Month: November 2015

Immigrating was always tough

It was in 1948 that I became a modest refugee with a pregnant wife and 18 month old child seeking a better way of life in Canada. It’s true our small family hadn’t been forced to trek endless barren roads, find primitive shelter in wretched holding camps and wait, wait, wait for a selection committee to decide whether we were fit enough in health and capable enough in occupational skills to join the Canadian family.

It is also true that for me and mine and the hundreds of other citizens from the UK, and just about every country in Europe, it wasn’t an easy ride. And the country we came to love for the many opportunities it eventually brought our way was not at its warm-hearted, welcoming best in the summer of 1948.

We didn’t just walk into a travel agency, book steamship tickets and sally forth first across the Atlantic and then proceed by train from Atlantic to Pacific. We faced interviews, passed rigorous medical exams, revealed our financial assets. There was a maximum on how much money we could take out of the country. I forget now what that maximum was but that wasn’t a problem for us. We barely made the minimum but we did – and never regretted the gamble.

Never regretted the decision, but confess to having doubts from time to time and wondering why on earth we had left the old familiar places, old customs and comfortable and extensive friendships. Although we sailed on what had once been a luxury liner our cabins on the Aquitania were below the waterline. Only the dazzling array of food in the dining room spoke of former opulence and brought a touch of magic to the hundreds on board who had lived on severe food rations for years prior to boarding ship.

The Canadian Pacific train trekking through endless forests, vast prairies and eventually the incredible, mountains streams and rivers, was a vintage immigrant train. Hot, stuffy, dirty because even on a hot June day windows had to remain shut to keep flying ash and cinders out of your hair, eyes – and food.

It was when we rolled through Hope and into the Fraser River Valley that we had serious doubts about the joy of  immigration. We had read the Valley was rich farmland and beautiful to the eye. And it was – but not in June 1948 when the Valley was making history with its river flushing to its highest ever flood level – higher than the great flood of 1894.

Back as we were finishing our ocean voyage the Fraser River was rising fast, but not thought to be “dangerous.” On May 28 the Semiault Creek Dyke was breached. The following day dykes near Cottonwood Corners gave way flooding 49 square kilometers. On June 1 the Cannor Dyke cracked with the resulting flood devastating the Glendale area.

On June 10 the Fraser reached its peak registering 7.6 metres at Mission. It had breached more than a dozen large and small dyking systems, flooded more than 22,000 hectares of rich farmland – a third of the flood plain – cut the Trans-Canada Highway and brought to a halt all traffic on Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways,

A few days later we were assured our Immigrant train was first to roll into Vancouver “since the flood – but the track has been inspected and is safe.” It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, when we wondered if we had been brave to search for a better life – or stupid.

No bands or banners greeted us. No instant health care. No accommodation, not even of the temporary kind. And, strange though it may sound in this age of entitlement, nothing was expected. We had help in finding a place to rent; paid cash for my wife’s confinement and the birth of our second son in August. Within two days of arriving I earned my first Canadian dollars as a casual “swamper” before I knew what a  “swamper” was and within a week was a deckhand for Island Tug and Barge. The lone crew member on a garbage scow towed off Ogden Point to dump Victoria’s garbage.

Had a few insults in the early goings about my English accent and place of birth. Some lonely times, some sad ones and more than a few when finding a dime was like finding a treasure chest. It wasn’t easy being an immigrant in the 1940’s and it will be far from easy for the next wave to reach Canada speaking only limited English or French.

All they have to do is remember that the immigrants who came this way before I headed west had it a helluva lot tougher. It’s a thought that kept me going whenever I felt hard done by.

A Charade Called Christmas

 

First a declaration that I am not of the  Catholic faith. But that doesn’t mean I can’t listen to Pope Francis – especially when I hear him saying what I (and lots of other people) have been saying for years.
A few days ago British newspaper – The Telegraph – informed us the Pope’s Christmas sermon “threw a shadow over the start of the festive season at the Vatican, where a giant Christmas tree was unveiled.”

The world, said His Holiness, “which has chosen war and hate” has made a charade of Christmas, the once sacred time dedicated to peace on earth, goodwill to all men. Christmas is approaching: there will be lights, parties, Christmas trees and nativity scenes…it is all a charade. The world continues to go to war. The world has not chosen a peaceful path. There are wars everywhere and hate.

“We should ask for the grace to weep for this world, which does not recognize the path to peace. To weep for those who live for war and have the cynicism to deny it.”

And the Christmas tree was then unveiled to show tinseled, bauble-dressed testimony and confirmation of his message.

It reminded me of Studdert Kennedy’s epic poem Indifference written when he was known as “Woodbine Willie” the wartime Padre best known, as he himself  said, as the Priest who “put off with a cigarette” wounded soldiers he should have “been offering Gods’ grace.”

Kennedy wrote in the 1914-48 war to end wars: “When Jesus came to Golgotha they hanged him on a tree, they drave great nails through hands and feet….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 past down the street, and left him in the rain…..

“The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see – And Jesus crouched against the wall and cried for Calvary.”

