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.

We Thought We Knew Better

The bronze plaque tells a simple story: 50 Dallas Road, Historic Site of Victoria Immigration Building:

“Known simply as ‘The Immigration Building,’ the imposing red-brick building that once stood at this site was a symbol of hope, often a difficult hope, that new life in a new land would be better than in the old.

“The Immigration Building was opened in 1907, and until the late 1950s, any immigrant landing in Victoria had to pass through its doors. Depending on their country of origin, some immigrants were detained for a very long period of time, and many were forced to pay an entry tax. This monument acts as a reminder of the enormous courage it took to set off on a journey to an unfamiliar land. Although often entered with trepidation, The Immigration Building offered promise new; a chance to become a part of the vast mosaic called Canada.”

The plaque does indeed mark a spot on Dallas Road where hope may once have sprung eternal but quickly died in a new nation consumed with the evil belief of white supremacy.

Called “the new Immigration Hospital” when it replaced the old centre, it was a two-storey structure with racially segregated wards, medical inspection areas and administrative offices. It was designed to accommodate 96 Hindus, 36 women, 24 Chinese, 48 Japanese, “and 16 others.” Care had gone into the “facilities,” with one administrator explaining the difficulty of “providing plumbing suitable for immigrants accustomed to washing themselves with water rather than using toilet paper.” At the same time, he said he could “assure white people that care is taken that they shall not commingle with Orientals at any stage of their stay.”

While the bulk of inhabitants at 50 Dallas Road would be Chinese or Hindus, it was clear from the outset that any white immigrants confined for whatever reasons would have “privileges.”

In July 1908, more than 30,000 passengers from foreign ports were processed in Victoria by immigration officials and doctors. And that was at a time when massed arrivals of gold seekers and labourers to build the Canadian Pacific Railway were on the wane, and Victoria was no longer Canada’s chief port of entry for immigrants or “travellers.”

It had been the busiest immigration port in the early 1880s, first with the gold rush. That was followed by CPR hiring 17,000 Chinese labourers to blast and tunnel a railway track through the great mountain ranges blocking land routes from what was rapidly developing as a new country to be called Canada and the Pacific coast.

The railway workers were not the first Chinese imports. That distinction goes to a few brought out earlier to work in newly discovered coal fields. They had impressed mine owners with their skills, work ethic, the fact that they could be cheaply fed on a diet of fish and rice, and that they were happy to work for low wages. At least their employers were happy. It is doubtful if a Chinese worker immigrant was ever asked if he was happy with his dollar a day pay.

The cheap labour made Chinese workers welcome and desirable until November 7, 1885, when “the last spike” was driven at Craigellachie at 8:30 in the morning, and the vast number of Chinese labourers became redundant and far from welcome in the province where they had helped build a vital rail link. In BC, the disenchantment had been growing for a couple of years; mutterings about the “yellow peril” were rife.

In 1884, a Royal Commission was established “to make inquiry into and concerning all the facts and matters connected with the whole subject of Chinese immigration, its trade relations as well as the social and moral objections concerning to the influx of Chinese people into Canada.”

On August 9, 1894, the Commission met in Victoria with the recording secretary reading a terse but clear history as to how the Commission came to be: “British Columbia has repeatedly by her Legislature as well as by her representatives in Parliament solicited the Executive and Parliament of Canada to enact a law prohibiting the incoming of Chinese to British Columbia.”

BC was not the only province expressing fears about the growth of the Chinese immigrant community, but it was possibly most aware that immigration laws in the province were not well written. During the gold rush and the railway building years, it hadn’t been too careful in framing sound legislation to welcome workers from other countries. It was estimated that Chinese workers with their low wages – roughly half a white man’s pay – and the fact that Chinese workers had to provide their own food while the white crews were provided meals had reduced railway building costs between $3 million and $5 million.

The fact that an estimated 600 to 2,200 Chinese lost their lives didn’t seem to enter the debate – possibly because no one has ever been able to come up with definitive records. It is a sad fact that Canadian attitudes at the time did not rate Chinese deaths as important as a white man’s. Coal mining disasters were commonplace a hundred years ago. On Vancouver Island coal mine casualty lists, white men are often named with their birthplace noted. Chinese workers are just noted by a number. No names, no place of birth. Just a number.

