Stay on Course; Believe the Science

We have lived through worse times.Through times when death counts were in the tens of thousands and the medical profession and advanced community of scientists of the day dismissed as fable a lone medical doctor’s claim that contaminated drinking water was the killer.

All a long time ago, you will hasten to say. We have long left behind bizarre challenges to medical treatments with proven track records against diseases which once contracted were fatal.

We have advanced beyond those primitive times haven’t we? I mean if our leading minds in science and medical research assure us that after extensive research and testing a new drug can halt and end fatal invasions of human bodies, we believe and welcome them.

Don’t we? Surely we have progressed from the day in 1848 when a British obstetrician named John Snow advanced his belief that that cholera, the deadliest disease in the world he lived in, had its origin in drinking water.

The medical world in general scoffed at Snow’s published theory holding fast to its long held belief that cholera was airborne and inhaled from the “miasma in the atmosphere.” All major cities functioned without running water and modern sewage disposal. “Miasma” was an ever present presence; just something “nasty” in the air people learned to live – or die with.

It was 1854 before Dr.Snow began to win converts and the medical profession and science world listened. Readers can follow his trail from first stirring of belief to full discovery and vindication with a search for  – John Snow and the Broad Street Pump the story of a dedicated medic on whose foundations our public health system is built on.

In quick order a few days ago Dr.John Snow’s 2021 public health replacements issued two major statements.One was an updated report on the death toll “of the thousands of people who have lost their lives in B.C. due to a toxic illicit drug supply….”

While patiently waiting for Dr.Bonnie Henry’s disciplined attempts to first halt the COVID 19 invasion then send it packing – as I believe she and her team will before summer ends – we  must look again at the last four words in the preceeding paragraph.

Dr. Richard Stanwick, a familiar Island Health officer for Island Health, used the best read page in Victoria’s Times-Colonist (letters to the editor) to carefully detail what he and his team were fighting: “Despite significant advances and ground breaking efforts ….there is still more work to be done to address the illicit drug poisoning crisis. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition often rooted from childhood trauma…….”

Dr.Stanwick’s appeal was to the government to move solution of the “death by poisoned drugs” problem a few rungs up the “priority ladder’. He asked reader’s of the editor’s mail – and anyone who should perchance stumble across my thoughts while wandering the Internet to: “As members of your community, as local leaders, as neighbours, as family and friends, to create space for respectful dialogue around substance abuse….We all need connection, compassion and dignity.”

I add a little Shakespeare :  “The quality of mercy is not strain’d/ It droppeth as the gentle  rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath/It is twice bless’d: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes….”

Public Health Defenders

So, you’re getting a little tired of these COVID-19 restrictions? Can’t go where you want, when you want and, most importantly, with whom you want? Life is hard, dressing up as an amateur bank robber just to pick up a litre of milk – or something more substantial to briefly brighten drudge-driven days.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day,” Shakespeare wrote on one of his down days, probably after being informed by his government of the day of another new restriction on his conduct in public.

Has any other generation ever suffered such prolonged interference and interruption in its daily life as we poor souls have suffered through 2020 and ‘21? It’s permissible to answer “yes” even if you’re too young to remember “the bad old days” that old codgers of my age insist on remembering.

Memories of the Great Depression that we old folk lived through as children and teenagers take us back to less than happy times that I can assure you were desperately real. We were often ragged in clothes, sometimes very hungry, and it lasted for years.

Health care was provided by parents, neighbours, a district nurse, or a family doctor who charged cash for each visit but often settled for something bartered or a promise to pay next visit. Or never, because cash was hard to come by.

Public health was in its infancy when I was in mine. It was public health doctors, nurses, scientists and thinkers who, sometimes forcefully, shepherded us to better times. My left arm still has the vaccination marks from my first shots in the early rounds of the fight to conquer smallpox.

Victory didn’t come overnight but come it did after years of vaccinations. Smallpox, once a frightening scourge and killer, was brought under control. In the long haul of history, humankind has steadily and positively expanded its knowledge of the body and mind, what keeps it functioning and what threatens its vital spark. And medical research and application have provided us with a way of life so long denied millions who have lived and suffered and died in plagues once thought incurable.

