Month: September 2019

A Dream They Made Come True

In the final stages, it didn’t take long. Just a kindly request from a son to his dad, an easy response from the old man, and a meeting with a group of teenagers with an old dream of a new rugby team.

But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.

The teenagers had played rugby together for a couple of years with two high school championships under their belts in the name of Mount Douglas High. When not playing for the mountain men, they were the heart of a James Bay Athletic junior squad; fit, well trained, but unhappy playing what they called “pack rugby.” They were looking for a more open game with good hands, speed, and intelligent running as its main features.

They frequently met to discuss their dreams. Then, early in 1969, they called a “final decision” meeting – this time with a potential coach attending. I was asked to attend and “maybe offer some advice.” No harm in that, I thought, as son Mark and I strolled down Gordon Head Road to the home of another young rebel “to hammer out a few details.”

Two or three hours later when we strolled home, I was the president of an as yet unrecognized rugby club. And, not at all sure as to how that had happened, or in full understanding of what it meant.

Half-a-dozen players, one innocent father, and a potential coach Gordie Hemmingway were present at that 1969 meeting in a house on Gordon Head Road close to the Cedar Hill X Road intersection. The agenda included asking Gordie to commit formally to coaching the new team. “No problem,” he said but quickly added, with expletives deleted, that a few things needed to be done before he could agree to what was being asked.

Like what?

Well, a team name would help, as would a field to play on. Team colours would need to be decided and provided, a few games balls would be required, a well-equipped medical chest was essential, “and,” he said, “you’ll need a president to make the official application to be recognized and accepted in the league.”

It was then that son Mark smiled at me and said with seductive confidence: “You could do that, couldn’t you, Dad?” The other players chorused “that would be great!” and the trap was sprung. I had been a round-baller – a soccer player all my life now, suddenly, I was the president of a rugby club without a name, a home field, team strip, game balls or an essential well-stocked medical kit. And and no money.

A team name came first. Several had been tossed around at earlier meetings and Velox – Latin for speed – emerged as a favourite. It appealed to Gordie, probably because it had a familiar ring to Vindex, the team of his youth. Gordie had played for Vindex in Vancouver in his teens and with them had won three consecutive championships between 1951 and 1954. It was during those glory years that he played against the vaunted New Zealand All Blacks and scored a never-to-be-forgotten try. Google translates Vindex as “avenger” or “champion.” It was later made evident that Gordie played and coached Vindex style.

Latin student Susan Mayse confirmed Velox translates to “speed,” but suggested it would sound stronger if incorporated in a motto. I remember Gordie asking what the motto might be and think it was Jackie Clarkson who answered: “Velox Omnia Vincit – Speed Conquers All.” It was obviously thought best that no mention be made to Gordie of the feminine input. There was what the best of clichés describes as a pregnant pause before Gordie barked: “Speed conquers all! Okay! But just remember, first you need the (expletive deleted) ball.”

As the meeting was breaking up, I asked Gordie if he had any advice for his rookie president. “Yeah, stay out of the (expletive repeated) coaching. That’s my job. You just get the club everything it needs. The medical kit is important – and don’t forget corner flags.”

Sounds silly, but it was typical Hemmingway. His English vocabulary was basic, his rugby knowledge voluminous – and when it came to the game, he commanded attention to detail.

And so, we began.

The first game balls (first practice balls were player owned) were donated by Victoria lawyer Ian Stuart. Cash for the first uniforms – they were fragile black T-shirts, good for maybe two or three games because we couldn’t afford real rugby shirts – came from the players or their parents and friends who looked with kind amusement on my pathetic fund-raising efforts but never failed to respond. The “medicine chest” was thing of envy among other clubs. Donated by the late Mike Griffin and stocked with everything thinkable. And, the first corner and other sideline flags were of sturdy timber – not the slender wand-like markers of today.

