Category Archives: Solid Gold Box

Ken came home from war

First published in This Week, November 10, 1996.

I know a man, the father of a friend. I grew up knowing this man, but over many years my memory may have become distorted. I may get the story a little wrong, but its essence remains the same.

Ken came from the southern tip of Lake Manitoba, where little farms are tucked among hills, marsh and scraggly trees. He was a farm boy. Maybe he dreamed of far-away places, when he was a boy learning the three “Rs” in one of those little one-room schoolhouses with the Union Jack flying out front. Maybe he dreamed of sailing ships and flying aeroplanes. I don’t know. I’ve always guessed that he dreamed of being a good farmer, and nothing more or less.

In September, 1939, the world changed. This is not a fiction created by later historians. The world changed. The British Empire, the foundation of everything Ken learned as a prairie boy, was in very real danger—not of losing its global supremacy, but of actually being overrun. Bombs showered London just a few short months after the invasion of Poland.

Ken joined England’s Royal Air Force. If my memory is correct, his brother joined, too, and his cousin flew in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

These three Connell boys all flew in the big bombers. Ken flew in a Lancaster during the Nuremburg raid. He flew, I think, two tours of duty.

And then Ken came home from the war. He came home with a wife, Pat, who came from Prince Edward Island. Ken and Pat farmed, and then Ken became the manager of a grain elevator; he managed the POOL elevator in Minnedosa and gave me one of my first jobs. He was, and is, prominent in the United Church and the Royal Canadian Legion. He and Pat have done very much, in their quiet way, for the community of Minnedosa since moving there over 20 years ago.

They raised four children, three boys and a girl, all of whom have become fine adults. As Ken and Pat approached retirement they traveled more. They visited their son Kim, an RCMP officer in northern Alberta. They visited their old post-war stomping grounds in the Swan River Valley. Ken and Pat went on Ken’s first visit to England since the end of the Second World War. Ken took up woodworking, and built a basement workshop.

And now Ken and Pat are retired. From memory Ken builds models of the horse-drawn wagons and buckboards that carried the farm families of his youth. He and Pat remain committed to their community, and are involved in a whole spate of activities from golf to bowling.

If you visit Ken and Pat, perhaps you will be fortunate enough to be invited down to Ken’s workshop. To reach it you will pass through a rec room that is decorated in an unusual way. Warplanes still fly in the framed photographs. There is a beautiful frame that Ken made to hold medals, the medals he was given for surrendering his life to the roulette of war. There is a large model of a Lancaster bomber, painted to exactly duplicate the plane that brought Ken back from death time and time again.

Ken does not dwell of his memories of the Second World War; or, if he does, he’s done a marvelous job of hiding it. I only heard Ken talk at length about the war once. We were at the big Commonwealth Air Training Plan reunion in Winnipeg. Douglas Bader and Adolf Galland were there, and so were Ken, his brother and cousin. There was no talk of the horrors of war. I stood there like a puppy, listening while they reminisced about being on leave in bomb-ruined London. About the time Ken bailed out, lost his flight boots and landed in a cow pie. They talked about funny times, and about the people that they remembered.

For them, I think, there was no reason to talk of things so horrible that no person should ever be witness to them. Their memories of gunfire, of anti-aircraft and torn-apart warplanes, have become fond memories of the boys who didn’t come home.

I did not know any of the boys who didn’t come home. They were gone, some of them, 20 years before my birth. I did, however, know many of those who came home. Ken came home. That is what I remember on Remembrance Day. Not the fallen, but those who lived in the place of fallen friends. It makes a war that raged years before my birth a personal and terrible thing.

People like Ken, people of my father’s generation, showed me from the very beginning how to value my home and country. If I ever face my own September, 1939, I will still remember.

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Sailing alone

Here’s a little vignette of coastal living, an encounter with a fellow who was sailing solo around the world, that was part of my ongoing conversation with readers of This Week. The “chowder” was a weekly gathering of waterfront veterans, launched in the early 1980s by Captain Charlie Currie. After his death in 1997 we carried it on for another seven or eight years. The chowder was exactly the sort of thing that Eric had gone out into the world hoping to find.

Just words passing between travellers

First published in This Week, September 20, 1998

Eric left here Monday night. The Yarra, under tow, rode in the wake of the Exporter and the Sabre. Sunlight evaporated behind the hills across the harbour.

“The colours are softer now,” Lonnie said, “more pastel. That’s a winter sunset.”

The couple standing beside us were from California. “How’s your film speed?” the woman said. “Would you like to use our tripod?”

“It’s 200 ASA,” I said. “I can push it.” I was really just watching the magnified boats through the viewfinder.

I wasn’t really in the mood to talk to them because I was thinking about Eric finally leaving. I only came to really know him in the past few months. We talked often about the sea, because he was one of the very few people I’ve met in my wandering from waterfront to waterfront who has read so widely about the sea. His English was much better now. It was well past the stage when an anonymous, but playful, towboater informed me, in an aside, that the only way to learn the language was to begin with profanity and work your way out.

I thought how fitting it was that Eric was slipping out of the harbour in the company of Sabre Marine, because he had become part of Sabre, and how fitting it was that he was going out on the sunset. His sails were furled, the wind was calm, and his friends were taking him to the north wind.

He wasn’t using the Inside Passage. He told me last week that he was worried about delaying too long in getting out into the open Pacific, because he would use up his fresh food too quickly. I thought he should go south to avoid Hecate Strait, but he wasn’t worried. He had been to Cape Horn.

