An invitation that neither I nor the office could refuse was from a company called the United States Salvage Corporation that proposed to get what it could from the Empress of Ireland off Rimouski in the Gulf of St Lawrence. In May 1914, the ocean liner sank two years after the Titanic in only 11 minutes in 130 feet of water following a collision in fog with the Norwegian collier Storstad. Although the ship was equipped with more than enough lifeboats, 1,012 souls of the 1,477 aboard perished, making it the worst peacetime marine disaster in Canadian history.
Ted Church, the Gazette photographer, and I were to meet officers of the company at a hotel near the Rimouski dock more than 300 miles away. We no sooner arrived after a six-hour drive, looking like obvious newcomers with Ted dripping with camera gear, when two rough-looking guys approached us.
Having been taken to the ship, the MV Morrisburg, I could see that it was big enough to be a seagoing vessel, but only just. It was typical of those small coaster cabotage vessels docked in the basin bounded by the Clock Tower on Victoria Pier.
At this point we met the entirety of the United States Salvage Corporation, whom I came to call my 10 Verdun cutthroats. They looked like grown-up versions of what I saw on weekends at the Atwater bus terminal across the street from where I lived on Tupper. Later I would see them grown up in the ranks of Black Watch, because Verdun was our favourite recruiting ground. I remember Tim Burke, one of my favourite columnists, describing them getting off the bus looking like battered but indestructible lacrosse balls full of bounce and ready to go for a day of fun downtown with little more in their pockets than bus fare home.
And here were the same guys again on this bare excuse for a ship in remote Rimouski. Their chief was Brian Erb, a tall, bearded, muscular diver who would do the lion's share of the work. No sooner were we aboard than we were out to sea in the Gulf of St Lawrence.
I am a respecter of off-the-record agreements, but I do not seek them out. Although in newspaper movies, reporters say: "Can I quote you?" it is seldom heard in real-life journalism, where everything is on the record except when explicitly taken off in an agreement, which has a beginning and an end.
That would be the source of serious trouble between us as they jabbered on ceaselessly, speaking of things they shouldn't as there was little to do but talk as we motored out to the site where the Empress of Ireland lay and made preparations for the dive. They told me they were short of money and illegally engaged in cabotage, taking small cargoes on the q.t. down the coast to keep fuel in the tanks and food on the table.
They also told me of some structural alterations they had made to the ship—that is, a vertical pipe that ran up from the keel amidships. The pipe was open to the sea at the bottom but ran high enough to keep well above the water line. Apart from the entire idea being subject to probable disapproval by the Department of Transport, the fact that the pipe was only welded on the inside had everyone aboard worried. If it snapped, we would go down faster than the Empress did.
The plan was to get the eight tons of bronze propellers, which I was told was selling for 55 cents per pound. They had already staked out the site with balloon buoys. Erb was an experienced hardhat diver who had done many salvage jobs for others and now at 40 wanted to do something on his own. The idea was for him to go down to the propeller shafts and attach balloon buoys to each of the blades. Then he would wrap dynamite around the propeller shafts and then surface for the explosion. That done, he would look for the now scattered balloon buoys, then follow the wires down to the propeller fragments and have the Morrisburg come alongside.
Now the tricky bit. The problem overcome by the dodgy keel pipe was they could not hoist the heavy bronze propeller fragment over the side without risk of capsizing the ship.
So now, through the vertical pipe they ran a cable from a deck crane directly above. Diving down below the hull, Erb attached a hook to the cable that ran through the pipe. Having bored a hole through the propeller fragment, and a cable loop through that, he then attached the hook from the now descended keel cable pipe to the propeller fragment. Once it was attached, Erb supervised its assent to the keel of the Morrisburg.
He then clamoured aboard, and we gingerly motored into Rimouski, where we docked, ending the terror that the taut cable would fetch up at a different angle and snap the pipe, allowing the sea to flood the hold.
But all went well. We docked and Erb again donned his diving gear, went overside, detached the propeller fragment from the keel cable and reattached it to a shore crane cable. The ship again stood off from the dock as the shore crane hoisted the single propeller blade—this was the first time we had seen it. The ship then moved back to the dock, tied up and had the shore crane drop its load into the hold.