So, in the year the last spike was driven, The Chinese Immigration Act explicitly designed to address the “Chinese problem” became law. The Royal Commission had recommended the imposition of a $10 head tax on Chinese immigrants. In its wisdom, and probably encouraged by BC, the federal government upped the head tax to $50 – a massive amount of money for a labourer to raise. The new law quickly became nicknamed the Chinese Exclusion Act because, although not as openly hostile as the USA “Exclusion Act” of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration entirely, the new Canadian law effectively excluded a class of immigrants for ethnic reasons. Their place of birth rather than their health or character decided their fate.

To make sure would-be Chinese immigrants understood, successive governments boosted the head tax from $50 to $100 in 1900 and then to $500 in 1903.

And then, to make sure everyone understood which way Canada was leaning, in 1923 – the year I was born, so not yet a lifetime away – Ottawa passed a new Chinese Immigration Act. It was appropriately tagged the Chinese Exclusion Act because that is precisely what it did – ban for the next 24-years the entry to Canada of anyone born in China. There were four exclusions: Diplomats, students, merchants, and Canadian born Chinese returning from education in China.

A Canadian born Chinese was allowed two years for an educational stay in China. Failure to return to Canada on time would result in barred re-entry. There was one other penalty for every person of Chinese descent. On passage of the Act, whether a citizen of Chinese descent was born in Canada or was a legal immigrant accepted as a citizen years earlier, they would be required to register within 12 months for a photo identity card. Failure to register so would result in imprisonment or a fine of up to $500. The Act was repealed in 1947 after the world saw the ultimate results of racism and genocide in the Second World War.

In the 1950s, Victoria’s Immigration Centre became the target of many complaints about inmates’ care. The building, too, was suffering from neglect. It was finally left empty and stood that way for 20 years, a haunted house, gaunt and falling apart until in 1978 the wreckers’ ball finally ended its life.

All that’s left is a plaque and, since the 1970s, the dedication of February each year as the month to honour black immigrants fleeing rampant racism in the USA following the civil war that promised to end slavery and racism. A worthy honour for black immigrants who brought with them many talents to help build Canada.

But let it also remind us of what we Canadians once were when racism was acceptable, bigotry encouraged and at times protected as a “right” by new laws. We should have known better.

Being Prepared for the Worst

Playing a little catch-up with an item abandoned in the maelstrom of malcontents seeking to remove a newly elected government of the dis-United States of America. A frightening spectacle in a country so long the boastful champion of democracy.

It was with that hurricane battering from our neighbour south of the 49th Parallel that an issue in our own backyard, which had been testing our community tempers for some time, seemed to lose importance. 

So, here’s the thing: Vancouver Island, where I live, has excellent transportation links with the Lower Mainland and the State of Washington. By air, they’re just minutes away and by ferry across the Salish Sea from about 105 minutes to the mainland and a lot less to Port Angeles.

Before COVID-19, BC Ferries ran every hour in the summer – a spectacular mini-cruise between various gulf islands with glimpses of island life just short of heaven.

Before COVID-19, the lower car deck on the ferries was reserved for vehicles only. Transport Canada required the car driver and any passengers to leave their vehicles and find their pedestrian way to higher “open decks” closer to lifeboats and other safety equipment, and well above the water line to make evacuation easier should disaster strike. 

Then came COVID-19 and infection protection measures requiring face masks and social distancing. Car drivers, already resenting the order to leave their vehicles, must now move to a higher open deck for the brief ocean voyage, objecting to the modest interference with their personal preference. They argue that being forced to leave their vehicles and mingle with walk-on passengers in their hundreds places them in a higher hazard zone and invites pandemic contagion.

Social media outlets and letters to the editor became the favoured paths of protest. Talk show hosts and print pundits appeared to enjoy the protest as relief from our cousins’ uncouth behaviour south of the 49th. And Transport Canada heard their cries and suspended the “no passengers on closed lower decks during the voyage.”

Car drivers welcomed the change, but the joy was short-lived. In a couple of weeks, the ban was back. Protests were renewed and strengthened by the support of BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union and the clout of Provincial Premier John Horgan.

Letters to Victoria’s Times Colonist kept the issue in focus until January 20 when a front-page story by business editor Andrew Duffy reported Canada Transport had replied to an email requesting reasons for restoring the ban of passengers on closed decks during a voyage.

Duffy’s story was modestly accusatory “Transport Canada won’t budge on ferry deck regulation.” The implication was that Transport Canada wasn’t listening to reason, but the content of the response as quoted by Duffy conveys something different.