Our home field was at Lambrick Park – then an emerging Saanich park, with the old Lambrick Farm residence park headquarters and the original cow barn which became dressing rooms for both our team and visiting teams. There were no showers that first season of 1969-70. We were not a pleasant fixture for visiting teams and, to be honest, the most loyal Velox players didn’t enjoy the wet times when the east-west slope of the field left a two-inch deep pool of water in one corner and the muddy slop of a baseball base path in the other.

We almost lost Tommy Carson one Saturday afternoon when he was swarmed and buried, facedown, in “the swamp.” A true story and far from laughable at the time.

On practice nights, those of us who could afford the gas lined our cars on one side of the field with headlights on high beam. I can proudly claim to have attended every practice for the first and second season, but cheerfully admit that for most of both seasons, I was wearing winter clothes with a flask of hot scotch not far away. And I sat in the car a lot.

I can’t remember when we finally got real change rooms and showers at Lambrick, but I can remember the joyous celebration when they were finally available. We were proud to be able to send visiting teams home clean.

And that’s the way – as I recall – it all started. Just the first few bricks in a fragile foundation which others have more than strengthened and continue to build on. I am proud to have been the first, but salute and thank those who followed: presidents, captains, players, coaches and those who never took the field of play but worked, and still work, to keep strong and alive the dreams of new generations.

Last Saturday – September 21 to be precise –the old Velox, now the Westshore RFC Velox Valhallians played host to a dozen or so members of the first ever Velox XV. A 50th Birthday celebration-reunion.

The youngest in the group was in his 60s; the oldest pushing 75. Among them retired school teachers, retired principals, retired lawyers, land surveyors’, construction company owners and a senior vice president of McDonald’s who began his career with the Golden Arches on Shelbourne Street and ended it with the negotiating team that took McDonald’s into Russia.

As I listened to their lively conversations and laughter at remembrances of triumphs and disasters 50 years ago, I realized how fortunate I had been to know them back then and how I still treasure their friendship today.

I have written before and repeat with sincerity: They taught me more about loyalty and sharing praise and blame than I ever taught them. And it was great to feel accepted by a group of successful old men I first knew as a bunch of teenagers with a dream they made come true.

Don’t Panic -You Are Not Alone

There’s an old saying in politics that the best way to lead is to find out which way the people’s parade band is marching – then rush to the front to lead the parade.

So, my general advice as we stumble from the starter’s gate for a fast clip around the track to an October day of decision is to watch your local jockeys and ignore, as much as you possibly can, the glamour-seeking leaders who have not yet decided which way the people are marching.

It must be 30 or more years since I first offered readers the general election principle of my much-admired commentator on matters of importance, Dr. Laurence J. Peter. And, I don’t think I’ve missed many elections – municipal, provincial or the big-tent federal – without at least one reminder from Dr. Peter that: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time – and that’s good enough to win election.”

A sad comment, but a true one, and fostered to a large degree by “The Press” which includes everyone from die-hard supporters of Gutenberg and print to the never-ending talking heads of CNN. We all seem to get a little silly come election year, and we started early this time with our prime minister openly confessing he had played his favourite game of photo-op a few times without considering down-side complications. Said he didn’t think it untoward at the time to change natural facial colours to a darker hue for theatrical reasons, but could understand today’s critical comments and courteously apologized for bad behaviour. Damage control? Maybe a bit late for that. Who knows what his un-countable famous “selfy” shots might reveal.

Maybe, as we get a little deeper into the campaign, we shall see emerging some old Canadian stature, the kind of political thinking we were proud to advance in the early days of the United Nations when Canadian peacekeepers were sought by troubled nations. I’m not sure just where we lost our stature on the world stage, but lose it we did – abroad and at home – when Lester B. Pearson retired.

Our last BCprovincial election ran on high promise from incumbent Liberals; hungry for power New Democrats, and the Greens ready to scavenge for any crumbs that fell from richer tables.”

It ended in shambles with a Lieutenant Governor’s decision required to declare the NDP winners and made so by the surprise Greens winning three seats and swinging them behind the NDP on all crucial votes.