Lonnie waved with her arms reached high, but I could see no evidence through the viewfinder that anyone on the boats had seen her.

If we had known that Eric was leaving today we would have gone to say goodbye again. But he’d been leaving, it seemed, for weeks, and we didn’t know that today would be the day the wind would finally tell him to go. When that damned southeasterly ended.

Lonnie talked to the couple from California. I let my camera down, for the three boats had merged into one as they passed Ocean Dock and slipped toward the harbour mouth. The man was talking about the waterfront park.

I asked if they were coming from Alaska. No, they came in on The Skeena, and were leaving by the ferry on their way to Alaska. Because I was still thinking about Eric I said that they were coming at the right time of the year, and they could see Alaska without too many tourists.

We left them, walking down the uneven boardwalk toward the water taxi, and talked about Eric. He has four years now on that little boat. From Switzerland he went down the Atlantic, a computer hardware builder who was tired of people and tired of how the world had become. He avoided places where tourists came, sought out places where he could discover pockets of unspoiled life. Places where living was slow. He must have liked it here, because after he had appeared suddenly from a winter cruise off Alaska, saying that winter was the only time one could still see the real Alaska, he stayed for months in Prince Rupert.

I have forgotten how many weeks he came up from the Yarra to join us for chowder each Friday. This Week did a story about him on February 1, and I see from it that he arrived here on November 14, 1997, so it must have been around then. He was friendly, but slow to know. Just the sort of person you would think would throw away his working life and set out ‘round the globe with only his luck, his skill, and a little sailboat.

He’s on his way to New Zealand now, with no landfalls and in as straight a line as wind and current will allow. Perhaps we will never see him again, and perhaps we will. The way that new friends and old friends come together almost makes you think that we’re all moving like the tide.

I asked Eric if he would come back to Prince Rupert. He shrugged, and said “maybe,” maybe in three, four years. I told him to stop by for chowder, and he said that he would.

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Remembering a newspapering icon

Thinking about the closure of the Prince Rupert Daily News brought to mind this piece marking the passage of longtime publisher Iris Christison. By late 1999, with Pete Godfrey and Scott Crowson both gone, the editorial policy at the Daily News had already begun its ascent into la-la land. Iris was a 35-year veteran of the Daily—publisher for 20 of those years—but as I understood it the publisher of the day didn’t feel that a tribute to her was a newsworthy subject. They still hadn’t so much as mentioned her death by the time we launched the magazine ebb’n’flow a month-and-a-half later. I would have written the piece anyway, but the fact that I scooped the daily paper with a monthly magazine—especially with something so vital to them—struck me first as funny and then as incredibly sad. Bob McKenzie, then regional manager and ultimately responsible for the Daily News, made a point of thanking me for running the piece. That was notable, given that he wasn’t very happy with me for placing myself into competition, even in a small way, with ebb’n’flow.

A similar thing happened again, years later, when legendary Prince Rupert pilot and veteran Albert Mah passed away. I called the editor, Earle Gayle, to let him know it had happened. He was swamped at the moment, and asked if I could write the piece. After I submitted it, he called me back to say that their latest publisher had informed him that they had a new policy—they did not write tribute pieces “in case they missed somebody.” I could almost smell his circuits smouldering even though we were talking on the phone. As had been the case with Iris, Al’s death passed completely unnoticed by the Daily News.

Such things would not have happened during the tenure of Iris Christison. She was the one who bridged the era of local ownership and the era of corporate ownership. She had her idiosyncrasies, but she understood that she ran a local paper telling local stories that would appeal to local readers.

A Prince Rupert newspapering icon passes

(First published in ebb’n’flow, January 2000.)

The community of Prince Rupert was lessened by the recent passing of Iris Christison, who for over forty years had been identified with newspapering in this community. Christison died suddenly on November 19, predeceased by her husband Doug.

Iris Sharp was born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, and came to Prince Rupert to join her sister during the Second World War. She married Royal Canadian Navy veteran Doug Christison, best remembered as manager of the government liquor store, in Prince Rupert in 1947. The couple raised children Doug and Carol.

Christison was an active member of the First Presbyterian Church and Presbyterian Church Ladies Group. She was also involved in many other community organizations, including the Order of the Eastern Star, Daughters of the Nile, and when her children were growing up, the scouting movement and parent-teacher association. She will be remembered on Burn’s Night, and will be remembered as a volunteer willing to roll cancer bandages, or man the community theatre. “She was a really good friend of mine,” reflects Della Currie, “and a good friend to everybody that knew her. She was a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, and always willing to help people.”

For the community of Prince Rupert, Iris Christison’s name will be forever linked with the Prince Rupert Daily News. She joined the Daily News in 1956 as a switchboard operator and classified ad clerk, and became circulation manager. Following a classic newspaper career path, she moved into the advertising department, rising to advertising manager. When the Daily News was bought out by Sterling Newspapers in 1971, Christison was named publisher. She remained the publisher of the paper for two decades until her retirement at the end of March 1991. Christison held a firm vision for the Daily News, and maintained much of the paper’s community feel while bringing it into the leaner, more profit-conscious years of newspapering. She expressed her feelings about this business by becoming a founding member of the B.C. Press Council, an organization devoted to championing a free press and maintaining journalistic integrity.