After that, it was party time at the hotel, which seemed to be a major centre in remote Rimouski. Despite its faraway location—about the same distance as Toronto from Montreal but in the other direction—Rimouski had all the liveliness and sophistication of anything I had seen, but was more cheerful with dancing and great music. At no time did we feel we were stuck in the boonies. The denizens of the United States Salvage Corporation were as pleased as I was and told me how surprised they were when they discovered the place weeks before.
The plan was to do the same thing the next day. No blasting, of course, but to track down the balloon buoys we had left and collect more propeller fragments.
The weather was not promising when we set out, but money was short and they had to work whenever they could. So there was nothing for it but to remain on station at anchor until the weather cleared, which it never did.
It got worse rather than better and we were now in heavy seas. Worse, we were at anchor so when the Morrisburg went down in a trough, it rose up only to be caught short and stopped dead by its anchor chain. It was the worst time at sea I have ever experienced. One second the floor on which I was standing seemed to disappear, the next moment it was hitting me in the face. Erb and his shipmates were used to this by now and I noticed that Ted Church was holding up pretty well, too. Erb had a splendid idea I shall always remember as a cure for impending seasickness. That is the tactical application of the humble apple.
"Apples are clean," he said. "The thought of them does not make you feel sick. So when you feel like throwing up, eat an apple on the principle that if it's going down it's not coming up."
To this end, he stationed barrels of apples at the four quarters of the ship. When I opted to be outside in the squall—instead of staying in the crowded wheelhouse with my Verdun cutthroats, each clinging to a cup of coffee which was either threatening to spill or was spilling on something, or finding someone too hellish to endure after a while—Erb's apple cure did the trick. I use it today if I have the urge to vomit. Another thing that happens is that the urge to vomit is much dissipated and is slow to return.
The violent pitching and rolling with the anchor literally jerking our chain came to an end when we headed in after it was clear no work could be done for lack of light. At this point Ted and I headed back to town.
It was when I got home after six hours on the road that I was struck by land sickness, the very thing that afflicted Sir Francis Chichester when he landed in England from sailing around the world a year or two before. When he got to the land, he staggered about for some time before he regained his equilibrium and could walk normally. I suffered the same way for about two hours. The road trip with a stop at a hotdog stand suspended the condition, as I felt nothing untoward on the journey and indeed not until five minutes after my arrival.
The story won considerable praise inside the office and from various friends and relations but was not well received by the United States Salvage Corporation. What they wanted, needed and expected, was a dignified finance page report that would make it appear that their enterprise was as solid as Gibraltar and a sure thing as an investment—not the crazy adventures of 10 Verdun buccaneers. As I heard that some of them planned to visit me with physical harm, I was careful about to-ing and fro-ing from the office for a month or two.
One of two extraordinary junkets I experienced was a voyage of the 27,000-ton Empress of Canada. Except for the Russian Aleksandr Pushkin, a 22,000-ton passenger ship, then doing liner service though Leningrad, Helsinki, London and Montreal, and the 15,000-ton Stefan Batory, which sailed between Gdynia, Copenhagen, Rotterdam, London and Montreal, there was nothing left of passenger services in Montreal after that.
The most laughable aspect of the passenger situation, at least locally, was the spanking new passenger terminal complete with space for shops and various amenities the moment it was clear that there was no need for such a thing.
Aboard my free ride to Liverpool, the most interesting aspect was the frantic sexual activity of passengers of a mating age. And if the passenger service was to be saved, which was the big topic with Canadian Pacific Steamships at the time, that was the thing that might save it if one could find a way to market it. The plain fact was that once aboard ship, girls wanted it as much as boys and were just as indiscriminate about partner selection.
The ship's main passengers were Scottish pensioners returning from visiting family in Canada and schoolteachers of British and European nationalities who, like the pensioners, had lots of time off. On the way back, this group was augmented by British immigrant families. We stayed mostly inside with rare deck appearances, because the grey North Atlantic is not a friendly sea even in summer. We spent a good deal of time drinking tax-free booze in the big bar at the stern.
