Jerks Anonymous

The four-wheeled drive was parked and also covered with bumper stickers.When I’m sitting at a red light I don’t text. I read bumper stickers.
This one said: JESUS LOVES YOU. Everyone else thinks you’re an asshole.

Which reminds me of a story I heard in the dressing room the other day. My friend Craig related it to the rest of us ten minutes before we were due on the ice.
Craig was getting on a bus somewhere in Ottawa and what he saw annoyed him. Now, Craig sees himself as a man’s man, and also tells a great off-colour joke, but in his own eyes he’s considerate, upright and and is also a stellar example of virtuous old-school manners. An old gentleman, Craig estimated his age to be at least eighty-five, climbed onto the bus just ahead of him, helped and steadied up the stairs by Craig. The bus was full, and no one volunteered their seat to Grandpa.
Craig immediately targetted the young man sitting opposite, wearing sunglasses and headphones and obviously with no intention of helping out.
“Hey,” Craig said in a loud-enough voice. “Would you be kind enough to get up and give this gentleman your seat?”
No response from the young dude. “Typical,” Craig thought to himself. “Young guy today. No manners and even less consideration for a fellow human being.” So a little forcefulness was required here.
“Look,” Craig said in a louder voice. “Could you get up and give my grandfather a seat?” He had decided to personalize this a little and he also tapped the impervious young fellow’s shin with the toe of his boot. Everyone was looking their way.

This time there was a response. The young chap looked up and reached behind him, pulling out his white cane. He tapped the floor in front of him a few times and pulled himself slowly to his feet. As the bus lurched into motion Craig had to catch him and he made sure that he held on tightly to the sightless young man until the next stop. The driver leaned back and called out the street name for the blind guy and Craig helped him down the stairs and through the bus door. He then re-entered the bus to the bemused smirks of his fellow passengers, or at least those who once again were not under the spell of their cellphones.

I haven’t taken the bus for years and I feel fortunate for that. But my youthful days were full of countless bus rides all over the country and I probably have a story for each one.

There was one between Sherbrooke and Montreal. I was probably nineteen years old and in my first year at Bishop’s University. You could probably have called me a smart-aleck. That’s another term I haven’t heard for awhile. I liked to read the French tabloids in those days to work on my French. The one I was reading here was called ‘Allo Police’ which I don’t think exists anymore. It covered crimes in Quebec, real or imaginary, a forerunner to the reality t.v. of today. After I had finished with it I sat on it because as a college boy I didn’t want the other passengers to think I was a rube. I’m really revealing my age with my expressions here.

We stopped in Magog, Quebec and one of the new oncoming passengers saw the traces of the tabloid underneath my nether regions. People in those days didn’t have phones to occupy them on boring bus trips and this guy obviously didn’t have the quarter it would have cost to buy his own damn reading material.
“Hey,” he said to me, en francais. “You reading that paper ?”
“Mais oui,” I replied. I stood up, turned the page and sat down again.
It’s not without reason that my late father would often look at me, shake his head and then exhale loudly.

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Smiles ‘n Chuckles and Grumpy Old Men

I just glanced at the old fellow as I carried my hockey equipment into Ottawa’s R.A. Arena. At first there was no indication as to how much of an s.o.b. he was.
He looked much older than I do. We all have the right to our own opinion.
But this particular, uh, aging gentleman must have been delusional. You probably know someone like that.
“You’re too old to play hockey,” he cackled as I approached. I looked around, wondering to whom he was talking. There was only a younger couple behind me.I know that I can sometimes be a mite prickly.
“Here, I’ll open the door for you.” I was speaking to the old(er) guy.”I don’t think that you can manage it.”
“Let me carry your hockey equipment. It looks too heavy for you.” The old fellow had moxie, and probably Alzheimer’s as well.
“No,no,” I countered cleverly. “You’d fall. I’d have to step over you on my way through the door.”
“Are you sure you can remember where you are going?” He was obviously enjoying this.
“Hold on, old fellow.” I was starting to get annoyed. I’d also noticed that he was clutching some kind of raquet, but I didn’t want to look at him closely enough to distinguish the type.”I’ll alert them inside the R.A. to get the defibrillator ready and we’ll also call around to see what Seniors’ Home you’ve wandered away from.”