So, again, I am not a Roman Catholic, nor do I embrace any formal religious group. But that doesn’t mean I can’t  understand the difference between war and peace, between hate and toleration, between genuine faith and a faith deeply buried by indifference.

And it doesn’t mean I can’t wish Pope Francis success with his reminder that the Christmas spirit should be more than a well acted charade; and Kennedy’s warning that indifference can be our greatest shame.

 

 

Pride is War’s Ground

“War begets poverty, poverty peace. Peace begets plenty, then riches increase; riches bring pride and pride is war’s ground. War begets poverty and so we go round.”

Many readers will note my “modernization” of the ancient classic for easier reading but with no change to the truth and meaning. The cycle seems endless, man’s inhumanity to man an unbreakable chain. But still we gather after tragedies to place flowers, light candles, whisper or shout prayers to a God,  by whatever name, who doesn’t appear to listen – or maybe questions the sincerity of our tears.

It is a fact that even as the masses light their candles and place their flowers in jumbled heaps with heartfelt messages the victims they mourn can no longer read, their leaders talk of war and revenge – and with tears still wet  on their cheeks the mourners agree.

The Mosaic law of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth remains deep, its replacement , the doctrine of peace and respect is voiced but without conviction.  Within hours of the terrorist outrage in Paris President Francois Hollande declared the insane execution of innocent citizens “an act of war” and ordered increased air strikes in far from Paris Syria and Iraq. And most of the rest of the world applauded.

In November 1945 with the battle fields of WW2 silent after five years of bloodshed, Ernest Bevin in a British House of Commons speech, said: “There has never been a war yet which, if the facts had been put calmly before the ordinary folk, could not have been prevented. The common man is the greatest protection against war.”

I fear that is no longer true. In the past few decades we, “the ordinary folk” have become accustomed to violence and although quick to deny, tend to enjoy it. Whether in video games, movies, sports where physical, often brutal, conquest wins the victors’ crown and crowd adulation, or the daily news parade, we either openly approve and meekly accept violence as “normal”, and a wars of attrition justifiable.

The target is too high to reach? Maybe it is, but we could make a start by adopting the cry of the relatively unknown poet Thomas Curtis Clark who wrote in the late 1800’s “Let us no more be true to boasted ace or clan, but to our highest dream, the brotherhood of man.”

And it’s a given  that the “sisterhood” has more than equal dream rights.

More Than A Walk On The Beach

The darkness was thick with an hour to go to moonrise. On the bridge of the British navy destroyer HMS  Petard Canadian born Midshipman Arthur Rowland strained to see the faint blue light 200 or so metres ahead marking the stern of HMS Eclipse.

“And suddenly there was this great flash of light out in the darkness. The Eclipse had just exploded.” The now 91-year old and long retired RCN Lieutenant Commander Rowland still quietly recalls that night in 1943. He was 19 years old and the black Aegean Sea night was about to bring him face to face with multiple deaths and force a teenager to make decisions no man should ever have to make.

In his book Fighting Destroyer – the story of HMS Petard, a former officer G.G.Connell tells us within seconds of the explosion Petard was brought to all engines stop “and the crowded ship listened to the awful silence that followed the nightmare destruction” of Eclipse. Rescue boats were lowered with Canadian Midshipman Rowland in command of two “whalers”.(In his book Connell inaccurately names the Midshipman “Rothwell”, an error Rowland courteously blames on the passage of time between the event and the writing.)

“For four hours, in extremely hazardous conditions, in a sea thick with oil…the young midshipman, little more than a boy, with his two whalers looked for men in the roughening sea. The casualties were terrible, out of a total of 420 men, 220 ships company the remainder soldiers being moved to a new base, only 44 were found alive. Connell writes “the tall red-headed midshipman and his boats carried on bringing back to (their) ship the few pitiful oil covered survivors” until daylight placed the Petard  and its crew and decks crowded with soldiers “at unacceptable risk.”

Seventy two years later Rowland remembers with emotion his feelings as he took his last boat load of bodies and survivors back the mother ship. “We couldn’t get any more in the whaler when we were ordered back. It was an awful feeling. It bothered me for a long time but we had to carry on.””

Rowland, born in Montreal on July 7, 1924, joined the RCN in 1941 in Ottawa, was almost immediately shipped by armed merchant ship to Liverpool then on to cadet school. His first ship was the battleship HMS Nelson which he joined in May, 1942. He is still proud possessor of his navy issue Midshipman’s Log Book in which are recorded the events of almost every day of his life on the battleship where even the rigors of war in the Mediterranean were not allowed to interrupt a midshipman’s studies and regular exams.

From battleship to destroyer and then, to end his war, a period on the light cruiser Uganda which fought in the Pacific and returned to Esquimalt after a controversial on-board vote in which 605 members of the 907 strong crew declined an invitation to volunteer for continued service. Uganda arrived in Esquimalt on August 10, 1945, the day Japan surrendered.

