Rejection Slips

Most writers I meet these days haven’t even seen a real rejection slip. That always strikes me as odd, because rejection slips are how I learned to write.

I was surprised to find this little collection of 1970s rejection slips. I didn’t know I still had these last few. They must have been misfiled someplace, and showed up only after the conservators were finished salvaging my files from a study flood. This odd little group might have been a handful of rejections for a single story all misfiled at the same time. Fantasy / science fiction wasn’t a common angle.

There was quite a process to endure before you earned a rejection slip. Writing the query letter seemed to take almost as long as the story. It was honed to perfection, with a carbon copy of it clipped to an active query board.

The story itself was perfectly formatted, likely typed at least a couple of times to produce a clean copy without a typo or a smudge.

There was an SASE enclosed—a self-addressed, stamped envelope—in case the piece wasn’t suitable for the magazine.

At the other end an editor scooped it out of the slush pile, glanced at the query and perhaps flipped to the lede of the story, grabbed a form rejection, stuffed the whole pile into your SASE, and within a minute returned it to you with the postage you paid for. If you were lucky, and something had caught the editor’s eye, he jotted a little note on the rejection slip. Each one of those little notes was worth more than an entire creative writing course.

Twenty years later, in the 1990s, I had stopped creative writing after a bad experience with a publishing house. To force myself back to work I plastered the walls of a room with old rejection slips. I had a lot of them. When I started I had out maybe 25 queries at any given time, and, especially in the beginning, most of those proposals ended in rejection.

In the middle of that room I placed a desk salvaged from a hotel room used by the entertainment at a local hotel and pub. I sat at the desk, listening to the stories of its cigarette burns and drink stains and carved graffiti from musicians and exotic dancers. Every slip of paper on the wall was a reminder of a lesson learned. Their purpose served, when I left that apartment I stripped down all of the rejection slips and threw them away.

Through persistence one eventually graduated. The first sign came in receiving personalized rejection letters instead of generic slips. That happened when an editor liked the voice, just not the story. The only remaining step was publication and pay.

That was the rejection slip challenge. The secret was, to quote a very detailed one from Isaac Asimov, that one’s story had “failed to rise far enough above the other 849 seen that month.” That provided the incentive. The challenge was simply to leave those 849 wannabes behind. To learn how to write your way to the top, you simply had to learn how not to write.

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A Personal Anniversary

This month marks eight years since I left the media and joined Tourism Prince Rupert, and 35 years since I published my first US magazine story.

I barely remember the beginning – especially since I started out writing under pseudonyms, and didn’t keep copies of anything until the late 1980s. I can remember only that the first sale was to a magazine based in Texas. From that first cheque I bought a shiny new 1976 quarter. I drilled a hole and wore it under my shirt until I finally saw the last of the rejection slips in the early 1980s.

Meantime I went into the media and worked literally from coast to coast – in broadcast and print, rising eventually through to promotions manager and station manager in radio, and to editor, publisher and even owner at newspapers and magazines.

In the ‘90s I was drafted by Hollinger to “save” Prince Rupert This Week. Over time Hollinger wanted me elsewhere, and I had to quit my job a couple of times to make them let me stay, but in the end I closed our weekly here in 1999. I was shifted over to Thomson Newspapers to create a new weekly newspaper for delivery to all rural homes in the three prairie provinces.

Instead I dropped out of the game to stay in Prince Rupert, but finally bowed to economic pressure in 2002 and left to run a communications company in Calgary. Swinging through Rupert in 2003, en route to join the Nanaimo Daily News, I was asked to take on Tourism Prince Rupert to make some changes under a short-term contract. It was a good fit on both sides, so I stayed.

Writing, photography and publishing are vital skills in tourism marketing. Media and political work, and understanding individual business needs in order to provide effective marketing, were the most basic tools in the publisher’s toolkit. Heck, even just having been a radio promotions manager, simultaneously planning and managing huge events in multiple communities, was a good apprenticeship for TPR.

After all those years as a corporate manager it was strange to come into a non-profit society, but not as strange as it might have been. I was a founding member of a provincial archaeological society the same year I first published, 1976, and was then a founding member of a large airplane museum by the time I left high school. (Yeah, I was a weird kid.) Since then I’ve volunteered for god knows how many non-profit boards, so at least I started with an idea of what was needed.

My belief in Prince Rupert’s potential is stronger than ever. Writing in This Week beginning in 1996 I argued for stronger investment in tourism – having seen the rough, unplanned transition from resource to tourism economies at my most recent gig with CFCY Charlottetown. That might have been avoided in Prince Rupert, our transition could have been smoother, but I still believe, more than ever, in that promising future.

