“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
-Rafael Sabatini from the novel ‘Scaramouche’

“All you’ll hear is a few seconds of a CBC radio station when you’re at the top of a hill and then it disappears quickly as you go down,” Liz’s brother-in-law Chris informed us as he blew cigarette smoke in my general direction. It was 1979 and Chris was an aging hippie, wanderer and electrician, in that order. He’d been out to Alberta once, which made him a self-proclaimed expert. That was the first bit of cross-Canada travel advice that we received. The second was to carry a bell with us while we were sleeping outside. The bell was supposed to scare away bears. I can’t remember where we heard that one. We’d probably be sleeping outside some of the time because we had just finished the school year and had no money. We were planning on striking it rich in Calgary.

Liz’s friend Cindy astonished me outside of North Bay when her bill of $5.50 came in for the hamburger and fries that she had devoured. She promptly informed the waitress that it was only worth $3.50 and that was all she would be paying. I left my payment on the table and as we said in Trois-Rivieres “fiche le camp.” (That means “got the hell out of there” to you anglophones.) Liz had also paid up and joined me outside the car in the cold spring North Bay air. She seemed nonplussed by the situation, as if it was nothing new.
“What the hell is going on with your friend,” I demanded. “Is she insane?”
Liz found the whole situation amusing. “Cindy spent a year-and-a-half in Africa before going to Trois-Rivieres and got used to the whole haggling thing. So now she tries it whenever she can. You’d be surprised how often it works.”
It didn’t work for me. “Jeezus Murphy. Tell her this isn’t Nigeria. I don’t want to spend the summer in a jail cell in Wawa.”

They say that you really don’t know someone until you travel with them. By the time we rolled under the railway trestle approaching Sault Ste. Marie that had been decorated with the claim that “This is Indian land” I was ready to scrap this whole trip nonsense and take my chances on the local reserve. We did find a hole-in-the-wall motel and I decided that I needed some freshening up at the bar across the street. I hoped that Cindy didn’t join me. I didn’t want to be there when she informed the bar owner and bouncer that the beer they had just served her was only worth fifty cents.

To this day I have never come across a better bar band. The lead singer could belt out The Rolling Stones and Billy Idol as well as the real McCoy even though the guitar he wore around his neck was just for decoration. I was joined at my table by a couple of young drug dealers who when I informed them I didn’t partake turned out to be better company than what I had spent the past couple of days with. One of the young fellows was in an especially upbeat mood. Turns out he had just been in court because of a misunderstanding about his livelihood of choice and all that he had received was a $50.00 fine in exchange for a promise that he wouldn’t do it again.

Wawa, Thunder Bay, Dryden. I had never been to Europe but what still stays with me to this day is the vast emptiness of our land. All those pages I had suffered through in my Canadian Lit courses in Cegep now made some sense, even if it didn’t make the reading any more interesting. By the time we reached Winnipeg I was ready to look at something other than trees, rocks and lakes and eat something other than greasy fries and burgers. Even if I was loath to admit it my system needed a salad. We decided to treat ourselves at The Keg.

I’ve run into some interesting characters down through the years and lost track of almost all of them. We were finishing up our coffee and I was eavesdropping into the conversation at the table beside us. The two guys finishing up their meal knew what was going on and didn’t take offence because like Rod Stewart with Maggie May I laughed at all of their jokes. They appreciated my good taste and invited me to pull up my chair alongside theirs’. One was a Metis and the other was an American businessman from Calgary who was in town to sell ultra-light planes. They had met when they both lived in the Manitoba town with the interesting name of The Pas. When they realized what a charming fellow I was and one look at me confirmed the fact that I was not as well-heeled as they were, they provided me with a steady supply of Grand Marniers, and the American summed up his life story in one succinct paragraph.
“I was an American Vietnam War draft- dodger from the state of Maine who found a job teaching the British heritage to Canadian Indians in northern Manitoba. It’s then that I realized life is absurd.”
Damned if I still don’t often wonder what the guy is doing now !

