“Out of the night that covers me….”

The cabin was quiet with most of the other passengers already asleep when Bill Bennett, the 27th Premier of the Province of British Columbia (1975-86), eased into the empty seat beside me to re-open a conversation started days before in Nagasaki, Japan.
We were en route from Tokyo to Vancouver and traveling in the cathedral-like calm of First Class courtesy an upgrade from once famous Canadian Pacific Airlines. For me, used to travelling at “the back of the bus” the upgrade was a welcome mercy after days and nights traversing Japan strengthening, so they said, economic ties.
A few days earlier Premier Bennett had joined me in the lobby of Nagasaki’s Hotel Toyokan. I was staying awake to do a promised freelance radio report with CBC Vancouver “around 3 am” Nagasaki time. It was now around 1 am, the Premier said he couldn’t sleep, his room “stuffy” and he needed some fresh air. Did I feel like a walk?
So, we walked around Nagasaki, it’s streets still brightly lit and alive, and talked about where we were born and grew up; about what life was like in heavy air raids during WW2; about life as a newlywed, and then as young immigrant in the 1940’s; about life as a father and about life in general. His and mine.
That was the conversation we finished in several hours of conversation as we flew home through the night skies and across the Pacific.
A few years earlier, sitting in the lobby of a small motel in the BC Interior, I had talked for hours with then BC Premier Dave Barrett on the identical theme – what our lives were like as children, teenagers and young, married, family men. It had started as a group discussion among half dozen people. It ended well after midnight with just me left to listen to Dave Barrett talking about social problems, especially among young people and how important it was to find ways to resolve them.
As a journalist I learned more, over the years, from and about both men in the quiet conversation times than I did when, ablaze as sounding brass and often feigned anger, they entertained and dismayed those who knew that behind the political masks they wore both were men with kinder, gentler thoughts.
Bennett and Barrett were both tough guys, and both kind when kindness was required. They were more alike than they or their families will ever thank me for saying. Unfortunately, they could never close the gap of birth. Bill Bennett was born to affluent parents and raised in a political family already touched with legend; Dave Barrett entered life with more humble beginnings, a life that required extra zeal and determination to achieve success.
In his early days as Premier Bill Bennett told me he had once invited Dave Barrett the man he had recently defeated at the polls, and his wife Shirley to dinner with he and his wife Audrey. I don’t know if Dave ever replied but I did once ask why the dinner invite was never accepted. “The invitation was gratuitous and condescending”, he said.
I understood his reaction. But I think it was wrong. The invitation may have been badly timed and phrased. But, I believe, it was intended as an olive branch but its rejection became a declaration of the war. The often bitter words that followed continued for more than a decade.
Too late now to know the truth of intent. Both men now live in Alzheimer’s ever changing shadows. Both have left their mark on the province they loved. If they could still talk to us both could proclaim with justification the proud theme of Henley’s Invictus: “Out of the night that covers me,/ Black as the pit from pole to pole,/ I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul.
“In the fell clutch of circumstance/ I have not winced nor cried aloud/ Under the bludgeonings of chance/ My head is bloody but unbowed.
“Beyond this place of wrath and tears/ Looms but the horror of the shade/, And yet the menace of the years/ Finds and shall find me unfraid.
And, with one or two words modified, the finale: ”It mattered not how strait the gate,/ How charged with punishments the scroll,/ I was the master of my fate,/ I was the captain of my soul.”
I hope that sometimes in the quietness of their times the darkness lifts and, even though they can’t tell us, they can remember. And, who knows, maybe hear our thanks for lives well lived.

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