Of thunder, lightning and boom

I spent last weekend in Saskatchewan, visiting family and friends while participating in the province’s annual writers’ gathering – Festival of Words – in Moose Jaw.

Between events at the festival, my niece’s husband Vern and I made our way through a prairie rain storm to Taylor Field in Regina. He had a pair of tickets to the Roughriders-Alouettes football game, but he’d packed the rain suits just in case. It’s a prairie trait, I think, hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. During the 1970s, when I worked in Saskatchewan, I learned an appropriate descriptive of the then ‘have-not’ prairie province:

“This is next year country,” they would say. “The best is yet to come.”

Going to hell in a disposal bin

I got talking to a friend in my small town the other day. She and her husband are about to refurbish an older downtown building for their business. She said she’d become a little frustrated, partly with the delays getting the project going. But she was also miffed at something she hadn’t expected. In anticipation of the refuse from the coming reno, she had hired a firm to drop off one of those large, industrial disposal containers. Not long after the bin arrived at the construction site, the contractor asked if she had dumped some garbage not associated with the planned business reno into the bin. She said no, she hadn’t.

“Well then what’s a sofa doing in the disposal bin?” he asked.

She was really perplexed. You mean, a stranger had simply dumped an unwanted piece of furniture – not a lamp or a card table, mind you, a sofa – into her large garbage container right on a main street? How bizarre is that?

A Canada Day gift

They didn’t realize that July 1 is Canada’s birthday.

That’s OK, because last month members of the Berardi family warmly welcomed a tour of Canadians (my wife and I were hosting) to their farm near Ortona, Italy. We Canadians had come to Ortona to revisit the site of the “Christmas battle” during the Second World War, when after a long siege, Canadians removed the occupying German army from that part of the Adriatic coastline. Sixty-five years after that historic battle, Lanfranco Berardi, who had survived wartime as a civilian, gave us visiting Canadians an early Canada Day present. First he reflected on the Canadian troops who in 1943 gave his starving family hot soup, medical attention, sweets and something more precious.

“The Berardi family was saved from German oppression by Canadians,” Signore Berardi told us. “Because of the Canadians, we found again a smile and humanity.”

Wireless weirdness

A few anxious moments preceded the opening ceremonies of the “100 Years of Anne/Tribute to Lucy Maud Montgomery” festivities in Uxbridge, Ontario, recently.

Our event chair, Coun. Pat Mikuse, got a distress call on her cellphone. The caller was Durham MPP John O’Toole, one of the dignitaries expected to speak at the event. As Coun. Mikuse explained to me later, our guest inquired: “Where are you?”

“I can’t hear you,” Coun. Mikuse said. “I’ll move away from the stage.”

“Where are you?” MPP O’Toole repeated.

“I’m behind the stage,” she answered. “Where are you?

“I’m in front of the stage.”

Service under fire

I never met “the SARS lady,” but she met me through my fears.

Early in 2003, when a stroke debilitated my father, he was admitted to Scarborough Grace Hospital in east-end Toronto. Within days of his admission there, the first cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome popped up around him. His was the SARS ward. The resulting quarantine made it impossible for us to enter the hospital or see Dad. My family panicked. How could we be sure his aphasia would be adequately treated? We found some solace in the demeanour and words of then Medical Officer of Health for Toronto, Dr. Sheela Basrur. Responsibility for the city’s health recovery fell to her and nursing staffs across the Greater Toronto Area.

“If you’re sick, you should seek treatment,” she told a terrified GTA. “If you’re healthy you should live your life.”

The questions of Remembrance

On the seventh day of our trip along the path Canadians followed to liberate Italy, 65 years ago, I learned a valuable lesson of remembrance.

One of our tour guests, the mayor of Shelburne, Ont, asked if he could address the group of 50 Canadian travellers my wife and I are accompanying. Ed Crewson, 48, carefully unfolded several fragile-looking newspaper clippings that clearly meant a lot to him. He explained that the mementos came from the Second World War effects of his father – Pte. William Crewson of the Saskatoon Light Infantry.

“My dad got bone cancer when I was eight,” Ed Crewson told us. “I didn’t look through these wartime papers and read them until long after he was gone.”

The Longest Day – in Pachino

If you asked young Valentina Distefano what life is like in her hometown, she’d probably tell you that nothing ever happens.

She’d probably add that most days she doesn’t meet many new people either. Midday on Tuesday, however, things changed dramatically at her high school – Instituto D’Istruzione Secondaria Superiore Michelangelo Bartolo – in the small Sicilian coastal town of Pachino, Italy. You see, during a special assembly at this school of 400, Valentina met 50 visiting Canadians. They (with my wife and I as hosts) had just begun retracing the trek of Canadian soldiers who liberated Italy 65 years ago this year. And the Sicilian teenager actually got the chance to interview one of those visiting Canadians, 88-year-old Gordon Major.

“What did you feel like after you landed?” Valentina asked.

“I was too young to feel anything,” Major said. “It’s a very long time ago.”

How things work

During a recent editorial meeting with a class of journalism students, one young woman didn’t have a news story to offer. She asked if I could assign one to her, one that would offer her a challenge. I thought a second and suggested she cover the Ontario finance minister’s introduction of the provincial budget. She cringed at the thought and then looked to me as if to say, “Why would you choose that as an assignment?”

“It’s important that you learn how things work,” I said to her.

She nodded and said, “I’ll check the Queen’s Park website for the phone number of the Finance Minister’s office.”

“Well, the learning curve has just begun,” I said. “Have you ever tried using a telephone book?”

In sickness and in wealth

I did something this week I don’t think I’ve done in years. Monday, I woke up hacking and sniffling. I battled through the day. I loaded my pockets with tissues and throat lozenges. All day long, I consciously sneezed into my sleeve and not my hands. I succeeded in getting through the workday with little or no damage to my routine. Still, by evening, I felt worse than in the morning. I woke up the next day feeling beaten and threw in the towel.

“A cold has me by the throat,” I wrote in my e-mail to the program co-ordinator at the college where I teach. “I don’t think anybody wants to share what I’ve got. I’m taking a sick day.”

Faster, higher, more political

While catching my breath between shovelfuls of snow, this past storm, I had a conversation with a neighbour. She told me about her son was now studying at Dalhousie University and training in an elite swimming program. Naturally, she was proud of his accomplishments. She told me he currently ranks among the top swimmers in the country in the backstroke. In fact, in April he’ll compete in Montreal at an Olympic qualifying event in hopes of going for a medal in Beijing or beyond.

Then, I noticed the news from Tibet. Chinese authorities had cracked down on human rights demonstrators there. And the angry reaction of people, such as Australian senator Andrew Bartlett, could conceivably sink the Olympic dreams of my neighour’s son.

“I think we should boycott the Olympics,” Bartlett told reporters this week. “We can’t just turn a blind eye because we all love our sport.”