Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Is This How It Is for Hillary and Stephen?

The  Great Autumn Book Tour is now but a memory. In the interests of drawing east coast attention to Remembered in Bronze and Stone, Jan – my Sancho Panza – and I embarked on a grand tour of Maritime libraries to give PowerPoint presentations about the war memorials of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island and just a few of the men, boys and women who perished in its throes. Starting in Sydney and carrying on through Baddeck, Halifax, Fredericton and Charlottetown I spoke to audiences small and smaller about the treasury of stone and bronze soldiers that grace a good number of the region’s war memorials.

Canada has in excess of 7,500 war memorials, only a few more than two hundred of them feature the life-sized figure of a soldier in stone or metal. Some of the best of these – by the most accomplished artist-sculptors working in Canada in the 1920s – are to be found in the Maritime Provinces: the Emanuel Hahn grieving soldier at Westville NS, Hahn’s Tommy in Greatcoat at Moncton NB, George Hill’s bold trio of Canadian infantrymen in front of the Island Legislature at Charlottetown.

I might have hoped to sell out the remaining stock of Remembered thus compelling my publisher into undertaking a second printing. Just as well that I had trimmed my ambitions to simply this: motivating attendees to pay closer attention to their monuments and raise awareness of the enduring shadows Vimy, the Somme and Passchendaele left in the region’s communities.

Selling a few books turned out to be one of the lesser rewards of the tour. A better one was to have people tell me after a talk that they would look at cenotaphs in a different way and with raised appreciation. Better still were the stories I heard about grandfathers and great-uncles who went off to war in 1915 or 1916 and never came home again, leaving a legacy of grief and regret in families that endures to the present. Or stories about those who did come home again, altered forever by what they had experienced in the battlefields of Belgium and France.

Most of my audiences amounted to fewer than twenty. Some who attended were old friends I had not seen in years. For the most part we were billeted with friends and family – Stephen and Sheila in Halifax, Garth and Carole in Fredericton – but we turned the tour into an opportunity to visit others – George and Joan at Port Greville, Carole and Herb and Nackawic, Verna at Havelock – that delivered just the sort of personal connection that an old dog such as myself has come to cherish.

The most momentous of the six talks was the one that didn’t occur in a library at all. Pal Garth arranged to have me speak to a session of the every-Wednesday-morning Fredericton Golden Club, mostly older guys who like to get together for what Bob Nagel liked to call “good Christian fellowship” and to hear a guest speaker talk about matters likely to interest to men – there are no women in the Golden Club – above a certain age. Eighty-six attended.

Garth promised I would like the folks I met at the Golden Club. I did. Folks like Lyle, a life-long Maple Leafs fan who held no grudge when I admitted to preferring Les Canadiens. The affair opened with a rousing rendition of Oh Canada then the Master-of-Song led the boys through more song: When You’re Smiling, Molly Malone. Far as I could tell, no one held back. I certainly didn’t. We rattled the windows.

After reports from the Ways and Means, Bowling and Finance committees it was my turn. I had been warned that long-winded people get short shrift: go too long and you will get the hook. I spoke for 28 minutes. No one left. A number of the lads came up to say good things about the talk and to tell me more stories about fathers and grandfathers. I even sold books, five of them.

Writing Remembered was highly rewarding for me. Speaking about war memorials and those they are meant to remember is rewarding too. When Stephen King launches a new book I suppose he gets to entertain audiences somewhat bigger than mine at the Baddeck or Fredericton libraries. I hear the print run of Hillary Clinton’s new book What Happened is 300,000, oh, about a hundred times that of Remembered. That’s alright: I hope they have as much fun in their book tours as I’ve just had in mine.

Yellowlegs, Shaggy Manes, a Mess of Poutine Crevettes

Off we went with Garth and Carole to renew acquaintance with the Gaspesie – Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula. For Jan and I the previous encounter might have been fifteen years ago, for Garth and Carole more like fifty. Recollections were rusty.

At Carleton-sur-Mer Jan spotted a barrachois poking into the widening Bay of Chaleur: a narrow spit featuring a bird blind. We went there. Savannah sparrows and American pipits foraged in the seaside prairie; on the beach a bald eagle dismembered a carcass of indeterminate provenance as gulls stood watch, awaiting opportunity. Squadrons of black ducks and mergansers assembled nearby. Later, while the others took mid-morning comfort of cafe and croissants amandes at la Mie Veritable – I went back out alone and was rewarded by the sight of a brace of falcons – peregrine and merlin – heading purposefully to points south.

