I packed for camping, but included nylon drip-dry shirts and a drip-dry summer suit, a tent, an army poncho and an Arctic sleeping bag. As I would do many times in the future, I wore the Black Watch kilt I had not returned to regiment, thinking correctly that no one could imagine themselves being robbed by a hitch-hiker wearing a kilt.
Thus equipped, I took a bus to Dorval Airport and stuck out my thumb. As expected I was on my way making good time to my first destination, a village, south of Belleville, the county seat of Ontario's Hastings and Prince Edward County, where one of the fraternity brothers, Dick Sutton, lived. But Dick wasn't there, but on country jaunt. Dick's mother put me up for the night, and asked me a great deal about fraternity life in Montreal always saying "yes" interrogatively to keep me talking to extend my replies. I was soon to adopt her style of questioning as an interviewing technique, which I commend to others. One simply says, "Yes" agreeably and let silence follow so the subject feels obliged to fill the dead air with greater explanation.
My plan was to go to Fort William and Port Arthur at the Lakehead, now called Thunder Bay, near the western end of Lake Superior. I would apply to every newspaper on the way back. But now that I was in Belleville, I decided to cross off the Ontario Intelligencer from my list. I thought it would be a good drill to see how my plan would work, of going into the local bus depot, stowing my gear in a locker, putting on my drip-dry suit in the washroom, and then setting off to the offices of the Ontario Intelligencer.
I was greeted two female Bob Cratchet types hunched over desks in a darkened front office. A portly middle aged man came in from the street and went to a room beyond the front office with a woman close behind. The woman soon reappeared and I was invited in to meet Doc Morton, the stolid dentist who owned the paper.
I was surprised at the interest my arrival generated. A book called "Why Rock the Boat", about the Montreal Gazette, though fictionalized as the Montreal Witness, was the talk of the industry that year. By Bill Weintraub, it has created a stir, and had a mixed reception at the Gazette, which had been described as alcoholic and charmingly corrupt, with cash accompanying press releases and a large herd of untouchable sacred cows about which nothing untoward could be said. I found the book greatly amusing, and Bill numbered among the family's friends. But there were recognizable characters, like city editor Bruce Croll, characterized as the pompous military editor who was the subject of parody. My father was depicted as the naive city editor hoping to transform the fictional Montreal Witness into the New York Times. And in the credible feature film they made of the book, my mother was a vamp who seduced the young hero on a company ski weekend in the Laurentians. So there was some bitterness towards Bill and his book, even by those who were not mentioned at all.
It was a big deal in Montreal, and months after its publication continued to be talk of the town, but I was surprised to learn it was much talked about in the rural reaches of Upper Canada, which I was already beginning to experience as a foreign country, where I was treated as an instant star, and was instantly taken on as a reporter.
Belleville, at the mouth of the Moira River on Lake Ontario not quite half way between Montreal and Toronto, was a town of 30,000 then. I since note that it has nearly doubled in 50 years to 57,000.
I cannot remember much about the place. There was a young single male reporter I met and befriended, but in the two months I was there, I managed to do a number of things, but mostly I was on my own as there were few assignments given to me by the editor or his assistant. This was not displeasing as I liked working on my own to develop my own stories and found myself good at it, relying much on my mother's techniques like flipping through the Yellow Pages for random story ideas and looking to recent letters to the editor for overlooked news.
First, I looked for a bread-and-butter source of material. The obvious beats, like police and courts were long snaffled by the other two reporters. I figured that being the beginning of the school year, the big local high school, Belleville Collegiate, would have lots of dreams and schemes to keep me going for a few weeks before the staleness of another year sunk in.
I was driven to Trenton, near the RCAF Air Station, to cover a local town council, which I managed adequately. I had to suppress an urge to speak up when the councillors had reached an impasse and I saw an easy compromise. I covered the Junior Chamber of Commerce and it was here that I made a decision I wish I had not. I was asked to join the Junior Chamber, and following my parent’s credo never to join anything beyond craft organizations, like unions or press clubs. So I politely declined.
It is true that having joined the Chamber, I would have been exposed to temptations and inducements that would not have otherwise come my way. But at the same time I would have been given something to do in a town where there seemed to be nothing to do other than work. How disappointed I was to discover that McLeans magazine only came out once a fortnight when I was depending on it to fill another empty Saturday morning over coffee at the local diner.