The young couple interrupted our clever repartee. “Do either of you know where the squash courts are?” the woman wondered.
The old fellow obviously figured he had a chance with the attractive young lady, who was probably a good forty years his junior. “I’ll take you there,” he volunteered. “That’s where I’m going.”
“Don’t get lost,” I added helpfully.
“Sorry to break up your reunion,” the young female apologized.
“Reunion? I’ve never laid eyes on this relic before.” I was getting a little too worked up.”And hopefully I won’t again.”
“Oh, I don’t believe that,” she answered. “It sounds like you two have known each other all of your (long) lives !”
That seemed to please the old curmuodgeon. His cackle echoed inside the hallway as we entered the building and I searched for my team’s dressing room.

Scenes such as this will no doubt become the norm as I enter my twilight years. Grumpy old (white) men are entering their senior years in record numbers. I can forsee a future full of wheelchairs, pablum and undercooked runny eggs in expanding neighbourhoods of seniors’ homes. Good place for us.

I happen to have two of these fossils as neighbours. One I’ve nicknamed ‘Smiles’ and the other is ‘Chuckles.’ I’m hoping Canada’s euthanasia laws are soon solidified as I’d like to make the injection myself and put them out of their misery. These old boys don’t seem to get any pleasure in life except to look out on their carefully manicured lawns. And that to me seems to be an outdated point-of-pride best left behind in the 1950s. Which is where these two sullen seniors should have stayed.

They were both out on their driveways when I walked out one day last October with my golf clubs. We glared at each other. “When I want to see a lot of manicured grass I head out to the golf course,” I announced as I flung my clubs in the back of my car. Neither one plays golf, probably because they don’t want to take a break from feeling miserable. One of these two codgers actually throws his Christmas tree out on the lawn on New Year’s Morning? I think to myself… Jeezus, shouldn’t he be a little too hungover to do that ? Of course, who would invite him to a party ? It’s incredible how many people out there need counselling.
Not me , of course.

Of course, I’m not letting myself completely off the hook when it comes to blemishes caused by the passing of the years. I help coach my daughter’s hockey team and sometimes calling out the girls’ names in the heat of battle can be challenging. At a practice after a week off during the Christmas break I called one of our defencepersons Ainslie instead of Ailish. Or did I say Ailish instead of Ainslie ? I also have trouble with my recall. Why can’t people just name their daughters Susan and Debbie and Mary anymore ?
Of course in my own defense I can always find someome worse off than me. Standing in the shower the other day after a hockey game one of my teammates was curious about his linemate’s lineage. “How are you related to Bill Kilrea ?” he inquired of his long-time teammate.
His teammate looked back at him with a curious smile on his face. “I am Bill Kilrea,” he answered in a droll voice.
It’s interesting that my confused teammate was doing audits for the federal government up until a couple of years ago. If that department has come after you during that time period maybe it would be reasonable to appeal their decision.
And a Happy New Year to you all !

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USA Today

The bumper sticker on the Subaru with the New Hampshire license plates read :
Save democracy. Jail Hillary.
Oh my.
Once again a hockey tournament had beckoned me and I was playing for a team from Massachusetts who were making their annual trip to Montreal in order to experience the night life…and play hockey. I had met most of the players before three years previously at the same tournament but this was my first return trip since then. We were congregating and getting ourselves reacquainted when Stan asked we three Canadians who were helping his squad out…”So, what do you guys think of the election ?”
Silence. I smiled…noncommittally. Geoff and Wayne, the other two Ottawa guys who had come, were not political. I am. I have always been a slightly left-of -centre Pierre Trudeau- voting (and once for the N.D.P which I later lived to regret) Liberal. As far as American elections go, I have supported the Democratic Party all the way. It just so happens that I don’t have a vote. I am an aging white male, however. Some would call me an opinionated s.o.b., but only those with uninformed, misguided viewpoints. I have lived long enough to know that any discussion about politics and religion can go south in a hurry. We would be playing hockey together for the next couple of days, sharing the puck, a dressing room and beers. Best to just nod and smile.

