"I like Bancouver," my 2-year-old daughter, Jenny, said in an almost magisterial tone as we looked out over the vast expanse of English Bay to four ships at anchor in the distance. Pat Nagle, the city editor of the Vancouver Sun, the man I knew in Montreal when he was a writer for Weekend Magazine, a national colour supplement that appeared in some 40 daily newspapers at its peak, told me to call in when I was ready.
Indeed, I too was taken by the beauty of the scene with its snow-capped mountains in the distance. Yet even on that brisk, sunny February morning, I also appreciated how snowless Vancouver itself was, and how we were blessed in having escaped the rigors of the Canadian winter we had left behind. We were now in the Lower Mainland, which included New Westminster. It was once bigger than Vancouver itself and had vied to become the capital of the newly created province of British Columbia--until in 1871 the Canadian Pacific Railway spurned it as its western terminus in favour of Vancouver.
In some senses, we had left the most idyllic lifestyles imaginable in Montreal and were about to enter the most unpleasant I had ever experienced. When I quit the Gazette, finding new the Southam management was interfering with me not because it wanted to do something differently, but only to ensure that it was not done in any way that was not their own.
I decided to freelance and made preparations, getting deals with the Journal of Commerce in New York, and three Mclean Hunter trade journals. Sadly, I told my wife that the promised Christmas trip to England was off. But as time went on, I was working steadily, having also picked up a Saturday shift at the Sunday Express, a recent Montreal start-up, plus two stories a week. The upshot was I could proudly announce to my wife that Christmas in England was still on.
Then the War Measures Act was invoked with the kidnapping of the British Trade Commissioner James Cross and the kidnapping and murder of provincial labour minister Pierre Laporte by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). Known henceforth as the October Crisis, it was to dominate news for a year or two, and benefit Montreal's Sunday Express because the kidnappings and the murder all occurred on Saturdays at a time when there were no Sunday editions of the Montreal Star and Gazette, a situation which gave me even more work. The editor, Bruce Taylor, said he wanted to send the FLQ guys a case of whiskey for the great favour their timing bestowed on the Sunday Express.
I thought Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau overreacted as I expected more from my wars than two kidnappings and a murder. The FLQ had already blown up the Montreal Stock Exchange the year before, and the world press arrived. Which made the Montreal's Men's Press Club the centre of the media universe for a few weeks as it indeed became once again that October. There were troops stationed here in there, in easily ambushed ones and twos. Empty army trucks with a single drivers to-ed and fro-ed and fro-ed through the streets, in an entirely meaningless piece of street theatre, evident to the FLQ and anyone who had the slightest knowledge of military affairs. Which, of course, meant no one in the public or media.
Except for Saturdays I was busy with shipping news and unrelated features. I was working in a small room in my basement, which I had rented to a local photographer as a darkroom, or rather in lieu of rent he would allow me to use it for my photo processing.
What made the situation idyllic was that homelife ceased to be the horror for Jill and myself that it had become when I was working at the Gazette. Jill had organised the local mothers into an informal co-operative in which they would drop off their half dozen toddlers in exchange for babysitting while I would be well out of earshot in my basement office. If she had to run an errand and it was inconvenient for me to do so, I could stand a watch with the kids for an hour without pain. I'd even enjoy it. If I wanted to go out for a drink at night, I would be no more than two or three block away, no longer part of a roving gang of pub crawling journos. My married life was in excellent shape. So when we we finally got to England, we finally present a genuine happy family front and returned to Montreal facing 1970 with a mood of optimism.
But freelance garden must not be left untended. The Sunday Express would only take one story and the Mclean Hunter trade were slower to publish and even slower to assign. Only the Journal of Commerce took in stuff normally, but it was at the nadir of the navigation season with only a few ice-strengthened Russians making their way into port. So less to write about.
