Sunday, 31 August 2014



The Middle: Prince Edward Island


The screen door slams with the exact sound I imagine I hear when listening to ‘Thunder Road.’ The screen door is green. The porch is simple boards of bleached and weathered wood. Sculpted white pillars shaped like spindles support the overhang of the steep roof. There are no railings. Everything looks as I picture it in the song. The setting’s just a little off course. We’re a few minutes drive away from Malpeque Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We’re on the Island from away.


The province this year is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference at which plans for the 1867 formation of the Dominion of Canada were first hatched. The pace of life on the Island being what it is PEI didn’t actually join Confederation until 1873. The population of Canada’s smallest province is about the size of a neighbourhood in a big city, about 145,000 – all of whom seem to be named Murphy or Gallant. The Guardian newspaper Covers Prince Edward Island Like the Dew. Rent a car on the Island and chances are it has a Nova Scotia plate. The Duty Paid stickers on cigarette packages indicate NS, not PEI. McCain Foods recently closed a plant in Borden-Carleton eliminating 75 jobs, a significant hit as the province’s unemployment rate for July had improved to 9.4-per-cent. Along Highway 2 somewhere between Charlottetown and Kensington I notice a stately white clapboard church up for sale.


My sister Anne and her husband Al own some land in Baltic. A neighbour farms the rear field gratis, Anne’s only condition being no potatoes as they require spraying. This year’s crop is barley. Anne and Al have spent sweat, money and more than a decade renovating the old house on the property. Out on the skunk divot lawn about 15 feet from the porch my sister has planted a red horse chestnut tree. It’s about three years old. Some of our brother’s ashes are buried deep beneath its roots. Anne speaks to the tree and calls it ‘Robert.’ My Ann was married to the actual Robert for 28 years. Pain and grief can bring you together even as they tear you apart. I sat up alone one night contemplating the tree’s whipping in a silver squall. I’ve seen a lot of rain in my life, but I’ve never seen it drive down in an X pattern before.


The verdant rolling hills remind me of the Eastern Townships in Quebec or England’s Sussex. Criss-crossing unpaved roads are the same rusty red as the soil and the dust raised gets into everything everywhere. On the Gulf coast the fields eventually peter into great turf-topped sand dunes and beaches. Some days the sky is as deep blue as the ocean. The Guardian reported that the regulated season’s first tuna had been landed. You can buy an actual lobster trap to take away as a souvenir for about $18; the lobsters won’t complain about one less trap in the depths, believe me.


I eat my first-ever lobster roll in a quaint, pier joint called Oyster Barn. I feel a bit like Spenser, Robert B. Parker’s Boston P.I. who ate a lot of lobster rolls through the plots of 40 novels. A day or so later we meet Garth and Roger, friends of Anne’s and Al’s for lunch in Alberton. I order a crab cake and potato salad. While we’re sitting in the restaurant I notice that the Today’s Specials chalkboard menu offers CEASER SALAD. When the staff is otherwise occupied, I get up and correct the spelling. Garth asks me if I have CDO. ‘I have CDs,’ I reply, ‘but what’s CDO?’ He grins. ‘It’s like OCD except the letters are in the correct order.’ I get it, I’ve got it.


I’m not overly fond of abundant seafood. Hot dogs are something else. At Covehead, within the boundaries of Prince Edward Island National Park, Brackley-Delvay, we grab lunch at a shack called Richard’s. I order a $7 hot dog. Anne says her lobster roll is the best she’s ever had. Ann says her fish and chips are the best she’s ever had, ever. I could’ve grilled a better hot dog back home in Edmonton. The fries are good of course, impossible not to be. The microbrew lager’s okay but it’s not the Island Red I’ve recently developed a taste for. At Scooter’s, a seasonal roadside dairy bar on Highway 2 just outside of Summerside and in view of the wind farm turbines, I munch a hot dog with cheese and bacon while everybody else licks soft ice cream. This particular whistle dog at least rivaled the ones we make at home.