Each of the past eight years has brought both success and challenge. This year we had a great year in Prince Rupert, with a strong increase in the number of visitors. About half of the increased hotel revenue was likely due to growing success in attracting conferences, and the other half to a greatly increased number of independent visitors traveling the northern corridor. Still, certain sectors were weak – such as European visitation, due to the strong Canadian dollar – and the halibut closure slaughtered the tail end of an otherwise strong sport fishing season. Our tour operators are facing a 2012 season without a weekly cruise ship. Yet despite these factors tourism remains one of the most vital sectors of the Prince Rupert economy, and the successes of the past eight years have greatly outweighed the missed opportunities.

(First published in The Northern View, September 28, 2011.)

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Hearing the Owl

So begins one of my favourite stories…

The doctor said to the Bishop, “So you see, my lord, your young ordinand can live no more than three years and doesn’t know it. Will you tell him, and what will you do with him?”

The Bishop said to the doctor, “Yes, I’ll tell him, but not yet. If I tell him now, he’ll try too hard. How much time has he for an active life?”

“A little less than two years if he’s lucky.”

“So short a time to learn so much? It leaves me no choice. I shall send him to my hardest parish. I shall send him to Kingcome on patrol of the Indian villages.”

“Then I hope you’ll pray for him, my lord.”

But the Bishop only answered gently that it was where he would wish to go if he were young again, and in the ordinand’s place.

Margaret Craven, I heard the owl call my name (Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1967).

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True Stories and Tall Tales

The Alpaca 1 at Prince Rupert in 1997. The vessel was launched as the Alpaca in Nova Scotia in 1927, but spent most of her years on the west coast as the Cooperator 1. (Lonnie Wishart Photo)

For a place with so many stories, the Northwest Coast has surprisingly few good old-fashioned tall tales. In my newspaper days I always had to dig pretty deep to find a ghost story for the Hallowe’en edition. Our version of the tall tale is instead usually an undercurrent of myth, urban legend blended with fact, in retelling our actual history.

I was reminded of an example of this by a widely reported story about a brass propeller being stolen in Vancouver last Friday. The fellow who owned it said he’d salvaged it from the wreck of the packer Texada, a boat reportedly once owned by Al Capone.

Just about every waterfront in North America must have at least one boat with purported links to Capone. I’m reminded of the Alpaca, last seen in these parts about a decade ago. The Alpaca’s Capone story was a hoary old waterfront tale by the time I arrived here.

The real history of the Alpaca is well known. She was launched in 1927 at Shelburne, Nova Scotia, for rumrunner George Morel of Sandy Cove. She changed ownership a few times when Prohibition ended, and in 1936 the Kyuoquot Trollers’ Association brought her through the Panama Canal to serve on the west coast as Cooperator 1.

It’s hardly uncommon on the waterfront to stretch a story into a more interesting shape. Alpaca had seen use as a rum-runner, and Capone was a memorable Prohibition character. It was believable to link the two; the Fitz Hugh, with actual connections to Capone, survived as the Vancouver yacht Virginia Hope. The tale grew that Alpaca’s name came from AL PAcino CApone, and that detail allowed the tale to become sworn fact.

The history of the vessel wasn’t allowed to interfere with the story. In 1998 Iain Lawrence dug into every aspect of the tale, even talking to mafia historian William Balsamo. Just for starters, Alphonse Capone didn’t even have a middle name. No part of the Alpaca legend has ever stood up to the slightest scrutiny.

Yet this wasn’t a deliberate white-wash – not like the post-Titanic reinvention of Charles Hays as a visionary, instead of an American robber baron leading the charge on what John Houston famously described in 1909 as “the story of a thousand blunders.” The Alpaca is just one of a hundred little tall tales that have found stubborn life in Prince Rupert.

But in the end the tall tales just detract from the true stories. Good writers want their stories rich with authentic detail. Last week a writer researching a story asked us how many buildings survived at North Pacific Cannery (29), and what sort of trees grew across the Slough on Smith Island (spruce, hemlock and cedar). That attention to detail is a far cry from taking the old stories at face value and running with them.

The thing is that the true stories of this place are incredibly rich and diverse. From the big stories, such as the founding of Metlakatla or the building of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, to the little stories, such as the Battle of Kelly’s Cut or the recovery of the Kazu Maru, there’s no need to make anything up. I’m not above the occasional tall tale, but in the case of Prince Rupert the truth is far more interesting every single time.

(First published in The Northern View, August 17, 2011.)