A few weeks in, the idyllic life looked as if it was coming to an end. Add to the money problem, was that my wife had to close her playschool, which gave her such joy. This came about with a Quebec government invitation in the mail to apply for a licence, accompanied by a booklet outlining requirements, detailing "footcandles of illumination" and what I ended up calling "potties per bum." Evidently, we later learned that some local French licenced operation had heard of us and wanted to shut us down.
It seemed time to join the Anglo Exodus. I called Pat Nagle, who I knew from the press club when he was at Weekend Magazine, who had since become the city editor of the Vancouver Sun. I was in luck. He told me to come out as soon as I could.
The Vancouver scene was impressive. The beach on which my wife and child and I stood even had comfortable logs on which to sit. Logs that had escaped the sawmills deeper in the fjords, or inlets as they were called, and washed up on shore over the years, left behind by the receding tides.
We were staying at an apartment hotel within sight near Denman and Davie. Having had the family settle in there, I decided to scout out the Vancouver Sun on West Pender Street near East Hastings, which I came to see later as the cesspool of the Dominion, filled with derelicts, druggies and drunks. Not that it bothered me. It only added to the excitement. When I finally got there, I could not have been more delighted. The Sun Tower even looked like the Daily Planet of the Superman comic books. It also seemed to border on Chinatown, another plus.
So with a light heart, I climbed the few steps into the building itself but was already feeling a little uneasy that it did not feel like a newspaper, certainly not one that would be expected to radiate the power of the Vancouver Sun, the second biggest paper in Canada after the Toronto Star, in whose offices I had been and done business, and which commanded a much bigger building than this. It seemed that the Sun had rented out the ground floor to other concerns, and there were no signs directing people to the Sun itself. Seeking directions, I entered one of the ground floor offices, occupied by the Better Business Bureau, where I found a lady sitting at the only occupied desk of the half dozen I could see.
"No, no," she said, "The Vancouver Sun hasn't been here for years."
Whereupon she gave me directions to where it was, and the numbers of buses I would take to get there.
It had begun to rain and as the bus crossed False Creek over the Granville Bridge, a helpful man pointed to the Sun building through the rain-spattered window. As I wiped the condensation off glass I beheld precisely the sort of building I did not want to work in--a low-slung soulless industrial plant on the edge of town with nothing to recommend it other than its low cost and its access to uncongested roads, which undoubtedly suited owners more than those who worked there.
Feeling depressed, I found the bus back to the apartment hotel. I phoned Pat Nagle and made an appointment to see him the next day.
Our meeting was perfunctory as he seemed to be completely preoccupied. It was the moment of Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau's wedding to Margaret Sinclair, a local girl, the daughter of Jimmy Sinclair, a former Liberal minister in the 1950s. It was all so romantic, the eastern prince falling in love with the lovely mermaid--30 years his junior--frolicking in the fjords of British Columbia. I was amazed because it had happened again. My first day on the job at the East Anglian Daily Times, it was the Suffolk Suitcase Murder. My first day on the job at the Montreal Sunday Express, it was the kidnapping of British Trade Commissioner James Cross. And now on my first day at the Vancouver Sun, the world's most talked-about prime minister was caught up in a fairytale romance in a fairytale setting.
Needless to say, they had little time for me. Even Pat handed me off to an old hand, George Dobbie, who pointed to an empty desk and told me where things were. Neither George, the labour reporter, nor I had much to do with the day's proceedings, which seemed pretty trivial to me, despite their obvious news value.
The Sun editorial looked as much like the Montreal Star as any editorial department I had entered before or have since. A vast expanse of desks with a large singular circular desk peopled with sub-editors dominated the space between the reporters and a row of news executive offices that had the only windows except for an L-shaped alcove, which took the space of two offices to provide light for the art/photo department. That describes one half of the office. The other half, separated by a low wall topped with plastic shrubbery, was a carpeted section containing the women's and entertainment departments, editorial writers, and op-ed and special features. It was said the managing editor Bill Galt could have had the rest of the editorial section carpeted, but decided against it to general applause, because he would not be able to put out his cigarettes on the floor. He later died of lung cancer.