In clear language free of bureaucratic baffle-gab, it reads: “Remaining in a vehicle on an enclosed vehicle deck while a ferry is operating is not safe for passengers. Enclosed vehicle decks are specifically designed to contain smoke and fire in order to protect the other levels of the ship and allow more time for passengers and crew to stay safe and evacuate.

“No country in the world allows people to remain in their vehicles on enclosed vehicle decks. If an emergency were to happen – say a fire, flooding or collision – evacuating everyone safely would be extremely difficult. In fact, the loss of life could be catastrophic.”

For good measure, Duffy and his newspaper deserve a thank you for sharing with us this advice from Transport Canada: “Ferry travellers do not need to choose between personal and marine safety. By physical distancing, wearing a mask and leaving the enclosed deck while the ferry is operating – passengers and crew can stay safe.”

Essential ferry travellers , who will probably continue to complain about being ordered to leave their vehicles for little more than an hour, should read the Transport Canada reasoning again — and recite the maxim they have known to be wise since childhood but so often ignore: “Be prepared for the worst while hoping it never happens.”

A Promise of Hope and Reason

‘‘We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn today before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.”

And if you’re thinking that sounds like a quote from President Joseph Biden after he was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America, you are forgiven, but wrong.

They were the opening words of newly sworn President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961.

It was a speech many will recall ending with the stirring JFK challenge to his people: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It became an international battle cry leading to the birth of the Peace Corps, a legendary force for good works around the world.

Last Wednesday, President Biden wasted no time announcing that the arrogant, boastful days of “America First,” the calling card of his just-departed predecessor, were over. “This is America’s day,” he announced. “This is democracy’s day, a day of history and hope.”

And for the next half hour or so, he lifted his nation from confused, chaotic fear with calm assurances that democracy, though fragile, will survive. “Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause … the will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded.”

The remarkable change in presidential attitude requires adjustment. The world had become used to a boastful president. It will take time for even the USA’s friendliest neighbours to get used to one that preaches: “We look ahead in our uniquely American way – restless, bold, optimistic – and set our sights on the nation we know we can be, and we must be.”

Gone are the boasts. In their place, there are hints of England’s hero Sir Winston Churchill, who once bluntly told his people when things were going badly, all he could offer in the immediate future was “blood, sweat, toil and tears” and the promise that “we shall pull through.”

President Biden warned that the way ahead might be rough at times, but “we will press forward with speed and urgency for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build. Much to gain.”

It is true that President Biden is not my president, but he is my next-door neighbour, and his decisions and the conduct of his people can seriously affect my lifestyle. I am happy for my friends down south who, as their new president said, are “good people and part of a great nation.” They deserve a President who understands the difference between serving the people he leads and manipulating them to feed his insatiable vanity.

Once More – With Feeling

Well, to repeat a phrase I’ve used so many times over the past half-century: “That’s it then; another year is staggering to its close; another birthday – the 97th has been posted – and the 98th is a distant shimmer somewhere out there in the mists of time.

It’s been many years since I first wrote: “It’s been a long hike since my first plaintive cries shattered the post peace and goodwill of Christmas 1923 on a bleak December 27th morning. My mother would later recall the event when showing me off to relatives and friends as “a nice lad, even if he did ruin my Christmas.”

It was a bright tale and always told with the warmth and love she had and openly demonstrated for all her children, warmth and love I never really appreciated until I became a parent myself. Her example has served me well when set alongside my father, a badly wounded First World War veteran, always strong, always taciturn. And it still will, I hope, as I head down another unknown stretch of road marked 2021.

Other than a calendar-marked starting date, the future “road map” is, as always, blank when it comes to details and destinations. I still know only one thing for sure: Like the stretches already travelled, there will be rough spots; some hills will be tough to climb; others will lead to valleys of despair. But, as many have and hopefully more will, the journey will lead to summer-lit meadows warmed and made pleasant by the shared love and support of family and friends.

I have no more idea of how long the next leg of my journey will be than I had when I made what I’m told was a noisy and fragile debut a little more the 97-years ago. I just hope I can head over the last hills with a minimum of fuss – and that I don’t ruin any festive occasions with my departure.

Since I marched past my 90th birthday close to a decade ago, I have often been asked how much longer I intend to keep writing my Old Islander blog. The question is usually asked with raised eyebrows as though publishing weekly thoughts and opinions in my 90s is, well, just let’s say – not talked about in mixed company.

