No Retreat, No Surrender

Picking up the white flag and placing it on the end of my weapon, I started to wave it slowly. It meant total surrender. I wasn’t a soldier on the frontlines giving in to the ignominy of defeat. I was sitting on the bench during a hockey game in Ottawa’s R.A. Centre (Recreation Association) and the white flag was a towel draped over the blade of my hockey stick.

Are you confused enough already ? Let me backtrack a tad. I was playing in an 0ver-35 R.A. hockey game and my team had just been assessed our seventh penalty in a row. I know it was seven because I went to the official stats after the game on the website and counted them. I know you’re thinking… this guy has too much time on his hands. He also shouldn’t be taking a beer league hockey game so seriously. All true. But puppy love isn’t very important either… unless you’re one of the puppies.

Just about all that I know in life I’ve learned from the classroom of hockey. From my love of exercise to the French I used to make my living; it’s all due to my abiding passion of the pursuit of the puck. But in the heat of the moment and during the stress of a game my mind often moves into mush mode and any life lessons are as dimly remembered as an Alzheimer’s patient trying to recall the morning’s breakfast menu.

What are these life lessons I’ve learned so thoroughly as to make my life as roaringly successful as it stands now ?

Don’t question anyone’s level of competence or judgement, especially in public. Particularly if they hold any kind of authority over you.
Act contrite even if you don’t mean it.
Don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
And these lessons I have learned particularly from dealing with referees.

Anyone who knows me will back up my claim that I have few opinions, foibles or prejudices in my life. Well… okay. I can concede a few. And two of them are against goalies and referees. The former have thwarted me many times in one of my most extreme pleasures in life; scoring goals.(Yes, my life is that shallow.) Also, I question the sanity of that small subset of mankind that willingly thrives on the activity of finding recreation and fulfillment in letting others fire objects of vulcanized rubber at them with no chance of returning the favour. Very perplexing.

But there is a special place reserved in hell for those in the referee’s union. I find many of them arrogant, uncommunicative, incompetent and entitled. Did I already mention that I am not one to hold strong opinions ? First of all, they are getting paid to perform their admittedly essential duties, the only ones in amateur hockey so rewarded to be on the ice. And second, along with that reward comes a certain responsibility to put up with the pettiness of those frustrated, low-skilled athletes who have never been paid to perform. Hence, it is their responsibility to take all manner of abuse with the stoic aplomb and stiff upper lip of which the English so provided the example while holding out against the German blitz- bombing attacks on London during the Second World War.

My, my, you might be saying to yourself by now. That’s a lot of vitriol even by your lofty standards. But have you never heard the old adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned ? At the beginning of my retirement a retired cop-turned referee mentioned to me that he was supplementing his pension quite handsomely by officiating all manner of hockey games during his now freed-up daytime hours. He suggested that I might be so inclined and gave me the referee-in-chief’s phone number.

The ensuing phone call found the boss-man less than impressed with neither my sterling credentials (I had not yet taken even the Level 1 certificate) nor my experience ( I had officiated house-league on outdoor rinks back in the 1960s in my native Montreal.) I had quit even that humble beginning when I could no longer take getting slashed across the shins while dropping the puck on faceoffs.

“I’ve got too many referees already,” he grumpily informed me, before hanging up suddenly, leaving me as forlorn as a rebuffed panhandler on Bank Street.

Maybe I can volunteer my services at some point. You know, like young people ‘happy’ to work as unpaid interns to possibly secure a pinky-hold in today’s tenuous job market. Or maybe I’ll just stay aloof and continue to curse out the wretches lucky enough to wear the striped sweaters.

After all, like Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.

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Hot Dogs and Hockey Rinks

The sign said Sugar Land Ice Arena and Sports Center and already there was a group finishing up a tailgater party as Dave G. and I circled slowly, looking for a parking space. We didn’t want to land too close to the action and be tempted into the fleshpots of ice-cold beer and foot-long sausages before our time on the ice had even begun.