Through the years Christison worked with some other well-known Daily News alumni, such as noted local historian Phylis Bowman, and one-time Daily News editor, novelist Iain Lawrence. Lawrence remembers her as caring deeply about the community. “Iris Christison was one of the last of the real small-town publishers,” Lawrence recalls. “To her, the Daily News was just a little paper that worked best when it didn’t think itself any better than that. She thought it should record the smallest things, but treat them with the greatest respect. Christmas concerts and social teas, the works of charities and clubs, were much more important than political doings. She wanted stories about seniors and children, and had no time for eager young journalists who fancied themselves above her ideas. I think it would have pleased her most of all if the Daily News had aspired to the old-fashioned ideal of all small-town papers, that everyone’s name, and everyone’s picture, should appear every year in the pages.

“I only once saw her involved directly with the editorial part of the paper. On the city’s seventy-fifth birthday, she decided that she would like to write the editorial for a special edition. She laboured over it for days, tapping away on an ancient typewriter, fussing through the office with sheets of yellow paper. In the end, she produced a fine and folksy address to the little city that she loved. She signed it, simply, ‘Iris’. And I mocked her for that, to my everlasting regret. She understood much better than I that Prince Rupert was the sort of town where that was exactly the right thing to do.”

And for exactly this reason Iris Christison will be long remembered by this community, and will forever be an important part of the proud history of newspapering in Prince Rupert.

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Poor Michael

I hate writing the pieces that I think of as eulogy columns. When a friend dies I’m always thrown into a period of deep thought, and more times than not it leads me to begin wording my own eulogy of sorts—usually a newspaper column, and now a blog post as well. I don’t want to do this, but I can’t help it. In the end I say whatever it was that I apparently needed to say, and I’m always very glad that I did it. Thinking about the loss of my friend Walter Smith made me go back and look through a few others. This one was written for my tragically young friend Mike Holm, of Poor Michael’s Bookshop in Brandon, Manitoba.

Death’s final lesson

First published in This Week, May 14, 1996.

You know what it’s like when you start a new job. You’re never quite holding all of the strings. You feel as if you’ve learned more than you can pack into your head when you’ve actually learned just a fraction of what you need to know.

In mid-March, when I was feeling just that way, my sister phoned me from the Brandon Sun. My friend Mike Holm was dead.

Now, it’s funny the way your mind works. Rather than inject a puzzling, intimate loss in the midst of a very trying time, I slipped the information into a “Poor Michael’s Bookshop” file in my memory. A month later my mind allowed me to open the file; to reflect, and grieve a little.

I’m still trying to wrap my memory around everything that I ever knew about Poor Michael, and I realize that it’s not much. I suppose that I knew the basics: his personal background and his apprentice years with Winnipeg booksellers. I certainly knew him as a quiet, intellectual man. I ran into Mike a few times when he was trying to make it on his own, selling rare books from a table at Brandon University. In time he opened an antiquarian bookshop that was everything you’d imagine it would be, on the second floor of an old commercial block in downtown Brandon, and when the Manitoba Arts Council saw fit to provide financial backing for the novel I was writing I rented a neat old office down the hall from Poor Michael’s Bookshop.

We wasted far too much time in uncountable bull sessions about everything from golf to Kafka in that old Sam Spade office of mine; Mike and I shared more pots of coffee than you can ever imagine. We bought, sold or traded hundreds and probably thousands of books with each other. After I left Brandon in 1994 I realized that I still had a book that Mike loaned me. Much later I realized that he still had one he borrowed from me, and I considered us even.

Mike and I never shared intimacies, yet we were friends because we shared reading, writing and books. He hunted out treasures for me that my life left me no time to discover for myself.

The last time I saw Mike was just over a year ago, when Lonnie and I were moving from Charlottetown to Prince Rupert. He had long since moved to a Rosser Avenue storefront, but everything else was the same. Books from floor to ceiling, and the gentle, introspective soul of Poor Michael flowing around us like music. We had little time to browse. I chose an old hardback Peter Straub novel for our journey, and Lonnie picked out a wonderful 1940s mystery magazine.

When I think of Poor Michael I remember how deeply affected I was by the loss of elderly Mrs. Day, who ran the used bookshop of my Minnedosa boyhood. All of your secret dreams and hopes are in your imagination; books are the signposts along the path that leads into the very heart of it. It is a rare soul who lays aside any possible chance for a remunerative life to guard that path. Every true bookseller I’ve ever known has genuinely cared more about making sure that I left with exactly the right book than about the money I spent. Those of us who live to read value those rare few. We value them so highly that in memory they never die.

I’ll never forget Poor Michael. He lives in hundreds of books lining my shelves, the ones with the neatly-pencilled price on the top corner of first page. That is the most important thing, death’s final lesson. When it’s my time, I hope that I’m remembered so fondly.

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Exposing ourselves through speed dating

I include this tourism column about Canada’s Media Marketplace as further insight into the blog interview with my travel writing friend, Steve Lorton.

First published in The Northern View, April 9, 2008

Well, I’m off to Los Angles with a certain amount of dread. I hate business travel—and, probably for that reason, every trip I take somehow turns into my own hellish version of Mr. Bean. I’m convinced that I’m responsible for hundreds of stories told across North America. They all start something like, “So, there’s this guy standing at the gate for Pittsburgh and asking if this is the gate for Seattle, and he’s got shampoo dripping out of his luggage…”

The L.A. event is Canada’s Media Marketplace, hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission. It alternates annually between New York and L.A., and at gala receptions the provinces and territories pull out all stops in showcasing their cuisine and entertainment. Only the very best travel writers working in the United States are invited.