We are fortunate to be living where we are, whether by the random choice of birth or a wise earlier family decision to seek that elusive better way of life. It is unfortunate that in the search, we have lost the appreciation of what we have; that however long we may live, it will not be long enough to always remember it’s what we put into life and living that counts far more than what we take out.

Back in 1902, Sir William Osler, physician and man of letters (1849-1919), writing in The Montreal Medical Journal (1902), cautioned critics of new medical procedures designed to eliminate or control what had been uncontrollable for centuries. Remember, he wrote, “the greater the ignorance, the greater the dogmatism.”

And listen to the frontline workers in public health. They are on our side; they always have been. Make sure you get your shots.

“They Simply Pass Him By…”

I always ask: “Will we never learn?” And, quickly move on to happier memories, remembering the good times and skimming quickly over the times when our personal or community decisions were unwise and coldly indifferent.

Indifference – perhaps the greatest evil act we can ever commit against a neighbour, workmate, friend or partner who, in need of nothing more than friendship, finds indifference.

It’s been a fairly constant theme of mine to remember times in history when mankind, in general, did unbelievably cruel things in the name or religion or politics and continued to repeat these cruelties over the centuries.

I happen to be scribbling these few words on Friday, April 2 – Good Friday. A good day in the Christian celebration book for a few thoughts on “indifference,” the theme of many First World War poems from the pen of Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy.

Read it thoughtfully even if a non-Christian in belief: “When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree. They drove great nails through hands and feet and made a Calvary. They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep, for those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

“When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed Him by. They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die. For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain. They only just passed down the street and left Him in the rain.

“Still Jesus cried: ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And, still it rained the wintry rain that drenched Him through and through. The crowds went home, and left the streets without a soul to see. And Jesus crouched against a wall and cried for Calvary.”

It is from Studdert-Kennedy’s “Unutterable Beauty” collection and worth remembering the next time you are fortunate enough to be asked for help – and are able to respond.

Patience: The Risks Remain High

Tough questions, tougher answers, and I begin to wonder if we have now been so battered around the clock and from every inhabited part of our planet with news of fresh or pending disasters that we have reached Rhett Butler’s breaking point in the classic movie “Gone With The Wind.”

Remember? Of course you do. Scarlett had just finished her latest recitation of how badly she felt treated by life and fate, and Rhett had snapped: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”… as the fog rolled in, the credits marched across the screen and those of us old enough to have spent three hours watching an epic movie walked home through a blacked-out world back to a real-world standing poised to explode.

It was 1939. My world was England. Safe, secure. A schoolboy well acquainted with maps, I was taught that half the world was painted pink – the British Empire. Invincible. Even father, a First World War veteran, said so. “They know what they’re doing,” he said.

It took some time for us to realize that the first casualty of war had always been “the truth.” And so it was when I was growing up, and Winston Churchill started to feed the people unpleasant facts. He fudged once in a while, sat on bad news occasionally, but by and large, all he offered was “blood, sweat, toil and tears” and the confident assurance “we shall pull through.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry, guiding light for public health affairs in BC, prefers gentler words. She asks critics to be kind – not “soft,” just “kind” – and always with the added Churchillian assurance that “we shall pull through.”

She reminds me of the poet Rev. Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy (cct) I have long admired and quoted. He was nicknamed “Woodbine” Willy in the First World War because of his less than priestly habit when “to the men, I should have offered grace, I put off with a cigaret.” (Woodbine was a cigarette brand. It is estimated that the chaplain gave away 865,000 cigarettes at his own expense.)

I’m not suggesting Dr. Bonny wander hospital wards offering Woodbines to the dying; just that in her choice of words, she reflects the kindness and caring well earned by health care professionals since Florence Nightingale. Just a few days ago, in one of her weekly reports to the public, Dr. Bonny said: “We are immunizing more people every day, and in parallel slowly turning the dial on the restrictions we have in place. We must remember the risk for all of us remains high, particularly with indoor activities – whether for work or social reasons.

“As a result, to get through this storm and continue to protect our loved ones, we must all continue to use our safety layers and follow all of the public health restrictions we have in place.”