“So this is your friend from Canada ?” Donnie, a Houston cop who had become interested in hockey in the early 1970s when Gordie Howe and his two sons put Houston on the hockey map with the newly-founded WHA, was sizing me up. Donnie had put away his firearms for the post-game barbeque and had armed himself only with a hotdog and a beer. “A Canadian on your hockey team… it’s like having a black guy on your basketball team.” No one had led me to believe that this southern hockey crowd would be of the politically-correct variety, so I was not surprised to hear the guffawing laughter. Actually, some of the hockey players in this tournament were imports from the Canadian kindred spirit of Texas…Alberta. I wondered if there were heated discussions in the Houston hockey dressing rooms over the merits of oil pipelines running through pristine wilderness. The American players were mostly all transplants from the 3-M collection of states: Michigan, Massachusetts and Minnesota.

It’s never been a traumatic experience for me to become accustomed to a new hockey dressing room and shinny in Houston proved to be no different. There had been a lot of New England Yankees at Bishop’s University and I had always appreciated their outgoing, boisterous and irreverent natures. A burnt-out buzzing sound signalled that the ice was ready for our upcoming tilt.
“Jeezus Murphy, even the buzzer for our games lacks testosterone,” remarked Rene, reminding me that our tournament was in the Over-50 age range. Rene was a horseman from Edmonton and he commuted between the racetracks of that city and Houston, managing and racing his stable of horses. He was missing all of his front teeth and I never got around to asking him if that was the result of a hockey stick or a horse’s hoof.

Luckily for me, I would not be stuck with Rene on my line anyway, as he skated like a lame gelding just before being sent to the glue factory. To be honest I probably didn’t look much better. The ice was showing the effects of its eight month shutdown due to off-ice insurance battles. I was having as little success getting the puck under control as I did with any other aspect of my life. “It’s like skating on the Rideau Canal after a thaw,” I remarked to my winger with the unlikely-sounding hockey name of Raoul, another Texas oil financier. He looked at me blankly, never having had the experience. We lost the first game by a goal, putting us behind the 8-Ball as far as moving onto the finals was concerned. So much for the Canadian ringer being brought to the southern hockey rinks. But, I comforted myself with the thought that not all was yet lost.

I had never lost my skill at handling beer and hot dogs, still being served in the parking lot.

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Texas Landing

Checking a hockey bag with the Ottawa Airport luggage guy was a conversation starter. “Marc Messier just went through,” he said, assuming that I would recognize the name of the five-time Stanley Cup winner. I looked at him doubtfully. They say everyone has a double somewhere and this probably was just my hockey-playing lawyer buddy Rob. “Did anyone ever say that you look exactly like Marc Messier?” I asked him, making conversation as I soaped myself (not him !) down in the shower.
“All the time,” he answered. “Even when I insist I’m not they still always say… “Come on, dude, you’re Messier.” But then it hit me that airport security would be checking passports and Marc Messier probably hadn’t handed his off to Rob. Maybe I’d be able to catch Messier before he headed off to the frequent-flyer Business Class lounge to have breakfast. I wanted to question him about a dirty move he had pulled on Larry Robinson one time when the Edmonton Oilers had knocked off the Montreal Canadiens. He had raised his stick as if to take off my idol’s head. It was during the 1980 playoffs. It still bugged me.
I had to content myself with a watery concession stand coffee as we waited for our United Airlines flight. After being led back to the window seat in the plane’s last aisle, I waited for almost one-and-a-half hours before a flight attendant came by and asked me if I wanted something to drink. I felt like a Coke, and then asked if they were also distributing little packages of peanuts or crackers or anything at all. She looked down on me as if she had caught me holding a lit cigarette, frowned slightly and answered, “No.”
I’ll bet Marc Messier was getting better service up in the Business Class section.