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Metlakahtla

The British warship H.M.S. Virago was steaming northward through the Pacific Ocean near the southern boundary of Alaska. The steady throb of the ship’s engines was the only sound that broke the stillness of the beautiful mountainous islands among which the vessel was wending its way.

It was the year 1853, and several days had passed since the ship had left Victoria, five hundred miles southward. The warship had kept close to the Canadian coast throughout the journey and was now nearing Queen Charlotte Islands, where an American schooner had recently been plundered and destroyed by the savage Indian inhabitants. The warship had come to punish the offenders.

George T.B. Davis, Metlakahtla: A True Narrative of the Red Man. (The Ram’s Horn Company, 1904).

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Edac

Noel Woodworth running the Edac in Prince Rupert harbour in 1999 (Lonnie Wishart Photo).

I still remember the first time I saw Edac, down at the Prince Rupert Rowing & Yacht Club in about 1995. At that time Rob Morris was editor of Westcoast Mariner, and he and I used to talk about her quite often. We both have a real soft spot for classic pleasure boats, and, having been launched here by noted Japanese boatbuilders the Suga Brothers in 1914, the Edac certainly fit that bill.

I came to know Edac’s owners, Noel and Alberta Woodworth, quite well as regulars at the chowder sessions we used to hold at Sabre Marine. In fact, we ended up displaying the Edac and Charlie Currie’s 1929 tug CRC together down at the lightering dock for Heritage Week in February 1999. Noel said he was writing a book, and since he’d published more than one story I always thought that there was good chance of him finishing it. As his health failed I assumed that was the end of that. I was wrong.

Alberta finished the book after Noel died in 2006, and it was released this year as Edac: 80 Years Cruising the North Coast of British Columbia. And it’s a real treat. Part travelogue and part biography of a place and a classic boat, it follows the tradition of The Curve of Time, Upcoast Summers, Three’s a Crew, or Seven-Knot Summers. Yet, like Iain Lawrence in Sea Stories of the Inside Passage, Noel has provided a special treat by focusing on northern BC waters.

Edac was launched for Drs. Kergin and McRae as Kermac, and renamed when she was sold to Dr. Cade in 1919. The vessel passed through a few other hands before Noel and Alberta bought her for a thousand dollars on Valentine’s Day 1966.

The book is a series of vignettes, really, a collection of treasured memories. Some are gathered by topic, such as fishing, wildlife sightings, beachcombing, or favourite cruising grounds. Adventures and mishaps are recounted through fine writing and delightful, self-depreciating humour.

Noel wrote his story in the mid-1990s, while Edac was still tied up at the Yacht Club and Charlie Currie still brought a big pot of clam chowder down to Sabre Marine each week, so in the book we avoid the sad ending – the passing of Noel, and longtime friends Bill and Paddy Elkins who shared so many of Edac’s adventures, and the dismantling of the ruined old Edac herself at the Cowichan Bay Wooden Boat Society nearly a decade ago. Instead the story is one of continuing adventure, somehow frozen in a world of endless summers.

Noel did not intentionally write about himself. Yet his character, and Noel and Alberta’s deep love of Edac and the times they had with her, come through with crystal clarity.

“We loved this cruising as nothing before in our lives,” he wrote. “We enjoyed beachcombing on beautiful beaches where few human footsteps are seen each year, walking the low rocky tidal areas where nature’s undersea beauty is exposed, seeing the endless wild flowers of the seaside and the tortured trees that grow according to the winter winds. It was always thrilling to see the ever-changing seas of waves and swells and currents, of calm and of anger, but always of beauty. It also brought us many friends and introduced us to a way of life we would sorely miss if we had to leave it. Thirty years later we are still enjoying it.”

I hope that Edac: 80 Years Cruising the North Coast of British Columbia joins its storied predecessors, The Curve of Time and the others, as a classic tale of cruising the BC coast. It has certainly earned that place on my shelf.

(First published in The Northern View, July 27, 2011.)

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No more saving lives

Canadians haven’t been vocal enough in speaking up about our country’s ability to save lives at sea. Perhaps it’s an easy thing to ignore, back in Ottawa. It’s impossible to forget here in Prince Rupert. Here our families and neighbours venture out day after day to take their living from the North Pacific. Sometimes lives are lost even here in our sheltered harbour.

Scarcely a whisper was heard when the big S-61 Sikorsky helicopter was pulled from Prince Rupert in December, to be replaced by the smaller (but more fuel efficient) Bell 212. The S-61 had been here almost 40 years, and no one would argue that it was nearing the end of its lifespan. Never mind that the Coast Guard had spent years trying to cut the cost of having it here—I was personally part of that fight in the 1990s. We fought destaffing the lighthouses at the same time, though bureaucrats will ensure that fight will never go away.

