My best friend and partner on our around-the-world hitch-hiking venture, was the unassuming but brilliant Alan Ritchie. He took up activities and mastered them without difficulty. In the regiment, he joined the pipe band and became an accomplished piper. My learning disability manifested itself as a coordination problem, so my attempts at being a piper and then a drummer were met with repeated failure.
Yet Alan and I got on well and shared many interests. First, I had met his friend Peter St Amand, also in the army cadets, at camp in Farnham, Quebec, in 1959. He said I should meet Alan because he was sure we would get on, which we did like none other, leaving poor Peter behind in the process.
Alan planned to join me in the round-the-world venture, so there was much planning to be done. All of it proved to be a waste of time as we fantasised adventures we would have, kidding ourselves that it was necessary to formulate contingencies.
Some of it was sensible enough and done with a drive to genuine excellence. It seemed Alan's parents were in favour of the venture at first, but became less so to the point of hostility, as time went on and we encountered an increasingly positive reception with one concrete development following another.
Our promotional package, or brochure as we called it, came in three parts. There was the 750-word prospectus. It pointed out that the youth market was a growing one. We did not have the statistic that was bandied about a year or two later, that 50 cents of every retail dollar spent was spent by someone under 25. Yet it was this theme we developed, and showed parents and friends of parents, who were journalists in my case and lawyers in Alan's, his father being an ex-colonel of the wartime Black Watch and recently a freshly minted Queen's Counsel for the Sun Life Assurance Company.
The second and third elements of the promotional package were two sample columns, again 750 words each. The first was an updated re-jig of my old Gazette piece on the impact of religion on youth. This time it made much of the fact that Quebec was undergoing a religious upheaval, from being a place more Catholic than Spain then was, to discarding the church entirely, throwing in the multicultural melange that is and was Montreal.
The other column was datelined Plattsburgh, New York, 70 miles south of Montreal. This was our first operational field test, going somewhere new in winter, some distance from home, with the object of doing a story. This column focused on New York's legal drinking age of 18, which prompted many young revellers to cross state lines from Vermont, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts, where the legal drinking age was 21, and whoop it up before driving home. In those days, weekend highway death tolls were routinely 20 in Montreal alone. One would have thought teens would have come over the line from Canada, but while there was a 20-year-old legal drinking age in Quebec, it was never much of a barrier to the younger set.
Hitching in a kilt to the US border and crossing might have been a bit tricky but wasn't. I told the friendly US Customs men about my mission, mentioning that I had gone to Stanstead College on the Vermont border. I told them I would be back in a day or two. As usual, no one expected anything untoward from a young man wearing a kilt. After that, it was finding a place to stay. The local YMCA worked, where I dumped my kilt and pack, and donned shirt and tie and a sports jacket. I then bounced around Plattsburgh, spoke to the assistant principal and a teacher at a high school, and a Methodist minister at his church, and dropped in at the local cop shop. Everyone was friendly and co-operative. I was directed to a couple of bars frequented by teenagers, who included a goodly number of off-duty US Air Force personnel from the nearby Strategic Air Command base. I chatted with the kids, and with a heavily laden notebook headed back to the Y and prepared to make an early start for Montreal the next day. Mission accomplished.
Alan was supposed to supply pictures, but he didn't come, having to prepare for McGill final examinations. He did help greatly in the editing process, and instilled advice that I treasure to this day and pass on to anyone who will listen. That is, keep it short. With rare, rare, rare exceptions, shorter is better. No time is wasted making one's work more succinct. Out of this advice came other maxims, such as the universally known "murder your darlings"— kill anything towards which you have developed a special fondness. Some of these lessons later morphed into sayings, such as not allowing words to draw attention to themselves. They must first and always convey meaning and not be used to parade one's learning unless such a parade serves to buttress a point.