Like the Montreal Star, the Sun had a full-range cafeteria, or rather the Pacific Press did. The Pacific Press took on the air of public utility, housing both the p.m. Sun and the a.m. Daily Province, the latter of which was just down the hall beyond the library and morgue that the two newspapers shared, allowing each newspaper access to the other's files. The Sun and the Province owned the Pacific Press, and with the exception of the library and morgue, the delivery trucks ran separate and competitive operations, with the Province being not two thirds the size of the Sun.
The Sun was both the high and low point of my career. I soon grew to dislike the place. I had never had a car and didn't want one. My brother had a car and was forever cursing it for all the costs and problems it created. The only time I had ever wanted one was when I had to visit someone in the country, at which time there was always someone to offer a lift. But in Vancouver, one felt like a paraplegic without a car.
There was the incessant rain. It beat Glasgow that way, according to my wife, who spent her childhood there. And there was the sheer ugliness of the town itself--Thunder Bay-by-the-Sea I called it--a crude shack town trapped under a fishnet of overhead cables. The object of one's aesthetic appreciation was always 10 miles away. Like a stage set, it looked quite grand at a distance but did not bear close scrutiny. Like the wonderful-looking mountains: Once you got there it was all scraggy jack pine and sharp rocks and no place to sit. But from the mountains, one gazed down upon what looked like a beautiful city on the bay.
Professionally, life was unpleasant, especially at first. There were lessons learnt and they were invariably painful. I was taking my place in the ranks and marching with the troops, as I had never done since my days in England. I was hoping, and not unreasonably expecting, that I could cover the Port of Vancouver and within a short time prove my worth. I was a ferret by nature and not a retriever. Usually, newspapers accommodated both, ferrets that looked for their own stories and retrievers who brought back to the office what the office expected to be fetched. Newspapers like the Ontario Intelligencer employed ferrets only, where every reporter was expected to go get what stories he could. Well, the Vancouver Sun was the first I had ever encountered that went the other way. All the reporters were retrievers. Nobody did anything without an assignment.
I think this had something to do with the trench warfare between management and union that in effect created two bosses. Two bosses who didn't like each other. One of the irritating things about the place is that one had a day off on Sunday and then on one rotating day during the week, much the same as the copy boy system at the Montreal Gazette. I asked Pat Nagle, who was now cast in the role of "management," if I could have any two days off during the week, even if it meant working Sundays. That was no problem with him, but I would have to square it with the union, the American Newspaper Guild. But no way. It was my right to have Sunday off and the union would defend that right to the death, and I was scolded for wanting to throw that right away and put the rights of all my "brothers and sisters" at risk.
To be fair, the union had managed to bring us the highest salaries in Canada, at least until the Toronto Star collective bargaining process ended and they leap-frogged over us, as we would be expected to leap-frog over them when our time came three years hence. But both rent and food prices were higher in Vancouver, so there was little difference between the cost of living here and in Montreal despite the higher wages.
However painful it was to be a nobody in this world and be criticised for work that would have passed muster at the Gazette or the Star, one eventually met the higher standard and in retrospect was grateful for the discipline imposed. Working for the Sun was like working for the FBI. Everything was stiff and formal; one worked shifts, with the 4-12 night shifts going to newcomers for the most part.
The first lesson was trivial, but it bespoke of the rigidity of the place. Stories were written on "short takes," that is, 5" x 8" pieces of pulp paper, of which one had to make two carbon copies. The rule was that on the first "take" one only put the first paragraph, while following paragraphs, typically 30 - 40-word units, were put on the subsequent takes in groups of three or four. The system had a purpose long ago when papers were smaller and the Sun was more sensational. This might well necessitate the first take or "lead" (later spelt "lede') to be assigned a different linotype machine to set the first paragraph in larger, flashier type. But those days had long gone as newspapers settled into market-segmented non-competitive environments outside a very few big city markets in the Western world.