Stan took it well. “Don’t want to get into it, huh ?” He smiled to show his understanding. But since he had brought it up….
“What do you think, Stan?”
“Who do you want to look at for the next four years… old Bill or Melania and Ivanka?” was his logic. Every voter has to have their own motivation to get him or herself to the voting booth.
I’m cool with that.
It’s one reason why I’ve always liked Americans and found them easy to talk to. I know it’s a stereotype but it has also always been my personal experience that they are more outgoing and friendly than their neighbours to the north. I know some find their lack of reticence loud and overbearing; I find it a starting point for interesting conversations.
“You tell me,” Stan continued, “how Bill and Hillary could leave the White House millions of dollars in debt through their legal fees and then just a few short years later, they’re worth two hundred million dollars. I’m an independent businessman. I have to go out and find my customers, provide them service and then collect my own bills. I think Trump understands that.”
A short, stocky fellow with a distinct Mid-Eastern look chimed in. “They should not only lock Hillary up, they should string her up.”
Okay, Dorothy, I thought to myself, I’m not only not in Kansas anymore, but I’m not at a politically-correct Ottawa cocktail party either.
Stan introduced Hillary’s non-fan. “This is Brian… our radical Islamist terrorist.” Turns out that was not quite the case; Brian’s grandfather had come to the U.S. seventy years before and now Brian was Americanized enough to have “a lot of guns, most of them rifles because I’m a hunter, although I have handguns too. But I keep them locked up.” Brian was going to be playing on my right wing this weekend; I guess in more ways than one. And I made a mental note to be sure to keep passing him the puck.
Only one of the lot admitted to be voting the Democratic ticket and even he wasn’t a fanatic about it. “He’s an idiot and she’s a crook,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Billy’s a left-wing Democrat,” Stan explained. He made it sound like an apology.

So I’ll be watching closely on November 8th. I won’t be deviating from my chronic support for the Democratic Party. Once again I’ll go back to hockey to sum up the situation. “Predictions are for gypsies,” said the eight-time Montreal Canadien Stanley Cup winning coach, Toe Blake. Nowadays we would have to label them female Roma psychics.
And if anyone of that persuasion is out there, please let me know what you see !

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Like Father, UnLike Son

“My father spent most of his life in jail,” Darrell confided to me over a club sandwich at the Quality Suites Inn Restaurant in Etobicoke, Ontario. Only it didn’t seem so confidential in the matter-of-fact way Darrell said it. He was as nonchalant as I would be commenting on the bacon and eggs that I had eaten for breakfast. There was a little grin at the corners of his mouth. “I’m the only one of the five kids who hasn’t spent time in jail.” He took a swig of his Coke. It was only noon, after all, too early to start in on the beers.
“No, that’s not right,” he frowned and corrected himself. “My sister hasn’t been in prison yet.”
Another smile came to his face as he recounted his father’s funeral. It was an open casket and one of the grieving attendees, just recently released and on parole, had placed a full glass of whiskey in the coffin so that the old man could better enjoy his final send-off. The parolee looked around the funeral home. “There’s more criminals in here than in some maximum security penitentiaries I’ve been in,” he observed with a cackle.

Darrell was from Winnipeg, but not the notorious north end of town. “We moved around quite a lot,” he remembered, “as Dad didn’t want to make it too easy for the police to keep surveillance on the place. As it was, even in the summer and you know what the mosquitoes were like in Winnipeg, there was never a screen on my brother’s bedroom window in the back so that my father could just jump out and disappear when the police came to the door.”

Darrell has never found himself in the same predicament. Now fifty-seven years old, he has worked as a medic and for the Winnipeg Fire Department for twenty-five years before moving to Whitehorse in the Yukon and putting in his final four years as a dispatcher for the medical services in that northern community. He’d had three kids in Winnipeg and met his current wife, Karen, who is in the military, while in Whitehorse. He is the step-father to Karen’s daughter, who is the goalie on my daughter’s hockey team. I’ve known him for the past four years and he is wholly, indisputably normal. Well, as normal as I am. Okay, your comments aren’t necessary.

