Postage stamps. Nothing more. Just notes on brief items from the passage through life of William Richards Bennett, 83, born April 14, 1932, and left us for what the poet Christina Rossetti described as the “silence more musical than any song” on December 3 2015.
They are culled from tattered notebooks jammed with scribbles almost beyond cipher. None are of great importance, all are important in understanding what kind of man Premier Bill Bennett was really like.
The notes are not sequential, just blowing in the wind and settling where they may to hopefully add caring to his tough-guy exterior image.
Item: Thousands of feet above the Pacific Ocean the First Class section of the old and trusty Canadian Pacific Airline Trans-Pacific flight is winging the Premier and his small entourage – an executive assistant, a deputy minister and a press secretary – home from an economic mission to Japan. They are grouped on the starboard side talking quietly among themselves through take-off and then through dinner, which even in first class is not a gourmet delight. On the port side I sit in lonely splendour relaxing in unexpected luxury while not quite sure whether I have been upgraded as an act of kindness or mistaken as part of the VIP group which I know has been upgraded as a courtesy gesture to a much travelled first minister. Whatever, I sit quietly sipping Scotland’s classic version of the sleeping pill when Premier Bill slides into the seat beside me and in the quiet of the cabin while others doze we start talking. Not about the mission, not with notebook at the ready. Just talking. Mostly about family, about the early months of marriage and its challenges; about the problems of raising children – and what disappointments we must have been to our own parents. We talked for hours, just a couple of middle age guys with old growing up problems – as children and adults – identical to millions of others. I have never written about the details of that mile-high conversation. And never will. It was just two guys talking, not a politician striving for a favorable headline or a journalist looking for a front page byline.
It wasn’t the first time we had long chats with notebook, pens and news probing questions put to one side. Only a few days before our airline marathon we had walked the streets of Nagasaki around midnight marveling at the multitudes still abroad at that time of night.
It’s fair to wonder what on earth we were doing at the witching hour in the second city in the world to experience the full terror of nuclear war. The answer is boringly simple. I had a ghastly 3 am Nagasaki time to do a live interview broadcast for CBC, Vancouver, and decided staying awake would be better than trying to wake up at three hoping to sound intelligent – a difficult task at any time of day. Premier Bennett was wandering around the hotel lobby because he couldn’t sleep. So we went walk-about talk-about in the crowded but orderly streets of Nagasaki and talked about how safe we felt as strangers in a city where we had no language.
We wondered if Vancouver could ever be like Nagaski at midnight on a Friday night. I was a heavy smoker in those days, addicted and craving. Premier Bennett followed me into a tiny store not much bigger than kiosk with an elderly Japanese gentleman in charge. His grasp of English was as useless as my grasp of Japanese and my charade like plea for cigarettes was a dismal failure. The Premier remained silent – and amused. The old chap raised his hands, palms out, obviously asking us to wait.
We did, wondering what we would do if he returned with cops and if it might be wiser to just quietly fade back to the sanctuary of our hotel. Before we could decide the old fellow returned accompanied with a young girl in school uniform and obviously aroused from sleep. The old man gave her a nod – and she asked in perfect English what it was we were looking for. It was embarrassing to ask for a packet of cigarettes. I proffered a fistful of Japanese yen. She made change, declined a tip, bowed as did her grandfather and the Premier and I wandered “home” all too aware of how far behind we were in international relationships.
Four or five years ago I phoned the then long retired Premier to say I would be Kelowna for a few days and how about lunch or dinner? He said he would prefer breakfast, would meet me at my hotel and treat me to “the biggest and best breakfast you’ve ever had.” We met in the hotel lobby in front of a room offering the continental breakfast offered free to paying guests.
“That looks good,” he said, ushering me through the door to the first two available seats. It wasn’t the biggest and best breakfast I ever had but it was a wonderful reminder that Bill Bennett was still a careful spender. And we talked of a favourite memory – the day in the Yukon when he took the pillows off his bed to keep my granddaughter safe.
I had almost forgotten that 1978 story of a trip to Whitehorse and being invited along with other reporters and government officials to a mini-reception in the Premier’s modest motel suite of a sitting room with separate bedroom. I declined the invite because I was being visited by my Yukon based son Andrew, his wife Buni and their first child, Kate some 18 months old.
“Tell them they’re invited,” said the Premier. So they came.
Kate faded fast falling asleep on her mother’s lap. “That’s not very comfortable for you” said the Premier “bring the baby into the bedroom.” He led the way taking two pillows from the head of the bed, stationing one on either side of Kate “to make sure she can’t roll off the bed.”
I see by the news story that he is going down in history as a great Premier because of giant material projects. Fair enough. But he goes down in my book as great because while he fathered major projects he genuinely cared about the little things in life. And he did say as he ambled away after our Kelowna breakfast day “call me next time you’re in town. I owe you breakfast.” He was, as they say in Scotland, a careful spender.
In my book a good man – and in politics they’re hard to find.