Nonetheless, the Montreal papers' ready-on-the-night dragoons could do a job with great flexibility and without orders from on high. The Vancouver Sun was more like the Brigade of Guards. To be fair, what it lacked in originality and dash it had in exacting standards. Stories tended to have a two-side, three-source minimum. One was forbidden the use of the word "may" in a lead or a headline. A possible dock strike the next day could not be described in terms of a strike that "may" happen, but rather that the union was "considering" strike action that day. That way we were reporting something that actually happened, the union "considering," rather than something that "may" happen, that is, that did not happen. Similarly, sources did not "think" or "feel" this way or that. Instead, they "said" they "thought" or "felt"-- better still, they simply "said" something. As one sub put it: "Who knows what the bugger felt or thought?" My gang of newcomers to the Sun distilled it into the phrase, the "Is It or Is It Not School of Journalism," one I admire and adhere to as much as I can to this day.
Most nights a reporter, if not given an assignment to cover a suburban council meeting from North Vancouver to Port Coquitlam, which was straightforward enough though still challenging, would be given three or four assignments to be pursued by telephone.
When covering councils and public meetings, the desk demanded a thoroughness, which involved getting all the names of people who participated. So one would write "baldy" or "big nose" or "tits" and attach their quotes before later tracking down their real names and titles. Most annoyingly, one had to pursue a female participant to establish her marital status so we could write "Miss" or "Mrs," as "Ms" was not acceptable at the time. Or in the office, one would be given three or four assignments, with clippings or photocopies of clippings attached. The clipping would be underlined, as in, "the mayor said the Port Coquitlam gravel pits would be safely fenced off by April 4." The reporter would note that it was now April 5 and he was charged with finding out whether the promised deed had been done, or if it had not, why not, and when would it be done. This thoroughness, this reliability of the Vancouver Sun, was part of the reason why it was like working for the FBI inside the office. We were accorded great respect outside the office. People regarded a Sun reporter with a slight sense of awe, something I never found before or since.
One of our number on assignment in the "Interior"—that's what they called the rest of the province beyond the Lower Mainland, as if it were Brazil—told us on his return that he was interviewed by the local weekly on the basis that a Vancouver Sun reporter was in town to cover an issue or an event. He couldn't believe his VIP treatment. "It was like I was from a Royal Commission or something," he said.
I did exorcise one of my demons at the Sun. Feeling bitter, I was assigned to interview the departing principal of Kitsilano High School. I realised that this was my chance to get one of these bastards that made my teenage years such a torment. I would roast him in print.
I got there early and skulked around the schoolyard asking kids about him. They had little if anything bad to say about him; most said he was a "good guy." Still, before the scheduled interview, I asked if I could wait in the teacher's common room, where I met a few teachers before class. They all were fans too, hoping that his replacement would be half as good.
So I went in totally disarmed, and as I got to the end of the interview, which was bound to be an undisguised panegyric, I told him of my evil intent.
"Where did you go to school?"
"Westmount High," I said, "in Montreal."
"Interesting," he said. "We had a girl from there a couple of years ago. It's true, she had her teething problems, but got over them soon enough. What is interesting was that Westmount High sent a nasty letter to us, warning us what trouble she would cause, and it turned out not to be true at all. Thank you for telling me your story. It explains a great deal."
For a time, I would no longer think of this province as BC, but as "British Columbia," savoring the words as if they were a remote part of the empire, milking it for all the romance I could get. Another newcomer reporter came back with a story from the Interior of Indians blocking a train carrying the premier until they had a powwow about whatever was bothering them.