It was while stationed in Esquimalt that Rowland met Holly Greer. They married in 1949 and raised two adopted children, a son who died age 31 a victim of muscular dystrophy and a daughter who remains a Nun with the Sisters of Charity and still teaches school in Victoria..

Between Petard and Uganda there was a change of pace from big ships to Landing Craft Infantry (light) and the matter of D-Day. Rowland kept a meticulous record: “With one hundred and ninety eight troops aboard we sailed from Southampton at about 1930 on the Fifth June, 1944…we were on our way to France…throughout the night we passed a number of major landing craft….as dawn crept in from the east we approached the minefield through which a narrow channel had been swept….”

The young officer described running in circles until the call came to land their troops. “After that had been done there were problems recovering the ramps lowered to disembark the troops and meanwhile the tide was beginning to recede…we had become well and truly stuck….As the tide went out (6ft per hour) more and more craft got stuck….Astern of us showed iron obstacles and posts with mines on top…we were extremely lucky to miss these as a great many ships either side of us did not…”

And then his diary tells us: “Since we were going to be there for some time, I went for a walk along the beach.”

The strong legs that walked a D-Day beach are no longer as sure as once they were. But with “walker aid” he still gets in a daily stroll. Come November 11 he may not be marching with the ever dwindling few,but you can bet he will be remembering that blackest of nights on the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey when the Eclipse hit a mine and sank in minutes and close to 400 sailors and members of 4th Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) perished.

And so should we all as the Last Post again echoes its loneliest of messages around the world.

(first published in 2011 but worth repeating)

Defeating The Vandals

It is close to 50 years since I wrote an appeal to Victoria city council and it’s a police department urging they not give in to vandals bent on wrecking a window-sheltered lookout atop the “beacon” hill in the city’s famous Beacon Hill Park.

Built in 1936 the Pavilion had long been a place of comfort for seniors seeking summer shade, or winter protection from the elements while enjoying a game of checkers; for park walkers of every age who appreciated a place to sit – especially on wet-windy days – warm and dry while watching rain squalls mist the Washington State Olympic mountains on the far horizon. If read my plea was ignored and by the late 1960’s the Pavilion, gracing the spot where great fires were once lit as beacons to guide ships from Race Rocks to the entrance to Victoria Harbour, was being ripped apart.

Windows were shattered – and replaced. Wooden benches were hacked and replenished. The interior became ugly, the floor painted checkerboards defaced and faded by urine and excrement. The once charming haven was a refuge no longer

In the late Eighties and early Nineties there was talk of demolition and reconstruction but the police department warned a pavilion – old or new – located away from more travelled paths would always be a target for vandals.

City council of the day listened and boarded up all windows and entrances strong enough to keep vandals and law abiding citizens out. The old pavilion has stood a lonely vigil since – a derelict monument to the triumph of vandal wreckers.

A few days ago Victoria Council member Ben Isitt was quoted in the local newspaper as sounding a new clarion call for city fathers – and mothers -– to take another look at the pavilion with a view to restoring it possibly as a nature house and including “a nice quiet sitting spot for seniors and other members of the community – or going back to a Checkers Pavilion.”

Fellow Councilor Geoff Young, possibly remembering the past, warned there would be problems with a simple restoration problem. He argued, with some merit, that to restore it and leave it open as a shelter was not an option. In other words he feared the vandals would soon rack up another victory.

Isitt seems to agree but argues “supervision and maintenance” would be reasonable expenditures “for the city to look at” to combat vandalism.

A third municipal viewpoint has been expressed by Coun. Chris Coleman who seemed to lean toward Isitt’s family oriented centre but surprisingly added “there is probably no call in today’s world for a checkers’ pavilion.” It seems to me that checkers encourages thoughtful action and should be a preferred option to challenge vandalistic thinking.

When the park was founded in the 1800’s commercial operations within its boundaries were banned – and remain legally banned. And no municipal politician to my knowledge has ever challenged that continuing ban, even in these days of economic hardship when the good things of life demand all ways and means be generate the revenue required used to continue our enjoyment of playing fields, pools, art galleries, museums – and parks.

Isitt says he has no desire to explore the possibilities of a commercial enterprise in the park; Young says the old idea of a tearoom wouldn’t be allowed under the old “no commercial ventures” rule, Coleman just wonders “who pays for restoration and who maintains it once complete.”

So dare I suggest the trio get together and launch a bid to get the original charter changed or amended to allow the operation of a tearoom-come-coffee bar with all revenues over operating costs going to security and maintenance?

When I made that suggestion close to 50-years ago I was accused of suggesting Beacon Hill Park become a fairground. Which of course is nonsense. Anyone who has visited great parks in other countries from the Botanical Gardens of Australia to the glorious parks of London and Paris will know that park beauty does not disappear because you can buy a cup of tea or coffee, a soft drink or souvenir – or heaven forbid an ice cream cone.

And I think a tea house atop the Beacon Hill with tougher than average security and cleanliness regulations; with great view windows, enough room for a floor checker board plus a few benches where weary walkers could sit and sip, would pay its way – and enhance the rain or shine pleasure that wonderful treasure already brings to us every time we visit.