While I found this process engrossing, Col. Ritchie, Alan's father, whence the shortening technique came, was getting testier about his son's participation as the excellence of our work showed itself, and it looked like we might pull it off. Meanwhile my mother fretted about how much I was doing to advance the project and how little Alan was. She was not withdrawing her offer to submit the material we would send in from the road, but I was ever fearful that it would come to this if I wasn't careful, ready to placate her at every turn. My father stood aloof, not wanting to involve himself in any venture with my mother and probably relieved that their antipathy excused him from involvement.
With April snows disappearing and Alan on tenterhooks about his exam results, we began to consider more freely that he might have to join me later if there was any need to take supplementary exams over the summer. It was beginning to feel like I would be on my own.
By now the brochures had been sent out to the 100 Canadian dailies. Sixty per cent did not reply; none west of Ontario or east of Quebec. The Toronto Star would consider anything sent on spec and gave me $50 straight up. Two weeks later they assigned me to interview someone over the phone, which I did, and sent me $60. That much money for an afternoon's work was fantastic.
They also said if I were ever in town I should drop in on them. Such an invitation also came in from the Ottawa Journal, and I quickly made a day trip and met the chief editorialist (forget name. but will remember it in time), who said he would look favourably on anything we sent. I took the much longer trip to Toronto in May to meet the Toronto Star people. This was another operational field test, where I had to navigate a big city where I knew no one. I would camp on the outskirts, enter the city in the morning, do what business had to be done and return—spending as little as possible.
The experience reminded me so much of the jocular Canadian army's description of a battle that it takes place in the rain, at night, and at the corner of four map references. Just finding a suitable spot in a thicket of trees in Pickering, Ontario, off the 401 north of the Toronto city limits in the cold May rain was arduous enough. But I soldiered on, recalling what the regiment went through in the Scheldt Estuary as I have done many times on hard slogs since. I even managed a smirk at the cold sergeantly comfort to "lean on your chin strap."
My tent leaked, and it rained all night and into the morning. I got up and put on wet clothing. I caught a tram downtown and thanked heaven that it took more than 40 minutes to get there so I ended up being damp rather than soaking on arrival. I confess feeling disheartened, no longer buoyed by romantic thoughts of being in the hallowed halls of the Toronto Star, where Ernest Hemingway made his name reporting on the Spanish Civil War. I had been proud, too, to be at the Ottawa Journal, where Grattan O'Leary cheered up Canada with his wit and wisdom 100 years earlier. Or working at the Montreal Gazette, where Benjamin Franklin was its first guiding light 200 years before that. As a romantic, such things give me great heart.
But no, I was wet and miserable—and now determined to work my plan to get in, get on with it and get out. And now having done three out-of-town trips without Alan, I was accepting that if this venture was to happen, it would be done solo by me, myself alone. The Toronto Star foray was doubly disappointing. Neither of my contacts was there. One was out of town on assignment and the other would be back the next day. As it was not really important that I see them, I headed back to Montreal, resolved to settle with Alan and pretend to believe that he would catch up later.
There was little to do but wait for D-Day, which I decided would be on or about my birthday, June 19, 1964.
Alan decided to pull out when it became clear he had flunked out and would have to take supplementary exams. He suddenly took a job selling life insurance for Sun Life Assurance, where his father was a lawyer, and even tried selling me a policy, pointing out the dangers of accidental death and dismemberment that could well befall me on this perilous journey. "You understand the need, don't you?" he would repeatedly say.
What was I to do? We had made commitments to follow an itinerary that would take us down the East Coast of the US, then across to California, into Mexico and Central America. We thought we might cross around Ecuador to Australia and then to Hong Kong, onward through Southeast Asia, India, Africa and Europe. But I had my heart set on Africa, East and then West, especially Nigeria and the Muslim borderland of Kano and Ibadan. I was also interested in the Congo, and Angola too, for that was my first passion. I thought I might join the mercenaries there. But all applications both military and journalistic in Lagos and Nairobi came to naught. I had known Canadians who had lived in Nigeria and expats who came to live in Westmount from Kenya, and I pumped them constantly for firsthand information till they threw me out of their houses.