The Old-Timers’ hockey team with whom I would be playing did not have a limo service to greet us at the Houston Airport but Dave G. had arranged for Mike, his longtime cabbie, to pick us up. Mike was a personable laidback black man who filled us in with some news from the night before, an incident in which hit-and-run drivers got into a shoot-out with the cops who had been pursuing them. I listened intently to the story, but also couldn’t help but be distracted by the neon billboards along the route. One advertised the upcoming gun sales that would be forthcoming until Christmas, while others offered the services of bail bondsmen, who would, for only a reasonable rate of interest, put up the money for you to stay out of jail until your trial. I was happy to be in a Texas cab and not a jail cell. It was October 2nd, and the afternoon thermometer registered 93 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dave’s house in Houston proved to be as welcome as an oasis in the Gobi Desert. “What are the names of those trees?” I asked, pointing out the species that lined both sides of the street of his fashionable, not-far-from-downtown neighbourhood.
“I honestly don’t know,” Dave admitted. He had lived here for eighteen years, but then I silently excused him when I thought of Dave’s line of work as a Texas oil financier. His latest project was gathering investors for an oil-fracking adventure. In Dave’s list of priorities, the name of a species of tree was far down the list.

“We play tonight at 9 o’clock,” Dave told me as he showed me around his place. His side lawn seemed to be about half the size of a soccer field, and he had indeed provided a soccer net for his three sons to practice their free kicks. His backyard, in between his house and his office, contained a basketball court. Dave seemed to have been using his time wisely, even if it hadn’t been for memorizing the names of neighbourhood trees. “The rink has been closed down for eight months, however. Some sort of insurance battle over who was responsible for the upkeep. You know how Americans love to spend time in court. The ice might not be the greatest.”

The temperature must still have been in the high 80s as we pulled out of the driveway that night on our way to the rink. “Make sure you check out that bookstore before leaving.” Dave pointed out a funky-looking building with a ‘Kaboom Books’ sign on it. The bookseller shared space with another merchant, only his establishment was entitled ‘Set ‘Em Free Bail Bondsman.’ It didn’t take long until we were on the highway and once again my eyes were drawn to an anti-littering billboard warning everyone, “Don’t Mess With Texas.”
“We’re on the I-20,” Dave informed me. “On this freeway you can go all the way to L.A.”
In case I jumped the gun, I was soon reminded that we weren’t in L.A. yet. One more billboard advertised :
“Country Music that you love.”
Well, I thought, at least Gordie Howe and I have something in common. Playing hockey in Houston. I can compare myself to Gordie now… well, without the talent,wealth and fame, of course.

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Through Hell and Half of Texas

“If I owned both hell and Texas, I’d rent out Texas, and live in hell.”
-General William Sherman, United States General during the American Civil War, during his famous March Through Texas.

“Going back to Houston Houston Houston…”
-Dean Martin

“Houston… it was named after Sam Houston. What’s he famous for?” I asked my friend Dave G. on the way to the airport.
Dave, who was a Canadian from Sudbury, but who had lived in the city for eighteen of the past nineteen years, shrugged his shoulders.
“I dunno… probably killing Mexicans and Indians and shit.”
Dave had been a lawyer and was now an investor in the oil industry, so I didn’t take his knowledge of Texas history too seriously. I made sure my facts would be reliable, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. Seems old Sam wasn’t quite the murderous racist I had imagined a Texas hero to be : he had actually been the only American ever elected to the office of Governor in two states, (Tennessee and Texas), as well as being made an honourary member of the Cherokee Nation and to top it off was the only southern governor who had voted not to secede from the Union prior to the Civil War. That’s one version anyway, and I didn’t know if this entry had been written by one of old Sam’s descendants.

Dave had brought up the possibility of playing hockey in Houston after I had mentioned to him that I was contemplating a hockey holiday in Scandinavia for ten days in October.
“How much is that going to cost you ?” he asked. I guess that a career as a lawyer, then an oil financier and eighteen years in Texas had taught him to cut right to the chase.
“Five thousand dollars,” was my reply.
“Come to Houston,” he advised. “The plane ticket will cost about $500, you can stay at my house for free, we tailgate in the parking lot after every game without the cops asking us what the hell we think we’re doing, and after the tournament you can rent a car for a couple of days and visit San Antonio, Austin and Galveston.” I had just read on the internet where Glen Campbell, who had famously sung about Galveston, was deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s. I can’t sing, but I suspected that I was in the beginning stages of that same affliction, so at least we had something to talk about if I ran into him in that town. Half way through the conversation, we’d probably forget what it was we were talking about.