Also in December a Senate committee recommended against destaffing the last lights. That’s good news, though the committee also delivered a clear message in recommending “a full cost-benefit analysis” of the role played by lighthouse keepers. Simple logic won’t rule in the end—the logic that lightkeepers have eyes when machines don’t, or that lightkeepers can fix machines when they fail. To keep the spreadsheets in order, we must ensure that saving Canadian lives is cost-effective. We need to define the return on investment in saving lives.

Now it’s the Point Henry. The proposal is to replace this multi-task cutter with a search and rescue (SAR) lifeboat with far less than half the cruising range and very limited capacity. Vija Poruks, the assistant commissioner, CCG Pacific Region, is “aware” of the comparative limitations, but points a tired finger at the Esquimalt rescue centre. This one base is the answer to all of British Columbia’s SAR needs.

And why can’t we base all search and rescue efforts out of Esquimalt? It’s less than a thousand kilometres as the crow flies from Victoria to Stewart—with today’s technology this should be no impediment. Yet those who live on the coast know that crows seldom fly in straight lines—BC has almost 26,000 kilometres of shoreline to search for lost mariners. Never mind that if a mariner is in trouble, the coastal weather is almost certainly throwing everything it has at even short-range rescue attempts. It’s not logic that drives these continuing “efficiencies.” It’s spreadsheets.

I refuse to lay too much blame at the feet of the Canadian Coast Guard. They have been seriously understaffed and seriously underfunded, with an aging fleet and workforce. Without federal government commitment, a continuous-build ship replacement policy, and the resources for meaningful recruitment, the decline will continue. However, as has been the case with every aspect of federal maritime policy, I seriously doubt that commitment will happen.

Look at the example of Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant, who made very clear statements last week that suggested it was the responsibility of communities, provinces and private companies to provide and finance marine search and rescue. “In Ontario we have inland seas, the Great Lakes,” she said, “and it would never occur to any of us, even up in the Ottawa River, to count on the Coast Guard to come and help us.”

Gallant subsequently tried to backpedal away from this position of sheer arrogance and naïve ignorance, but she was just stating what seems to be longstanding government policy dating back through many administrations. Decisions are made in Ottawa, seemingly with the Ottawa River as the only measuring stick. Coming back to Poruks’s comments regarding the Point Henry, in addition to the inevitable reference to Esquimalt she pointed out the legal obligation of the Navy, ferries, tugboats, cruise ships, and so on, to respond to distress calls. The Coast Guard doesn’t have to come to the aid of these vessels; let the mariners save themselves.

Is she really so ignorant of the proud tradition of her service, so blind to the realities of life on the coast beyond the Strait of Juan de Fuca? Or is she just parroting policy crafted in Ottawa? Has Canada’s search and rescue really come to this?

I believe that the answer is clear. Yes, Canada’s search and rescue really has come to this. Like Cheryl Gallant, the politicians and bureaucrats will pretend into nonexistence their 144-year commitment to the Canadian Coast Guard and its predecessors. They will find better ways to spend their money than in saving Canadian lives at sea. And they will continue to imagine, in the Ottawa River, their perception of life on Canada’s coasts.

(First published in The Northern View, February 16, 2011.)

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The Prince Rupert Ships

The Prince Rupert seen entering Vancouver Harbour early in her career. The Grand Trunk Pacific logo, green maple leaf in red circle, is clearly visible on her centre stack. (Canadian Nautical Collection)

I’ve been thinking lately of ships named for the City of Prince Rupert. Before the city was established it wasn’t uncommon for ships to be named for our namesake, Prince Rupert of the Rhine. The Dominion Atlantic Steamship Service operated the sidewheeler Prince Rupert (1894) on the Digby – St. John run at the beginning of the 20th century, and the Hudson’s Bay Company ship Prince Rupert brought an ancestor of mine to York Factory on Hudson Bay in 1789.

The most famous of the ships named for the city was the Grand Trunk Pacific Steamship Company’s Prince Rupert, launched at Newcastle-on-Tyne in December 1909. As was the case with almost everything the GTP did, the success of the Canadian Pacific was meticulously copied – in the case of the Prince Rupert she was modelled on CP’s elegant Princess Victoria, and even built by the same yard of Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson. She carried 200 first-class and 36 second-class passengers, and 350 tons of freight.