The Intel was an odd creature. It looked Victorian or Edwardian with its mass of tombstoned headlines and stories on the front page with perhaps two or three small pictures and no pictures inside.
My first task, in the small largely sunlit editorial department, was to edit and re-type the "country correspondence" which were longhand parochial reports from church ladies on who did what and attended bazaars, socials, bakesales - and who came to tea at the various houses in Hastings and Prince Edward County done in the style of the Court Circular from Buckingham Palace which appeared in the Montreal Star every day.
Belleville occupied a section of a 400-mile front of United Empire Loyalists, descendants of those who fled the American Revolution whose feelings about the War of 1812 and the Fenian Raids of the 1860s were surprisingly intense and supplied the bulk of what little anti-Americanism Canada possessed back then. The refrain of Canada's national anthem "We stand on guard for thee", had these people in mind. Some even put UEL after their names as a post nominal, and were ready to shoulder a musket and rejoin the local militia unit, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. The "Hasty P's", as it was called, had a good war, about which Farley Mowat wrote the book, "The Regiment", which took more battle honours than any other Canadian regiment, though we in the Black Watch, would dispute the significance of that.
I enjoyed the work, only wishing there was more of it. After three weeks working as hard as I could, I wangled three days "sanity leave" to visit Montreal, which I sorely missed and was soon drinking beer again from the soft drink dispensing machine in the basement of Lambda Chi Alpha where I again was among old friends, and dreading my return to Belleville. I once met the Gazette's Jolly Jack Marsters on the street. How I missed his sergeant-majorly voice cursing some unpardonable delay as the paper made its way to the final edition every day. I learned Larry McDermott got the reporter's job soon after I left, but Jolly Jack deflected my question on how he was doing by asking me how I was doing, overcoming my complaints about Upper Canadian life. It was damn good experience, "experience you won't get at the Gazette" he said in that sergeantly mock snarl I so missed.
Again, hitch-hiking on Highway 401 that 550-mile link from Montreal to Toronto and Detroit, I made my way back and immediately sunk into a depression at the very sight of the place, returning to my rented room in a pleasant enough house waiting to go to bed with an edition of the Toronto Star, going to bed, sleeping till morning, then reading the Toronto Globe and Mail over coffee and planning work for the day.
But it all came to an end over a few days two weeks after my second weekend sanity leave. It was all so strange, much in the same weird way my first stint at the Gazette came to an end. I answered a telephone one sunny morning. The man calling, a recent arrival to Belleville like myself, had recently bought a house in which he found an old book, published by the Intel in the 1860s. It told an interesting story about a bank robbery in the neighbouring town of Napanee. The highly partisan book contended that the man convicted of the crime was falsely accused and the real culprit was another, who got away scot free.
It was one of those stories that joyfully wrote itself, and I thought to be one of my best, though otherwise unremarkable. It would be quickly published and soon forgotten, I assumed. The next day, I had come back from an interesting talk given by a Bell Telephone Company engineer about a new microwave system that was to replace wiring in Canada for transmission of telecommunications.
It set me to wondering if one could compete with the telegraph company, still a going concern back then, by verbally taping written messages, speeding up the recording, then playing the accelerated material over the phone, where it would be re-recorded at the destination, slowed down and then transcribed and delivered to customers.
I was in the middle of such musing, after the most intellectually engaging event that happened to me in Belleville, when I was firmly told to see Doc Morton, the owner of the paper immediately. There was an air of foreboding, and I could not tell what was happening or why I was involved.
Rather like an errant schoolboy, I sat outside Doc Morton's office. I recall what sounded like muffled frantic pleas from Doc Morton, the kindly gent who hired me, who was no longer mildly thrilled that I was from the storied Gazette of Bill Weintraub's book. I could not hear what he said over the telephone, but it sounded plaintiff and pleading.
When I was at last admitted, he asked about the bank robber story, and how I got it and how it came to be in the paper. He seemed to suggest I was involved with an evil plot to do him or the paper harm, so he could come up with a story in which he was a victim of wrongdoing. Evidently satisfied that this was not the case, but annoyed that I was innocent, I was dismissed from his presence.
When I got up upstairs to the editorial department I wrote the microwave story without comment. It was processed routinely by Reg, the assistant editor. He had been there many years, but he was not born and bred to Belleville and was only recently acquainted with the whys and wherefores of the current flap.
