No glass ceiling strong enough…

pboro_examiner_jun61944It was a spring day, not unlike others on the home front that year. And Canadians, as they had since 1939 when the Second World War began, looked eagerly overseas for news. Jean Portugal, in her second full year on the job at the Peterborough Examiner newspaper, faced one of those graveyard shifts working overnight. Suddenly, the wire service machine delivering international news into the Examiner newsroom, began to clatter. And night editor Portugal faced a difficult decision.

“I knew I would have to wake up one of the managers,” she told me in 2004. “The Allies had landed in Normandy, and I had to get permission to use Second-Coming-sized type on the front page.”

Getting the message through

This week, we have witnessed two sides of the coming Donald Trump administration and its method of information distribution.

On Monday, the president-elect invited former opponents, friends seeking roles in his transition team and even TV executives to his New York White House, the Trump Tower in Manhattan. Nobody was allowed to report on the meetings. Everything, by agreement with Trump, was off the record.

The next day, Tuesday, the president-elect travelled across town to the offices of the New York Times, tweeting, “I have great respect for the New York Times. I have tremendous respect…”

The German who served Canadians

Rene Thied in 2013, listening to Canadian veterans recall their role in the liberation of Sicily.
Rene Thied – art historian, tour guide and lover of life – seemed eager to learn more every day.

Like it did millions of other Europeans, the Second World War changed Rene Thied’s life. Born in Hanover, Germany, following the war, Thied first learned about the Holocaust while he attended Ann Frank Schule, a grade school in Hanover. Even as a boy, Rene was appalled by what the Nazis did during the war.

“I couldn’t live in a country that had done such a thing,” he told me years later, “so, I decided to leave my home country.”

Today, November 11, Canada’s annual Remembrance Day, I will try to pay tribute to as many Allied servicewomen and men as I can. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to meet and interview perhaps 6,000 vets of the two World Wars, the Korean War, U.N. peacekeeping and Afghanistan. Many of them are top of mind today.

Make it awkward

Mother Canada sculpture at Vimy Memorial.
Mother Canada sculpture at Vimy Memorial.

The man sat at the back of the audience area through most of my presentation. I spoke, as I usually do in those situations, walking among those in the audience, in this case 30 people seated at about eight tables. My topic was the Battle at Vimy Ridge coming up to the 100th anniversary next year. And I was speaking at a small Ontario fair last weekend. I could see the man was reacting to what I had to say. He frowned a lot and when I’d finished he put up his hand.

“Is it true that all the French-Canadian troops threw their rifles overboard on the way over to France?” he asked.

I paused a second, wondering where he was going with the question. I didn’t want to think there was prejudice involved. “No. I don’t think that’s true, since one of the key regiments at Vimy was the Royal 22nd from Quebec.”

A house that was a home

My neighbour's house comes down piece by piece.
My neighbour’s house comes down piece by piece.

The demolition had been going on for over an hour. Layers of roofing, above the second floor were now caving in. Rafters that hadn’t seen the light of day for over a century and the walls that could tell stories of many of those years came cascading down. It was all quite controlled. With the precision of a surgeon, the excavator operator was bringing my neighbour’s house down piece by piece.

Murray Huntington spots an important clue.
Murray Huntington spots an important clue.

But suddenly the excavator shovel – Murray Huntington’s industrial scalpel – powered down. Huntington opened the excavator door, stepped out of the cab and climbed over the debris that had been the second floor.

“What’ve you got?” I called out to him from ground level.

“Maybe you can use this,” Huntington said.

And he gently tugged at a few of the floorboards atop the pile of rubble to reveal some paper. He’d spotted it in the debris, brought it down and handed it to me. It was a newspaper.

When it’s wrong, say so

The liner St. Louis, loaded with Jewish refugees, was refused entry to Canada in 1939.
The liner St. Louis, loaded with Jewish refugees, was refused entry to Canada in 1939.

As people often do, a colleague of mine sent me what he considered a joke by email, the other day. I read it and I didn’t laugh. It painted a scenario of an immigrant who, through odd circumstances, had a lot of dependents. Eventually, the man of Arabic background requests assistance from the government. The story concludes with this response:

“I’ve arranged to start mailing cheques … as soon as you arrive in Canada,” signed Justin Trudeau.

A little taste of Canada in London

Canada House on Trafalgar Square - June 2016.
Canada House on Trafalgar Square – June 2016.

It was one of the quickest checkpoint passages I think I’ve ever experienced. Not that the security officer wasn’t thorough. Not at all. First he asked us about the nature of our visit. We said we wanted to visit the Canada Gallery just beyond the checkpoint. Next, he asked to scan my backpack. No problem there. Then, I offered my passport.

“Canadians?” the security guard said.

I nodded and in we went. My wife and I had just gone through the security check at Canada House, in London, England.

Soldiers of secrecy

On her first return visit to Bletchley Park, former teleprinter operator Theo Hopkinson searches for her past.
On her first return visit to Bletchley Park, former wartime teleprinter operator Theo Hopkinson searches for her past.

She strode toward the building with a protective rampart in front of it. As I watched her, I sensed she needed to find something, maybe something tangible from long ago. Once inside this rather plain building, labelled simply Block B, her pace slowed. Inside, she passed glass exhibit cases and along walls laden with images and captions from the past. Then, she spotted it.

“There. That’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s like the one I worked on,” said Theo Hopkinson, now nearly 90.

I asked what she was looking for.

“A teleprinter,” she said. “We used them to key in messages.”

Lives in a salvaged suitcase

This briefcase-sized suitcase revealed a unique wartime correspondence story.
This briefcase-sized suitcase revealed a unique wartime correspondence story.

It’s one of the most compelling wartime stories I’ve ever encountered. And I almost missed it. There I was, up to my eyeballs in other stuff, when I got a call from two acquaintances. Jeremy Van Dyke organizes overseas travel tours and Frank Moore, a retired former banker, collects classic cars.

“Ted, we’ve got to meet,” Van Dyke said on the phone from Cambridge.

“I’m really busy,” I said.

“We’ve got a story you’ve got to tell,” Van Dyke insisted.

All in the details

Uxbridge Oilies hockey club got some unexpected news at end of the old-timers tourney.
Uxbridge Oilies hockey club got some unexpected news at end of the old-timers tourney.

We were just peeling off our hockey gear. We were considering a little refreshment after what we thought was a Pyrrhic victory; in others words, we had won our final game of the oldtimers’ tournament, but figured we were out of the running to win the championship in our division. Then, suddenly, in came the tournament organizers – members of the Uxbridge Islanders hockey club – and they were carrying what looked like a box of prizes.

“You guys won!” they told us. “The other team got too many penalties in their last game and you won on points.”