A year or so ago Anne and Al were approached to be part of a photo shoot. A cast for a middle-aged couple without kids. Their pictures turn up in the 2014 visitor’s guide. They’re digging clams. Deep sea fishing. Go-karting. Drinking coffee on a veranda overlooking the Atlantic. Tourism is an essential component of PEI’s economy. The casting of Anne and Al was a subtle move away from the traditional family focus of the province’s advertising; they were not photographed anywhere near a house with green gables. Even so nightlife in a tourist trap can be cheesy and dodgy but we luck out. On August 18 in Summerside we catch ‘Remembering Elvis,’ a concert featuring Thane Dunn and the Cadillac Kings. One day sooner and the date would’ve been spooky. What’s worrisome is Thane himself, he’s the fourth Elvis impersonator Ann and I have seen this calendar year. What’s memorable is that his jumpsuit is baby blue, more live at Madison Square Garden as opposed to in concert in Las Vegas. Thane’s got a lot of energy and a little charisma, a good looking man who can really sing. The Kings cook.


We return to the Harbourfront Theatre the very next night to see ‘The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom,’ an anecdotal biography strung together along the hooks of 12 of the country musician’s best known songs. Stompin’ Tom was no Gordon Lightfoot; he’s remembered now mostly as a fierce patriot (unusual in Canada) as his lyrics walk the line somewhere between Johnny Cash and Dr. Seuss. Only in PEI will you see a Stompin’ Tom impersonator, Bud. Inconceivably, the show is excellent. Anne and Al have been friends with the play’s musical director for 40 years and here we all are by the water on a hot night on the Summerside of life.

The down time on the Island, books on the porch, some light labour on the land, evening barbeques, Byrds and Buffalo Springfield background music, winds up. At the Charlottetown airport you have to walk outside to board the twin prop plane. It feels like a movie, the famous final scene. Roll the credits. The folk here say, ‘I’ll see you at it when you get to it.’ There will be a sequel.

Friday, 29 August 2014



The Beginning and the End: Montreal and Ottawa


There are two types of holidays. You either travel to visit family or travel to get the hell away from them. Either option may be the time of your life or sheer, abject misery. Some trips inflict a bit of both while others may serve up something in between.


‘Bonjour, hi!’ We have arrived in the happy kingdom of cheap beer and cigarettes. And empty storefronts. The province of Quebec is nearly broke and Montreal is falling down. My mother’s not in great shape either.


It is mid-August. The inmates of my mother’s seniors’ residence wonder why we’re not wearing sweaters or jackets because it’s cold outside and winter’s coming. Taxi drivers agree. Maybe these views have something to do with the fact that the hockey Canadiens own the front page of the Gazette’s sports section whatever the time of year. The other sporting news echoes summers long past. There is a pipedream that Major League Baseball will resurrect itself in Montreal if somebody comes up with a billion dollars, half of that to buy and relocate an existing team and the other half to construct a downtown ballpark.


Mom used to love dressing up and stepping out to watch the Habs at the Forum on Saturday nights with her second husband. A few years ago I took her to see the Canadiens in their new rink and, man, the widow dolled up and put on the Ritz. A gin and soda with a twist of lemon and then the other half. Lipstick on her hot dog bun. In her time she travelled the globe. Her world is now confined to a few blocks not far from Montreal’s western City Limit boundary. She is pissed off.


On a previous visit when we weren’t certain that she would rally from her lymphoma diagnosis, my sister Anne, my partner Ann and I bought her a red metal cane anyway, tres haute mode. It has since become a pointer, a poker and a prodder. We were walking down the quiet, carpeted corridor to Mom’s suite when she suddenly flung it ahead. I said, ‘Mom, what are you doing?’ She stooped to pick it up: ‘Proving something to myself.’ She did it again the next day. ‘Mom, why did you do that?’ She stooped to pick it up. ‘Because I can.’


