whatever other tangible things music delivers, as a young person, I will never forget how maestro John Rutherford and his music teachings gave me a sense of self-esteem and belonging that sitting in the back row of the trumpet section had always escaped me.

Service in all its forms

Rick Askew, from Oshawa, joined me in Normandy to pay tribute to service.

Rick Askew, from Oshawa, joined me in Normandy to pay tribute to wartime service.

When he was a kid at school, he dreaded show-and-tell days more than just about anything. Especially around Remembrance Day. When it came time to tell the class what his dad did in the war, sometimes he’d invent a fighter pilot dad. Other times, a bomber pilot dad. But just last week when he reconsidered his father’s wartime career, Rick Askew’s attitude about his dad had changed.

“I had him winning the war all by himself,” he told me. “In truth, he never fired a gun once in the war.”

Last week, Rick Askew, a semi-retired cosmetics salesman from Oshawa, travelled with me (and a larger Merit Travel group) in northwestern France. We toured key locations in Normandy where Allied armies had gained a critical toehold against the Nazi occupation of Europe beginning on June 6, 1944. I took him and the tour group to Juno Beach, Pegasus Bridge, Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, where the men of our fathers’ generation had turned the tide of the Second World War. But unlike the history books, I explained to Askew and my other travel guests that it wasn’t the generals and politicians who’d achieved these objectives. It was the average citizen soldiers, such as his father and mine.

To emphasize the point, I offered a story I’d been told by friend Braunda Bodger. A dozen years ago, she’d informed me that her father, a stationery worker in Regina before the war, had come ashore in France in the clerical section of Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. I was curious about the role a clerk might have played during the Allied advance. And when I spoke to the man himself – Wally Filbrandt – my view of the entire Allied invasion of Normandy turned on a dime.

“There were reinforcement companies, battalions and brigades all ready to jump into action,” Filbrandt told me. “We would simply receive casualty reports and then assign reinforcements where they were needed.”

In other words, he kept the invasion army functioning in fact the way it was supposed to on paper. It was a remarkable turnabout for me as a documentarian of the war. In those minutes spent with Filbrandt, I’d come to realize that sometimes the least visible acts of service were among the most influential contributors to winning the war. Filbrandt’s dispatching the right replacement ultimately meant the difference between victory and defeat.

Like Filbrandt, Bill Askew (Rick’s father) had served King and country not with a gun, but with a behind-the-lines skill. Askew Sr. had played brass instruments in the RCAF band stationed at Goose Bay, Labrador (then technically “overseas” because Newfoundland and Labrador didn’t join Canada until 1949). He and his 30 fellow bandsmen had played for parades, dances and ceremonies; they were the sound foundation to every official event on base.

“I had him winning the war,” Rick Askew said. “It took me 50 years to figure out he was just as much a veteran as anybody.”

Bill Opitz (left), D-Day vet from Canadian minesweeper Bayfield, receives Rick Askew's commemorative flag at Juno Beach on June 6, 2014.

Bill Opitz (left), D-Day vet from Canadian minesweeper Bayfield, receives Rick Askew’s commemorative flag at Juno Beach, on June 6, 2014.

Actually, Rick Askew had joined my Normandy trip for a number of reasons. Initially, a few months ago, he’d decided to get his buddies at a club in Oshawa to autograph of Canadian Maple Leaf flag. It would be up to Rick to find the right veteran attending D-Day ceremonies in France to receive the autographed flag as a symbol of gratitude and remembrance. As we awaited the ceremony last week at Juno Beach, Askew suddenly ran up to me.

“I found him,” he told me excitedly.

“Who?” I asked, not remembering his plan.

“The vet to receive our autographed flag.”

He led me through the maze of vets awaiting the 70th anniversary ceremony in front of the Juno Beach Centre and introduced me to Bill Opitz, who’d served as a stoker aboard the Royal Canadian Navy minesweeper HMCS Bayfield on D-Day. Ultimately, that proved only half of Rick Askew’s quest in France. During most mornings, when he smoked a cigarette out on the balcony of our hotel in Normandy, he began to realize the diversity of service that Canadians had delivered that spring back in 1944, had actually included his father.

With the story of Filbrandt in his thoughts and with his autographed flag delivered to an ordinary navy stoker, Rick Askew perhaps sensed his father’s role as a bandsman had been more important than a son had given his father credit. As a bandsman, the elder Askew had given tempo to military parades, melody to receptions and often the correct somber atmosphere to station memorials. He’d learned that service in such a desperate time had come in all shapes, sizes, and contributions.

“This trip has changed my life,” Rick Askew told me on the last day of our tour. “I’m really proud of what my father did now.”

He’ll never be afraid of show and tell again.