After some anguished hours I decided to stick with Plan A and go it alone. Alan donated his superior equipment, so that was one plus about his departure.
My mother drove me to our country place in Vermont about 120 miles from Montreal. I would stay the weekend, and when she departed I would stick out my thumb out.
I had two costumes for the road. In one, I dressed as a soldier, though with a cloth Canadian maple leaf badge sewn onto a British maroon paratrooper's beret. I had a machete in a green close scabbard discretely placed on a US Army web belt with an army canteen attached. The other costume was the kilt, with which I wore a Glengarry wedge cap with tassels running down the back, and flashed a large silver Black Watch badge. So from the perspective of an approaching car, I looked like a soldier or a Scotsman, both seemingly harmless enough to pick up. As soon as the car stopped, I would put my pack and webbing, which included the canteen and machete, in the back seat or the trunk, remove my head gear and instantly demilitarise, opening my olive drab bush jacket to reveal a colourful civilian sports shirt. With minor adjustments that technique served throughout the trip.
My first objective was to track down the Shakers. My mother had wanted to do something on them, but never got around to it. My problem was that it had nothing to do with youth, the focus of my weekly column, which was to start soon enough. Still, Mother figured you could always think of an angle to sell the story after you did the research. As Mr Micawber said: "Something will turn up."
And of course, the Shakers looked like a good story. They invented tongue-and-grove boards, the flat broom and the rotary oven. Their wash mill, an early washing machine, won the gold at the
Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. And that wasn't the half of it: there was the process of evaporating milk, a patent bought by Gail Borden from which his company made a fortune; and a way of making virtually everlasting paint, as demonstrated by the white picket fences around their old buildings in Enfield, New Hampshire, which were painted in the 1840s and had to be left to stand without renewal. They looked like they could have stood another paint job, but the fencing was nowhere near being an embarrassment. DuPont bought the patent, made a fortune, and the market never saw hide nor hair of the Shakers' everlasting paint again.
But what the Shakers, technically the Millennial Church, or the United Society of Believers in the Testimony of Jesus Christ as Revealed Through Anne Lee, were famous for was furniture. Shaker chairs were tailored to fit each individual, and there were so well made and attractive that they fetch top dollar.
At their peak before the American Civil War, they had 18 communal colonies from Kentucky to Maine. Only two active ones survived—in Canterbury, New Hampshire and Sabbath Day Lake, Maine. There was an abandoned colony in Enfield, New Hampshire, where the buildings were maintained by a local historical society.
At Wells Falls, Vermont, at the confluence of the Wells River and the Connecticut River, I was picked up by Bob Anderson, a 20-year-old student from Cambridge, Massachusetts. As it turned out we had a mutual acquaintance in Montreal from Westmount High School, and after a congenial ride, he took me a short distance out of his way back to Boston to Enfield, New Hampshire, my first Shaker stop. On parting, he invited me to look him up if I were ever down his way—which I intended to do very soon. It was a pattern to repeat itself throughout the trip.
"As Bob pulled away," the log reads, "I was greeted by one Roscoe Jenny, a middle-aged man who commented on the size of my pack and then gave me the Cook's Tour of Enfield. He had lots of information on the long-gone Shakers."
Mr Jenny told me the Shakers had decamped to Canterbury, 35 miles to the south east. He then introduced me to the town historian Nelly Pierce. It was 10 at night but no one seemed to mind the hour so I looked at the books filled with Shaker lore and said I would return the next day. I pitched the tent in a thicket outside Enfield and woke up the next morning ready to plunge into a mass of Shaker material, this time wearing my grey rumpled suit with shirt and tie, looking correct and studious. I spent the day taking notes and being fed coffee and buns in Nelly's rambling house, with a decent hearty lunch thrown in.
Before leaving the next day I visited the remains of the colony, which were, and undoubtedly still are, impressive. Mr Jenny, a carpenter, took me through the four-storey granite buildings which were built like forts or prisons to withstand attack with three-foot thick walls. He noted that they were built in 1838 and marvelled at the mortar that had not crumbled in all that time.