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Driving Away

“Go west,young man.”
-Horace Greeley

“Don’t just take off like a migrating bird,”my father advised me. His voice was getting edgy, as it normally did whenever we had a conversation. His latest cigarette had just disappeared in one long, exasperated drag.

It was the spring of 1979 and I had just turned twenty three years old. I did have my degree and had just spent a year studying Translation at l’Universite du Quebec a Trois-Rivieres. I was polishing up both my French and my hockey; my hockey had received more attention than my French.

“We’ll pick up a Drive-Away car in Montreal and drop it off in Calgary. All we have to do is pay for the gas and I guess one oil change,” I informed him.
“What the hell is a Drive-Away car?” my father wanted to know.
“It’s a car that you pick up in one city and then, you know, drive away.” I was trying to be as helpful as I could.
“And who are you driving away with, may I ask? Is it that freeloader Robbie ?”
Robbie was a friend from Bishop’s University who had spent the previous summer at our house. We had worked at landscaping jobs together and the agreement was that he paid something for room and board. I guess that we hadn’t been specific enough because after three months all that we had received in payment were three rather scraggly skyrocket junipers that Robbie had picked up gratis from a tree nursery. Then he left for a two month tour of Europe with the money he had saved from his room and board.
“No, it’s two girls and a guy that I met in Trois-Rivieres. Two pf them don’t have licenses so I’ll be doing most of the driving.”
Not the right thing to say. The few times Pops had let me drive while he was in the car he would sit in the suicide seat, hanging onto the dashboard with white knuckles, wincing and making some sort of hand signals which were supposed to slow me down. I didn’t drive with him very often.
“You probably won’t make it past North Bay. Jesus Christ.”

My father was not an easy man to convince. So I promised that I would take a week, plan my trip and maybe catch a train to Calgary. The next morning after my father left for work I convinced my mother to give me a lift to the bus station. I would meet my friends in Montreal.

“Tell Dad I took the bus instead of the train,” I said to my mother hopefully.”I’ll send you a postcard when I find a job in Alberta.”

We picked up an Oldsmobile 98 at the Drive-Away office. “Looks very nice,” Pierre opined. He was one of the four of us heading west to make our fortunes, or at least to try and find a summer job. “This will roll us across the country, pas de probleme.” I wondered if his opinion was worth considering. He had never passed the driving test and this was the first time that he had been west of Drummondville.

“Did anyone bring a map?” asked Liz. She had studied at Trois-Rivieres and was from Prince Edward Island. Liz had been in something called the Language Monitor program, where anglophones went to a Quebec university to study French for free in return for a few hours a week tutoring francophone students in English. It was all paid for by the Trudeau government back in the days before we gave much thought to government deficits.

“Map? Who needs a map? All we do is keep heading west.” I’ve always liked to voice my opinion, whether it made any sense or not. “The hardest part of the trip will be finding the Trans-Canada Highway. I’ll drive first.”

“What can go wrong?”

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To Hab and Hab-Not

I don’t wear my Montreal Canadiens’ hockey jersey outside the house. I’m afraid of being attacked in the street by some passive Ottawa bureaucrat who will grab me by the throat and start ripping me up, limb by limb.
Ottawa hockey fans are like that, I’ve come to realize.
Oh… don’t get me wrong. I love the Nation’s Capital. And I’ve always thought that particular genus of fan that parks themselves in the seats of, what’s it called this year ?… the Canadian Tire Centre, a particular placid bunch. I used to go once a year when someone would give me free tickets but I never felt at home in a rink where fans had to be exhorted to make noise by an electronic prompter. And I never could understand a fan who would bring a phone to a hockey game and then spend most of his time ironing out whatever problems he had left behind at work.

I grew up going to watch the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum. To me it was a shrine beyond any cathedral that I’ve since visited in Europe. Even watching the peanut vendors throw their small bags of Mr. Peanut up twenty rows and then being able to catch their customers’ coins with one hand and yelling “Peanuts…get your peanuts. Achetez vos peanuts ici !” left me awestruck.
Better than watching a man leave his crutches behind at Lourdes, oh, you betcha !