On the return voyage from Liverpool I experienced one of the more emotional moments of my life. The immigrants, with all their belongings stowed in the ship's holds, seemed apprehensive as they moped over drinks in the big bar at the back. But the mood turned jet black at their first sight of Canada, painted as the cheerful land of opportunity in the brochures and now appearing as dark grey, nearly black, slabs of rock rising steeply from the angry seas of Labrador, which made Afghanistan look cosy.
With what-have-we-done looks on their faces, the immigrants retreated into their drinks as night fell. After a time, one table started to sing "The Leaving of Liverpool" with such feeling that the women were crying and soon they were singing it again, some substituting "Canada" for "California", with the refrain "So fare thee well my own true love" ringing out the loudest and most plaintively.
Then something happened to change the mood. It was an announcement on the public address system that first-class passengers were required go somewhere and do something "immediately." This aroused a great cheer because it was the first time first-class passengers were ever required to do anything "immediately."
The next morning as we left the forbidding Labrador coast behind, the largely absent sun throughout the voyage assumed its starring role and shone on picturesque villages with gleaming silver church spires as we approached the spectacular walled city of Quebec. Now perfectly mollified, the immigrants became impatient to get to Montreal to start their new lives in "Young Dynamic Canada," as it was described in the brochures.
Another junket that contributed little to my professional development was a trip offered by Canada Steamship Lines through the Great Lakes, though I did put out two financial pages of the Winnipeg Free Press without the knowledge of that newspaper's management to get my friend and former East Anglian Daily Times colleague, David Twiston Davies, out of the office so we could have few drinks in the Ivanhoe before closing time.
Canada Steamship Line's offer was for me to publicise their package freighter service and its novel method of cargo handling. Entirely new to me was roll-on/roll-off cargo loading, later abbreviated to "ro-ro." I was impressed. This involved having removable panels in the hull above the waterline that would allow forklift access from a cargo shed ashore to the hold of a ship using ramps inside.
The one inconvenience, or so it was thought at the time, was that the CSL dock was in distant Valleyfield, 30 miles from Montreal, to sidestep the jurisdiction of the innovation-hating International Longshoremen's Association. As a system, it was admirable enough, though I doubted it would work in any vessel other than a lake ship, because heavy seas or pack ice would make short work of those hull panels. But within its limitations, non-winter service on the St Lawrence River and Great Lakes, it could and would do a first-rate job.
The inconvenience of being far away from urban centres where importers and exporters shipped goods in and out was gradually appreciated as a convenience, that of distance from urban congestion with easy access to major arteries. This serendipitous discovery was shortly to be mirrored worldwide as first New York lost its finger piers to terminals across the Hudson in New Jersey, and London lost its Docklands first to Tilbury, 26 miles away, and then to London Gateway, 30 miles away—not to mention Felixstowe becoming the UK's biggest container port, 90 miles away.
The junket was a three-week trip my wife and I took while our daughter was left in the care of my mother. We marveled at the beauty of the Thousand Islands with its mansions and castles of the super-rich. For the most part I read big books, one, a biography of Bertrand Russell, whom I had come to admire, and a few others I cannot remember. I remember being quite amazed reading of Russell's recollection that as a child he was introduced to a relative who had directly insulted Napoleon Bonaparte. I was amazed that I was reading of a man who was still alive who knew someone who knew Napoleon.
Our ship, the French River, was identical to the English River, the 6,000 tonner on which we would return from Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. We first travelled to the company's terminal at Port Cobourg, 65 miles east of Toronto. There wasn't much more than a telephone and a coke machine there, which prompted me to write a story on how hard it was for seamen to do anything ashore given the lack of amenities at terminals deep in the boonies and the ever shortening turn times of ships as cargo handling became increasingly automated. It was a problem that would magnify a millionfold in years to come.
Next came the 27-mile Welland Canal, which connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, bypassing Niagara Falls. Its eight locks lift ships 325 feet from the lower Lake Ontario to the higher Lake Erie. We contemplated a mad dash by hitch-hiking to Niagara Falls, which I had never seen, but were advised against it as the canal was largely empty so our passage would be swift. We successfully did it on the way back, though it was a close-run thing.