As he explained it to me when no one was around, which happened often enough in that tiny department, the story was that my article publicized a deep dark secret of Belleville's past and current condition. The man was who the alleged real culprit was, his family, still prominent in the town, had done well on the proceeds of the robbery. This hoary tale while suppressed and credibly denied in the 19th century had now suddenly re-surfaced 100 years later. It was the assistant editor, who Reg was fearful for his job as he should have known, he told me. Hearing my account of the Doc Morton interview, he thought I was in the clear. So knowing that, I returned to my room, slept soundly thinking it was all over, or at least my part in it.
Not so. When I got in the next day, I was presented a letter by Reg from Doc Morton, saying my services were no longer required. Reg, rather shame-facedly asked me to leave the building immediately. My clippings were kept though hardly useful because the Intel did not award bylines, even sparingly as newspapers did in those days. And I headed back to Montreal to lick my wounds.
Embarrassed, I avoided friends and stayed in my old room at my mother's in lower Westmount. She returned to her old refrain about my completing high school and was willing to pay for a private school, called Ross High, a school for misfits, which occupied office space above a pizzeria on Victoria Avenue in Cote des Neiges on the other side of the mountain. I accepted. I would enter grade 10, having only completed grade 8. It was a strange school, run by a fellow called Harold Ross, who I later learned was the brother of Fred Rose, Canada's only Communist MP, and one who was later caught spying for the Polish intelligence service, and once he did his jail time, emigrated there.
The students were an odd collection with little in common other than sharing highly individualized peculiar circumstances. There was a professional hockey player with the Junior Canadiens team, the daughter of the Australian representative for the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization, which was in Montreal, the son of the owner of a major trucking firm - all like me, weirdly unique and therefore typical, with their frequent and prolonged absences that kept class sizes small when they not infrequently had to be elsewhere.
That began another two or three months of grade 10 at Ross High, only made noteworthy for having a torrid sexual encounters - my first - conducted on the rooftops of two the highest high-rise apartment blocks in the vicinity. I also recall with fondness an excellent essay I wrote for geography class describing the sights and sounds of an African tropical rain forest by relating a tale of four fearful mercenaries on patrol in the Congo's Katanga province. The four men employed pro-ball fieldcraft in which I excelled in the army camp at Farnham, always fearing a Simba attack, and listening for changes in the sounds in the tree-top canopy and feeling the spongy ground underfoot. This won high praise from the teacher Mr Thurlow.
The other memorable experience were a number of excellent lectures in English by the famous poet Irving Layton, who engendered such excitement in the subject that even my usually comatose classmates perked up. It was a situation I have noted many a time since. The typical school teacher is a person who never left school and has no other experience. Almost any substitute, particularly those who have no teaching experience are far more engaging than almost anyone who has.
The other thing that happened was an event that shook the world on November 22 - the assassination of President John F Kennedy.
First the school secretary arrived to summon Mr Thurlow to Mr Ross' office. The rest of us larked about in high spirits while he was gone. On his return, ashen-faced, and he told us "Kennedy has been shot". There were ribald remarks, someone said "About time!" in mindless jest with others making sounds of dismissive disbelief.
Mr Thurlow was in the midst of saying how serious he was when other students burst into our classroom announcing the more important news - that we could all go home, confirming en passant what Mr Thurlow was still trying to tell us.
My army cadet buddy Alan Ritchie, the ex-Black Watch colonel's son, was completing an artsy BSc at McGill and was my key connection to the frat house, but he could not be found. I returned to my mother's place and I found her drunk and weeping. I instantly recalled how she wept uncontrollably at Elizabeth II's Coronation 10 years before. I asked her then why she was crying as it wasn't even her Queen, she always going about how American she was. So I put it off all the tears to her propensity to weep at state occasions. I was no big lover of Kennedy, having last been interested in US politics when I supported Eisenhower, even sporting an "I Like Ike" button much to my mother's disapproval who was a passionate supporter of Adlai Stevenson. No, what interested me was the shooting itself and what it would all mean. I had no emotional response at all.
Wee Bro arrived and I left them together and went down to the Gazette, figuring someone in the Editorial Department would tell me what was really going on. But when I got there, I was so impressed by its solemnity and the sheer quiet busyness of the place, with everyone operating on a need to speak basis, and I soon felt I had no place there. I didn't see any copyboy I knew none of them other than Dave Comar. I didn't see Larry McDermott at the police desk though Gary McCarthy was there. I left for the watering hole, Mother Martins, then lodged in the New Carlton Hotel, around the corner on Windsor.