Canadian partners from St. John’s to Prince Rupert are linked up with everybody from the Dallas Morning News to National Geographic. The partners present themselves at battalions of tables lined up in a grand ballroom, and every fifteen minutes a bell rings and the writers rush to their next appointment. That means that you have about twelve minutes, really, to suggest why a writer should visit you and write your story. We call it “speed dating.”

Ideally, of course, during your 12 minutes you can intrigue writers enough to convince them to get together with you after the marketplace closes for the day, so that you have more time to really sell them at the receptions. Even so, it might take meetings over a period of years before you’ve really found the writer’s “hook,” and worked a visit into their always-busy schedules.

I’ll give an example. Steve Lorton was Northwest Bureau Chief of Sunset magazine for over 30 years. Shaun Stevenson and I met with Steve at Marketplace in 2004. Seven years earlier, when Shaun was with the North by Northwest Tourism Association and Julia Ferguson was running Tourism Prince Rupert, they met Steve for the first time. Gradually, 12-minute appointments at a time, Steve grew interested in Prince Rupert. He arrived in the summer of 2004, a Sunset photographer arrived later that summer, and a four-page spread appeared in the July 2005 issue. He came back in the summer of 2006, now a good friend, and his second piece about Prince Rupert was published last year in Coastal Living.

Community relationships with travel writers are what really matter in the end. Steve told me last week that he was now pitching two more pieces about Prince Rupert. Every year, more and more writers like Steve fall in love with Prince Rupert.

The value of this exposure is amazing. You and I know that any ad is a paid message, but we read travel stories believing that these are the words of an impartial witness. In addition to that credibility, we could never buy the space that was devoted to stories about Prince Rupert in international publications. In 2006 alone, the advertising value of that space was five times our total annual budget, and when we had Tartan PR in Victoria assess our return on investment for that year it demonstrated that every dollar we spent attracting and hosting travel writers delivered $145 worth of exposure.

At Media Marketplace competition is stiff, but through years of being there and selling Prince Rupert our stock is high. It is our biggest trip of the year, and represents a substantial investment. Yet it is one of the most valuable things that we do.

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A gift from W.O. Mitchell

Contemplating the great writer’s death the previous week, Iain Lawrence and I both wrote about W.O. Mitchell in the March 1, 1998, edition of This Week. Iain and I were surprised to learn it, but school visits by Bill Mitchell had been pivotal moments in the writing life for us both. To this day, when I visit schools or talk to young people about writing, I do so at least partly from the desire to repay an old debt.

The old man who took time to talk

First published in This Week, March 8, 1998.

I attended that W.O. Mitchell lecture, the one that Iain wrote about in his column this week. Actually, I attended it twice. The first time was in the afternoon, when Mitchell came to our big new school. The second was that evening, when he spoke at the official opening of Minnedosa’s new public library.

Poor Mr. Mitchell didn’t have much of a break between the two lectures. Some annoying kid hijacked him, assailed him with platoons of stupid questions. I wish I’d had the chance to thank him for that. In two hours, Bill Mitchell made it possible for me to write for a living and a lifestyle.

He gave his talk at the school, the one about the outhouse exploding, as part of a tour promoting How I Spent My Summer Holidays. As he left the school gymnasium I chased him down. Caught him dead in his tracks. I think I said something like, “Mr.-Mitchell-I-really-like-Jake-and-the-Kid.” Only I think I said it faster.

I talked to him for almost two hours. I remember that it was two hours, because I caught hell for it from my mother. See, in order to explain why I was so late coming home from school, I had to tell her about him. I showed her where he signed my schoolbook, so it wouldn’t seem to be some trumped-up excuse.

Then the fact that I had waylaid (“pestered”) a famous writer at all—let alone for two long, miserable hours—became a crime second only to murder. I protested that every time I said that I should stop bothering him and go home, he said that I was not bothering him; but I had no physical proof that this was not one of the above trumped-up excuses.

I asked Mitchell all of the usual questions. The same ones that people who “always thought they could be” writers ask. “Where do you get your ideas?” “How do you build characters that people will believe?” The kind of questions that make writers (like me) sometime want to avoid being seen in public.

But Mitchell either had the patience of Job, or I must have asked something that sparked his interest. Because the old fellow (yes, in Iain’s words, “disappointingly old”) took time to answer every question. No matter how silly, he took the time.

And then he explained the simple line that all writers, myself included, use to silence the questions: “If you want to be a writer, then write.” He explained that the difference between writers and those who wanted to be writers was that the one had the desire strongly enough that they would do it for hours every day, and that the other, seemingly, could talk about it for hours every day. He explained that learning to write took long, hard, dedicated years; and he somehow made me believe that and want that at the same time.

I tape recorded Mitchell’s talk that night, and listened to the tape until it wore out. His voice, on the tape, reminded me of his words. And that inspired me to write, which is a self-sustaining thing. There is truth in what was my mother’s favourite quotation: that an artist does not work because he is inspired, but becomes inspired by working.

I love his books. But I will remember W.O. Mitchell because in the beginning, before I even knew how to string together a sentence, he spared a couple of hours to really talk to some kid who accosted him out of the sky-blue pink.