So I was caught with my pants down, completely off-guard, by the passion of ‘Sens Army’ this spring. I was no better prepared than the American Navy at Pearl Harbour. Fans on their feet, making spontaneous noise, passionately cheering their team on, praying, eyes closed even, during the last seconds of games, either exhorting their team to put one in the enemy net or else keep it out of their own.

It warmed the cockles of my cold puny heart.

I’d spent most of the season cursing out the Ottawa Senators as a sad-sack organisation, from General Manager Bryan Murray to goalie Craig Anderson. Murray couldn’t make a decent trade even if someone offered him Bobby Orr for Bob Blackburn and Anderson was so injury-prone that he was sidelined a couple of years ago for several weeks after nearly severing his hand while cutting up his chicken dinner. But the Sens didn’t need those two to crank up the excitement level in Ottawa this season. A minor-league goalie who wasn’t even a household name in his own hometown, and who had earlier let in three goals in the first thirty-one seconds of a game in Binghampton, New York, wherever that is, was put in the nets, just because there was no one else.
Cinderella… you better get dressed for the ball.

So an arena that I used to think was quieter than a seminary during meditation hour suddenly became cranked up to a fever-pitch. A crazy winning streak followed and to my shame I too became caught up in the excitement. Oh, I didn’t leave my old Habitant religion for this new, fly-by-night cult, but I must admit that I cheered it on. It was fun and exciting to watch this team play, their never-say-die attitude, the enthusiasm of the young Sens and the wisdom and humour of their new Head Coach Dave Cameron, who I used to think of as merely the owner’s lackey. I was in Toronto at my daughter’s provincial hockey championships and I watched their final regular-season game in Philadelphia in the hotel lobby. I let out a whoop of excitement when they won and clinched a playoff spot.

They would be playing the Habs. My loyalty did not waver for one second. There was no question of abandoning the love of my life and I reverted to defending P.K. Subban’s slash on new star Mark Stone’s hand as just another hockey play while Sens’ Army howled like a wild pack of wolves at a feeding frenzy, and what about Erik Karlsson’s head shot to young defenseman Nathan Beaulieu, concussing him for the rest of the series, if not the playoffs? At playoff time, as in war, truth is always the first casualty.

And so, the real story ended like the fairy tale, with the carriage turning back into a pumpkin at midnight. I let out a cheer at the end, but I was happy to see the fans cheering wildly in the Palladium, or is it ScotiaBank Place? during the final seconds. Hockey fans are supposed to be wild and passionate, even if they didn’t storm through the doors at the final siren with torches and pitchforks, smashing windows at the nearby car dealerships and setting grassfires to the nearby fields.

And so best wishes and congratulations Sens’fans. You’ve come of age and I’ve joined your ranks, as long as they aren’t playing the Montreal Canadiens.

But I still think General Manager Bryan Murray should retire. You can’t trust him to handle a contract deal any better than Mike Duffy can handle an expense account !

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Those That Can

“I thought you were dead,” my friend Chris admitted as I entered the bar on the Thursday before Good Friday.
“This is my weekend to make a comeback,” I reminded him. Chris must have forgotten that I suffer from both megalomania and delusions of grandeur. The talk soon turned to the likelihood of a teachers’ strike, scheduled to be coming up in April. The Ottawa-Carleton board was ‘chosen’ along with six other boards to do the striking on behalf of the province’s teachers.
“I didn’t know anything about that.” I confessed my ignorance, but was more interested in taking my first sip of beer.
“Doesn’t your wife teach?” Andy asked me. “What school is she at?”
“Lisgar. They’re all gifted over there. Maybe they spend their time on theoretical math or trying to figure out what Kant was trying to say. How would I know what gifted people talk about ?”

The truth was that I didn’t follow the day-to day concerns of the education field now that I was almost three years out of it. People always ask me if the kids had gotten to me by my thirty-first year in the classroom. I always say no, I enjoyed the kids more than ever as my career wound down. It was the educational bureaucracy that convinced me to go.