The Prince Rupert (shortly joined by her sister ship the Prince George) arrived in Prince Rupert for the first time on June 15, 1910, and her registry was soon transferred here from Newcastle-on-Tyne. The Prince Rupert fell under control of Canadian National in 1920, and was absorbed into the CN Steamships fleet in 1923.

She was known as an ill-fated vessel. She was steaming out of Anyox in poor visibility when she ploughed into Green Island in March 1917. Low tide left her high and dry on the rocks, only 30 feet from the trees, making for many dramatic photographs. Incident piled upon incident. She was struck by lightning at Vancouver in January 1919, and fire broke out in her cargo hold in October. She sank after striking a reef at Swanson Bay in 1920, struck Ripple Rock in 1927, sank at the Yarrows yard at Esquimalt in 1931, and collided with the CP steamer Princess Kathleen just north of Prince Rupert in 1951. She was finally laid up in April 1955.

The Rupert City (ex-Powhatan, 1886) began service with the Mackenzie Brothers Steamship Company on the Seattle – Vancouver – Prince Rupert run in 1909. Made redundant by the Grand Trunk Pacific’s new ships she was sold to Japanese owners as the Chinto Maru and was torpedoed off Spain during the First World War.

H.M.C.S. Prince Rupert was an “Algerine” class frigate built by the Yarrow yard at Esquimalt, commissioned in August 1943, and made a visit to Prince Rupert the following month before entering service in the Atlantic. She joined British and US ships and aircraft in sinking U-575 north of the Azores in March 1944, was decommissioned after the war, and ended her days as a breakwater at Royston.

The most recent of our namesake vessels, the Queen of Prince Rupert, was a stalwart of the BC Ferries fleet for almost a half-century. The RO/RO ferry was launched in Victoria in 1966, and was considered the flagship of the BC Ferries fleet until the Queen of the North was introduced in 1980. The Queen of Prince Rupert was decommissioned at Prince Rupert on April 20, 2009.

That this number of vessels have carried Prince Rupert’s name speaks to the city’s prominence as the northern terminus of British Columbia’s vital Pacific coast service.

(First published in The Northern View, February 4, 2011.)

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The Weather God

Twenty years ago, and for many years before and after that, CKX radio and television was a powerhouse in southern Manitoba. The AM station, on the air since 1928 and booming out 50,000 watts to small towns and farms as far as northern Manitoba, eastern Saskatchewan, and North Dakota, was a common link between us all. Their TV station was for many years almost the only one available in the area. And the face and voice of this local media giant was a man named Ron Thompson. When I worked with him he’d done almost every job in the building; but he was best known as the local host of the popular Reach for the Top television quiz game for high school students, and, perhaps even more so, for decades of weather reports that ended with his trademark, “Easy does it, my friends, that’s the weather.”

His office was at the very back of the sprawling CKX headquarters on Victoria Avenue in Brandon. Past the “Crystal Palace,” rarified realm of management, past the labyrinth of studios, interlocking workspaces and winding corridors, his door was at the end of the very last hallway. The sign read:

STORM CENTER

RON THOMPSON

WEATHER ‘GOD’

All around the sign were storm clouds and suns from the old magnetized TV weather map, retired when computers appeared on the scene. Ron missed the old map. “Here’s a high pressure system moving in from the south,” he’d say, and whack!, a high pressure system hit the steel door.

The office was crammed with mementos. There were maps, and cartoons about weathermen lining the walls. A set of World Book Encyclopedias was a relic of his days as host of Reach for the Top. A few of his beautiful pieces of woodworking lay scattered around.

When veteran announcer Johnny Murphy joined CKX AM in November, 1992, it took him less than a week to figure out the importance of Ron Thompson. Armed with the results of a smoking study, he went on air with an address to “the gang out there on the back stoop.” He said, “I’m not going to pick sides one way or the other, but think about this… If smoking takes seven years off of your life, you’ll miss over 1,800 Ron Thompson weather forecasts.”

When I think of Ron, who lost his long battle with cancer on Sunday at just 68 years, I can’t help smiling. He was funny. It was funny when Johnny poked fun at such a reciprocal target. It was funny in the same way that it was when Ron came on stage at the local folk festival and did a straightforward weather forecast in front of a large weather map held up by two hairy “nurses.” It was funny because his voice held our utmost trust and respect, but he still knew how to smile at himself. Our viewers and listeners took him with surprising seriousness. At live events some would ask, “Do you know Ron Thompson?” Others would glare up at a light rain and say, accusingly, “Ron Thompson didn’t predict this, did he?” He deserved every bit of the good and jokingly bad publicity. He was a journeyman.