Dave had spent a good part of the past 31 years working on Wall Street and in the oilfields of Texas, but he was well aware that I was a retired pensioner. I told him that was why I could never buy him a post-game beer. My wife Brenda knew that I was eagerly anticipating my trip to Europe when I mentioned Dave G.’s alternative.
“Texas sounds like a good idea !” she said assertively. Looks like Swedish meatballs were off the menu, now replaced by crawdads.
“Okay, book your flight,” Dave advised. “There aren’t any direct ones from Ottawa. We usually go through Charlotte or Washington.”

Usually it was my wife Brenda who was the driving force of my sometimes ill-fated travels. I carried the bags and drove the car. Now I was handing over control to my new-found friend Dave, whom I had just met in the past year through playing hockey. If I may use a big word here, his lifestyle can only be described as peripatetic. Raised in a small town outside Sudbury, he had attended law school at the University of Western Ontario, worked at former Prime Minister John Turner’s law firm of McMillan Binch in Toronto, (“ABC, boys… always be closing,” the great man always reminded his young recruits during his luncheon peptalks) moved with his wife to Sydney, Australia when he decided he no longer liked law, took off to work on Wall Street and live in Brooklyn and then to Houston. His three sons held a variety of passports, and spent their time between Houston and Ottawa. I guess some people are just destined to cut a wide swath through life. Mindful of his Canadian roots, he had bought a big house on Clemow Avenue in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood, which had stood empty while undergoing renovations for two years. Even the well-heeled residents of the Glebe were in awe. Rumours swirled that it was the captain of the Ottawa Senators’ Daniel Alfredsson’s purchase, where he would reside upon his retirement as a player. I shared this urban myth with Dave and his wife Liz one afternoon in their resplendent kitchen. Liz, ensconced in Houston for the past eighteen years, had never heard of Alfie.
“The flight’s leaving October 2nd at 7:30 a.m,” Dave reminded me. I’ll pick you up at six.”

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The sign above the sink in the public washroom said it plainly:
Do we piss in your ashtray ?
Please do not throw cigarette bullets in the sink !
I guess by ‘bullets’ they meant ‘butts'; at least I hope they did. One of the charms of Turkey, as I saw it, was that war had not yet been declared on smokers. They were everywhere, and I suppose the only negative coming out of that situation was that they occasionally left their cigarette butts in bathroom sinks. I didn’t mind breathing in the carcinogenic fog at all; it reminded me of my childhood in Quebec growing up with my parents. To tell you the truth however, my parents’ smoking habits probably wreaked more havoc on me than it did on any of my siblings. I was the runt of the litter and the only one to lose his hair. My older brother, who usually never addressed me unless he was insulting me, once pointed out that quite possibly I could have been six feet tall with a full head of hair if I hadn’t inhaled so much of the vile weed.

The unique landscape of Cappadocia was exactly as the tourist brochures pictured it, except that there were Korean tourists everywhere. A volcanic area sometime in the distant past that if I had ever paid attention in geography class I could probably put a number on, Cappadocia was dominated by a landscape now known as ‘fairy chimneys’. But the intrigue of the area far surpassed some unique geographical formations. Occupied by some group known as the Hittites between 1800 and 1200 B.C. it had then become the preserve of the Persians and then the Greeks under Alexander the Great. With much of these time periods dominated by precarious political positions the locals had learned how to carve underground cities in the, well, the underground. These tunnels had become particularly developed during the early years of Christianity when the early believers had to live with more than just the threatening jeers, jokes and condescension of the more numerous non-believers, especially when the heathens had powerful armies at their disposal. Religion must have been taken very seriously in those days. I marvelled at how any one would ride way out into the desert, searching through mountainous caverns, just because you happened to disagree with their idea of the hereafter.

Tunnels were carved out in the rock and included not only living quarters but stables, water cisterns and wine cellars as well. As well as passing the time by drinking wine they had also managed to paint the walls with magnificent frescoes. It was like an underground network of Sistine Chapels. There had probably been many a conversation over the breakfast wine where someone would be asked, “And what are you planning to do today, Matthias?”
“Same thing I do every day,” would come the reply, “paint frescoes.”