We’re all familiar with the old George Bernard Shaw saying, “Those that can, do. And those that can’t, teach.” Complete hokum, in my biased opinion. Teaching is a skill of its own, and one that takes real experience to master. But I will use ol’ George’s train of thought to add my own amendment to the issue. “Those that can’t teach, go into administration.”

I’d like to think that somewhere in the murky history of the hallowed halls that if someone had had some experience as a capable teacher then they might be invited to become a vice- principal, and if they did a good job there, then they would make the next step to being the principal teacher, or the principal as we call it now. You know, upward mobility based on the novel concept of competence and ability.

It seems that along with big hair, He-Man and Punky Brewster the decade of the 1980s brought a new concept into the field of education. That is, that anyone, after as little as four years of teaching, was equally qualified to start running the show. All you had to do was take one or two Ministry of Education summer courses, paying escalated fees of course. After this daunting task was completed one submitted not to a formal interview of sober questions-and-answers but to a demonstration in front of a panel of school board administrators. This amounted to a show, created and organised by the applicant, as to why they were best qualified to start running a school.

I remember being entertained by one successful applicant at a party in Lindsay, Ontario after he had become vice-principal at the larger of the two high schools in town. He told me he made a copy of every certificate or ribbon he had ever won in his life, including one that acknowledged his latest accomplishment of giving blood. He then proceeded to start reciting all of his do-good accomplishments, from being a Cubs leader to a member of the town’s Kinsmen. To illustrate his prowess in so many diversified fields he started donning different hats to his head, adding each one to the pile on his crown without taking any of them off, until he looked like combination of the Mad Hatter, Bozo the Clown and Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat. I couldn’t tell whether he was immensely proud of his prowess as a showman, or like me, aghast at the folly of it all. I think I was too drunk to remember.

The point is, Bozo could be the Deputy Minister of Education in Ontario right now. Who else would have spent the past ten years perfecting a policy whereby grades are handed out to the students on a scale of one to four, then are converted to a percentage mark for the report cards? It’s like translating from Japanese to English and then back to Japanese. Figuring out how to mark a student has become as confusing as trying to figure out the Ontario government’s policy on beer stores. It’s why, after being a devoted follower of politics my whole life, I have now decided that I’m a anarchist.
It’s true that I never become an educational administrator, but maybe now that I understand bureaucratic policy I can wangle myself a job as the Beer Ombudsman.

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Talking Turkey

“Have you been to hell?” the ticket-taker at the entrance gate asked me.
I looked over at my wife. We would be married for twenty-seven years in two weeks time.
“Oh yeah.”
Just kidding.
We were at The Caves of Heaven and Hell in Narlikuyu, Turkey, about midway through our three week stay this past summer. We had picked up our car in Goeme after several days in both Istanbul and Cappadoccia, and I had been at the wheel the whole time, taking instructions from my tour guide (my wife Brenda) and finding life on the road in Turkey to be both hell and hilarity. The cave named Heaven required a slippery descent of several hundred feet and the cool cave air was a welcome contrast to the summer Turkish swelter. No Pearly Gates awaited us at the bottom, and I wondered if this was Heaven, what would Hell look like? I guess that the ancients didn’t hold the same lofty expectations to which the faithful of today look forward.
As it turned out, Hell was also a cave, but it was one of the few sites in Turkey that was gated and closed. Good thing anyway, I thought; my trip there was probably coming up soon enough.

Probably even hell will only be tough for the first few days; they say that you can get used to anything. That is certainly true of my driving experience. We had driven as far east as Tarsus, the hometown of Paul the Apostle. The faithful among us will know what thereof I speak; you heathens can look up both the man and the place; it will partially make up for all those Sunday school classes you obviously never attended. St. Paul’s Well was still intact, and Paul’s home birthplace was being well looked after. But like Paul, we couldn’t stay in Tarsus forever; we had a lot of ground to cover in the next two weeks. And unlike the apostle, we wouldn’t be boarding a ship in the port town of Tarsus in what used to be called Asia Minor; our way was the highways of Turkey.