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The town constable

When I was a kid the only typewriter in the house was a portable Remington “noiseless parlour model.” It was an ancient black cast thing—each key had to be pushed down about two inches. The typebar hit the worn ribbon with the sound of a steel ball bearing dropped on a wood floor. Anything other than the “Columbus method” (search and plant), one finger at a time, led to a hopeless tangle of typebars. Still, my first stories were written on this machine.

My dad was secretary-treasurer of the Town of Minnedosa. At his office were all sorts of wonderful things for a budding writer—including state-of-the-art IBM Selectrics. Dad let me write there evenings and weekends. Sometimes I had to wait, stopping after school, for the staff to finish using the machines. And while I waited (except for the brief period of time when the new town library was housed in the office), I browsed the town records for lack of anything better to read.

Eventually I found names that I knew from colourful stories I’d heard from older family friends, and that led me to take notes. A decade later, when Reston historian David L. Braddell gave me a manuscript copy of the memories of pioneer George Love, these two things blended into this short piece in Western People.

Ruling with an iron fist

First published in WESTERN PEOPLE, February 23, 1989

Minnedosa, once known as Tanner’s Crossing, was a rough place.

Two special constables were appointed at the first town council meeting on April 12, 1883, but their efforts did little to quell the lawless nature of the town. In August, 1884, however, ‘Big John’ Cameron became Minnedosa’s chief of police and before long he was a legend across the prairies.

Cameron was appointed because “he would be a terror to wrongdoers.”

“He was the biggest and strongest of them all and some would say he had a heart as big as himself and there were others who would not agree with that,” wrote Bardal pioneer George W. Love. “He said he was a Belfast Scotchman. He first saw the light of day at York Factory and he was raised on moose milk, wild cat livers and bear steaks and picked his teeth with porcupine quillls. He was not afraid of man, devil or injun [sic].

“[Big John] was a strong believer in Cameron justice. Instead of taking a man to jail and keeping him there for a week or two while a couple of lawyers were piling up a big bill against both him and the town, he would march the prisoner to the magistrate’s office and there they would assess the damages and add a couple of dollars for costs, collect on the spot, then kick him… out. No jail to heat, no board bill to pay, a big saving all round.”

Cameron’s duties were formalized in a town bylaw dated September 13, 1884. He enforced 30 bylaws, which included everything from dog tax to prohibiting furious driving and respecting public morals and prohibiting just about everything else including “disorderly conduct or any immorality or indecency.”

Cameron was caretaker of the council chamber and lock-up, market clerk and chief of the fire brigade.

Council also felt it necessary to add: “It shall be incumbent on the chief of police to at all times cheerfully obey the lawful commands of the Mayor or other head of council for said town.”

Cameron set out to bring law and order to the town, armed with brawn and his free translation of the bylaws.

Love recalled an occasion when typhoid fever was rampant, reportedly the result of polluted drinking water. Cameron and the magistrate were restricting themselves to “pop or buttermilk,” but their supply was running low. As money was scarce, Cameron went for a walk and returned with “a great hulk of a man, a regular beauty with a great Roman nose and a moustache over each eye.”

Charged with “cussin’ and using bad language where women could hear,” the magistrate fined the protesting man $5 for cursing, $3 for contempt of court and $2 for costs.

Council was by this time beginning to regret their hiring of Cameron. They asked him to leave but he refused. Then, Love said, Cameron “stepped on a train going west and was swallowed up in the great western movement.” The termination of his employment in Minnedosa was not in fact quite so innocuous.

Minnedosa was in a post-boom bankruptcy and Cameron was concerned about the payment of his $600 annual salary. While suffering the ill-effects of a hangover one morning in April, 1886, he punched a town councillor.

An emergency meeting of the town council rejected his resignation and fired him, while also swearing in 12 special constables to run him in. Cameron lost his temper and cleared the courtroom.

The next day, he was fined $10 for assault, $10 for using profane language and $5 for courtroom damages—all to be deducted from the wages still owed to him.

A week later, Cameron released two prisoners from the lock-up for reasons that are unclear. Another emergency meeting resulted in another arrest, but a month later he regained the town’s favour by stopping an assault at the railway station. Before long he was volunteer fire chief.

On June 2, 1886, Council authorized a note to Cameron for $83.30 with 10 percent per annum interest for back wages. His employment was officially over.

The town reverted to its old lawlessness, but only for another two years. Then regular town constables were instituted until the RCMP took over in the 1930s. Big John Cameron was long remembered, however, and even today stories about him circulate where old-timers gather.

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What, no high tops?

October 15, 1990

October 15, 1990

February 10, 1991

Found in the coz archives: Images from photo shoots during the “Lovestruck Child” sessions at Del Clark’s Studio One. The shoot had to be redone when Kerry Campbell joined the lineup midway through the sessions. This brings back memories of horrifying self-consciousness…

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Prince Rupert This Week

This Week, August 11, 1996

There will likely be a number of things that end up in the Solid Gold Box that were written during my three years at This Week. Quite simply, of all the newspapers and magazines I’ve worked at, some much bigger and shinier than This Week, it was the most fun. We did some great things. We also made some mistakes, because we were always trying to do more than we really could. But it was a group of talented people, feeding off each other and pouring their all into producing a good, relevant newspaper.

I often tell the story. From the first time a copy of the paper landed outside my apartment door back when we first came to Prince Rupert, I was in love. The paper had a voice. The overall writing quality raised the bar, and I particularly had to meet this Iain Lawrence fellow who wrote the column “Across the Harbour.”