Soon it was time to visit real Shakers and leave Enfield. I was thinking that this was a subject fit for the 4,000-worder that was sought by the Toronto Star Weekly. But this was a project beyond my meager talents. I had never had anything published beyond 750 words. But getting to the surviving Shakers themselves, three old ladies in their 90s, 80s and 70s, was Job One. First get the meat on the chopping block before worrying how to butcher it - as Mother used to say.
So off I went. There were several rides to Canterbury. At Canaan I was soon surrounded by an ever-enlarging group of children gathered to see this strangely costumed individual. This was no good for rides as each prospective lift thought he was picking up the Pied Piper of Hamelin. So I shouldered my pack and walked on a half mile until they were no longer following. I settled into gloomy thoughts about this being a bad place to hitchhike, it being a featureless tree-lined stretch of road, far enough away from the curve behind me to give a prospective ride time enough to assess me and far enough away from the curve ahead to give him a chance to have a second thought about picking me up. But he would be speeding up after the curve behind and speeding down the straightaway to the curve ahead. His mind would be on the road ahead and not on me.
Two men and a boy of seven slowed down and ended such gloomy thoughts. They were holidaymaking from Boston and touring the country, leaving their families at a campsite on the way to Canterbury. I told them my story and that my grandmother ran a hairdressers in Boston, and that settled it. They took me to their campsite, where I met the rest of their goodhearted families, who fed me and gave me beer, and I set out the next morning. A couple of rides brought me to Canterbury, where I made camp on the Glorious 12th in the rain. "The bugs are a real terror," my log notes.
When I moved to the Shaker Village, I made camp by Shaker Pond but had to wait to see them. Their only occupation now is running their estate as a quasi-museum, but their hallowed days of rest are Sunday and Monday. So I had to wait till Tuesday before I could start to wrap this job up. And the mosquitos by the pond were a torture.
With nothing else to do, I walked five miles into Canterbury and learning there was no restaurant there, only a general store, I bought two tins of spaghetti and a Boston Sunday Herald. I had been reading Tom Jones, or at least trying to, while being eaten by bugs and trying to breathe in the suffocating tent. Then came two days of rain.
Finally, I got to meet the three Shakers left in the Canterbury colony. (There were then two sisters left at Sabbath Day Lake in Maine.) I learned from the youngest that the last man died in 1939, and that they had been badly abused in the American Civil War for their pacifism.
They were entirely celibate and expanded through conversions alone. There were two main sources of recruits. One source was "winter Shakers"—mostly male tramps who joined the colonies when the weather was severe and endured the barrack-like discipline until the snow melted. Most of them left, but there would be a few who took the shilling and made a life of it. The most reliable source of members was the steady stream of illegitimate children left on Shaker doorsteps, where distraught mothers could be sure their abandoned babies would be cared for. But this came to an end in about 1905 with child adoption laws that forbade this practice. After that it was downhill for the Shakers.
I took a few pictures, one of Sister Marguerite, in which she looked just like the painting of Whistler's mother, and fled to Concord, the state capital of New Hampshire, which was famous for having "Live Free or Die" on its licence plates.
I splurged at the Hotel Endicott, a perfectly respectable place with the lobby filled with old men silently watching the Republican National Convention on television. I was vaguely against the then GOP candidate Barry Goldwater, being a Canadian Liberal, perhaps even a socialist NDP sympathiser.
I was big on civil rights, thinking that no citizen should have a vote while another did not. But that was about as far as I went. When I got to Mississippi, and ran into communist civil rights workers who reminded me so much of my mother's leftist friends. I did not tarry in the hotel lobby but instead struggled with my Shaker story in my room, managing not 4,000 words but 1,500, and forwarded it to my mother to send on as that was our arrangement. And apart from seriously lusting after the chambermaid who was about my age, but to no avail, I left for Boston.