These moments of being regarded with awe were infrequent; what dominated was the boredom of the daily grind of Port Coquitlam gravel pit fencing and the like, with the assignments being returned to the desk noting that the contact was "unavailable at end of shift." Much of our time was spent behind the Pacific Press Building up the lane and through the back door of our refuge from care, the War Amputations of Canada, a quasi-Royal Canadian Legion Hall on West Broadway.
Ironically, the "War Amps" had quite an active dance floor, because it was the only place once could drink on that side of False Creek and had guest membership privileges that were not at all difficult to secure. There were still a few war amputees there, one of whom told me how he lost his leg in World War I. "I was eating a plate of beans and I heard this sound. Next thing I knew I was in hospital without my leg." It was the shortest war story I had ever heard.
As so many newcomers got the night shifts, it was where I met most of my friends, and many a night we spent at the War Amps, aka the "Stump Club."
One of the few goofs the Vancouver Sun made, in which I was only peripherally involved, thank heaven, was accusing a Ukrainian janitor of being a Nazi war criminal, with the screaming headline "That's Our Man, says Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.” I did couple of shifts sitting in a car in the rain on stakeouts with a photographer, only seeing what looked like our man jumping from a car and running into the house. Before we got out of the car he had disappeared, never to appear before the end of the shift. Soon the whole story fizzled. It turned out that Wiesenthal had fingered the wrong man. The office lawyer, who was on daily retainer to check our stories for libel, told us in the cafeteria that the Sun had been incredibly lucky settling out of court for C$5,000. "He had a million-dollar suit on his hands!" he said.
My first out-of-town assignment was a mere 40 miles away in the wilderness of Squamish. At the time, I was only beginning to realise how quickly the wilderness closed in on the settled areas, where otherwise normal suburban life could entail encountering a grizzly bear in your kitchen. It was not like Eastern Canada, in Montreal or Toronto, where the city eased off into pastoral lands. No, North Vancouver and West Vancouver were hard by the wildest wilderness one could find in the country.
Back then, Squamish was a town of 10,000 at the top of an inlet or fjord called Howe Sound, and it had aroused the attention of the desk by complaining about the horrible stench caused by a company town of no more than 2,000 people across the water. Woodfibre was the first company town I had encountered, and as such was depicted as evil by my colleagues and by the mayor of Squamish, Pat Brennan. He wanted the town closed down supposedly to end the stench not only for his town, but for the poor folk of Woodfibre, who had to suffer all the indignities of being wage slaves for Rayonier Pulp & Paper, made all the more evil sounding with their offices in Montreal. Montreal and Toronto made no difference to British Columbians; they were part of an evil place called the East. To the south, there were the dreadful Americans, who were "stealing our water," another bizarre BC belief.
The photographer wanted to make short work of it, talk to the local Squamish folk about the stench, phone Rayonier's Woodfibre office for their typical "no comment"' and go back to the office to write the story. But I wanted to take the ferry to Woodfibre itself. If the people were suffering there, I would like to hear it from them. I did notice that I had smelt nothing untoward since I had been there for an hour or two. Nor was there any smell as we approached on the ferry. But no sooner had we arrived than the stench hit us hard. It came from the mill's kraft pulping process, which uses heat and chemicals to pulp wood chips to make paper. This reaction produces gaseous sulphur compounds called "total reduced sulphur" or TRS gases.
Two things happened that day. The first is that we were in an area of town, a mere scattering of modest houses on a hillside, that was less affected by the smell because it tended to blow away in a convenient direction. Not always, but mostly. And it was on one of these infrequent occasions that the town of Squamish complained.
One thing was clear. No local complained about the smell and the men positively liked working there because the hunting and fishing was good. Women were not as keen, because their kids had to take the ferry to Squamish to get to school, and there wasn't much of a social life. But they were happy to have the company provide accommodation at cost and thus pay no local taxes. It seemed to some that Squamish's interest in closing the company town was Squamish's interest in enlarging its own tax base. Rayonier had no comment as expected, but locals, who were in no way hostile to the company, told me that Rayonier cared little one way or the other about the town's fate as it was certain they could continue running the paper mill whether the workers commuted from Squamish or lived within the mill's precincts. Thus it seemed that the menfolk of the town were the ones who most wanted to preserve the status quo.
