Month: November 2020

Ultimate Arrogance

What a difference between the boastful truculence of USA President Donald Trump last Tuesday and the calm reasoning of President-Elect Joe Biden’s Thanksgiving message a day later.

President Trump, in a rare one-minute speech from the White House, wanted to draw attention to the fact that his bible, the stock market, was showing signs of a strong recovery in the past 24-hours – and it was entirely due to him.

And, of course, it was – but only a supreme con artist would have the arrogance to demand praise for an economic recovery sign which was, in fact, an open rebuke of his wild administration.

For days after his defeat at the polls, President Trump refused to admit his loss. People who count such things say he launched at least 24 legal challenges claiming the election had been hijacked by his rivals. Every charge was dismissed because when asked for factual evidence of forged, faked, or destroyed ballots, the president’s legal team came up empty.

Undeterred, the president stilled refuses to concede defeat, but after a flurry of firing department heads, who he felt had let him down, he did agree to remove obstacles that had prevented Biden from engaging in transfer of power procedures.

It was enough to indicate he knew that his days of issuing royal commands were fast coming to an end. And most a most appropriate happening for USA Thanksgiving.

Twilight for the man who wanted to be King

In the final agonizing days of President Donald Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office, a darkness is threatening to engulf what was once the greatest, freedom-loving nation on Planet Earth.

It did not need to be this way. A full measure of blame can be laid at the feet of Mitch McConnell – the Republican Senate Majority Leader in Washington, D.C. – who, four years ago, chose to remain silent as his then newly-elected president boasted wildly and falsely: “I am the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.”

That small dark cloud of Inauguration Day groundless bragging has since grown from childish bravado to the scale of a tragic opera, Trump’s version of the final act of Gotterdammerung – The Twilight of the Gods.

It will be well into January before we can add “former” to his title. And, there seems little doubt that he intends to make the wait as uncomfortable and chaotic as possible. If democracy suffers in the process, and the nation he promised to make great again loses all respect on the world stage, so be it. The fault will be the failure of others; never of his own bonfire of vanity.

Through centuries of repetitive world history, we are reminded that Nero fiddled and threw another party while Rome burned and its empire collapsed. It’s what the media has now tagged as Trump’s “scorched earth” swan song.

This brings me back to where I started with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republican senators who could have taught Trump the basics of democracy. They chose instead to let him become the ringmaster of his own sad political circus. They worried about his irrational behaviour but never voiced disapproval of his dubious acts until a few days ago

McConnell – his voice just above a quaver – was answering questions the other day in a media scrum, questions about the President’s latest venture into foreign affairs and military posturing which will create major headaches for President-elect Joe Biden. McConnell suggested that people in their final days of power “should not make earth-shaking” policy changes which Trump had just done with scowl and glower firmly in place.

Just a spark of truth. We shall see if McConnell and his Republican spear-carriers have the courage and integrity to openly denounce Trump’s “scorched earth” policy.

They can borrow a few words from Sir Winston Churchill when he faced a Nazi leader who brooked no challenge to his ambitions, a leader who thrived on mass rallies and muscle to control dissent: “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”

It’s late, but never too late to reach for that sunlit upland.

Officer and Gentleman

Peter Godwin Chance was wearing his “bum freezer uniform” comprised of “a short jacket open in front with a vest underneath … at the throat maroon coloured patches” proudly proclaiming he held the rank of Midshipman in Canada’s Naval Reserve. He was 18 years old; the year was 1938 and he was reporting to Division Headquarters located in Kresge’s department store basement at the corner of O’Connor and Slater streets in Ottawa.

Less than a year later Midshipman Chance was on his way to Halifax to report for duty at Admiralty House, in 1939 the Naval Officers Mess, Atlantic Command. In his book A Sailors Life, he recalls the sunny June day in ’39 “when I arrived in Halifax via the CNR Ocean Limited. The typical summer fog had burned off leaving the all too familiar pervading odor from the National Fish Plant not far beyond the railway station and the fumes from the Imperial Oil Refinery in Dartmouth across the harbour.”

Not that sounds and smells dismayed him. “I was young, I knew absolutely nothing – but, damn it, I was eager,” he told me a dozen years ago in the quiet comfort of his Sidney home. Eager enough to be excited when shown to his “cabin” equipped with “two iron beds, a small table, and a chest of drawers for each bed. There was a window, otherwise, it was pretty spartan.”

His cabin-mate was Surgeon Lieutenant Charles Best “like me a new boy … I remember him as a very kind man … and appreciated only later that he was one of the internationally famous pair of Doctors Best and Banting, the discoverers of insulin.”

That was in June of 1939. By September, Canada was at war with Germany, and teenager Chance was onboard HMCS St. Laurent making regular runs from Halifax to the Grand Banks on convoy escort duty. “This was before re-fuelling at sea was invented. We could only go as far as the Grand Banks then we had to run for home to refuel.” 

If accommodation at Admiralty House had been spartan it rated as luxurious when compared with the St. Laurent where “my hammock was slung in kitty-corner fashion over an oil fuel tank hatch and about six inches below a bright light that never went out.” 

Peter Chance survived the Atlantic and by 1940 was attending Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, England. In London, he tasted “The Blitz.” 

On completion of his courses, Midshipman Chance was assigned to the Royal Navy’s HMS Mauritius, a Colony Class cruiser. He was on Mauritius in Singapore on December 7, 1941, when the news broke that Pearl Harbour had been attacked. Three days later Japanese bombers sank the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse.