It was weird seeing Detroit going by on the north side of the ship and Windsor going by on the south because of that peculiar bend in the river that twists US territory north and Canadian territory south. It was then I devised a theory, extant to this day, that the derivation of the word "twat," meaning vagina, was to be found in the word Detroit, meaning strait or narrows, which visually corresponds to the appearance of female genitalia.
Without further ado we headed north through Lake Huron where trees become numerous and towns are scarce. And then finally, through Sault Ste Marie and crossing Lake Superior to Thunder Bay and the Great Alone of Northern Ontario.
I suppose the rough-hewn streets of Thunder Bay and the crude terrycloth topped tables of the dank noisome beer parlour took us aback. One recoiled at the sheer crudity of Outer Canadian frontier life. It was all so utilitarian with not the slightest attempt to soften the ugliness of overhead cables, cheap signs and wooden poles sticking up, down, this way and that.
Thus we waited for our bus to Winnipeg, the capital and principal city of Manitoba, 370 miles away. It was a shock, the first time I had experienced raw Outer Canada, as I called it. Technically, being in Ontario, it was still Upper Canada, that territory being defined in the 18th century as those lands west of Quebec, whose rainwater drained into the St. Lawrence river system, rather than waters north of Thunder Bay that drained into Hudson's Bay, governed by the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay, aka the Hudson's Bay Company, HBC, or the Bay, today a department store chain. Founded in 1670, the Bay is the oldest company in the world. And in those early days it had a status equal to that of any colonial government, fully entitled to raise troops, hang and flog anyone they chose.
Winnipeg was much more civilised, as its citizens frequently and somewhat defensively reminded us, as evidenced by the fact that the ballet outdrew the football team, they said. One man was upset that I did not see the profound significance of Winnipeg's location being equidistant from several admittedly important cities in the world (I forget which ones, except that they were far away). Old friend, former East Anglian colleague and unlikely Canadian David Twiston Davies had settled in at the Winnipeg Free Press, an eminently respectable and market leading newspaper that was gently rivalled by the Winnipeg Tribune. Several staffers from both papers shared a house where much drinking and roistering was done, which my wife found increasingly tiresome, as she had not been a party animal since her London days and since had yearned for a stolid respectable life, which I shunned.
Our holiday was for three weeks: The first was getting to Winnipeg, the second was Winnipeg and the third was getting back.
Back home, I got a call from Jamie Buchanan, a friend of my father's, a successful commercial artist. So successful in fact that he lived in Habitat '67, the architectural wonder of residential living on MacKay Pier, all done to show how high and gracefully mankind could live for the Expo '67 world's fair, which was truly the toast of the world at the time. For Jaimie, then in his 60s, living in this residential marvel of the age was a personal triumph as his workroom overlooked the very spot on Bickerdike Pier where he jumped ship 40 years before as a penniless stoker and made his way in Canada to success. It pleased him greatly that he could look down on where he started from the vantage point of obvious affluence and success.
At the time, I was reporting on a ship arrest, which happened from time to time. Typically, unpaid bills caught up to a ship, which wasn't fast enough to find cargo and sail away again before pursuing creditors induced local authorities to arrest it until the matter was settled. This was dragging on inconclusively, but it was no big deal. That is, until Jamie called and told me about one aspect I had not known. More than a week earlier, the ship's officers, all Greek, had been summoned to a meeting in a hotel in town and then bundled off to the airport and flown back to Athens. And the ship and its 30-strong crew was abandoned to its own devices with no papers, very little food and soon no electricity.
Jamie, having been acquainted with such dire circumstances himself earlier in life, made a fuss, got some food from the Catholic Sailors' Mission, and organised a soccer game to cheer up the crew, who were mostly Spaniards with a few Filipinos.
Wearing his full Scottish regalia, with his Buchanan kilt, he strode off down Bikerdike Pier to the nearby Russian ship.