The shopping street is too far for Mom to walk to. The embarrassing $5 cab ride earns the driver the same again in the form of a tip. Mom misses her car but she would be a hazard on the road. And if she drove from A to B, she’d be too tired to do anything at B, let alone get back to A. Ann and I take her to the bank and arrange for a new credit card with no perks and no annual fee. Mom’s worried about learning a new PIN number. It takes some time to make it clear to her that her PIN can be anything she wants it to be. In the pharmacy we buy some new AA batteries for her television remote; I’ll insert them later. In the grocery store she purchases one banana, one lemon, two oranges, a litre of milk, a litre of club soda and 375 grams of sliced bacon. Back outside we find a sidewalk bench. Mom doesn’t want to go back to the residence. Her eyes are aglow at being on the lam. Jailbreak! She asks me for a cigarette. We people watch. Her comments, ‘Oh, Mary Riley!’ aren’t too, too loud and the tip of her cane mercifully stays on the pavement. After a while I hail a cab for us to get her back in time for her lunch. I feel guilty.


Funny how parents evolve from gods and heroes to fools, to friends, to sources of concern. Although I’ve never actually lived there, Ottawa is my second hometown. My father has made his home here since 1972 or ’73 – I can’t remember exactly. Dad turned 90 on July 31. He has a pacemaker. He has Parkinson’s. He has a wife who is 13 or 15 years younger (depending upon which time of day she mentions it again). She wants to dump him in a veteran’s hospital. Like Mom, Dad and his wife are waifs weighing less than 100 pounds each, mere sheets of paper. The irony is that my stepmother’s health is even worse than my father’s and her skin is even more translucent. And Anne, Ann and I suspect Dad’s wife is starting to lose it, just as her elder sister already has.


Dad and his only living friend in the capital reckon they are the sole survivors of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 409 ‘Night Hawks’ Squadron. Alas, a pub lunch this trip with his fellow Mosquito navigator and comrade-in-arms is out of the question as Dad has had another fall. Wiped out his wife too. He never uses his walker. The left side of my father’s face is black, blue, yellow and purple. A pink welt the size of a ping-pong ball juts from his temple like the stump of a sheared horn. His wife informed me in no uncertain long distance telephone terms that any activity of ours which would involve leaving the apartment is verboten. I know Dad would’ve enjoyed an embarrassing $5 cab ride to the Clock Tower Pub for a sandwich and half a pint of lager. The waitresses flitter and fawn over this aged gentleman. I’ve seen it.


Dad and his wife live in a high-rise just off Rideau Street in the vicinity of the Turkish and Romanian embassies. To me, this is exotic turf, the stuff of an Eric Ambler thriller. We stay in a hotel on Rideau but much nearer to the core. The City or the National Capital Commission or both have made an effort to clean up the strip, a civic initiative reminiscent of Granville Street’s makeover prior to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.


Rideau is an eclectic stretch of road. Linger on a corner and you get asked for sex, money and cigarettes. Or all three. You can get pierced or tattooed. Or both. There are three payday loan joints, two grocery stores, two major drug stores, two booze outlets, two wretched motels and too many convenience stores. There is one head shop with no Rolling Stones t-shirts in stock; neither the used book seller nor the independent record shop has any gems worth taking back to Edmonton. There’s an art deco cinema left over from the days when a new film would screen for six or eight weeks. The crumbling Horn of Africa offers VEGETARIAN PLATERS and MEAT PLATERS too. Shawarma King competes against Shawarma Palace. Angelina’s Pizza and Pasta has pulled up stakes and migrated to a tonier part of town. Nate’s Delicatessen, the best smoked meat this side of the Ottawa River, has closed forever. But hey, the concrete tile sidewalks are new. Wider too.


In the 30-degree heat of this milieu Ann and I gird for ‘the talk’ in Don Cherry’s sports bar. On the afternoon of our last day in town we walk that Rideau walk one last time. We visit with Dad and his wife in their living room. When the conversation turns to real estate and the homes they’ve owned and renovated over the past 35 years I see our opening. Maybe it’s time the two of them looked into assisted living? The process could take months. Ann, speaking from harsh experience, says it’s best not to wait for a crisis. To date they have been sadly fortunate enough to alternate medical events. What happens, I ask, if God forbid they both become ill at once? Does anyone have power of attorney? Dad’s wife replies vaguely that they know people. Ann asks about their wills and other pertinent legal documents. Is everything together and accessible to her children or his? Sort of. Dad’s wife states that everything, especially she herself would be fine if only my father wasn’t so inconveniently old. Dad does not react to this; he takes it like the man he’s always been. Perhaps he’s turned his hearing aid down.