A few days ago, Israel voted itself into a similar position with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz’s Centrist Party lacking enough seats to govern. At the time of this writing, Netanyahu has suggested Gantz bury old enmities and join him to govern. Gantz has said he couldn’t serve with Netanyahu as P.M.

And then there’s Brexit and Britain. Great Britain was once regarded as the most powerful naval force in the world with a powerful army to enforce gunboat diplomacy wherever it was required in an empire on which the sun never set. Until a couple of years ago, the UK remained one of the most stable nations in the world, despite an undercurrent of concern about membership in the European Market. The younger generation loved the freedom of movement, place of residence and ease of marketing that membership brought.

Many seniors thought old England was being swallowed by dark forces in old Europe. The Conservative government in power asked the people which way they wanted to march and seniors answered “out” and disaster followed proving once again that wise humans are not always right, nor do the aged always understand the best course in life to follow.

In the next few weeks, all party leaders in Canada will – I hope – be climbing out of the gutter they have jumped in early and telling us clearly what their plans are to make life a little better, a little more secure. Listen to them via their local candidate but think hard before voting, while taking small comfort from the truth of another Doctor Peter law: “Today if you are not confused, you’re just not thinking clearly.”

In An Age Of Illusion

If the organizers calling for a general strike on Sept. 20 in Great Britain’s disunited kingdom succeed, it will be the first total shutdown since 1926.

The strike back then was an attempt to force the government of the day to halt a series of wage cuts in major industries, with particular emphasis on coal miners’ wages which had been chopped as much as 50 per cent.

The 1926 General Strike lasted nine days. The strike being called for next week appears to be targeting a one day only shutdown to emphasize the need for stronger government action in the battle for climate change. With a new government awaiting the October blessings of the voters, it could be sometime before even the strongest of “directives” from the people will bring immediate, favourable, reaction – or any reaction at all.

Governments function today in an uneasy world, vexed by bellicose vanity in the USA and the once United Kingdom. Both are troubled “empires” with the States slipping a little more each day from its once proud position as a world leader.

The UK, alas, gave away her right to world leadership in those fateful years after WW1 when she was too busy fighting wars she couldn’t afford and losing rich markets she needed to pay her bills.

In his incredible history of the 1920-30s, The Age of Illusion author Robert Blythe describes the UK a mere eight or nine years after the war to end wars terminated. Britain was getting ready to bring one “unknown warrior” home for ceremonial re-burial. He would be “classless, nameless, rankless and ageless … the silent ambassador of the legion dead to the courts of the living.”

Of the men who did make it home, some were unharmed, but many were changed mentally. They no longer believed that blind obedience to obviously bad policy was essential. Sometimes they rebelled with cause; and sometimes without.

England was not a happy place in the 1920’s: “In France, the battlefields were being tidied up … Scarcely any of the millions of victims had been brought home, and most of them lay shallow beneath the soil. The trenches were filled in, and the grim shell-pollarded trees were leveled. At home the national economy began to shrink … and wages shriveled up accordingly. Between 1919 and 1920 there were upwards of 2,000 strikes. As the second anniversary of the war drew near a moral and material shabbiness enveloped everything.”

Important happenings slide between the words as we remember that for every one of the millions lying in shallow soil, there was a mother, wife, lover, or special friend wondering how it happened and asking why?

It is difficult to believe today that in the 1920s, stately diplomatic Britain had at least one cabinet minister noisily displaying Trump-Johnson tendencies and surviving the most outrageous racist public outbursts.

His name was Sir William Joynson-Hicks (cct) with a nickname of Jix. He held several cabinet posts before being appointed Home Secretary, which he delightedly told the world gave him more power than the prime minister. Jews were a favourite public target, and he didn’t hesitate to voice his derision upfront and personal. Invited to address the distinguished Maccabee Society, he let fly with what Blythe describes as “incredible insensitivity and insolence.”

And, like our latter-day careless babblers, he ignored all criticism, says Blythe. “He never took notice. The bubble of complacency in which his ego floated protected his nerve centres from criticism.”