Darrell’s parents went by the normal-sounding names of Dave and Adele. Apparently Adele did not have to work as Dave kept the family afloat with a number of activities that were outrightly criminal. As Darrell tells it, Adele would spend most of her time at the kitchen table surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke. She only left it to chase and assault her husband when he would do such things as steal the money she would be saving to buy say, a new set of dishes. One time she chased her unsavoury partner around the neighbourhood with a salad fork and spoon, beating him over the head with the salad spoon and stabbing him with the fork whenever she could catch up to him. Dave felt the need to explain Adele’s behaviour to the bewildered and bemused neighbours. “My wife thinks I’m a tossed salad,” he shouted, as he covered up in self-defence.

For awhile in the sixties they had a pet rabbit who distinguished himself mainly by defecating all over the rugs spread throughout the house. “If that rabbit craps one more time, I’m sending him to rabbit heaven,” Dave announced to his family. Adele was having nothing of the sort. “You son-of-a-bitch, you keep your filthy hands off Peter,” she shouted from behind a cloud of smoke. Inevitably, the carpets were soiled the next day. “Alright men,” Dave announced to his sons. Apparently he always addressed them in this way. “That rabbit is on its way to rabbit heaven.” He grabbed Peter by the ears and scooped his wailing sons off to witness the rodent’s inevitable demise. They went in their Lincoln, as Dave never drove anything else, and stopped at the neighbourhood grocery store. There Dave threw the rabbit onto the shelf containing the lettuceheads. “That rabbit is now in heaven,” he announced, but he was not quite done the day’s shenanigans. “Watch this men,” he shouted as he made his way to a female customer bent over a low shelf examining some produce. He leapfrogged onto the poor unsuspecting soul’s shoulders and farted loudly. “Let’s go men,” were his last instructions as he and his four sons hurried to the exits.

Both Darrell and his wife Karen are avid fishermen, one reason why they both found their separate ways to the Yukon for four years. Darrell remembers a similar trip he took with his father.Dave would often sing to himself as he made his way around the corridors of his home. He made up the words as he went along. “Dave and Darrell are off Alaska, and a-fishing they will go,” he would sing tunelessly. Adele wasn’t buying in. “You asshole, you’re not taking Darrell anywhere,” she would shout in return. But it was the sixties and men had not yet had their consciousness raised. Two days later, before dawn, Dave and Darrell were off on their excellent adventure, hitchhiking to Alaska from Winnipeg. They camped out on their way, of, course, surviving mostly on hot dogs cooked over an open fire.

Not all adventures were so benign, however. Dave decided to go straight at one time, having had enough of prison time. He started a discount women’s clothing store and built it into a prosperous enterprise, ultimately employing twenty six workers, full-time. But alas, the straight-and-narrow had no permanent appeal when compared to a life lived in the underworld. Dave torched his own place in a bid for the insurance money and disappeared for two years.
We concluded our lunch of true confessions with Darrell describing the life of his brothers, living on the fringes of society but mostly outside Canada’s penal institutions. I’d only been hoping for a quick sandwich and some idle chit-chat about the upcoming girls’ game.
Anyone else with a story to tell ?

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I buried another body over the summer.
My first cousin Bob’s monument joined most of the rest of the family in the Island Brook Cemetery, deep in the heart of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. That would be in the hills of the Appalachians sprawling towards the borders of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Annick, his current girlfriend, asked me to say a few words before the music, drinking and dancing started in earnest. Maybe ‘current’ would be the wrong word when it came to describing girlfriends. ‘Latest’ would be a more accurate moniker.

Airforce veteran, jock, entrepreneur, mechanic, woodworker,traveller, quester, raconteur, New Age farmer, ladies’man. I don’t know, maybe that last term isn’t appropriate any more. I’ve given up trying to keep up. But these are just a few of the words that come to mind to describe a restless relative who returned to the family farm after sojourns in the Canadian air force, the Arctic, Newfoundland, Vancouver Island and Papua, New Guinea, to name just a few.