As we say our goodbyes and exchange brittle hugs, Dad’s wife thanks us again for bringing over last night’s Chinese take-out dinner. They had enjoyed the remainder earlier at lunch. Ann and I tell my stepmother that yesterday evening and today were a real treat and a genuine pleasure. She doesn’t remember that Ann and I went out and bought Indian food for all of us last night. Curry. One of Dad’s favourites. I smile down at my shrunken stepmother; she skipped Catholic school one day in 1957 to go and see Elvis. When I first met her in the 70s, she drank Carling Black Label beer and gunned around Ottawa in red Detroit muscle. She was one tough woman in her day.

They escort us to the elevator. As the doors close I call out, ‘We’ll be back soon!’ Alone together in the descending cube Ann and I look at each other. We will be back for one reason or another, although we don’t know which one yet. But there’s no question and no need to talk about it at the moment.



Prologue: Searching for Sports Illustrated


Commercial flight still knocks me out. Distances that once required days or weeks to traverse are chewed up in a matter of hours. You eat breakfast in Edmonton and when you arrive in Montreal it’s beer o’clock. Amazing. Still despite the relative miracle of jet transit in these modern times, there is always time to kill. I spend it dozing or reading. I’d packed an oral history of D-Day I’d already begun. Some of the anecdotes were hilarious, others heroic, but it was heavy going, enough to worry that my eyes would well up in a confined public space. I needed a lighter fallback.


Sports Illustrated is like either one of the winners of the three Ali-Frazier fights: somehow it’s still standing. The Sporting News, first published in 1886, is now a strictly digital entity. Sport and Inside Sports went the way of Look, Life and Saturday Night. Canada’s own The Hockey News has been around since 1947 although it has never weighed in with the same gravitas as the more expansive Sports Illustrated which first appeared in newsstands in 1954. The writing in SI has often been extraordinary. The magazine is the bridge from legendary New York newspaper sports columnists to Roger Angell scribbling baseball literature in The New Yorker. It was that good. And for many males in North America, the February swimsuit issue appeared without fail at the onset of puberty – maybe even hot wired it.


So I wanted to read the 60th Anniversary Issue, dated August 4, 2014. I wanted to revisit some 40 years of an on and off reading relationship, time travel. Forty, 30, 20 years ago, I had to know where the Lions were. Even as sport in general has exploded into a steroidal growth industry, its importance to me has conversely diminished into mere pleasant distraction, something whistling on television in the background of middle age. None of it really matters any more (the annual fate of the Montreal Canadiens being an exception). But when a publication like SI occasionally decides to trumpet its own air horn, I’ll pay the cover price for an economy aisle seat on the Wayback Machine.


At Edmonton International Airport I comb two Hudson News kiosks for SI’s 60th. One store is on the departure level near the airlines’ counters. The other is an infuriating, cattle herding, half an hour beyond the post-9/11 security rigmarole and institutionalized paranoia. Both stores are selling the July 28 issue on August 13. The cover story is NFL Fantasy Pool. As a former subscriber I am reminded of the Sports Illustrated delivery lag in Canada: what happened last week in the United States was actually two weeks ago up here. That didn’t matter so much in the 70s because there were no 24-hour sports highlight channels, the internet was science-fiction and an SI story was deep, as thoughtful and as in-depth as a Nixon Goes to China détente piece in Time.


It seems like every other magazine has Robin Williams on its cover, tears for a clown. His blue eyes are everywhere. I wonder how, after 60, when you’re on the homestretch anyway, how did life get to be too much after you’ve already survived yourself for so long? Ernest Hemingway did the same thing. I’m mystified. Maybe both men weren’t in the present so much as looking ahead. I decide that if I must weep on a flight to Montreal, I’ll cry over D-Day rather than Mork & Mindy.