I asked him once, why radio? What was it that had led him down this path?

“There was something fascinating,” he said. “The mystique of broadcasting. I had a couple of friends who were in the industry. Mike Williams, who’s now in public relations with VIA Rail. And there was a gentleman that worked at CKSB Saint Boniface. He was a French radio announcer, and he lived a couple of doors down from me. I used to hang out at CKSB, and go up and visit Mike at CKSB on occasion. And I was just fascinated with the industry, and said, hey, that’s what I wanna do for a living.”

Almost miraculously, Ron landed a job at CJOB when he was just 15 years old. “This was when FM was just starting to make waves in the broadcast industry,” he said, “with its non-static reception and what-have-you. CJOB had an FM station, and it dated back to 1946, except that they didn’t do anything with it. They just simulcast AM on it. Back in the late-‘50s they decided, well, they’re gonna do something with it, and they started separate programming. It was the first FM station in Winnipeg, and I was an operator on that FM station. We used to, what they call ‘voice-track’ all our programs. We used to just roll LPs, basically, and then it was ‘that was, here is’ type of thing.”

Except for a month with KBOM, a little 1,000-watt station in Mandan, North Dakota, Ron was with CJOB until 1963.

“I learned a lot at that station,” he told me. “Boy, did I learn a lot. Because…” He paused, for once struggling for words. “Totally professional. They had some great announcers. A great news staff. Great technical team. And that was back in the salad days of radio, too. There was a lot of creativity in it.”

In 1963 Ron moved to CKRF Regina, as staff announcer, at first doing a few weekends and then taking over the weekday evening shift. He soon jumped at the opportunity to take over the morning show at CJGX Yorkton. While he had not been particularly impressed by Regina, Yorkton had him smitten.

“I fell in love with the town,” he said. “Beautiful community. The radio station itself was a real hole-in-the-wall, but it was a good place to learn.

“I was up there for two years. Did mid-mornings. Did afternoons. Did evenings. Did a lot of remote broadcasts. Did a lot of amateur shows. We used to go out on Saturday nights, with the Associated Canadian Travelers, and broadcast from local communities. And we had a lot of fun doing that. I got to see a lot of eastern Saskatchewan that way, and parts of western Manitoba. We got up to Russell, Roblin, up to Swan River, Binscarth, and places like that, doing these amateur shows.

“But I could see the writing on the wall, as far as radio was concerned, even back then, because the formats were starting to come in. Everybody was starting to specialize. You had a country music station. You had a rock’n’roll station. You had an easy listening station. The music systems were starting to fragment into all their little niches, as they are now. Or you were the CBC, and the CBC was way over there. Everybody hated the CBC, and I don’t know why. I think it was professional jealousy, because the CBC were actually doing things. But back in the mid-‘60s, what we were doing was playing records and that’s it. Low-budget programming. You’d buy a fist-full of records, hire a kid off the street and stick him in a control room, and there’s your evening programming. That was it.

“So I could see the writing on the wall then, and I wanted to have a little bit of a crack at television, and that’s why I got into CKX. Because television was the cutting edge of the industry at that time, as far as the electronic media was concerned, and this was, at that time, a relatively small station.”

Ron started at CKX AM as morning man on October 14, 1965, doing fill-in work on TV such as live programming and commercials, and standing in for the weather on evenings and weekends. He was host of Reach for the Top and in 1970 became Quizmaster—a position he held until Reach for the Top was cancelled in the mid-‘80s. He did the afternoon drive shift on CKX AM, then eased into the CKX FM station, CJCM, in about 1969. For years he was the CJCM program director.

When CJCM became KX96 in 1983—shifting from easy listening to cutting-edge rock, Ron returned to CKX AM on the afternoon drive shift. Somewhere along the way he had become the staff meteorologist. In 1986 Western Manitoba Broadcasting (the CKX mother company) put their Manitoba Television Network on the air, and Ron moved into television announcing full-time. He did weather for CKX and MTN, and anchored an evening newscast on CKX television. “You were a company announcer,” he said. “They put you where they wanted you, and you got a lot of experience doing a lot of things.”

Ron was with the company for 37 years. He worked in almost every announcing job that the AM, FM and TV stations had to offer. That was an anomaly in the transient world of broadcasting. “Hank” George McCloy was in the first team of announcers at CJOB Winnipeg when it went on the air in 1946 and didn’t retire until 1987. Ron had a close friend who had enjoyed an equally long tenure at WSM Nashville, and they used to jokingly refer to themselves as the “George McCloys of WSM and CKX.”