When I took over the paper I made very few changes. Even though This Week often scooped the local daily in hard news, I’ve always felt that weeklies should dig more deeply into current events, and run more features. And I thought that in this case the paper could take itself a little less seriously on a certain level.

This Week, August 18, 1996

A case in point is the edition from August 18, 1996, which ran my interview with Michael Palin on the front page. I played the game and talked about his current project, Palin’s Pacific (released as Full Circle with Michael Palin), and felt that it would be tacky to talk too much about Monty Python.

Obviously this sentiment flew out the window the minute that Debbie Mierau and I sat down to build the front page.

We did talk a little about Monty Python.

Reading back over it now, this thought of Palin’s strikes me as particularly nice:

I’m really happy that Python survived. Not just because it’s a nice little earner for us, but because it shows that we weren’t sort of entirely walking around in the dark when we made those shows. I mean, we didn’t know; there was no real precedent for the Python shows. We set out to do something that no-one else had done. We thought, in our arrogant way, we could make people laugh in a way that hadn’t been done before. And it’s still working. It’s hope for the world. And John Cleese.

That’s not to say that everything in This Week was tongue-in-cheek. In this same edition Paul Anderson ran a controversial unsolved crime feature about the so-called “Brooksbank Fire,” arts columnist Claudia Stewart featured noted Tsimshian weaver William White, and I ran my first installment of “Charlie’s Tugboat Tales.”

(The “Across the Harbour” installment in this edition is called “How to save your boss [me] from drowning,” but that’s another story, perhaps for another day…)

The point is that the paper still stands up today, when I look back at it over ten years later. Not bad for something that was just meant to provide a little weekend entertainment. I guess it shows that we weren’t sort of entirely walking around in the dark when we made it.

But for me, the highlight remains “Across the Harbour.” There was a consistent excellence to the columns, and being the first each week to read a new Iain Lawrence story was a treat. They were usually vignettes of coastal living, or observations on sailing. In fact, a collection of these were published as Sea Stories of the Inside Passage: In the Wake of the Nid (Fine Edge, 1997).

Iain launched “Across the Harbour” with the first edition of This Week, stopped around the time he sold The Wreckers, and returned at my request to write a final installment when I ran “30” beneath the masthead on February 7, 1999. I could never pick a favourite column from all those.

I’d forgotten about this one, until it just surfaced in the vault. It’s not typical, but it brought vividly back to mind our regular mug-ups, telling each other a thousand stories. I had to ask Iain if I could share it with you.

Of course Iain has since become a very well-known young adult novelist, and recipient of the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award. Check out his site and blog.

I saw it in the paper

By Iain Lawrence, first published in his column “Across the Harbour,” This Week, November 3, 1996.

Bruce had some papers in his publisher’s office, small-town tabloids from a prairie town. We looked at them, laughing, on a Saturday afternoon, laughing at the clumsiness of them, the little mistakes, the stories written in earnest of things of no consequence.

If you changed the names, the papers could have come from any town at all from the foothills of the Rockies east to the first crags and trees of the Canadian Shield. But these came from the Minnedosa Valley, from Bruce’s home town.

He knew the man who owned it, who worked as publisher and editor, who hired his wife to handle the office.

His clones ran the papers at Elkhorn and Moosomin, at Drinkwater, Eyebrow and Vulcan. They hunched over their desks at old wooden chairs, the sleeves of their white shirts pushed up to their elbows, pecking with sausage-shaped fingers at typewriter keys so hollowed and worn that they didn’t have letters anymore.

And the more we looked, the less we laughed, because there was something sad about those papers.

For Bruce, I think, it was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope at the place he grew up. He must have seen his whole childhood condensed into those pages of newsprint, in the names of people and places he knew.

For me it was different. I don’t have a home town.

We moved too often while I was young to feel attached to any one place. But I spent nearly three years working at papers like those, writing the same stories and the same headlines.

The news came in cycles, like crops that were gathered. In the spring it was floods, and a river that rose like a malevolent thing.

With summer came the vegetables—the two-legged carrot and the enormous squash. Fall was for weddings. And winter brought an endless session of curling and hockey, until the ice melted, and the river rose again.

I went to this straight from journalism school, where we’d been taught that the best place to start is a very small paper. And there were times I believed it.

When I spent an afternoon with a water witcher, and he let me feel through his hands and a stick a force I didn’t understand, I believed it.

When I sat through a lightning storm in a forest lookout, I believed it.

When I was sent out on logging roads that nobody used, to see someone so far out of town that I didn’t have enough gas to get back, I started to doubt it.

I wrote the stories and sold the classified ads, swept out the office and developed the film in the men’s room down the hall.

On Saturdays I stood by the highway, hitchhiking a ride not for me but the paper, asking whoever would stop to drop off the package at the next town on the road, for paste-up and printing.

And that’s what I saw in the papers from Minnedosa. Like Bruce, I saw myself in a different time. But unlike him, I felt sorry for that guy I saw.

“This brings back memories,” I said.

“It sure does,” he said. “It sure does.”

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Adrian on the prairies

Here is the second lost picture book, Adrian on the Prairies. In this case I began by sorting out page shapes on little index cards…

Index card thumbnail of two-page spread.

Then began scribbling out thumbnails and ideas:

Above, bald prairie with "A whole lot of forever." Below, an approaching train with, "For of course by now you've guessed that it was a train, and you're wondering how Adrian could be so silly!"