A bit further along Highway 132, in New Carlisle, another birding opportunity availed itself. At the Jean-Paul Dube sanctuary, more savannahs and pipits showed themselves while two greater yellowlegs left a lasting impression, both visual and aural, on pal Garth. In the heart of New Carlisle stands a bronze life-sized likeness of the village’s most famous native: Rene Levesque, beloved by Quebec nationalists, founder of the Parti Quebecois.

At Cap-d’Espoir we made a little waterside cabin our base camp for two nights. The cabin provided an excellent vantage for watching surf scoters and gannets and relishing the ship’s-prow cape that gives the community its name. In the evening, at the splendid Cafe du Centre, we dined regally on raclette, spaghetti fruits mer, flan caramel et al.

Late September proved a good time to mount our assault on Perce and the great rock that attracts hordes of tourists in high season. Many of the tourist shops were closed; we were spared the nine-dollar public sparking fee those who arrive in July and August are privileged to pay. Rocher Perce, the big rock that is the town’s main tourist draw was just as striking, just as memorable as it was 15 and 50 years ago.

At Gaspe town I completed a grail quest of sorts: seeing the only Emanuel Hahn war memorial figure in Canada that had previously eluded me. It occupies a prominent place right at the water’s edge as one approaches Gaspe from the south. Alas, the Hahn is a little the worse for the attentions paid it over the years: a piece of the grieving soldier’s nose knocked off, the thumb and forefinger of his left hand similarly abused. Do not assume that everyone regards a war memorial in an attitude of respect or reverence.

The very nice lady at the visitor centre across Highway 132 from Hahn’s granite soldier offered options on where to take mid-day sustenance. We chose the Restaurant Brise-Bise because, the nice lady said, that is where we would find the original poutine crevettes – the category of poutine featuring fresh shrimp. All four of us took our friend’s advice and, though shrimp poutine might not be an indulgence one should enjoy on a daily basis, on this occasion we were unanimously happy with the recommendation.

We erased some of the Brise-Bise calorie intake with a walk about town, then went to Forillon National Park to burn more in a walk to Grand-Grave toward the Cap de Gaspe. We stepped around very fresh bear scat but had to make do without a close encounter with the beast that deposited it.

Near the Gaspe Hahn I had spotted a fresh crop of shaggy manes, one of the choicest of wild mushrooms. We harvested these; chef Jan made the most of them back at the Cap d’Espoir cabin.

North of Forillon Highway 132 takes on a very different look. The low-lying, cheek-by-jowl communities of the Gaspesie south shore suddenly give way to hills and forest that are a Jacob’s-coat of colour in the early weeks of autumn. At Pointe-a-la-Renommee, the hills a blaze of colour, we stopped at the reconstruction of the first maritime radio station established in 1904 by the resourceful G. Marconi.

Culinary rewards continued: at the Restaurant L-‘Etoile du Nord in Pointe-a-la-Fregate some of us opted for the table d’hote. I felt particularly well rewarded for my selection of palourdes croustillantes and gros petoncles -- a medley of clams and scallops for those suffering as I do from chronic unilingualism. At La Martre we paused to gawk at the handsome red phair, a wooden lighthouse in operation since 1906.

From La Martre to Sainte-Anne-des Monts Highway 132 hugs the coastline at the base of the Chic-Choc Mountains, a dramatic road that must have cost millions per kilometre to build. As we cruised the north shore Garth happily seized the role of musical director. Robert Charlebois not being included among Garth’s onboard selection of CDs, we listened instead to his treasury of country music classics – Porter Waggoner, Patsy Cline, George ‘No-Show’ Jones, Eddie Arnold and the immortal Conway Twitty. Those who cherish country music above all other genres would have trembled in euphoria.