Readers could help her cause by learning those few words and reciting them to those among us, shedding crocodile tears for feeling democratically deprived of places to imbibe. For emphasis, they can quote Rhett Butler’s last words to Scarlett.

As a reminder, running alongside our COVID-19 pandemic on a separate track but demanding attention from “health care” workers is the number of deaths due to toxic illicit drugs. “It highlights the ongoing critical risk to public health and safety from the illicit drug market,” says Lisa Lapointe, BC’s chief coroner, in her latest public report.

“I extend my sincere sympathy to everyone who has lost a beloved family member or friend to substance use. The continued tragic and unprecedented rate of death in BC highlights the urgent need for a multi-faceted, evidence-based and accessible system of care for those experiencing problematic substance use.”

The total number of deaths is the largest ever recorded in the month of February and an increase of 107 percent over the total number of deaths recorded in February 2020. The average of 5.5 lives lost each day makes February the second consecutive month in which the average number of daily deaths was above five. The 1,724 deaths recorded in 2020 work out to an average of 4.7 deaths a day. (My emphasis)

Also of note; 15 percent of the lives lost in 2021 were people 60 years of age and older, and 40 percent were over age 50. These increasing numbers continue a trend that has been observed in older age cohorts over the last several years.

Just the Facts, Please!

“TWO WEEKS AWAY FROM A HUG” … this page-wide headline shouted out on my local newspaper on March 19. It topped a story on the launch of “mass immunization clinics” for seniors – a story to be read carefully, thoughtfully, as the world forms battle lines to combat the killer virus COVID-19.

It is a year, give or take a week or so, since the people of the planet Earth were mildly disturbed by rumbles from world health authorities that 2020’s flu season might be a little different than normal. There was a rumour that China was already engaged in a fight to keep a new strain of the flu under control, a rumour that quickly developed into a frightening truth and a confession that the new bug was no longer under laboratory control. It was free, roaming the world and rampant – a declared pandemic with no eye to pity, no arm to save.

No corner of the globe was spared. Nations with established universities and medical research laboratories of high repute stepped up front and centre seeking a cure or at least trying to find a way to halt the invasion of what was now named COVID-19.

World scientists estimated the fall of 2021 as an optimistic success date for a vaccine to possibly halt the rampage. And there was universal rejoicing in early spring when three, then four, major research companies were able to offer tested and approved vaccines months ahead of schedule.

Vaccination for those who seek it and a general return to what was once normal living is now slowly underway in BC, with early glitches being worked out at mass vaccination sites. Even though new COVID variants are emerging, there are those chanting “free at last” and banking on vaccine protection while checking opening times at a favourite bar.

Even Premier John Horgan seemed a little anxious about opening time. At least he sounded that way last Wednesday when he appeared to suggest it wouldn’t be long before Dr. Bonnie Henry looked kindly on relaxing a few rules in the form of benefits for the vaccinated.

Being a politician, he was careful to add, of course, any such decision would be hers, not his. True, and as such, it will be based on health care reasoning, which means being sure the new “infectious variants” in the virus can be controlled by the vaccines.

Which brings me full circle to my opening quote from my local newspaper suggesting its readers are now just “two weeks” from celebrating victory over Covid 19. The facts are that the promise of victory is there with celebratory “hugs” ready to be joyously given; but for now it remains just that a “ promise” not a fact..

Murphy’s law that “if anything can go wrong it will” still hovers and Yogi Berra’s reminder that “the game ain’t over ‘till its over” remains a truth.

So, readers all, be patient. Listen to the health experts not the politicians. And remind yourselves that your parents and grandparents had longer waits to survive famine, pestilence, war and a multitude of other man-made or nature created disasters.

“Will We Ever Learn?”

“What a disappointment the 20th Century has been. How terrible and melancholy is the long series of disastrous events that have darkened its first 20 years. We have seen in every country a dissolution, a weakening of bonds, a challenge to those principles, a decay of faith, an abridgement of hope upon which the structure and ultimate existence of civilized society depends.”