Any sea voyage that Paul undertook couldn’t have been as eventful as our first car ride through a major Middle Eastern metropolis. Merson is the largest port in the eastern Meditteranean and I will advise the cautious and courteous drivers of Ottawa to give it a pass. And as for you, the entitled pedestrians of Canada’s capital city; put down your Starbucks coffee and cell phones as you amble across the city streets against any red lights. Any lane lines on the roads have long since faded, honking horns provided continual background noise and redlights were a mere suggestion. A mini-bus driver passed me, nearly taking off my rearview mirror. He didn’t seem to notice me at all, and cared even less. He was lighting a smoke with one hand and making change with the other. That left him his elbow to do the steering. If any moving vehicle did feel so inclined to stop at a red light, they would wait anxiously for that red light to soon turn yellow, at which moment they would start honking their horns impatiently before the light gave the green go-ahead. I was desperately trying to keep up with traffic, fifteen kilometres faster than the suggested speed limit, when a police car pulled up behind me and starting speaking indecipherable Turkish through a megaphone. Uh-oh, I thought. Busted. Visions flashed in my mind of the Turkish prison cells in that 1970s movie ‘Midnight Express’. I gulped and swerved to the side of the road, narrowly avoiding at least one collision. The cop put down his loudspeaker and zoomed on by.
Apparently I had been going too slow.

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Friends and Neighbours

“How come all your friends are so weird ?” I asked my wife that question,oh, more than twenty years ago now.
She thought about it for a minute or so.
“Your friends aren’t ?”
“Nope… completely normal.”
“I just think it’s because you don’t know them well enough. What do you talk about anyway ?” I don’t know whether she was just being defensive or whether she really wanted to know.

But she had me there. Most of the time I spent with my friends we were playing a sport, and after playing we would have a beer, rehash the game and cut each other up in a good- natured way. Sometimes we would have more than two beers and hope that we weren’t stopped by the police on the way home. If I was at work with my colleagues we would talk about work. To dig into what was going on in someone’s life, their home lives and thoughts about things, didn’t interest me a whit.
Yes… I really am that shallow.

So when my wife mentioned that she thought that one of her friends might be bulimic and that another one confided to her that she had been sexually assaulted by her stepfather I looked at her as if she had just been beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. Such confidences had never entered my sheltered eardrums. And if they had I probably wasn’t listening. And as isolated as I have been from the real world of the people’s lives that swirl around me I feel it is only getting worse.

As Don Cherry might say, “Listen up, you kids out there.” Growing up I not only knew everyone on my street but I knew of everyone in a radius of at least a kilometre from my house. We’d meet in the parks, walking to and from school and at the community events that always seemed to be happening during those baby boom years. Kids would be ringing our doorbell at all hours to come out and play and there was always a game of pickup road hockey, baseball or soccer going on somewhere nearby. And the only indoor diversions were game shows and soap operas on our black and white televisions. We’d always have some kid over for lunch without phoning his mother for permission, and as far as I remember she never worried about him getting sexually molested while eating his peanut butter and jam sandwich. Now I would be hardpressed to give you the first names of half the people on our block of less than twenty five houses. Some of the adults say hello to me as I walk by with my dog and others pretend not to see me as they text their children not to go out or answer the door while they’re home alone.

Which when I think about it doesn’t make me all that much different. No one rings our doorbell any more unless it’s the nice Portugese Jehova’s Witness lady who drops off the ‘Awake’ magazine every second Saturday morning that I pretend to read or else some student painting business solicitor who looks at our front verandah, shakes his head sadly and advises me to hire him before the city inspectors condemn the place.

Maybe it was ever thus. I’m probably like all the other old guys who used to annoy me with their stories about working for less than a dollar a day or starting up the wood stove before the teacher arrived in the morning at their one room country schoolhouse. Maybe Neanderthal men drew a line down the middle of their cave and threatened to club their neighbour Grok if he ever dared to set one foot over the boundary line. Or maybe cabin fever has driven me mad after another winter so cold even I can’t say it was nothing compared to what I used to endure on the outdoor rinks when my feet froze so badly that I would roll on the living room rug and holler until my father would blow cigarette smoke out his nose and tell me to stop acting like such an idiot.
I’m going to get off the keyboard right now and go across the street and ask my neighbour what his name is.