While the Shaker story never got to the Toronto Star Weekly, as intended, it was published with considerable praise and with some expert but minimal editing by the Montreal Star 18 months later.
A few more lifts brought me to Boston, a city with which I was more familiar than any outside Montreal because that's where my grandmother lived. She and my grumpy grandfather lived in a big three-storey house in South Weymouth, which I since read in Wikipedia has the 10th highest Irish population in the United States. It made me think of my mother wanting us never to associate with the "famine Irish."
Writing a youth column precluded grandparents and the scads of visiting to and from relatives that would involve. So, I took a three buses to Cambridge, where hallowed Harvard lay not far from mighty MIT. I was welcomed by Bob Anderson's flatmates and given star treatment. Richard Dean Logan's name appears in the log. In Bob's absence, he and the other fellow took me out for beer and pizza. I must have been the most interesting thing that happened on Bob's trip north. They put me up the next day and said I was welcome to stay.
I planned to do a research piece on opportunities for youth in a local version of the Peace Corps - then all the rage - by signing up for the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts] Service Corps. I went to their offices in the state house complex the next day and discovered the woman I would have to talk to would only be in later in the morning. I spent the time "hopelessly but happily in the Beacon Hill section of town. It's very European, cobblestone lanes bordered by window boxes bursting with flowers jet black doors with shiny brass knobs and knockers. The sidewalks are in brick and the streets are lit by gas lamps. Every other garbage can was topped by Sunday's New York Times or Herald Tribune," my log notes. I recalled my mother's mad scheme, never executed, to insert an invitation to brunch in every New York Times in our largely French and local paper-reading neighbourhood in Montreal and see who turned up. I thought I would like her to try it here. She'd be inundated. "Boston was shaping up to be my favourite city," I enthused at the time.
Back to the office, where I met a girl who was in charge. She seemed put out to have to talk me as I was clearly of no importance. I heard from her there were candidates in the hall waiting for her as I had been. She answered questions and gave me "enough paper to sink a ship," the log notes. I waited outside for the girls to emerge from their interviews and tried to get something out of them. Only two or three would give me their names. None would be photographed. Still, I grabbed a few quotes and resolved to make up what I didn't have and needed when I wrote the story—as long it was in keeping with the tone and tenor of what they said. In short, making up what they likely would have been happy to have said. It was a technique I have freely used since.
When I returned to the comfortably messy flat with Playboy pinups on the walls, Bob Anderson was back from his weekend away and glad to see me. That called for another celebratory night out with beer and pizza. The talk was of three civil rights workers in Mississippi who had been killed a month before, so I got much credit for my plan to join the civil rights movement as a participating observer. There was also talk about whether Barry Goldwater would win the Republican nomination now that George Wallace had pulled out. Most were confident that Lyndon Johnson, with his Great Society and his headline-grabbing War on Poverty, would triumph in the end, whomever the Republicans nominated.
Of the GOP nomination, I write in the log: "It seems that Barry Goldwater's victory is not such a remote possibility as the New York Times would have us believe. Wallace's withdrawal will obviously switch whatever he had over to Goldwater."
The next day, departure was delayed was when I took a picture of a jet black girl of seven or eight in the pond in the delightful Boston Common, one of the treasures of a city I had come to love. The lighting her lustrous black skin and the bright red bathing suit prompted me to take off my shoes and wade to get the right light and camera angle.
I then met Stanhope Cunningham, 22, who was supervising the children from South End, a "greyer district" of the city. We talked of the Service Corps and I promised to call him that night.
Cunningham was a graduate of Middlebury College, Vermont. We first went to South End, where he worked. The slums there were of a better appearance than those in Montreal. We walked around for a time and gave a vagrant a dime for a cup of coffee, then followed him to see what he would do with it. After bumming a few more dimes, he disappeared into a bar.
I stayed on the streets all night, and the next day I headed for New York, where I would write the Commonwealth Service Corps story with a lot of extra material about the slums of South Boston, courtesy of Mr Cunningham.