And the speaker was none other than our revered former leader, Winston Churchill, holding forth in 1921 on the terrible state of the world in the century that had opened with such great promise 21 years earlier. It would be another quarter century and a Second World War before Churchill, then prime minister could shake the nation he loved from the world-wide “terrible melancholy” wrought by the war to end all wars.

It wasn’t just at home in England, a once-proud sapphire of Empire set in a silver sea, that melancholy prevailed. In Russia, there was bloody revolution and five million dead from starvation. In Italy, the people were entranced with the military triumphs of a comic-opera caricature called Mussolini over impoverished small and economically deprived nations.

In Germany, Hitler was triumphantly uniting his First World War shattered country before leading it to destruction beyond belief. The end to his reign of terror was costly beyond reckoning in human life and money to every nation involved.

Amazingly, humanity made progress in seemingly every field of science, but little in the fields of tolerance and simple kindness.

The 20th Century marked 100 years of scientific marvels progressing to manned flights to the Moon and now surging beyond to check out Mars; and medical science, which can and does work miracles in holding at bay diseases that were once automatic death sentences.

There was a brief time when our young songwriters stirred our thinking, reminding us of our individual responsibilities to each other, but that too soon got swamped and drowned in the clash of pounding percussions.

Hard to believe that not too long ago, we sang songs about becoming bridges over troubled waters. We asked ourselves why we seemed happy to embark on another war every few years or so – but couldn’t find time to answer the now age-old question posed in the modern pop ballad “Wage War – Will We Ever Learn?” 

Maybe you can remember its opening lines of seeing things “face to face, but never eye to eye … all this vision but we’re going blind from all the emptiness we feel inside.”

Or the warning that “we hate what we don’t know, refusing to let go … we let it burn, we let it burn. Oh, will we ever learn?”

When “Brownouts” Were Routine

If you can remember when “brownouts” were a regular feature of life in British Columbia, then you are an aging westerner who lived in the era before W.A.C. Bennett shocked Canada from coast to coast with his “nationalization” of BC Electric, a private company he felt was standing in the way of economic progress.

That story is voluminously documented and well told by a multitude of sources. It makes fascinating reading of grand, touching on dictatorial, political decisions and the development of what would eventually become one of the great debate battlegrounds of the century – the development of hydroelectric power.

It was in 1961 that construction began on what would eventually be named the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, 186-metres high (610 feet) and boastfully proclaimed “one of the world’s largest earth-filled dams.” Seven years later, in 1968, the project was declared completed at $756 million with a flourish of announcements that it had all been achieved “on time and on budget.” There was a modest confession a little later that a draw from reserve funds had been required for building a storage reservoir in what was known as “the Trench.” 

The first great step toward the electrification of British Columbia had been taken, although the debate on final terms of the benefit-sharing agreement between BC and the USA continued for years. The passage of time muted bitter NDP opposition to what had become known as the Columbia River Treaty; more power became readily available, and “brownouts,” the frustrating regular fading of power at peak usage time, became rare.

The Bennett Dam and power plant development sparked angry environmental debate and cries of injustice from first nation people who had lived in the valley where their ancestral homes were now buried by the great lake created behind the new dam. A compensation formula was established, but it was far from a happy solution.

The wide-open spaces of British Columbia’s famed Peace River country with fabled rivers and virgin valleys became a centre of attention for BC Hydro and its next major power project. This massive development named Site C would fulfill BC power needs well into the 21st Century.

BC Hydro had already invested $1.5 billion in Site C, with another $4 billion committed through contracts and agreements in the then-estimated $8 billion project. At least, that’s what former Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett (no relation to the former premier) once told Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer.

Just a few days ago, New Democrat Premier John Horgan announced, with some regret, that he could not justify cancelling the massive project. Reluctantly, he said, his government could only watch and weep as billions of dollars flushed through the giant turbines on a wasted journey to the sea.

Could it be that Premier Horgan had earlier failed to grasp the possibility that Site C could, 15 or 20 years from conception, become the economic lifeline its supporters have always claimed it would be?

Just two weeks ago, BC took possession of two newly built electric-powered ferries. More will undoubtedly follow. The entire world is on the verge of abandoning fossil fuels for electric automobiles vehicles.