Sainte-Ann-des Monts availed one last culinary delight. At the Restaurant du Quai I opted for chaudree de palourde and bourgots a l’ail – clam chowder and winkles in garlic, if you prefer the bill-of-fare in English. After four days in the Gaspesie I decided that – aside from the birding ops, the scenery, the wild mushrooms, the happy conclusion of my Hahn grail quest – the regional cuisine all by itself is reason enough every fifteen years or so to pile into a comfortable car with bosom pals and revisit the Gaspesie. D’accord.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Sandaled Man for All Seasons

Intent on a Saturday morning bike ride in the Baddeck Valley we stopped at Bob Nagel’s spring to charge our water bottles. Just then friends Jim Troke and Cindy crossed our path. Dressed for a significant occasion they told us they were headed to the Sydney Memorial Chapel to join the folks wishing to bid farewell to Dave Ervin. I had heart set on the bike ride but Jan exerted good influence: this is an event I should not miss, she said. We had time to alter the day plan; we did.

I knew Dave Ervin more than a half century ago when we were both inmates at Riverview Rural High School in Coxheath, keen like other Riverview lads to avoid running afoul of Principal H. H. Wetmore, motivated perhaps to conduct ourselves such as to be included among the small band of RRHS scholars regarded as worthy by Bernadette Francis, vice-principal and English teacher extraordinaire.

I was a paper boy to the Ervin household and knew the whole family: Dave, his twin sisters Gail and Linda, their mum and dad. My least favourite member of the family was the family dog, a big German shepherd with big teeth and a scary snarl. In my reckoning the dog was always overly keen to tear my leg off. After high school I went off to university, grateful to be free of the dog, wondering from time to time how the fates were treating my old Cape Breton Post customers.

Years afterward – perhaps three and a half decades’ worth of them – someone organized a gathering of old Riverview people in Halifax. Somehow I made it to the invitation list. I was happy to see folks I hadn’t laid eyes on in half a lifetime. One of them was Dave Ervin. I might not have recognized him had I passed him on the street: he was trim the last time I’d seen him and had a headful of red hair.  The passage of time had eliminated both the hair and the old stringbean look. The high-school Dave had always been friendly and outgoing but his latter-day edition struck me as someone who could give Jim Carrey a run for his effusively gregarious money.

We exchanged email addresses and promised to stay in touch. It was not an empty promise. Once or twice a year, sometimes oftener, Dave would write to let me know of another passage from the Coxheath neighbourhood. Whenever a former friend or neighbour departed this vale of tears Dave would write to tell me about it. I appreciated the service and always told him so.

Now, on Saturday, it was Dave Ervin himself whose turn it was to be lamented and celebrated. The memorial chapel was filled to overflowing. A clergyman was on hand to offer suitable Christian sentiment on behalf of the dearly departed but it was the tributes from those who’d loved and lost a dear friend or beloved ‘Uncle Buck’ who carried the day. Those gathered at the chapel heard from Dave’s good friend Bernie Larusic and three members of the next generation of Ervins – two nephews and a niece. They were all evocative and affecting.

In high school we all spend countless hours with schoolmates sharing enthusiasm for algebra, chemistry and Elizabethan poetry but how well do we get to know most of the fellow sufferers who share those days, months and years?

I learned much about Dave Ervin I’d known nothing about. That he was a prominent unionist and environmentalist -- president of Local 1064, United Steelworkers and a principal in the Atlantic Coastal Action Program. That he loved books, history and music, especially if it was rooted in Cape Breton. That he wore only sandals, in January as faithfully as in July. That despite the best efforts of Gail, Linda and everyone else who tried converting him to gospel according to the Canada Food Guide, he lived pretty much on pizza and cheeseburgers.

The celebrants made no effort to paint Dave as someone having no warts but even his warts, many of them rooted in legendary stubbornness, were celebrated. I cannot think of any memorial event I have ever attended that was so charged with pure warmth, affection, love and high regard. Following the formal part of the festivities Jan and I stayed to share memories. As late as Grade 11 I was the smallest kid in my RRHS class, girls included, so I was amazed that Linda and Gail somehow recognized their long-ago paper boy. I sought and got more memories of their brother.

There was a bonus too: a small reunion, Riverview Class of ’64. I reconnected with Eileen B. And Sheila M. We exchanged email addresses and promised to keep in touch. Given the benefits accruing from similar promises exchanged with Dave two decades ago I intend to make good on these too.

Saturday’s events made it clear that Dave Ervin lived life richly and well. I am glad to have known him and perhaps a little sad I hadn’t known him a whole lot better.