Ron was the voice of CKX by the time I grew infatuated with radios, building my own pathetic crystal radio, with its copper wire antenna, and tried to pick up our iconic stations—for us, in order, CKY, CKRC, and CKX. He was an iconic voice by the time he became my mentor, colleague and friend in the 1980s and ‘90s. I always took time to record on tape the radio veterans, and in Ron’s case we sat down in the prod studio, infrequently and in bursts dependant upon mutual availability, over a period of months. One day I asked him to sum up his career.

“I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “To be in radio when I was 15 years old, for God’s sake, and still in the industry! And still as excited about it, today, as I was back then. It’s neat. Always listening. Always tuning the dial. Listening to KFYR Bismarck, of WGN or WLS. Or picking up some two-bit radio station down in Drinkwater, Montana, or someplace like that. It’s always interesting to see what the other guy is doing, and you’re always listening to see how they’re doing it, and why they’re doing it.”

“That’s almost the essence of what we do,” I said.

“Yeah,” Ron said. “That’s it.”

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The prairie home

Since there was a plentiful supply of poplar trees on all the homesteads the natural building material was logs, and they were used in all the houses. Some were built as lean-to’s [sic], and others had gable ends where the logs were trimmed and pinned together with wooden pegs. At first there were no shingles for roofing so small logs were smoothed on one side and laid close together, then thatch was carefully placed over this.

This thatch was long coarse grass which grew plentifully around the big sloughs. Some times sod was used but not so commonly as it had to be renewed more often and also let the rain in. If there was an upstairs, it was low, and to reach it, stakes were fitted into logs in one corner of the house. We would now call it a ladder! After the sawmill was started in 1880 the gable ends of the houses were made of lumber if the homesteader could afford it.

Minnedosa Women’s Institute, A History of Minnedosa, 1878-1948 (1948).

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The $3 poem

But critical praise was of little use to the fatherless little family in Brantford where Pauline, approaching thirty, was desperately conscious of the fact that, so far from being a help to her mother, she was as dependent as her mother was on the generosity of the other members of the family. Mr. Charlesworth once recalled that during this period he made out a pay-slip of $3 for The Song My Paddle Sings, without doubt the most famous of Pauline’s poems, and he said that this actually was more than most publications of the time paid for poetry.

Marcus Van Steen, ed., Pauline Johnson: Her Life and Work (Musson, 1965).

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The red maple

(Photos by Lonnie Wishart)

I loved this tree. It was my first favourite thing about this house on the coast. It was a screen of colour between me and the world. In a way it connected this home with my first home.

I didn’t grow up here—I grew up on the prairies, in a century-old stone house perched above a river valley. The house was ringed in old maple trees. At first the maples filled with little bursts of spring colour. In summer the leaves were passionately green, dark trunks twisted and Entish in the shade of the canopy. By Hallowe’en the leaves were golden, blowing in the yellow grass, just bare branches looming above.

We don’t get seasons here, or at least most people don’t. The Northwest Coast is always green. Folks who move here from almost any other part of the country mourn the passing of the seasons. But our maple budded in spring, and transformed into bewildering colour in autumn. For me it was a little like watching a movie of the seasons, without slogging through spring mud or digging out the snow tires.

My image of Canada features an iconic, Group of Seven tree between viewer and scenery. The world is more interesting when seen through a tree. I caught glimpses of seaplanes and cruise ships behind branches and leaves.

But in the early morning of October 10 an autumn storm swept Kaien Island. My friend Captain Pawel Urbanski told me in the morning that gauges at the container port measured to 160km–just over 86 knots. The gusts exceeded the capacity of those gauges. That’s far into Beaufort Force 12, the top of the scale. A hurricane.

By midnight the house shook against the gusts. At the foundation the furniture groaned with the movement, and at the top the floor danced underfoot. I’ve stood nearby as military jets took off, and that’s the closest I can come to describing the sound. All over town fallen trees hung from power lines. Roofs were torn off and thrown away. A Corvette was mashed beneath a rolling fifth wheel. One mobile home looked as if it had been blown apart from the inside.

Sometime just after midnight, with no sound that could be heard over the roar of the storm, the red maple gave up. It toppled toward the road, causing almost no damage.

And just like that the window was empty. The red maple no longer stood between me and the world.

I went outside. Cold rain stung. A snapped power cable whipped me back inside. I watched from the parlour as the whole city fell into darkness. The harbour was churned white in the reflected lights of the grain ship Ioannis Theo at Anchorage Charlie. Exploding transformers lit up the sky like cold blue lightning strikes.