Jamie won a positive response from what I shall now call the SS Communist that they would meet the crew of the SS Capitalist at the appointed hour the next day. Well before game time, Jaimie led his dirty, ragged motley capitalist crew to the field where they lolled about on the carpet of soft grass on McKay pier which had long been made fit for high-class residential living. By this time Jaimie had rallied a few Habitat neighbours to provide food and soft drinks as well as an audience for the game.
An hour later, the Communist crew came into sight in two rowboats, one more of a longboat with most of the men in it, and the other, a smaller gig with two men and a fat white-clad female aboard. They were all in proper soccer uniforms, with white shorts and red tops, down to lookalike professional footwear. The fat woman dressed in white looked like the ship's medico. Except that she seemed to be something of a political commissar, giving orders that had nothing to do with the game itself.
The Russians kept to themselves and did a number of on-the-spot exercises. They pulled two folding chairs and a table as well as a bench from the longboat and rigged them for an orderly match. Jamie and his neighbours had rigged goal posts using duffle bags, which seemed satisfactory to the Reds.
At last the match between the Communists and the Capitalists began. The Reds made short work of our Capitalist team. Apart from some brief virtuoso performances on our side, the half-starved capitalists were hopelessly outclassed by the near professional teamwork displayed by the Russians.
What was interesting, though, was that this appeared to be deliberate on the part of the Reds. Not only did they appear to be a competent team who had played together before, they seemed to be acting out under the eye of the fat female a social morality play, showing us how teamwork and social cooperation of communism triumphed over the occasional individual virtuosity of capitalism. All more so when they never cheered or showed any sign of satisfaction at having won goal after goal. Even though the Capitalists were losing, they seemed to be the only ones who were having any fun.
Having concluded the social morality play, the Russians declined beer that was now on tap after the game and with some formality, got into their boats and rowed across the basin. It seemed they did not want any of their number to pull a Jamie and jump ship. None were allowed to walk around the basin to their ship. Russia was still the Soviet Union back then and St Petersburg was still Leningrad.
All of which might have made a greater impression on me than it did had I not been disabused of a notion while drinking a beer with the Spaniards after the Russians disappeared into their hulk. I had taken it in with my mother's milk that then Spanish President Francisco Franco was a bad guy, a second-rate Adolf Hitler. When I made remarks in keeping with this notion, one Spaniard who understood English protested and then told his countrymen of my dismissive remarks and they joined in countering what I had said. Jamie, hearing the unpleasantries, came over to rescue me and the situation. Having smoothed things over, he pulled me aside and told me that my view was not universal and that Franco had a lot of support in Spain, which was news to me.
In fact, it was that, rather than the Russians and their morality play on the soccer field that I took away with me that day. Had I got it wrong? The protesting Spaniards were clearly not Nazis or Fascists. All Jamie said in his brief aside to me was that some say Franco did a lot of good.
At one end of the Gazette editorial department was an array of reporters’ desks facing each other in twos, two to a telephone in the middle. I shared a desk with Andy Geller, a cheerful competent fellow of no particular genius who dreamed of a job where he would be expected to write stories under headlines like "The Mood of France." Never knew if his dream came true, but he ended his days in harness comfortably as a sub at the New York Post.
Across from us was another pair of reporters, representing the extreme right and left of political opinion at the office and separated by a Hadrian's Wall of unopened, neatly folded Pravdas carefully maintained by our resident Red, Phil Winslow. Facing him was Brian Stewart, whose father was CEO of Simpson's Department stores. He was also an intimate of newspaper tycoon Conrad Black. Phil and Brian would regularly bicker amiably over the low wall of Pravdas, a product of Phil's loyal impulse to subscribe despite his lack of Russian. When I later moved to Ireland, I saw such collections on front door tables of neatly folded Messengers of the Sacred Heart newspapers that no one ever read but could not bring themselves to throw out as it was the word of God—in both cases.
Curiously, Winslow and Stewart are now Facebook "friends," but apart from our mutual acceptance of each other at that level of acquaintanceship, that is about the only contact we have had. Phil had a reasonably successful career, being well received in a Marxist-friendly industry. And Brian, so well connected with the upper strata of society, was welcome everywhere. That advantage notwithstanding, few if any begrudged his great success because his deservedly high status was accompanied by high conscientiousness, talent and good looks.