More modern houses and apartments are being constructed with built-in security systems; blinds and curtains that open and close at the touch of a button, and hand-held miracle gadgets that we have to ask the grade two nipper next door to show us how they work.

When WAC Bennett stormed ahead with his Columbia River Treaty and his first hydro projects, the criticism was fierce and unrelenting. But, the ultimate successes of BC Hydro saw an end to regular brownouts and the start of the era when it became hard to find even a remote cabin in BC where you couldn’t switch on an electric light.

I doubt if I’ll still be around in 2025, so I will miss any Horgan (or successor) announcement that BC Hydro’s Site “C” is “on-line. It will be a grand opening” – with Site “D” – in the planning phase.

Another Brief Chapter

The e-mail was brief, to the point and received the day after I published an account of RCAF Pilot Officer Reg Price’s death-wrestle with a grievously wounded Lancaster bomber staggering just above the black night waves of the north sea.

My story — or rather FO Prices story – had opened catastrophically as seconds after he ordered his four Merlin engines to “full thrust” for take off on ambing mission to Dusseldorf, Germany – one engine burst into flame. As the flames were extinguished and the propeller “feathered” a second prop exploded and flamed, the fire conquered, the prop feathered.

And the once mighty, still fully loaded Lancaster with a heavy – 4000 pound high explosive bomb and a multitude of incendiary explosives roared into night just a few unsafe feet above the runway surface. So close that FO Price would later admit “I didn’t want to know how close.”

Once clear of land and over the North Sea FO Price turned the Lanc for home, jettisoning bombs, guns and anything else to lighten the aircraft and maintain safe altitude. Readers not yet nodding off can refer to last weeks offering if they want more memory freshener for detail. If, on the other hand, you prefer to find out how the opening words of today’s observations tie-in with today’s pre-amble, carry on:

The e-mail: “After reading your post today I shall go to bed tonight grateful in the knowledge that during the night of November 3 rd 1943 at least two guardian angels had their hands at play. One above the English coast safely guiding home pilot Reg Price’s Lancaster bomber and his crew. The other one was stationed over their intended target Duesseldorf (cct) guarding twelve year old Carl Heinz who with his family was taking shelter from the bombs some of which were now resting on the bottom of the ocean. It is undecided as to which angel is responsible for this turnout.”

Being “undecided” on guardian angel decisions is a wise precaution especially when dealing with a battlefield like Dusseldorf on Nov.3/4,1943 when a staggering 598 aircraft, including 344 Lancasters and 233 Halifaxes covered the skies and guardian angels were in short supply.

Of interest is the first casualty count in the early morning hours as daylight ended the fearful night. Twenty six dead, they said and later revised the total to 118, and then on further reflection, 622 dead with 942 injured and an explanation that after such massive, explosive, destruction it was difficult to count the dead. They could never really be sure.

To end on a brighter note it is a comfort that I can find some in the fact that a native born Canadian and couple of aging immigrants to Canada from war-mongering nations can share a friendship in their declining years. All three are in their Nineties, have lived full lives, enjoy good company and still figure our glass is half full.

And by sheer coincidence former FO Price and I are residents of Berwick Royal Oak Retirement centre while Carl (Charles) von Muehidorfer, formerly of Dusseldorf resides just across the the highway.

A Ninety Minute Lifetime

It was just before 17:25 hours, November 3, 1943, as the summer of wartime England faded from deep purple to the black embrace of a Lincolnshire winter night.

Snuggled down for the night was the small village of Kelstern, one of many similar English villages that found themselves central players in the Second World War as air warfare created new battle zones in once pastoral places.

In 1943, Kelstern was the home of RAF Squadron 625. On November 3, some 15 four-engine, heavy-duty Lancaster bombers were lined up at one end of the main runway awaiting permission to take off for a several-hour flight to Dusseldorf, deep in Germany.

At the head of the queue when we begin our observation of this night’s operation was Lancaster W4833. Pilot for the flight is Flight Sergeant Reg Price, 22, born in Lloydminster in 1921. He joined the RCAF in 1941. Tonight’s flight is his second in command, his third in combat. On the two earlier flights, he was “second dickey” to the pilot on the flight deck.