Life is full of ironies, of course. The man giving the eulogy, Bob’s closest living relative, was sixteen years his junior and had looked up to him during all of my sixty years and not only because I am the runt of my family’s litter. But even though I considered myself the best qualified expert to eulogize my cousin’s life most of my earliest recollections of Bob came through our mutual grandfather, Jack Dawson, who would always be telling me a lot of Bobbie stories, as he called him. That’s because Bobbie himself would only make it home for a couple of weeks during the summers when I was young and helping out on his family’s farm. He was over six feet tall and had built himself up “lifting weights and drinking beer” while in the air force and I marvelled out how he could toss bales of hay around as effortlessly as I hoisted a bag of marshmallows. Even then however, I wouldn’t see Bob too often before noon, as he usually had spent the preceeding evening out with some local member of the fairer sex until God-knows when. And in my impressionable juvenile mind, doing God-knows-what.

Bob filled me in about the time his father, my Uncle Earle, had left him in the hayfield with the tractor and explicit instructions to get the hay raked before noon. When Earle came back a couple of hours later he happened upon Bob with one of Island Brook’s fairer maidens getting to know each other in a Biblical way against one of the larger rocks on the farm. In a heated voice Uncle Earle wanted to know what Bob’s future plans were for life on the farm.
“Do you want to farm or fuck”?

It’s no wonder that Earle’s wife, my Auntie Jean who was a first- generation Ukrainian installed a ‘cuss box’ in which Earle had to deposit a quarter for every time that he uttered an oath. By the end of every week there would be enough cash contained within to cover the bar bill of Ernest Hemingway, a prodigious boozer, tips included.

Not quite finished high school in rural Quebec, Bobbie signed up for a four year stint in the Canadian air force in the late 1950s. He didn’t return full-time to the farm for another thirty five years.

My then-adolescent fevered mind’s eye could only imagine how much, ahem, Bob did during the free-and-easy decades of the 60s and 70s. His stories were always entertaining, he was willing to try anything and he had an air force veteran’s colourful vocabulary. There were no stories that I re-told to my mother.

For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. Bob’s life, and his attitude, took an abrupt U-turn in 1981. No sooner had he driven the last nail into the sawmill in Port Alberni, British Columbia that was to make him a millionaire than the B.C. economy went belly-up into a heavy recession. It was too bad that his extensive skill set did not include a sense of business. He had failed to incorporate the enterprise and the bank, always humourless and not prone to mercy even when they are regaled with an entertaining story, took over the mill lock, stock and barrel. And not only stocks and barrels were included. My Uncle Earle’s two farms in the Townships that he had put up as collateral were part of the foreclosure.
Earle had to attend a public auction and buy back his livelihood. A few neighbours showed up at the public sale but no one put in a contesting bid.

Get-rich schemes were put to rest. During my first year of teaching I heard through my grandfather that Bobbie had accepted a job with CUSO… in Papua, New Guinea. That was about as far away from the family farm as one could get. A man with a lot of experience in building things in the bush, he was given the job of overseer of construction of a road being built in the jungle. The work was delayed one day as the crew stopped to observe a witch doctor doing a dance on a hill overlooking the construction project.
“What the hell is that?” my cousin asked his bulldozer driver.
“It’s a traditional dance putting a curse on those responsible for ruining a traditional burial ground of the local tribe,” he was told. Well, that’s not exactly the way it was worded. Pidgin was the language of communication, but I’m not really good with its spelling. A practical man not given to metaphysical musings, Bob snorted and gestured with his arm. “Carry on,” he ordered his crew.

The next day that same arm was wracked with pain. “The shaman cursed you,” one of the crewmen, a local, informed Bob. “Your arm will only get better when the project is stopped.”
Bob’s practicality was enough that he would try anything if there was a possibility of success. Almost immediately after he had called a halt to the jungle road his arm was pain-free and spirituality’s New Age had gained a convert. Upon his return to his native land the farming hamlet of Island Brook would undergo a transformation to not only organic but something called bio- dynamic farming. His quest for new ideas on the subject became as relentless as his pursuit of women had been in his youth and would lead him into correspondece and friendships not only with the counter-culture community in the Townships but devotees around the world. The change in his thinking was nothing short of miraculous. There is no one more righteous than a reformed whore. No offense.