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Gold (and old) Medallists

Sitting in the dressing room of my Over-35 Team before a game on Sunday, I threw out a question to the boys, just to be a pain in the ass.
“”Do you want to know anything about the Over 55 Ontario Winter Games that we just won a Gold Medal at?” I inquired with a big grin on my face, already knowing what the answer would be.
“No… we don’t.” This was said with no hesitation whatsoever.
Never be a braggart, I tell my fifteen year old daughter. I still give advice to her because neither my wife nor my two oldest sons pay attention to a word I say. No one wants to listen to your ailments or your accomplishments, but this is one time….

When people ask me what I do in my retirement, I tell them that I play hockey. Every day, sometimes twice a day. “Just as much as a professional,” I’ll say. “The only difference is that no one will pay me.”

Two years ago in my first year of retirement I received an e-mail about something called the Ontario Winter Senior Games. I know… I had never heard of it either. It was to take place in Huntsville in about a month and hockey was included on the itinerary. The only requirement was to be in at least your fifty-fifth year. There were no further qualifications and no bottom was too low to be considered eligible for the competition.
Which was a good thing, because as the team from Ottawa, we qualified as the bottom-feeder. We scrambled around trying to find the best players, but no one knew much about the Games and interest was not high. Couldn’t take the time off work, some of the best players said. Too bad, said others… that’s the week my wife booked us for a winter holiday. We were left just happy to be able to fill out a roster, with the only requirement being that you could put on your skates by yourself. Three losses in a row, two goals scored in three games. I can’t remember how many we let in; it’s wonderful how our subconscious protects us from a lot of mental anguish.
“We’re going to have to go with better players next time around,” said Glen, who had put our lineup together. “There were a lot of ex-pros here; we just can’t compete with a house league, rinky-dink outfit.”
Indeed. Glen was a fireman who had taken early retirement when he told me he could no longer cope with often being the first arrival at accident scenes, but he had no problem whatsoever in telling most of our team that maybe in a few years time there would be a place for them on the Over-65 squad going to the Games. After the carnage was completed, there were three of us left. I believe in wartime it’s known as a ‘scorched-earth’ policy.
“I’ve got the best fifty-five year old centreman in Ottawa playing for us in the upcoming Games in Haliburton,” Glen informed me when I ran into him sometime in the summer. “He’s better than you are, Dave.”

But I’ll play second or even third fiddle if it means a winning team. How often have I watched documentaries on those great Team Canada hockey teams where the only sign in the room says, “Check your ego at the door.” If it’s good enough for Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux then it’s good enough for me. “I won’t be satisfied unless we come home with the gold this year,” Glen added.

Glen may have lost his stomach for using the jaws of life to pry bodies out of mangled vehicles, but he certainly did have the mental toughness to say no to the many aging not-so -gracefully wannabees who approached him pleading their case for a position on the roster. Too bad that the Senators’ Bryan Murray and the Edmonton Oilers’ Kevin Lowe have not followed Glen’s blueprint of building a hockey team from the goaltending and the defense on out. “Two goalies,” he said, “the old buggers can get complacent if they don’t have a little competition. You know goalies. You have to be a little weird to want to play that position anyway. And the best four defensemen for their age in Ottawa.”

I’ll spare you a play-by-play account of how the gold was won. Even an unabashed sports nut like myself starts turning pages quickly in a book when too many playing details are provided. After losing to the reigning champions from Brampton in a hard-fought first game, the playoff requirements were such that we could not afford to even lose a period in the rest of the schedule, which led us again up against Brampton in the final. The good guys prevailed, and we’ll be off in a year and a half for the National Championships taking place in… Brampton.

I’m looking at my medal as I wax nostalgic. It’ll be something they’ll have to bury me with, if it even lasts that long. Even now the ‘G’ is disappearing from the words ‘Gold Medallist’ ; so now it just reads ‘Old Medallist.’

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