During the course of my wandering and musing over the majesties of the past I had become separated from both wife and daughter. The early Christians might have been content to paint masterpieces for nothing but their descendants were more practical-minded. The charge for entering an ancient church carved into the upper levels was an extra 10 Turkish lira. Brenda, without my knowledge had purchased three of these tickets and then had sold one to an Asian guy from New York when I was slow to appear.
“Where’s your husband?” he had asked, when told that she had the extra ticket because of my disappearance. Brenda was not overly-concerned.
“He probably lay down in one of those tombs,” she replied. “By now he’s probably one of those skeletons you can see laid out all over the place.”

I was waiting for said wife and daughter at the exit when they ambled out, probably taking their time just to piss me off.
“Tomorrow I’m getting up at 4:30 a.m in order to take one of those hot air balloon rides the different hotels are offering,’ Brenda informed me upon exiting. “Do you want to come?”
It was tempting, but the hotel breakfasts didn’t serve that early, and they might be over by the time the balloon jaunt had finished. So far I hadn’t missed one of those excellent buffet feasts, no matter what hotel we were in. I paused and carefully considered the matter.
“Take lots of pictures,” I instructed.

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Stuck in Reverse

A good business always makes the customer feel like the most important person on Earth… until they get your money, of course. There was the representative from the Turkish car company standing at those airport partitions as we left the baggage pickup area with his little sign marked ‘Perras Family.’ Five pedestrian days in Istanbul were in the rear-view mirror and the next sixteen would be spent touring Turkey in a horseless carriage.
Before we picked up our stalwart steed the inevitable paperwork had to be completed. My passport and driver’s license were spread out on the table as Brenda checked over the calculations of all forthcoming fees. I love to make jokes and remind her as to how true she is to the ah, stereotypical Scottish frugality. My best take on the subject is when we walk into any vacant chamber and I’m able to trot out the old Rodney Dangerfield line, “It’s as empty in here as a Scottish pay toilet.” But I’m always forced to admit that her attention to detail is always saving us a few dollars, even if it is shaving a few years off my life.
Reminisces of poor dead Rodney were brought to a discreet halt when a glance at my driver’s license startled me into the realization that I had brought along the one that had expired on April 28, 2014. I remembered all my cards being spread out on the dining room table: health, debit, driver’s license, etc. and I must have handled this routine chore in my usual slapdash, pellmell, offhand manner. Our rental agent was now reaching for my driver’s license as he continued with the paperwork. I gulped.
He finished with his recording of the relevant information and handed me back my expired card without a word. This was my kind of country. I came to realize how this inattention to spurious details and bureaucratic regulations would extend to the highways and byways as well. Unsignalled lane changes were the norm, blinkers were an annoyance not to be bothered with and signs posting speed limits were as rare as American tourists in Iraq. Three passengers on a scooter and a crowd of kids in the back of a pickup truck were normal. As an aging, grumpy libertarian living in overly-regulated Ottawa, Ontario I had found my Nirvana. I would be driving for the next sixteen days without a valid driver’s license. But such inattention to detail also meant that the rental car’s gas gage needle was on empty. We asked directions to the nearest gas station, loaded up our bags and were on our way before there was any re-examination of driver’s licenses.
Or before we had really understood the directions, as it turned out. After going twice the distance we thought had been indicated we decided to cut our losses, stop and turn around. Which involved putting the vehicle into reverse.
Your correspondent has a few weaknesses to which I will reluctantly admit, even if it’s never to my wife. One of my areas of pride, however is my driving. I’ve been driving a tractor since I was seven years old on my uncle’s farm; I’ve driven all over North America and Europe. I’ve driven gear shifts for forty two years: four on the floor, three in the tree (which I haven’t seen much since I drove a landscaping truck in the seventies)… I love ‘em all.
But I couldn’t find reverse. Neither could Brenda, to my extreme relief. I tried pulling and tugging the gearshift in every direction known to man, while using every curse word I had ever heard. None of them worked. Brenda, to her credit, was ready to find a more practical solution. “I’ll go back to the rental agency and ask them where it is,” was her sensible suggestion. Admitting defeat, I had to agree. It was at least a kilometre back.
She hadn’t been gone five minutes when a friendly Turk who must have been enjoying the shenanigans approached the car and in seconds had located the small ring that had to be pulled up in order to move into reverse. Case solved, and as I happily shifted into reverse I told Rachelle to watch out for her mother, while I paid attention to overloaded scooters and non-signalling Turks.
Both of the latter were everywhere, but of Brenda there was no sign. She had disappeared into the ether just as mysteriously as a spirit on that Jennifer Love-Hewitt series ‘The Ghost Whisperer.’ I thought back to our disagreement about the scissors on the day’s flight and wondered, did I suddenly gain mystical powers ?
It was on our third circuit that Rachelle and I finally found Brenda standing in the middle of a crowd of sympathetic Turks, anxiously awaiting our appearance. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, when we were overwhelmed by the Turkish helpful hospitality . A man and his teenaged daughter jumped into the car to show the dimwitted Canadians the exact location of that cursed gas station and after the fill-up, invited us to their home for supper.
Twilight was settling in, however, and so we settled on just receiving directions to Goeme, the beginning of the Cappadoccia cave country. As Robert Frost would put it if he was travelling with his wife and daughter, “We had miles to go before we slept…”
The desert-like countryside was beautiful as we drove through the twilight. Hopefully we wouldn’t be wandering through it for the next forty years.