By this stage in Bob’s life I had married and was soon to have children. Or my wife would, anyway. I was as fascinated in the new turn in Bob’s life as he was, even though not only me but many in my family were often left shaking our heads.

It was a shock when my sister phoned with the news that the Grim Reaper had re-appeared in the family and that Annick was organizing a ‘Celebration of Life.’ Given Bobbie’s Irish and Ukrainian heritage all the whiskey and vodka one could want would be provided. The door would be open to the whole community. I went fishing one more time in the huge pond that my grandfather had made behind his barn, and where Grandpa, Bob and I had spent so much time.

The next day we would throw his ashes onto the water. I could swear I could hear his voice coming up from the depths below telling one last story, and leaving me laughing one more time.

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Back in the day, before the Internet was invented, I used to write a lot of letters. And I would always wind them up with the same notation: “I advise you to hang onto these letters,as I intend on being famous some day, and these might be worth a lot of money.”

Okay, okay… I know. My life might be as obscure as that of a field mouse in an abandoned farmhouse somewhere in the Appalachians. I’m not famous now and my hopes for future glory lessen by the day as the neurons disconnect and my fuses blow. So my chances for glory are slim. Someone once said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Or maybe it was that every American life has a second act. I get confused.

Gordie Howe’s life had a second act. His life remained a constant in my own consciousness as his fame was such that he never escaped the media for very long. After his first retirement after twenty five years as a hockey player he was given a front office job in the Detroit Red Wings’ organization. Oh, it paid well enough but for someone with a work ethic that was developed in Depression-era Saskatchewan, Gordie never saw it as a real job. “I got the mushroom treatment,” he said after one year on the rubber-chicken circuit and the go-round of shake-and-grin photos. “Every once in awhile they’d open the door and throw some shit on me.”

The only problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re finished.

My own hockey equipment still comes out several times a week, even during the summer months. Although a neutral party might not see a lot of productivity in my own retirement, there is at least some motion. My wife says that I have a one-track mind and maybe a touch of Asperger’s Syndrome, but I think that she just wants to piss me off.
Which she does very well, by the way.

I sometimes wonder what my neighbours think of a sixty year old man who plays hockey continuously, even in the summertime. Mine is a genteel neighbourhood and no one plays hockey. Maybe one guy, a hematologist, who plays once a week in a mixed league, but that’s not really hockey. No offense intended. And he was kind enough to refer to me one time as ‘Mr.Hockey.’
“Yeah”, I retorted, “but without the talent, skill, strength, fame and career of the real ‘Mr.Hockey.’

Gordie Howe, of course, was the real Mr. Hockey. He represented the times I respect so much and which are now gone forever. Growing up in the Depression and from a large, hard-working but poor family and living in Saskatoon, he didn’t receive his first skate until his mother paid two dollars to an even-poorer neighbour for a burlap bag full of odds-and-ends. And yes, I did say skate. Without the ‘s’. In the bag was a pair of adult skates that Gordie had to share with an older sister until he saved up and bought the second one from her for a quarter. His father didn’t register him for an organized league and then carry his equipment bag into the arena. Needless to say the old man didn’t hire a personal trainer and a sports psychologist in order to hurry Gordie on his way to stardom. Gordie’s dad never thought his son would amount to anything because he was “so shy and bashful and backward.” He never even saw him play until Gordie had put in several years at the National Hockey League level. Much to my dismay modern hockey has become an expensive and exclusive endeavour whose expenses almost guarantee that it is restricted to the upper-middle class. I’m a guy who gave up tennis at the age of thirteen when the local playground started insisting that all players wear whites, like some exclusive club in apartheid South Africa. And I still feel more comfortable bashing golf balls across an empty field instead of driving a cart around a manicured golf club. Although I am a grumpy old man, I am a grumpy old egalitarian man.

