Saturday, July 14, 2018

Haymaking on MacKenzie Hill


He’s been gone for two years now but fresh proof materialized just this morning that the pull of his personality lives on. As we approached Bob Nagel’s old place on MacKenzie iHillHill, after akjsfsakdjbfhaskjldbfdskljbfadskjlfsldKfnhsd\LGKahf\asjferw;l\gjS;L\DGNJw\r;les\gnj\rpG\NADS;fkJ\agr;egLJHill after our Dalem Lake constitutional, Jan and I heard the familiar strains of a New Holland tractor mowing hay—well, hay may be a bit too grandiose a term to describe the weedy, motley mix now growing in Bob’s field. The man operating the tractor is the same one who performed the service lo these many years, a guy with plenty of other options for spending his precious summer time—local, long-time Member of Parliament, Mark Eyking. 

The thing is, Mark is among the myriad throng who loved Bob Nagel and cherished the times he shared with him. Mark is just one of the folks around Boularderie Island who seek avenues for communing with their dearly departed friend. On a beautiful mid-July summer morning cutting Bob’s hay struck Mark as the best available means for connecting with his late, lamented pal. This communion is the only reward Mark will reap for his labours: Bob’s MP pal has no need of the hay—or whatever it is we should call the crop—and won’t get any material reward for cutting it. His reward will be a strictly immaterial one—the good feeling of seeing a job well done, the same job that Bob cherished over the many haying seasons that preceded the present one.

Mark is not alone. Others do their bit for their old friend even though the friend is absent. Jim Troke cuts the grass of the laneway and an apron around the old house. Bob’s nephew Dennis, the new laird of the manor at Wuthering Heights, will arrive in ten days time to find the grounds of the old place as well groomed as they ever were. Mark, Jim and others carry out their acts of remembrance—small and not so small—perhaps imagining the friend they cherished would be delighted at the ongoing proof that Robert Carl Nagel mattered in these here parts.

Wherever we wander on Boularderie we run into people who want to remember Robert—and share favourite anecdotes about the man from Boston who spent only the summer here but who seemed as much an integral part of the local community as anyone who lived here all the year round. Always a pleasure, Bob would say after hanging out with friends on his porch for an afternoon or an evening, always a joy. The friends knew he meant it.

Contention was a rare ingredient in Bob’s friendships but, possessed of a high-strung, volatile personality and being overly fond of political argument, I was someone who sometimes crossed metaphorical swords with him. We had unaligned views about politicians, views I was keen to debate, but like everyone else, I too relished the merriment and great fun that flourished whenever people gathered on Bob’s porch to savour what he irreverently liked to call “good Christian fellowship”.

On our way to and from Dalem Lake Jan and I walk past Bob’s place almost every day. I am like all the others: I too remember the fun and frivolity, the mayhem and mischief that unfolded behind the yellow door at the last house on MacKenzie ridge. I too miss facets of friendship: the laughter, the show tunes, the Jussi Bjoerling arias, the 2002 construction of the porch that became the venue for so much hospitality, horseplay and hilarity.

Neither Mark nor Jim need or want to be commended for their acts of friendship but I commend them anyway.  Mark’s efforts this morning were aimed at Bobby Nagel but they warmed another heart this morning—in spades.

They Did a Good Job


We went on a multi-purpose road trip. Knowing that Jan’s affection for traveling in Leo, the noisy Ram three-quarter ton pickup, is much slighter than my own, Darcy and Amanda generously offered the loan of their shiny, new Toyota Corolla. I would have considered the offer far too kind but Jan accepted—and happily drove every one of the 1,200 km of the journey.

A main objective of the odyssey was to bask in the presence of Doris Irene Bowles MacLeod, my beloved Mum, now in her 95th year. The dear old thing remains a gold-standard model of positivity, good nature and engagement, a model I can dream about emulating in years to come but know I never will. Mother and son canvassed the usual array of subjects: family affairs, the World Cup, the rescue of the cave-trapped Thai boys, the latest astounding and incomprehensible developments in the Donald Trump saga. Of course we played cribbage too, culminating in a series finale that saw Doris skunk me in a drubbing that brought to mind Secretariat’s thrashing of the field in the 1973 Kentucky Derby.

Nancy and Donald put up with us for a couple of nights at their shangri-la at the mouth of the Shubenacadie. I got up early both mornings, went for a walk, nearly stepped on a porcupine when his path crossed mine on the grown-over old Princeport road. Whether I was more startled than my barbed friend, who can say. I flushed a family of pheasants too, savoured the vocal stylings of an array of warblers and a brilliant rose-breasted grosbeak, felt freshly grateful for nature’s plenitude.

Halifax was the scene of the Atlantic Independent Booksellers’ 2018 Summer Book Fair. I was one of four writers invited to give presentations on their latest works at the Monday breakfast session. I spoke about Frank Fredrickson and Duke Keats, two of my favourites among thirty-two members of the Hockey Hall of Fame who were also soldiers in the Great War of 1914-18. My new book, From Rinks to Regiments, will be published by Heritage House in October. I hope the Monday talk will have persuaded a bookseller or two to give Rinks a turn in their front window displays this autumn.