I was more welcome there. While copyboys were not allowed to drink there, we were frequent callers, bearing cheques to be cashed from reporters on deadline, who wanted the money, but not the temptation to drink it all away as was their wont and their wives' great dread. And there were occasional calls to bring up a bucket of ice to the evening editorial conferences.
I found three older sports writers who I seldom spoke to, so I moved towards the end of the bar when Brodie Sydner, the news editor, came in and the bartender immediately delivered his drink without a word.
When not working, that is when drinking, his massive bulk backed his booming voice in which every opinion was delivered with papal certainty. But not that night. "It just kept coming and coming - AP, UPI, Reuters. That's all I can say. I just did the job," said Brodie with uncharacteristic humility.
Someone else came in and he said the same thing and then they all said the same thing - but in the same quiet way. They were tired and would have to go back after a couple of drinks. It did not seem the time for more questions from me.
Over the next few days, I was never far from my father's television set in the downtown Chateau Apartments. There was the Oswald murder by Jack Ruby in the Dallas cop shop. I also remember a televised eye-witness account of a man giving his recollection of the sounds of the assassination shots, saying "bang", then "bang" and "bang" concentrating on imitating the timing what we later learned was eight seconds. Even later, it was revealed that the shooter managed a tight group, that is, the closeness of the shots to each other on the target. My group at the Black Watch, the shooting team, fancied ourselves as snipers, so the technical aspects of the news of the day was of paramount interest.
Even from what little we knew at the time, the feat amazed us given that it was a moving target. At the Black Watch, we became embroiled in a friendly dispute about the Mauser-action Italian rifle with its telescopic sight being capable of doing the job. The scope was not necessarily an advantage, despite widespread assumptions to the contrary. Anyone who has used a scope, particularly those narrow-focused jobs available at the time, knows it takes time to find the target and hold on to it, especially if it is moving as it was in this case. What's more it is not like the movies where the crosshairs calmly settle on the target. In real life they giggle and jolt about unless the rifle in resting on a solid object like a window sill, as it happened in this case. The big difference here was that Kennedy was shot in a moving car.
Yet the Fiddes brothers backed the yet-to-come official version by pointing out that it was not the eight seconds the sniper team might allot itself in a rapid fire competition when the shooter must find the target on the order "fire". In the assassin's case, the Fiddes brothers argued, "the first shot starts the clock". Respectful as I was of the legendary Fiddes brothers, who were responsible for the trophies we won at inter-regimental matches, not to the mention the honours they themselves won at Commonwealth shoots at Bisley, England, I suspected they had only taken the position because they felt they could do what Oswald has supposedly done, which I had every confidence they could with an iron sight zero-inned Lee Enfield, but not with that clunky Mauser-style bolt action. But after being ignored on that point, I argued no more, respect for the Fiddes brothers being what it was.
It was now winter and Ross High School was becoming a fiction. Alan Ritchie and I decided to write a syndicated "youth column" for Canadian newspapers as we travelled around the world. But first, for a source of funding, I went down to the Unemployment Insurance Commission on Notre Dame, which proved to be an amusing and profitable venture.
After filling in a form, in which I admitted my modest educational attainments ("Last grade completed: 8"), I entered an office where the very model of a modern minor bureaucrat was seated.
"What was your last job," he asked.
"Journalist," I said grandly.
"That can't be," he said. "It says here your last grade completed was grade eight."
"Yes," I said.
"But that can't be. Journalism is a profession," he said.
"But my last job was a journalist - I was a reporter for the Ontario Intelligencer and before that I did some reporting for the Gazette," I said, presenting my substantial book of clippings, leading with the Gazette material as those stories had my name on them. "Phone them if you like."
After a quick glance, he took a red hardcover book from the shelf behind him, which appeared to be a short job encyclopedia, giving most of the jobs and their qualifications a UIC clerk would encounter.
But when he got to "journalist", he found no particular qualifications listed as he did with every other job description. All he found was list of synonyms, and the specialty jobs within the craft such as "reporter, editor, legman, editorialist, feature writer". Then he looked up "reporter" where he found another list in which "journalist" was included.
Peeved, he told me they didn't have any jobs for journalists and I was to go downstairs and fill in the forms to get my money.