But I had remembered one of those conversational jousts with Phil, with Brian saying something like it was far better that Franco won the Spanish Civil War than to have Spain turn into a communist state. I asked Brian about that again, and he told me that there was far more freedom of the press in Spain than there was in Poland or Czechoslovakia.
I soon bought Hugh Thomas' Spanish Civil War, read it assiduously and referred to it from time to time in later years. I noted that Franco was not a Fascist as claimed. In fact, he sidelined or executed Fascists in his ranks who sought to impose the fascist model of government, called the corporative state, in which popularly-elected lower councils would elect members of higher councils, who would in turn elect still higher councils until we got to the chief who ran the show. Franco wanted none of this. He simply wanted to be a common garden-variety dictator. As far as he was concerned, if you had a life to live without meddling in national governance, you were free to live it, as long as you did nothing to cause public scandal, or as Mrs. Patrick Campbell put it, "do it in the streets and frighten the horses."
This put me in a state of political reflection, questioning the efficacy of democracy itself. I had lived under one dictatorship and was still living under another. The first was that of our provincial premier Maurice Duplessis, who died in 1959. News of his death was greeted with great cheers from windows on my street in lower Westmount and calls to break out the beer. In 1969, I continued to live under the dictatorship of Mayor Jean Drapeau. Both had achieved dictatorial status because they had won such vast majorities and the confidence of those majorities in their respective legislative assemblies.
One could see the downside of such arrangements, that such inordinate power could lead to abuses. The fact that our Protestant school had to sneak in a film about Martin Luther because of a sweet deal Duplessis had with the Roman Catholic Church was one such abuse. Padlocking communist premises was also criticised in the 1950s, but that fell short of the Americans' near total ban. But that was explained to my satisfaction. As the communists would not be bound to gaining power through the constitutional system, but countenanced armed revolution and showed they were up no good in the Igor Gouzenko revelations, I too would countenance their ban and the padlocking. I was also forgiving of Duplessis denying Roncarelli his liquor licence, thus denying him his income and ability to bail out his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses who were arrested for disturbing the peace by driving through the streets with loudspeakers giving speeches in Catholic neighbourhoods condemning the "false church." When I read Conrad Black's biography of Duplessis, and got the premier's side of the story, I understood his reasoning. He had no quarrel with the Jehovah’s Witnesses being bailed out so they did not have to sit in jail to await their trial dates, but he did object to them being bailed out so they could return to the street to recommit the offense for which they were charged. Those who were re-arrested clearly showed that this was what was happening.
Mayor Drapeau's offenses, if they can be characterised that way, such as the banning of bare-breasted African dancers performing at the Place des Arts, were pettier than those of Duplessis, but the 1960s were more censorious than the 1950s. But for the most part, as dictators they shared a feature with each other—and with Franco: If you did not bother them, they would not bother you.
What those bring-out-the-beer cheerers and jeerers were unwittingly welcoming was democracy—not fake democracy, but the real McCoy—and the more I saw of it, the more I favoured dictatorship. Individual dictators were individuals with limited individual quirks and once they had exercised their individual foibles and proclivities that was the limit of their range. But ever-perfecting democrats are on a ceaseless quest to search and exploit the "perceived needs of the community," as I heard one ambitious social engineer put it.
Suddenly, a fully democratic Liberal Party came to rule Quebec instead of the dictatorial Union Nationale, and we no longer had to worry about nogoodnik commie businesses being padlocked or liquor licences withdrawn from those who funded trouble-making zealots. We in Protestant schools could now watch a Martin Luther film without fear of prosecution.
Instead, we could worry about state-sponsored linguistic cleansing and Frenchification. Now that the majority ruled, it could have what they wanted from the minority even if they had no hand in its creation or maintenance.
One might say with reason that my favouring of dictatorship over democracy was unique to my experience in Quebec. But no, it was soon to be confirmed in Vancouver.