Of course, no one is perfect. Gordie’s advice to aspiring hockey players was to work at hard, manual labour jobs during the summer months, by saying that the best training for a hockey player was at the end of a shovel. Looking back on it, while this did toughen me up physically, it never qualified me for much more than digging trees on landscaping jobs and drilling holes on Alberta highways in order to install guard rails.

Gordie’s second act was his comeback playing for the Houston Aeros in the upstart World Hockey Association of the 1970s. In other words he did go back to doing what he did best. And he was still able to play in that uniquely violent, don’t-cross-me, elbow- smack- to the head manner which even his own son said would have him suspended most of the time in these kinder, gentler, politically-correct times.

And what’s not to like about someone slightly out-of-step with the times ?

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Ali and Me

If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those it cannot break it kills. It kills the very strong and the very brave and the very gentle impartially.
-Ernest Hemingway

My heroes are disappearing, one by one. That leaves only me and my generation as the patriarchs and matriarchs and role models.
Scary thought, that.

I can remember the mid-sixties vividly, better than I can recall yesterday, as a matter of fact. It was a time of turmoil and tumult and for a sports-mad kid who was just becoming aware of the world outside the hockey rink and baseball diamond there was no bigger name than Muhammad Ali.
I first knew him though, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, a name that I thought was very cool. In 1964 I read a book called ‘Young Olympic Champions’ and he was included because he had won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics. Boxing was still in its heyday and it was a pre-politically correct time when one still heard the expression, “Boys will be boys.” For that reason we spent a good amount of time pummelling each other, especially my brothers and me. My grandfather passed on two old pairs of boxing gloves that he had worn while boxing with his friends and brothers. Needless to say they were ancient and the horsehair stuffing was falling out because they had been used since before Kaiser Wilhelm I was the Emperor of Germany. We’d put them on and pound each other in between putting in loads of hay, cheered on by my uncle and grandfather who thought it was loads of fun. None of us knew any better during those times when a concussion was regarded as no worse than a skinned knee, but it’s probably the reason why my head is in the condition that it’s currently in. I don’t know about my one surviving brother. It’s not that I’m totally insensitive to his condition. It’s just that I can’t remember where he lives.

Lest I leave you with the impression that my family’s only means of communication was punching each other in the head, let me assure you that we also had plenty of reading material. Besides Time Magazine, Newsweek and Maclean’s I still remember what an impression the book entitled ‘Black Like Me’ left on me, as to what it would be like to be black in America in the ’50s and 60s. My parents also had on hand ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ and ‘Soul on Ice’ by the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. And then the American government drafted a newly-politicized and recent convert to Black Islam who also happened to be the reigning heavyweight champion of the world. He had also recently changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. He didn’t want to be known anymore by his old ‘slave name.’

Anyone younger than a boomer probably couldn’t realize what a divisive character the young Ali was. The mid-sixties still saw a majority of white America supporting the Vietnam War and the U.S. had no truck with anyone not on board with “my country right or wrong.” I remember playing in a hockey tournament in Boston in 1968 and being asked what I thought of draft dodgers. The answer that my hosts expected was obvious but I didn’t want to give my true opinion. And I wasn’t in danger of being sent to jail or having my world-famous title stripped from me.

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Ali’s opponents, white or black, were subject to his taunts and teasing. The thug-like Sonny Liston was “the big, ugly bear.” Canadian George Chuvalo was “the washerwoman.” Joe Frazier, always my favourite and a fighter who had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps from a hopeless life of abject poverty was an “Uncle Tom”, probably the worst branding one African-American could give to another. Which is my point. Ali was human, not a plastic saint. He would still have to be considered the most famous individual of our time and quite likely the personality who had the most impact on the world in a positive way in God -knows-how- long. His personal life was chaotic, married four times and at least nine children with six different women. But anyone who ever met him talks of the kindness of the man: his humour, good-nature and his total sense of the equality of all, whether they were living in a remote village or the President of the United States. And despite the fact that he made and lost several fortunes, we never saw him flogging running shoes or sports drinks, even before Parkinson’s Disease stole his gift of speech and his status as maybe the most-quoted man in the world.

It’s been said before about others. And for no one is it more applicable than for Ali.

We shall never see his like again.

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