Time surpassed itself in Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport. Two Relay newsstands were selling Sports Illustrated’s August 11 NCAA College Football Preview issue. An entire week had been kidnapped by aliens. Robin Williams’s face was everywhere still, now in both of Canada’s official languages. And because it’s Quebec, there are soft core porn mags for sale. Maybe that’s what they salivate over up in the rare air of executive class - I wouldn’t know.


Our departure gate is a remote one, down near the end of the concourse as it begins to run out of real estate. There is a third Relay newsstand. I wander in and find the display stack of SI, college football again. Stymied. For some reason I start flipping through the magazines as if they were LPs in a record store rack. An utterly absurd, forlorn yet hopeful exercise, this is what a crazy person does. And tucked away at the back is one overlooked 60th Anniversary Issue never returned to the distributor.

Victory! I have won the lottery. I have found the philosopher’s stone. My mojo’s working. The trickster god exists and in this instance he’s on my team. A long way from home in a crowded, busy airport I feel as if I’ve just bumped into a long lost friend. In a sense I have.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014



Oh My Boy


The origin of the universe aside, we know that no single event or person creates our reality. Our world’s state is always the result of collusions and collisions. So Elvis is not the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll although he remains the Genesis avatar of this Americana fusion. Hell, we don’t even know for sure how Elvis actually described his voice to the curious Sun Studio receptionist. ‘I don’t sing like nobody.’ Or maybe, ‘I don’t sound like nobody.’ Either statement is gospel truth but only one may be accurate.


Late in the evening of July 5th, 1954 or perhaps in the early morning hours of July 6th, Elvis Presley cut Big Boy Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’ at Sun. Elvis died for our sins August 16th, 1977. Consider those two Cold War dates from Memphis parenthesis and contemplate what lies between them and remember that this period of time spans less than a generation. Once you get past the rock operas and the concept albums, and other musical tangents, you realize the circle was unbroken. There’s not a whole lot of difference between an Elvis Sun side and a Ramones track.


Legendary swamp creature Tony Joe White (‘Polk Salad Annie,’ ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’) was in town for Edmonton’s annual folk music festival. Tom Murray, the Edmonton Journal’s music writer, asked him this question during a discussion: I always wondered just how much guitar Elvis knew? Tony Joe White’s reply (remember Elvis had a hit with ‘Polk Salad Annie’): He pretty well knew a few chords, and would strum one or two, but he didn’t have no licks. He didn’t have to. When you could do what he did, you wouldn’t need to do nothin’ else.


When Elvis died, my perspective as a 17-year-old was that he didn’t matter. After all, this was a fat man who played to the blue-rinse set. His 60s movies were impossible to sit through and their soundtracks were dire affairs although ‘Jailhouse Rock’ had intriguing hints of magic. Once I twigged that the cover art of the Clash’s ‘London Calling’ was a homage to Presley’s first RCA release, pink and green type over a raw black and white photo, Elvis became a bit more credible. Something important had to lie beyond the schlock, the shtick, the kitsch and the cheesy live albums.


I’ve always imagined the arts as a form of time travel as nothing stays contemporary for very long. With Elvis, you must eventually arrive at the beginning. The tracks he waxed at Sun before his contract was sold to RCA. The Memphis Eureka! moments tumble forth fast and furious. You try to imagine those songs, ‘Mystery Train’ or ‘Baby, Let’s Play House,’ in their time; no average white kid had ever heard anything like them before. For me, it was strange yet fitting to finally meet the King through the Clash.

If the Clash appropriated Elvis RCA artwork from 1955 in 1979, well then Mick Jagger swiped the King’s 1970 jumpsuit for the Stones’ 1972 American tour. When Elvis covered somebody else’s hit, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ say, it became an Elvis song. Snap! Just like that. That Sun Studio echo and his phrasing reverberate throughout our music library. ‘I don’t sing like nobody.’ ‘When you could do what he did, you wouldn’t need to do nothin’ else.’ Yes.

Thursday, 7 August 2014



Summer Bids Adieu, Heads for Door (Us Too)


Our August long weekend is the last party thrown in the full furnace blast of our short summers. Labour Day is still to come but September with its shrinking days always arrives with the breezy, melancholy timbre of dénouement: summer’s been and gone. Here in Alberta, August’s first Monday is Heritage Day. Who knows what they’ve dubbed it in the other provinces and territories as it’s not a federally sanctioned holiday. Dead prime ministers need not bid on naming rights.