In the morning the maple was just another fallen tree in grey light. I wasn’t keeping a meticulous count, but by the time I left on a failed mission to find a working telephone about two hundred people had already taken pictures of the tree. I could barely leave the driveway for cars parked haphazardly on the street as people grabbed shots with their mobile phones.

At first I was angry. None of them had cared about it when it was alive, only now that it was collapsed on the hedge. As we waited in the car Kasia said we could make a fort in the torn-up root, and then I was too sad to talk about it.

The red maple had stood through so many winter gales. Was it my age? My father’s age? I don’t know. But the sense of loss was surprising, as if a friend had died.

It eased as the day went on. It had become a problem to be dealt with. But in time a craftsman I know came along. I traded him the fallen tree for a cutting board made from it, already knowing that I would commission him to make me a piece of furniture from it as well. We’ll be able to keep it, in a way.

But I’m still getting used to the emptiness. If the front windows showed an early A.Y. Jackson, they’re now more Toni Onley—from here squat coastal homes defiantly hunch against the broad sweep of misty hills and harbour. It’s colder, less intimate, less human. Raw nature is beautiful, but beautiful in a different way.

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First steamboat built in Manitoba

My father, Captain Peter McArthur, came to Fort Garry in 1869. In the following year he was taking out logs at Broken Head River. He told me he supplied the flagstaff for Upper Fort Garry – 14 inches at the butt and 4 inches at the top. I forget the height.

He built the Prince Rupert in the 1870s at Fort Garry. It ran on the Assiniboine to Portage la Prairie and sometimes farther. He did not think much of this vessel. It rode like a bucking pony, but had the distinction, nonetheless, of being the first steamboat built in Manitoba. I gave the registration papers to the Manitoba Museum.

Mary Agnes Medd, “My Father’s Steamboats” (Manitoba Pageant 17:1, Autumn 1971)

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Wreck of the Florizel

The sailors were washed about the deck, frantically clawing at anything that came to hand to keep from going overboard. Some were taken over the side.

Aft of the smokestack on the port side, the steel lifeboat, still in its chocks, was torn from the deck, carried over the smokestack, and dropped athwart the deck between the broken skylight over the social hall and the starboard rail. There it stayed, securely jammed.

Captain Kean was hit by a piece of wreckage and, with a broken leg and bleeding head, was swept toward the rail on the starboard side.

At the same time the whistle stopped and the Florizel suddenly was plunged into darkness.

Cassie Brown, A Winter’s Tale: The Wreck of the Florizel (Doubleday, 1976).

The Newfoundland steamer Florizel made agonizingly slow progress through sish ice and heavy winds as she made her way down the stormy Newfoundland coast in February 1918, bound for Halifax and New York. She made just forty miles in nine hours. She struck just north of Cape Race, and for 27 hours, in full sight of shore, passengers and crew struggled to save themselves. Of 138 souls aboard, just 17 passengers and 27 crew survived.

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Loyalists to Upper Canada

My father, Michael Grass, lived, at the breaking out of the Revolutionary War, on a farm about 30 miles above New York. He was a native of Germany, but had lived most of his time in America. When the Revolution commenced General Herkimer sent my father an invitation to join the Americans and offered him a Captain’s Commission. My father replied:—“I have sworn allegiance to one King and I cannot served any other.” For this saying he was driven from his home and family and was obliged to take refuge within the British lines at New York. His family followed shortly afterwards. He lost his farm and property and was obliged to maintain his family at New York by working as a harness maker. At the close of the War the British General commanding at New York, having heard that my father had been a prisoner of the French at Frontenac, in the time of the old French War, sent for him to enquire about the place and said:—“Mr. Grass, I understand that you have been at Frontenac in Canada. What sort of a country is it? Can people live there?” My father replied: “What I saw of it, I think it a fine country, and if people were settled there, I think they would do very well.” The Governor replied: “Oh, Mr. Grass, I am delighted to hear you say so, for we don’t know what to do with the poor Loyalists. The city is full of then and we cannot send them all to Nova Scotia. Would you be willing Mr. Grass to take charge of such as would be willing to go with you to Frontenac? If so I can furnish you a conveyance by ship to Quebec, and rations for you until such time as you may have means to provide for yourselves.”

Richard A. Preston, ed., Kingston Before the War of 1812: A Collection of Documents (Champlain Society, 1959).

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Bruce Wishart
Whimsies. Sometimes about writing.
Sometimes about folklore. Sometimes
about the sea, or life on the coast.
And sometimes not.