At Amherst Shore, Garth and Carole extended their usual over-the-top welcome. On Monday evening the women thrashed the men at bridge. On Tuesday we went to New Brunswick, the women to take in a quilt show, the men to inspect the old Albert County courthouse and gaol and to attend to exhibits on two local lads who made good: R. B. Bennett, Canada’s prime minister from 1930 to 1935, and Cy Peck, commanding officer of the 16th Battalion, Canadian Scottish, winner of the Victoria Cross in 1918.

At Alma, gateway to Fundy National Park, our quartet invaded a little building that is currently the venue of Saprano’s Pizzeria but once upon a time was the cozy home of my Aunt Catherine and Uncle Cecil, a place I knew intimately as a boy. Other intimacies occurred there: goaded by Garth, I explained to the Saprano’s clientele, servers and husband-and-wife proprietors that this very place is where I was conceived in early May 1946. The honeymoon corner is now re-purposed: the Sapranos’ men’s loo. Where Mum and Dad took the key initial steps at producing their first-born is now the place dozens of men go to pee every single business day. The female half of the proprietor team made my day—no, my whole month. Regarding me with plenty of eye contact and a very warm smile, ‘Ms. Saprano’, said of my parents, the newlyweds, “they did a good job”. Honest. I neither lie nor exaggerate.

Departing Alma we chose the coastal scenic route and were not short-changed. If, gentle reader, you ever have the chance to select NB Highway 915 as your road of choice for getting from Alma to Albert, do it: the views of Shepody Bay, Cape Enrage and Mary’s Point are every bit as enticing as the place names are evocative.

Some road trips are better than others. Hearing an impartial, objective observer assert that HJ and Doris did “a good job” in that corner bridal suite oh so long ago did much to make this particular road trip one to remember.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Ferdinand Among the Ladyslippers


My affinity for the world of nature goes back a long way. As a young fellow my enthusiasm for birds and wildflowers mystified HJ, my manly father, and induced him to give me a moniker inspired by a cartoon character, readers as long in the tooth as myself may dimly recall. Bred to do battle in the bull ring with matadors, toreadors and picadors, Ferdinand much preferred lolling among wildflowers. He had no interest whatsoever in fighting. My dear old dad decided to anoint me Ferdinand the Bull. I formed the impression my new nickname was not entirely complimentary.

In his own youthful years HJ was more drawn to brawling and fighting than he was to birds and flowers. Sadly, as late as his fifteenth year, the chip off the old block was not just the smallest boy in Miss Kell’s Grade 11 class at Riverview high school but the smallest person. For a while my year-and-a-half-younger twin sisters stood taller than I did. Any time I got into a scrape with the neighbourhood bully boys I invariably came out the loser. HJ asserted that I must be the milkman’s son, not his, but given that he had had the good sense to marry Doris Irene he knew better than anyone that for better or worse I was and still am no one’s son but his. The poor man.

In the sense that HJ intended, I am still Ferdinand the Bull. I still feel there is hardly a better way to spend an hour or three than to grab the binocular and camera, step into the gumboots and go for a ramble in my woods and bogs. Here at Big Bras d’Or I do it every day. I revel in close encounters with pileated and hairy woodpeckers, Blackburnian and magnolia warblers, song and white-throated sparrows. And let’s not forget red-backed salamanders and pickerel frogs, red squirrels and varying hares.

The succession of wildflowers is pretty much the same show I see every year at this time but I never tire of it. The early stars of my woods—bluebead lily, bunchberry and strawberry—have had their time in the sun and will soon be eclipsed by Indian paintbrush, lupine and the first fireweed. I am not jaded because the parade is one I’ve seen before. Not in the least.

Every year I have a small number of a certain wildflower—just a single clump, perhaps two—that I look forward to seeing even more than all the others. It has been a cold June here on Boularderie Island; the wildflower I count the showiest, the grandest of them all has been slow to bloom. Almost every day I go to the secret location to check on the progress of my floral friend. I photograph the group every time. Today at last, three weeks after my arrival here, Cypripedium acaule—the pink ladyslipper—is finally in bloom. I rejoice. Any number of events might have turned my little group into a casualty but, no, it has come through. The 2018 edition is every bit as resplendent as all the others that preceded it.

Except for its unusual beauty, pink ladyslipper is not a rare flower. Doubtless other pink ladyslippers are blooming in nearby woods not my own. C. acaule is an orchid, the flower family I count as my favourite. Its surroundings here at Bigador—the floor of a fir and spruce wood—is just the sort the flower generally prefers. The image I took today of my very own ladyslippers will do a better job than any words I might muster to convey just how exquisite C. acaule is. Decide for yourself.

I am glad the timing of Jan’s arrival in Cape Breton—later today—is perfect. It will be dark when she lands at our cabin in the woods, but ah, tomorrow morning I can hardly wait to introduce my mate to the latest crop of our fabulous floral friends.