The night we catch up with him, he’s in the lone seat upfront watching the oil lamp runway lights mark a path through the dark and waiting for a green “take-off” light signal.

Logbooks tell us this was a raw crew on their second op after an initial grind to Kassel a few days earlier. This would be a flight to test their mettle … their battle-fatigued aircraft was at its maximum gross take-off weight with fuel and bomb load, including a 4,000-pound high explosive “cookie” and a full load of incendiaries.

Given the green light, Price “applied full boost to the four Merlin engines and accelerated down Runway Six in almost total darkness. And the flight engineer, standing beside the pilot because there never was a seat on the flight deck for a co-pilot, reported flames spewing from the starboard inner engine. The fire was extinguished, the prop feathered. The Lancaster faltered as fire broke out in the port inner engine. It, too, was extinguished, and the prop feathered. But the Lancaster flying on two engines with its full load of bombs was still in grave danger.

The order was given to lighten the aircraft, and everything that could be discarded was. The 4,000-pound “cookie” and the heavy clusters of incendiaries fell into the North Sea. So did ammunition and the guns. And even the navigator’s sextant.

Still several miles from the English coast PO Price held his course until he caught a glimmer of air strip lights. “It wasn’t difficult landing,” says. “We still had two engines and confident control. My tail gunner later told me it was a nice landing….but then all successful landings are.”

The fight to get home had taken one hour and 15 minutes from take off to safe landing. Chatting with me over coffee in Berwick Royal Oak close to 100-years later Reg said “at the time it seemed to last for ever.”

Pilot Officer Price was awarded the distinguished Flying Cross. The official citation notes that he completed 31 sorties comprising 213 operational flying hours as the captain of a Lancaster aircraft. “This officer has carried out his tour of operations displaying quiet persistence and a cool, determined endeavour over a long period sometimes under the most trying circumstances.” The citation noted his “cool and skilful” handling of a double engine failure.

But maybe his own citation is the one that really counts, the one where he says, very quietly: “Well, I got the medal, and I cherish it, but it was the crew that won it. We knew what we had to do, and we did it.’’

It’s a frame of mind we could all profit from.

Sounding Brass and Crashing Cymbal

Scavenging in the mudflats of the Internet a few days ago, I stumbled across the promise of a PBS documentary on a once infamous USA gangster named Al Capone. It was a little late in the day for an old guy but, being a fan of PBS – and its Canadian twin the Knowledge Network for their commercial-free programming – I poked the appropriate buttons and, presto, there full-screen was the pale, slightly-smirking face of a long-dead gangster and the program title “Al Capone – iconic.”

“Iconic” sounded a little out of sync, although I’ve used it many times over the years without much thought. Better check the Oxford Dictionary: “Being a famous person or thing that people admire and see as a symbol of a particular idea, way of life, etc.”

Had to think about that for a minute before sadly concluding that the Oxford definition of “iconic” was, in this instance, the description of a man without morals, a cunning manipulator of easily led malcontents and the mastermind behind the mass execution of rival gangsters – Al “Scarface” Capone.

Capone was conveniently in Florida on St. Valentine’s Day, Feb.14, 1929, when seven members of a rival gang lead by George “Bugs” Moran were executed by Capone shooters in Chicago. Moran had been Capone’s chief rival for control of the lucrative criminal activities in the Windy City.

It was estimated that at the time of his eventual arrest and trial for tax evasion, Capone’s income from crime was more than $60 million a year. He was sentenced to 11 years in jail but was released on November 6, 1939, after serving seven years, six months and 15 days. At the time of his release, he was suffering from incurable venereal syphilis. Severe brain damage from the disease had reduced him to a childlike state.

He died in seclusion in Florida on January 25, 1947.

So, these past few days, while adding fractionally to my less than iconic sum of knowledge, I’ve been wondering if I know anyone who rated iconic pied-piper leadership credit – someone “famous” and admired by easily-lead, thoughtless followers who like to break things and make others fear their bullying wrath.

I don’t think Donald Trump is as frightening as Capone, who “owned” police and powerful politicians and bent them to his will. But, there’s little doubt he would like to be; that he believes he is rightly billed iconic when he is, in fact only sounding brass and clashing cymbal signifying nothing.