My answer remains honest: “I have no idea” – but this is spoken with less conviction than it used to be. I still enjoy the weekly challenge, but it gets harder to meet my arbitrary deadline, and it takes longer to write. And, every now and then, an afternoon nap becomes more important than my self-imposed duty. On such days, my editors regularly save me from the embarrassment of muddled syntax. It’s a good mental exercise for me but a reminder that my mental candle doesn’t burn as brightly as it once did. Regardless, I carry on with the abiding hope that occasionally, my blog brings some joy or sparks a rebuttal challenge from readers.

So, with a bit of luck, I can maybe publish another re-run of this piece a year from now. That marker looks a long way down a road yet to be travelled, but then so has each New Year I’ve experienced since I was old enough to wonder where life was taking me. It has always been a far distant, often nervous, unknown journey since 1923.

At 97, time – never fully guaranteed – is measured with less certainty; energy fades dramatically, and modest talent shaping words into understandable English is more difficult to quantify.

So, for now, I’ll just puddle along with a gentle weekly ramble in low gear and hope you keep reading until an unwelcome map maker puts up a sign “ROAD ENDS.”

Protest – Always a Close Run Thing

It was 2.35 pm when the leader of the Opposition rose to speak but then stood silent for a few seconds, his head cocked to one as he tried to capture meaning to shouts filtered to whispers by the marble and granite walls of The House of Government.

It was 1958 and is remembered here only to remind readers of today’s newspapers – the few who remain – and the viewers of television who have replaced them, that the scenes you read about earlier in the week were not quite as new as portrayed. Mass protests have been around for a long time and more often than not with loud choruses of verbal abuse and threats. But not always.

On Tuesday, February 11, 1958, the Front Page headline in The Daily Colonist proclaimed  “Angry Shouting Farmers Storm into Legislature.” The crowd several hundred strong massed on the front steps chanting a demand to meet Premier W.A.C. Bennett. “Bring him out or we’ll come in and we’ll bring him out.”

It was tense. Reporter Courtney Tower covering the main event described  “the turbulent mob’ surging into the building chanting “bring him out, bring him out.” What was the problem? The price of milk. In 2021 we have become so programmed to food price increases that a cent a pint increase would seem like a gift – but not to the local farmer whose production costs still outstrip their returns on the product.

Bob Strachan, the NDP Opposition leader you met in my opening paragraph with his head cocked to snare the far away shouts, eventually broke his pregnant pause and asked if maybe the minister of agriculture would like a few moments to chat with farmers.

Peter Bruton was providing a colour commentary. He tells us the minister “looked up and with a weak smile” declined the invitation. Close to 20-years later in January 1976 W.A.C. Bennett’s son Bill was occupying the Premier’s chair when the doors to the cabinet room were crashed open and mixed mob of protesters and press gallery reporters disrupted.

In one of the rare photos recording the event it’s hard to tell the reporters from the protesters. Nothing of consequence was damaged; the Premier took control and the reporters who had become part of the story could always boast about the time they attended a cabinet meeting.

In dispute that day – ICBS auto insurance rates and some drastic and unwelcome social welfare changes called “reform” by the government, “cruel cuts” by recipients and social workers. It proved to be but a prelude to the 1980’s procession of massed protests which exploded with the infamous 1983 provincial budget (26 restraint control bills in a single day) and the occupation on July 19 by staff of the Kamloops health facility at Tranqu

The siege lasted 22 days and the newly formed Solidarity movement took over with the first protest marches of 25,000 in Vancouver, 3,000 in Nelson with an estimated 80,000 on hand in the Fall to form an unbroken ring around the Hotel Vancouver where Premier Bennett and the Social Credit Party were meeting in annual convention.

In between there had been two or three mass rallies with crowds 30 to 40,000 strong in Victoria covering the front lawn of the Legislature and stretching several blocks back along Government Street to Fort. And there was one protest which gained access to the Legislature while the House was sitting. There was damage to the main doors to the Chamber and one senior staff member was injured before order was restored.

Students of history will be well aware that my selection of noisy, sometimes threatening, but rarely totally out of control protests is highly selective and avoids mention of  Cromwell’s spectacular revolt with its brutal ending; and the overrated glory of the French Revolution still known as “the age of terro

I thought it better to leave President Trump’s failed coup of earlier this week which would have surely launched another bloodbath, to collapse on its wretched foundations – but with an epitaph to be ever remembered that a few years ago in BC we had “a close run thing.’