Adrian meets the train.

The next step was to write the ideas in script form, some of which I still have:

One day Adrian woke up on the prairies.

The first thing he thought of was breakfast.

“What can I possibly find to eat for breakfast?” Adrian said.

“Silly boy,” said the prairie dog, “you have to find some berries!”

Of course the story was written back and forth with little thumbnails, to make sure that the ideas worked with the images…

Here Adrian speaks to the prairie dog.

And then the words and pictures went together into rough panels…

Rough story panels. Lower right, "A prairie without buffalo is like a however without its pair of commas, Buffalo protested - however you look at it!"

Finally, I tested the drawings with pencil and wax crayon to see how the colour would work…

A killdeer, with a Blackfoot encountered along the way...

...and, in the end, not just berries, but a saskatoon berry pie.

And you have, I’m sure, already guessed where this is leading. After all of this preparation, I did the storyboards in watercolour. Watercolour, for your future reference, survives flooding even more poorly than felt tip marker.

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The lost zzicks

Allow me to indulge myself…

One of the biggest reasons I decided to create this Solid Gold Box section was a disastrous study flood in 2005. My study at that time was partially below ground level, and a water pipe blew. The flood was caught in time to save my books, so the only real loss was my personal files. At first I was so relieved that my books were saved that I didn’t think too much about the files. But over the ensuing years, the extent of my loss has gradually become clear.

Case in point, the delightful zzicks. Sometime around 1986 or ’87, when I was working in adult fiction (thanks to a major writers’ grant from the Manitoba Arts Council!), I amused myself on the side by doing a couple of picture books. I worked up the zzicks as pencil thumbnails, some of which I still have. I then did a quick series of felt marker drawings introducing myself to the zzicks, five of which have survived:

Yer basic 'zzick.'

Meet some zzicks.

Dancing zzicks.

Talking zzicks.

Snoozing zzick.

From this point I worked up the storyboards, also in felt marker. This was an unfortunate decision. Five of the initial prep drawings survived—though even here there is a bit of water damage. But the conservators who took the files from the water were unable to save the actual storyboards. The marker ran, so that the storyboards came back as a clump of psychiatrist’s inkblots.

I really can’t tell you what happened in the story. The zzicks had a grand adventure, but I simply don’t remember what it was. It seems strange to me that I’ve written stories, even just whimsies like this one, that have just vanished from my mind – but this experience is repeating itself over and over as I gradually make my way through these old files.

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A remarkable fine ship

A remarkable fine ship is the story of the HMS St. Lawrence, and the fighting ships built to achieve superiority on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. It was published in The Beaver in 1992.

I came across this story in the vault, a double-spaced, fuzzy carbon copy that extended into pages of footnotes. We used to have to know this sort of submission style as well as we now know the keystrokes in Microsoft Word. Finding it opened a window onto an era in writing that, even though it was not so long ago, might be a different age of world from the one we’re in today.

It was beautifully presented in The Beaver, and I was particularly delighted that as a space filler on the final page the editor had added this 1814 quote from the Duke of Wellington to Lord Liverpool, the British Prime Minister:

I have already told you and Lord Bathurst that I feel no objection to going to America, though I don’t promise to myself much success there. I believe there are troops enough there for the defence of Canada forever, and even for the accomplishment of any reasonable offensive plan that could be formed from the Canadian frontier. I am quite sure that all the American armies of which I have ever read would not beat out of a field of battle the troops that went from Bordeaux last summer, if common precautions and care were taken of them. That which appears to be wanting in America is not a General, or General Officers and troops, but a naval superiority on the Lakes. Till that superiority is acquired, it is impossible, according to my notion, to maintain an army in such a situation as to keep the enemy out of the whole frontier, much less to make any conquest from the enemy, which with those superior means, might, with reasonable hopes of success, be undertaken, I may be wrong in this opinion, but I think the whole history of the war proves its truth.

I genuinely loved all aspects of writing this story, from the research to the writing. Partly, no doubt, because I love writing stories of the Age of Sail.

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The end of the ’80s

Ah, look. There are some alarming things in this pile. This photo shows Rob Miller-Tait and I performing with the coz in June 1991 at a Multiple Sclerosis benefit concert organized by the coz and the MS Society. This is apparently living proof that the ‘80s didn’t die at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1989. A white jacket? Really? I mean, even those patch cords are colour-coordinated.

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Santa Maria

The newspaper column I write these days is supposed to be about tourism. Sometimes I have a tough time holding myself to this broad theme, though I always try to at least give it a nod as I pass by…

Applejack guitarist Brian “Smitty” Smith (left) with Paddy Greene at Tugwell Island in 1972. The day’s excursion led Smith and lead singer Ra McGuire to pen one of the anthems of Canadian rock ’n’ roll. (Brian Smith Collection)

First published in THE NORTHERN VIEW, August 26, 2009.

The CBC documentary “This Beat Goes On” premieres tomorrow night. This follow-up to 2006’s “Shakin’ All Over” swings the spotlight onto Canadian rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970s, when a Vancouver band with Prince Rupert connections proved their knack for iconic hit records.

The band Applejack played the Prince Rupert Hotel in 1972. They were wildly popular, a cover band with original songs such as “Pretty Lady” and “Raise A Little Hell” already sprinkled through their set.