Alberta Beach is a village on the shore of Lac Ste. Anne which is a short drive west of Edmonton, just time enough to listen to a single CD. Conveniently located cottage country. Neighbours have asked us ‘out to the lake.’ Our hosts are Don and Dolores. Their vacation property has been in Don’s family for generations. Dolores was born and raised across the road in a lovely, painstakingly maintained house where her mother still lives. Don was the one boy of summer who kept coming back. Dave, their elderly neighbour, an Edmontonian who doesn’t get out to the lake as much as he used to or would like to, was a great friend of Don’s late father. Their game was horseshoes. Their old sandpits have been landscaped over. Don’s and Dolores’s two sons have erected a badminton net on the manicured lawn. Any birdie whapped into the beckoning branches of any pine tree is out of bounds. Rawlings baseball mitts and a CFL football rest on the plank L-shaped deck waiting for later. Plus ca change; generations come and go. Warmly welcomed visitors must necessarily feel like intruders.


For our friends and their extended families these are the good old days. An invited glimpse is a small gift. In the nearby village which has swollen to the size of a boomtown for the long weekend, it’s Polynesian Days. Every structure, every railing, every trellis is festooned with plastic grass skirt drag.


Saturday’s celebration parade is heartbreakingly quaint, organized, assembled and marched from a sepia time. The two lead Mounties in their full dress scarlet serge are applauded; everybody remembers what transpired recently in New Brunswick. The Shriners’ Precision Motor Corps lays mini rubber to the asphalt. The elderly riders are wearing safety helmets instead of Sidney Greenstreet Casablanca fezzes. Maybe an era is ending. Is LinkedIn and its digital ilk killing community-based do-good networking organizations? Decoder rings and secret handshakes are old school. Fire trucks follow ambulances, hangers-on throwing candy at the watching kids. You hope there isn’t a crisis of some sort elsewhere in the county at this moment because the cops, the firemen and the EMTs are all here, boxed in by the two float car jam and the ever-circling Shriners on the main street.


Don is a builder and developer so Don’s family cottage isn’t a cottage at all anymore. He and his boys have worked hard to transform it. The house has more mod cons than our own back in the city. Televisions hang from the walls like fine art. Lac Ste. Anne is relatively shallow. You can slip off the end of the dock and wade for at least the length of a football field before the water level is higher than your head. Awed by the setting and aware of all the effort, I ask Don if blue-green algae is a concern of his. Blue-green algae isn’t a marine plant. It’s a particularly nasty form of bacteria which thrives in proximity to humans as we tend to leak, spill and pump all sorts of interesting fluids and materials into fresh water bodies. The water in Pigeon, a recreational lake less than an hour’s drive south of Edmonton, is toxic with the stuff. Don’t get wet, don’t even think about boiling the water for bathing or drinking and whatever you do, don’t eat the fish. Especially the ones washed up on shore. Don says blue-green algae has been spotted in one remote bay and that it’s not an issue now and it’s unlikely to become one. I dearly want him to be proved right.


There are thousands of wildfires aflame in the boreal forests of western Canada. Their smoke, drifting down from the far north, turns the setting sun bloody. Its strip of red light on the calm surface of the blue lake is as true as a laser pointer. The waning moon rises, a perfect half circle of pale yellow. Chinese lanterns launched from somewhere in downtown Alberta Beach float in a stately orange sequence in front of a startling plain black curtain before burning out. I wanted to see stars.

The calm dawn is eerie. We’re up and about before everyone else. There is mist on the water. The lake and the sky have fused into one monochromatic sheet. There is no horizon. The smoke from our cigarettes blends into the humid morning air. We quietly pack up the silver sports car. We are following cottage etiquette: we brought what was required of us and we will not overstay our welcome even though Don and Dolores have said it’s more than okay. But thanks anyway. Expecting coffee and breakfast would be wrong. We good guests pull out and pull away only to encounter fog on the highway. We’re low-slung and invisible but relaxed, the road home seems clear.