Time Too Fast For An Old Man

Time is fleeting with ever-increasing velocity as we sweep past the markers recording journeys of 90-plus years.

A least, that’s the way it’s appeared to me in the hike between birthdays 96, the day after Boxing Day a year ago, and 97 a few days ago.

If there is an unknown historian recording the pages of my lifelong journey, he or she is turning the pages too quickly. Each day I seem to have less time for the things I want – and often need – to do.

I know all about the problems created when procrastination becomes the thief of time but having the “daybook” closed before I have time to complete the “things to do today” section can hardly be laid on me.

So it goes. Every afternoon, I reserve time for reading as Christmas usually brings me a mini-flood of books from well-read sons. With small boxes from daughters-in-law containing diet-defying treats like home-baked shortbread, assorted cookies, cheese and cracker nibbles and obligatory Christmas chocolates.

I enjoy the multitasking of nibbling, with maybe a sip of wine, while revelling in the fantastic writing of Wade Davis in “Into the Silence,” a powerfully written history of the men who served together during the First World War and climbed together in early attempts to conquer Mount Everest.

The Sunday Times reviews the book as “an elegy for a lost generation.” I agree, nibble, and read just a few more pages. Then rest my eyes for a few minutes.

The rest break can be considered a medical necessity. After all, less than a week ago, all I could see from my left eye was white fog. I was blind in one eye. Modern surgery has corrected the problem. I can see clearly again but still welcome a few minutes of restful shut-eye.

Just a few minutes – but time doesn’t hesitate. In those few moments, someone, somehow, has moved all the clocks forward an hour. Maybe two. I can’t possibly have napped for two hours. But?

Ah, well. I was going to catch up with e-mails now long overdue. If you happen to be waiting and wondering, be patient. I will be in touch, maybe tomorrow if tempus doesn’t fugit and whoever’s turning my life’s pages takes a day off.

In the meantime –Happy New Year. May 2021 bring you everything you need which is not the same as everything you want

Christmas – with Empty Chairs and Treasured Memories

It was quiet in the kitchen. Warm from the friendly glow of the kitchen stove as it nursed a kettle to boiling for the first brew-up of Christmas Day, 1938.

The wall clock’s pendulum flashed with reflected light from the miracle of electricity, installed only months earlier to replace gas in the row houses of an English industrial town.

The “tick-tock” keeping time with the pendulum could always be heard above normal conversation, but this Christmas Day, it sounded crisper. Not louder. Just more precise, like a call to attention in addition to recording the passage of time.

Four people were listening. A husband and wife and their two children – a daughter,17, and son two days shy of his 15th birthday, sitting around the scrubbed-white kitchen table waiting for the kettle to boil, the brewed tea signalling that it was time to open presents.

There was a vacant chair at the table.

The family was observing, with slight modification, a decades-old routine governed by mother’s rule that her husband and the children remain upstairs on Christmas morning until the ceremonial tea was brewed. The change in 1938 allowed us to be downstairs for the final few minutes waiting for the tea – and time to think about the vacant chair.

On the table, Christmas gifts nestled in four small piles; two very small piles for mother and father; and two, not much larger, for son and daughter. In the latter would be one or two luxuries like a small box of chocolates or small bottle of perfume to please a teenage daughter.

The bulk of the children’s gifts consisted of clothes. Warm underwear, socks and decent footwear were more important for survival than coveted baubles.

The metronomic beat of the wall clock relentlessly measured time as it moved from past to present. A year earlier on Christmas Day, there had been five mini-mounds of presents and a mother and father waiting for the kettle to boil with a daughter and two sons.

I was one of the sons. The other was my older brother Tom, 18; my mentor, protector and hero. In April of 1938, he collapsed at work, was rushed to hospital, diagnosed with peritonitis following a ruptured appendix. Tom died on May 17th

Some years ago, I wrote how every Christmas Day morning we threw open our back-bedroom window and sang the first two verses of “Christian’s awake, salute the happy morn …” Tom never told me what sparked the idea, but seven- or eight-year-olds never question the leadership of their 11 or 12-year-old brother.

So, we sang every Christmas morning for six or seven years until 1938 when just before dawn, I opened the bedroom window and tried to sing but could only weep.

There will be more tears before this Christmas Day is over as unbelievable thousands will see an empty chair – and remember what was – and dream of what might have been.