A Legacy of Liberation

Fog obscures the Saar River that U.S. troops crossed in February 1945.

We got up to the historic site early that morning. And the sun was out. There was a clear sky up where we were on the hilltop overlooking the Saar River, in Germany. But the air below us, immediately above the river itself, was so clogged with fog we couldn’t see the spot where the historic river crossing had happened. I wondered out loud what it looked like beneath the fog.

“Here. I’ll show you,” said a man who’d stopped by to watch us look into the valley. And he pulled out a map of the river valley and he pointed. “The Americans came from the far side, crossed the river, and attacked up these slopes.”

Adding a chapter

Alex Barris’s ID card when he was 21 years old and at war.

On my last day of classes in 1964, with nothing left to teach us, my Grade 9 phys-ed instructor just gave us a bat and a ball and told us to go play some baseball work-ups. I loved playing shortstop, the position my dad liked most too. Not long into the game, however, the catcher and I chased the same infield fly and we collided head-on. I broke my nose, lost some front teeth and was knocked out cold. I spent several weeks recuperating at home in bed. My father happened to be writing in his office at the house, so he spent time trying to distract me from my pain by telling me stories. It wasn’t long before I popped the big one.

“Hey Dad, what did you do in the war?” I asked.

Stitch in time

Royal Flying Corps aircraftman James Armishaw, in 1917 tunic tailored by Beauchamp & How.

First, they told me to stand still. For an hour. Then, a man I didn’t know except through my father ran a tape measure across my shoulders, down the length of my arms, around my waist and chest. A little later, when he needed a measurement down there, he ran the tape measure from my ankle up into my crotch. I kept on smiling even though, at about age 10, I had never done this sort of thing before. The man with the tape measure finally smiled and gave me a pat on the back.

“Ted, you’re going to love this,” he said, “your first ever tailor-made suit.”

Father’s Day gifts

My father Alex Barris at his Toronto newspaper office desk – writing to dealine.

My back was to the wall. Eleventh hour. Up against it. All those clichés applied. My Grade 8 history essay – on the causes and effects of the War of 1812 – was due Monday morning. It was Sunday night and the essay was done in every way but one. I pleaded with Dad to help me, not to compose the essay, but to type it for me. And he did, but not without an important provision.

“This is the last time,” he said. “From now on, you’re on your own. You’ve got to type it yourself!”

I nodded, not really understanding what had just happened. All I cared about was that my history paper would be delivered in class, on time and looking spotlessly professional. Why? Because my dad was a professional writer and he would never submit anything short of perfect.

Precarious or preferred?

1930 Lewis Hine photograph depicting "skywalkers," steelworkers atop Empire State Building, is often used to symbolize "precarious work."
1930 Lewis Hine photograph – depicting “skywalkers,” steelworkers atop Empire State Building – is often used to symbolize “precarious work.”

We hadn’t seen each other in awhile. We stopped to catch up. My friend told me it had been a tough summer. His father had passed. He’d had to put a favourite pet down. So, his work as an artist had suffered. We’re about the same age and we talked about whether the idea of stopping work or even retirement had entered his thinking. He pointed out, while it might be appropriate and healthy to slow down or even retire, that it wasn’t feasible.

“I can’t just decide to stop working,” he said. “Working artists can’t afford to do that.”

We talked a while about what retirement might look like for him. He sensed that he might do more work of his own choosing, as opposed to the work that customers needed or wanted done. But ultimately we came back to the kind of work life he experiences.

“Freelance work never stops,” he said.

A time of evil

Dalton Trumbo's smile was deceiving given the prejudice he endured.
Dalton Trumbo’s smile was deceiving given the prejudice he endured.

I watched an entertaining and important movie at The Roxy Theatre in Uxbridge this past week. It reminded me of a very scary time in the world. It made me wince at the lunacy of the fear mongering. It saddened me to think that people lost their careers (and in some cases their lives) for their political views in a democratic country … in my lifetime. The hero of the story, Dalton Trumbo, summed it up late in the movie.

“No one on either side (of this feud) who survived it, came through untouched,” he said. “The blacklist was a time of evil.”

Shoe leather and storytelling

CBC News reporter Terry Milewski
CBC News reporter Terry Milewski

The first he knew of the story, came from a phone call early one Sunday morning in 1985. His producers at CBC told him to get on a passenger jet bound for Shannon Airport in Ireland and then to travel south along the Irish coast to where families from India were assembling.

Actually, they were scrambling to the coastline where they hoped they might find their relatives from Canada. CBC reporter Terry Milewski had been assigned to find these families and report on them.

“It was just a bizarre and horrifying situation,” Milewski wrote. “Most of the bodies (of their loved-ones) were never found. Most of the bodies went to the bottom of the sea still strapped in their seats.”

We are all Syrians

Greek Line S.S. Olympia
Greek Line T.S.S. Olympia in service from 1953 to 1974.

My sister and I made it our business to arrive in the theatre aboard the ship before most other passengers. We loved the idea – especially on rainy days during our Atlantic crossing – of getting the best seats from which to watch the Hollywood movie screened that afternoon, a new one every day.

But this day, when we got to the theatre, most seats were filled with other passengers. The Greek Line ship on which we were sailing – the Olympia, bound from Athens to New York City in the summer of 1964 – had recently stopped at Naples. A large number of Italian passengers – we sensed they were immigrants – had come aboard. Anyway, when my sister and I entered the theatre this day the woman in charge of ship orientation was scolding some noisy children among the immigrant passengers.

“Be quiet!” she scolded with a thick Greek accent. “If you do not behave, I will throw you away!”

Is Christmas relevant?

"It's Christmas Eve" brought together Alex, the composer, and Quenby and Whitney, the singers and grandchildren, in 2001.
“It’s Christmas Eve” brought together Alex, the composer, and Quenby and Whitney, the singers and grandchildren, in 2001.

A number of Christmases ago, my father Alex called me. He was worried about something. I asked him what was wrong. He said he was facing a dilemma. He had just written a Christmas song and wanted one of our two daughters to record it. Since both were good singers, he didn’t know which to choose.

“Dad, I don’t see a problem,” I said. “They both sing. Why not ask them to record it together? They can sing it in harmony.”

Well, it was one of those times in my life when instinct proved to be bang on. My father approached both our daughters – Quenby, the teacher, and Whitney, the actor/singer – and they agreed to work on it together.

Ted Barris writes Foreword to new book Syncopated: Black Stories

In a new book of biographies (compiled by author Ed Brown) about Black musicians in Canada, Ted Barris was invited to write the Foreword.

The star attraction was not in the house that night. While many others – the luminaries of the Canadian jazz scene – performed on stage, perhaps the country’s best studio and jazz concert drummer of the day was absent. In fact, it was because he was absent, that all the stars came out. It was in 1967 when Toronto-born musician Archie Alleyne suffered serious injuries in a car accident. He was not able to work … at either of his jobs.

“I didn’t have a car, so I had to carry my drum kit on streetcars and the subway,” he told my father, Alex Barris, back then. “I’d play from 9 at night to 1 a.m., get home with my drums by 3 a.m. and be up four hours later to go to my day job.”