Other adventures were awaiting the young officer as he moved up the promotion ladder from midshipman to lieutenant to commander. He had earned his wings and served on HMCS Magnificent but is quick to point out “I never flew from her.”

He was on HMCS Skeena for operation Neptune on D-Day and later when she went aground and was lost. He served on many ships as a specialist in air control and command. He held 10 staff appointments including a period at Naval Headquarters, Ottawa, where it all started and where he retired with the rank of commander in 1970 to assume the position of Executive Officer at Osgoode Hall Law School. In 1974, he retired again, this time to Vancouver Island.

.

He still lives in Sidney as he awaits his 100th birthday on Nov. 24. And, if a cameo appearance on CHEK TV a few days ago is any indication, he can still recall with merriment details of high adventure that were far from humourous when they were happening. His most memorable ship’s doctor story was interspersed with chuckles when he told me of his first meeting with Surgeon Lieutenant Joseph C. Cyr who served on HMCS Cayuga when she sailed from Esquimalt for a 12-month tour of duty off the coast of Korea in 1951.

Lieutenant Chance had been suffering from a painful, badly infected, toe when “Dr. Joe” came aboard. His verdict on the new doc? “He examined, operated skillfully, the toe healed perfectly. We could have confidence in our surgeon.”

While on station in Korea, Surgeon Cyr earned respect from officers and men for his treatment of both crew and badly wounded soldiers evacuated from on-shore operations. Writing about it later in his memoir Commander Chance wrote: “Cyr calmly moved among the soldiers seemingly without a care in the world. He also won plaudits from Cayuga’s Captain – Commander James Plomer (cct) – for an emergency at-sea dental operation.

Fellow officers felt “Dr. Joe” deserved a medal and wrote a formal citation.

The response from Ottawa was received during a night bombardment of Korean coastal positions. It read: “Captain’s eyes only. Have reason to believe your Medical Officer is imposter. Investigate and report.”

The story made international headlines; the navy was embarrassed. Hollywood made a movie The Great Imposter; Tony Curtis played the lead and Ferdinand Waldo Demara – Surgeon Joseph Cyr unmasked – was invited to attend a Cayuga crew reunion a short time later. Waldo was dressed as a priest – and nobody asked if he was.

I end this short tribute with best wishes for Commander Chance as he closes in on 100. I thank him for his good humour and generosity of spirit – as “an officer and a gentleman.”

Is Just Remembering Enough?

Chaumousey cemetery is the last resting place for six RAF aircrew members shot down on the night of July 29, 1944. Five of the crew were English, the sixth buried in their communal grave was a 20-year-old Canadian – Flying Officer Peter Biollo, Edmonton, Alberta.

Chaumousey is a small village in what is known as the Vosges, deep in rural France. It is a short 18 kms from Epinal, where 5,255 American dead lie beneath seemingly endless rows of white crosses in mute, but powerful, testimony to the futility of war.

I was drawn to the gravesite of the young men resting in Chaumousey one sunny morning in the late 1970s. I had spotted the Maple Leaf flag flying above the treetops as we left the village. With a travel companion who delighted the natives with her French, we parked the car knocked on a cottage door to ask about the relatively new Canadian flag flying so proudly just up the road, and were plied with coffee and cake while we got a capsuled version of the events of 1944, then we were directed “up the hill” to the “Canadian” grave.

They couldn’t explain why it was called Canadian. Maybe it was because the English in the crew were next country neighbours while young Peter Biollo had come from the other side of the world to help liberate France from German conquest. They would have agreed with what RCAF Chaplain J.P. Lardie said a few years later: “Three thousand miles across a hunted ocean they came, wearing on the shoulder of their tunics the treasured name, Canada, telling the world their origin. Young men and women they were, some still in their teens. Fashioned by their Maker to love, not to kill, but proud and earnest in their mission to stand, and, if it had to be, to die for their country and their freedom.”

Over the years I have repeated the story of the Canadian grave and Maple Leaf flag at Chaumousey several times and probably will again if I live long enough. The last time was back in July of this year when I wrote about the courage of the villagers who, in defiance of the threat of German military interference, gathered in “a very large crowd and formed the funeral procession of these heroes whose caskets were covered with flowers and in spite of the interdiction of the Germans the big crowd followed to the cemetery…” The witness was Abbe Albert Mercier, the local priest.

I finished the July story wondering if the Maple Leaf still flew on special days in Chaumousey more than 75 years later. A week ago, I got an emailed answer from Stacey Adolph: “A flag is still flown at the crash site and another at the gravesite. A kindly family in France has taken on (the care) of the final resting place of my great uncle Peter Biollo.” She mentioned she had been in touch with the kindly French family.

Two days later paramedic son Nic spotted a note from a French gentleman named Benoit Howson seeking to contact me regarding an old article “about the crew of PB253 buried in Chaumousey.’’ He forwarded it to me, with copies to the sender in the hope that we can establish direct contact, which I’m sure we shall do in short order.

In the meantime, the note via Facebook tells me it is Benoit’s family that looks after the Chaumousey grave, that he’s written a “booklet” about the crew “written in French, but I’ll send you  a copy if you would like one.”  He writes: “My children have helped me tend the grave for years and they take part in the ceremonies that are still held.”

Which brings me to the end of another small chapter in my personal garden of remembrance. I remember these things, write about them, but I’d rather not be asked what I do in a practical way to make life easier for others.

How about you? Is just remembering once a year on November 11 enough?