Prince Rupert was a booming northern town. A place called “Function Junction” still grooved out its existence along the waterfront, and there were thriving hippie communities scattered through the trees at Grassy Bay and Salt Lakes. Shoreworkers, mill workers, fishermen and loggers worked hard and played hard. Applejack was part of Prince Rupert’s private soundtrack to the cash-fueled early ‘70s. At the end of a performance at the Prince Rupert Hotel, drinks bought for the band lined the front of the stage several bottles deep.

Prince Rupert was one big party, so it is no surprise that the band was invited along for what proved to be a bleary trip to Tugwell Island aboard Paddy Greene’s Lucky Star. It was, to say the least, not the sort of familiarization tour that the Visitors’ Bureau of the day would have conducted.

These hijinks may have been typical of the time, but for a band bursting with ambition and enthusiasm it was grist for the mill. When Paddy cast off, saying, “Okay, there’s only fear and good judgment holding us back,” lead singer Ra McGuire wrote down the words in his notebook. The trip aboard the Lucky Star, run through the Smith/McGuire songwriting machine, became “Santa Maria.” And after Applejack became Trooper, and the song was released on the album Two For The Show in 1976, that trip to Tugwell Island became part of the Canadian psyche.

What does this really mean for Prince Rupert? Sure, it’s local legend. (Well, actually, the legend is sometimes mixed up with “We’re Here For A Good Time” being inspired by Prince Rupert. As if “this rainy city” could refer to anywhere but Vancouver.) But “Santa Maria” is linked to this place. Look up “Prince Rupert” on Wikipedia, and you will find the story of Trooper being inspired here to write this song.

“At this point in our career, Trooper is as well known for being a ‘party band’ as we are for the hit records we’ve made,” Ra told me. “In the case of ‘Santa Maria’ the two come nicely together in one place. That place happens to be Prince Rupert. As the direct result of an excellent afternoon on Tugwell Island, Prince Rupert has become inextricably woven into to the Trooper party legend. The story’s been told thousands of times from coast to coast, and on the Internet, and Trooper has benefited as much from it’s association with Rupert as Rupert has from it’s association with us!”

I’ve increasingly used this column to talk about new marketing. Instead of eventually tossing the photos in a box, today’s visitors are more likely to blog real-time, to a large audience, about their experience here. We don’t ultimately control that message with marketing campaigns. We control that with customer service, by ensuring that visitors enjoy their time here. The song “Santa Maria” proves that if a visitor has an authentic experience, and enjoys it, we ultimately don’t have to worry about how it will be reported.

This is a hospitable place. We don’t always need to rely on a calculated marketing approach. We need to show visitors a good time. Almost 40 years ago Paddy Greene did just that, and the result was a legendary song that joined the canon of what Joel Rubinoff called “a band as ubiquitous on this side of the border as maple syrup and Mounties.” Prince Rupert is an unlikely place to have a niche carved out of the history of Canadian rock ‘n’ roll. But, thanks to Trooper and Paddy Greene, we do.

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Fort Desjarlais

An “artist’s impression” of Fort Desjarlais from the pamphlet “Archaeology on the Souris River.” The original pen-and-ink drawings prepared for the newspaper series have been lost.

Fort Desjarlais is the story of an obscure little independent fur fort on the Souris River. The story was published in a Manitoba newspaper called the Souris Valley Echo in 1987.

I was reminded of it when I began searching on-line for stories I might be able to add to the Solid Gold Box. I found that the story had been cited in People who own themselves: aboriginal ethnogenesis in a Canadian family, 1660-1900, by Heather Devine (University of Calgary, 2004). It was cited in From Rupert’s Land to Canada: Essays in Honour of John E. Foster, by Gerhard John Ens, John Elgin Foster, Theodore Binnema, and R. C. Macleod (University of Alberta, 2001). It appears periodically in Google Alerts, particularly when people on genealogy hunts find a copy someplace like the Métis Culture & Heritage Resource Centre in Winnipeg.

I find it surprising that a newspaper story would continue to have life two decades later. But this story has elicited a favourable response from the beginning. In fact, not long after it was published, an early tourism entrepreneur named Hank Desjarlais contacted me for permission to reprint the story as a booklet. When I granted it he sent me gifts of books and packets of wild rice and other wonderful things.

I remember hoping, while trying to sort out the far-reaching Desjarlais family with Alfred Fortier, that somebody would come along and unearth more detail about the post. Indeed, the past 23 years have revealed more of that detail, and it seems clear to me now that it was Antoine Desjarlais who established the post. If my conclusions were wrong I’m not ashamed, because those 23 years have made me even more reluctant to disregard the testimony of oral tradition. Besides, the idea that I may have made some contribution to a search for the truth leaves me well satisfied.

In fact, the importance of the oral record is what drew me to this story. The post was mentioned here and there, but cobbling together those rare mentions would have left one with a brief and sterile understanding. If it could be excavated we may yet learn more about its physical characteristics, but the actual life of the post survives in only a few tantalizing snippets of oral history.

I heard about Fort Desjarlais from a fellow who had been on a high school dig there in the 1970s. Why I decided to pursue it is still beyond me, other than to say that I often become fascinated by some random idea and then wander off to pursue it. It could be the story of my life. I was still quite young when I wrote it, and when I have periodically seen Google Alerts come up mentioning it I have always cringed a little. But revisiting it I see that it’s not so bad. I do cringe, at some of the phrasing, and a few of the conclusions, but it’s not so bad. I guess that goes to show that if you tell every story to the best of your ability, you will never be really ashamed to revisit it.

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