Referring to a recent election, Jix said: “I could say that Jews were delightful opponents, that I am very pleased to receive the opposition of the Jewish community, and that I am, in spite of it all, your humble and obedient servant. I could say that, but it wouldn’t be true in the slightest degree. I have beaten you thoroughly and soundly, and I am no longer your servant.”

Boris and Donnie, please, take note.

(I have had my edition of The Age of Illusion for years. Still find it a pleasure to pick up, open at any chapter heading from A Great Day at Westminster Abbey to The Destruction of Neville Chamberlain and never cease to marvel. Wish I could write like that. If you can’t track a copy down locally you can try The Folio Society Ltd, 44 Eagle Street, London, WC 1R 4FS or www.foliosociety.com)

The Way The Big War Started

It was quiet in the kitchen. A large wall clock ticked away minute-hand seconds.

At the table, a mother and father and two teenagers sipped fresh-brewed tea, the father between puffs from his penny-clay pipe; the mother between pauses in the incantations only “pull-over” knitting mothers understood.

On a small table closest to the mother, a Philips radio murmured solemn music interrupted every minute or so by a BBC-cultured voice assuring listeners our prime minister had a very important message for us. So important that only he could deliver it at 11:00 a.m.

Seconds before that hour, the radio presented a burst of scratchy static, and at precisely 11:00 a.m., a never before heard of magical happening – Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was talking to us in our home, joining us at the table for a cup of tea.

“He doesn’t sound like a prime minister,” said my sister Doris, all of 18.

“Shut up!” snapped father. I, always quick to pick up parental storm warnings, just looked at the clock to make sure the BBC was on schedule and listened – but without much understanding until the PM came to the last line of his opening paragraph.

“I am speaking to you from the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street. This morning, the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.” The extra emphasis is mine but not really needed.

It was September 3rd, 1939. He didn’t really say much after that. Just a few words on how hard he had tried for compromise; how he had reluctantly been forced to accept “that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.”

The last line of his brief declaration of war was a plea to his countrymen to believe he had done everything possible to find a way to peace. “And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your part with calmness and courage.”

Chamberlain’s speech was followed by a long list of wartime – immediately imposed – conditions. All theatres, movie houses and concerts halls were closed; noisy rattles of the kind used at large sports events were banned unless they were used as warning that poison gas had been released. No bugles or sirens could be sounded on the streets. All BBC regular programs were cancelled with hours of organ and classical music filling the gaps between official proclamations.

The things we were about to lose, the restrictions we were about to face seemed of little consequence as the Chamberlain era ended. He died from stomach cancer in November 1940, a few weeks after resigning to make way for Winston Churchill.

Dunkirk and a military debacle in Norway had hastened his end.

My father, a survivor badly scarred from the WW1 disaster at Gallipoli, was not a Churchill fan but said he felt better with the old warrior at the helm. With the radio off, he gathered us around him in the kitchen for a comforting pep talk before he nipped down to the Wheatsheaf pub to sign up for the Home Guard.

As a 15-year-old with four months to go before hitting 16 on December 27 and becoming the regular “gofer” on a three-man stretcher crew – two medics and a messenger boy – my father assured my mother and me that I wouldn’t have much do. “You have to remember we live in the middle of England. That’s a long way for them to fly. They’ll never get this far.”

It was suddenly quiet again in the kitchen, although we couldn’t hear the clock ticking over the belly tingling ululating of an air raid siren – about 10 minutes after the PM quit speaking and the first time ever heard without prior notice of a test.

But, father said: “A false alarm for sure … They’ll know down at the ‘Sheaf.’ We walked outside to scan the sky. All was well. We were safe.

Some months later I stood in the same kitchen, ankle-deep in soot shaken loose by a heavy duty bomb exploding nearby and lifting tiles from the roof and soot from the chimney. As we talked it started to rain – and may you never stand in a previously immaculate kitchen instantly converted to wall to wall, ceiling to floor, thick black soot-sludge.

The “phony war” was over. The “blitz” was gearing for full throttle destruction. “False alarms” were no more, even in the always optimistic Wheatsheaf.