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Take-Off Troubles

We had to fly from Istanbul to some place called Goeme in order to pick up our rental car. That means going through airport security, of course. Your intrepid traveller has a bad track record when it comes to authority in general, and customs security in particular.

Contrary to popular belief I did have hair at one time. It was long and curly and its sometimes unkempt appearance blended well with the painters’ pants and overalls that I favoured in the mid- 1970s. As Grampa Simpson would say, “It was the style at the time.”
It was also my style at the time to do a lot of cross-border travel. Many of my Bishop’s University friends came from New York and New England, leading to some summertime visits when I was able to wangle a long weekend off from my landscaping jobs. I was an Arts student and on the forms that I inevitably had to fill out in my early twenties I described myself as “an itinerant labourer and down-at- the-heels philosopher.” That line always made me chuckle, but it didn’t seem to get the same reaction from some of the Customs officers of my acquaintance. I’ve been hauled off more than a few Greyhound and Voyageur buses when stopped at the U.S. border, who even in those days employed many security zealots who would have fit in very comfortably at East Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie. After going through my bag and even my wallet, and realizing that the most subversive activity that I was guilty of was watching ‘Saturday Night Live’ I would be ‘released’, and allowed back on the bus. As I was walked down the aisle I would be eyed warily by the less suspicious travellers, who must have imagined that at the very least they were travelling with a former member of the Chicago 7. I never had the same problem after I acquired the burden of a wife and family. Growing older is not without its advantages.

Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. Whether it be buses or airplanes I am still an absent-minded disaster waiting to happen. This time I had forgotten that I had packed a pair of scissors in my carry-on bag. Once again I was staring into the unblinking eyes of yet another security Nazi.
The airport official held out his hand as I guiltily handed over my weapon of mass destruction. Good thing I don’t have to use shampoo very often anymore. All the other passengers seemed to take it in stride as the terrorist was tamed and allowed to rejoin the line. With one exception.
Did I also mention that my track record for peaceful co-existence with my better half can be as short-lived and tumultuous as my relationship with Customs officials ? There’s not much we enjoy more than keeping ourselves mentally sharp with a round or two of what we consider as quick-witted repartee. For the next few minutes Brenda held a clear advantage as she tore strips off of your luckless hero. I quietly absorbed my lashing as I plotted my revenge. Just because I always won attendance prizes for Sunday school doesn’t mean I learned anything. Turning the other cheek may have worked for Jesus but he hadn’t been married for twenty seven years.
My chance for revenge would come after we picked up our car in Goeme.

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