Second, on our return to Squamish, we dug out Mayor Brennan, who had been drinking before the interview and was quite voluble, providing me with colourful but ill-advised quotes, which made for an interesting story. He said he had been misquoted, but others declared that he had said much the same to them on other occasions. I was pleased to hear the photographer say of me on his return: "Does that guy work! I have not worked that hard on a job ever!" That got around and proved helpful.
My second out-of-town assignment not long after took me to a remote place called Lake Nitinat, 100 miles north of British Columbia's capital, Victoria.
I remember not being given any warning about the assignment before arriving at the office, and having to leave immediately, which meant I was dressed in a suit. The photographer was kitted out more appropriately, which meant he must have been given some warning.
We were taken to the airport and boarded a Department of Transport float plane. We were off over the Strait of Georgia, flying above 100 miles of trees and stumps in mountainous terrain. The stumps, which made some of the mountains as close-shaven as the heads of drill sergeants, had already become a source of anger among environmentalists, whose Saturday demonstrations against this and that had become a regular feature of Saturday morning life at the Vancouver Sun, usually providing some overtime charges to reporters who were compelled to stay beyond "end of shift." Soon they would be protesting companies for clear-cut logging. Of course, coming from Montreal, where the clear-cut logging had long been a fact of life--my mother made dire predictions of the Laurentian Mountains becoming sand dunes as a result--I had long been an eco-sceptic.
People would look at my Mississippi experience on the side of the civil rights workers and assume me to be a leftist greenie in an ear-flapped Peruvian beanie with pompom. But just because I wanted one man, one vote because that was what the law called for didn't mean that I even favoured one man, one vote. In fact, I had been toying with the idea that votes might be tied to one's tax bill, figuring that those who had contributed more to the public coffers should have a bigger say in how the contents would be spent. My rationale for supporting civil rights was that the law should apply to all, if it were meant to.
Soon I could see the ocean in the distance beyond the narrow 17-mile long Nitinat Lake. It was as much an inlet or fjord as it was a lake. True, two rivers drained into it at one end, but apart from an upper layer of fresh water it was mostly seawater. The plane came in for a landing on the lake, trying to get a clear run among the vast flotilla of fishing boats that littered the water. This was a spectacular scene for the cognoscenti of the fishery, which I was far from being. It might have been an unremarkable gathering around a marina for a regatta as far as my unschooled eye was concerned.
There I was in my suit, well dressed for an interview in the City of London, but quite out of place standing on one of the float plane's pontoons about to step into a small motor boat to be transferred to a more ship-like fisheries patrol boat.
Before dealing with the briefing from the Department of Fisheries, I think it wise to acquaint non-Canadians with the Saga of the Salmon and why, as a symbol of the country, it is far more important than the flag, which half the country in the conservative and socialist parties in darker moments regard as a Liberal Party pennant. But the Saga of the Salmon truly unites us, however tenuously, though it must be conceded that tiresome Newfoundlanders will go on about the "noble fish, the cod." (But then they only joined Canada in 1948.)
Quite frankly I have never liked Pacific salmon and continue to bear a grudge toward the fish to this day as it was the cause, albeit in the form of a salmon sandwich, of the complete destruction of my clear understanding of why there was friction in the Balkans, and why the Serbians, Croatians, Dalmatians, Slovenians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians and Montenegrins hated each other.
I had just taken a break from a conversation with a Serbian and a Slovenian in the Pacific Press cafeteria. While they did not know the whole story, they pieced it together with the help of my questions, and by the time I got up to refill my coffee cup, I could honestly say I had a real understanding. But as I went to pay for the coffee, the lady at the cash asked me if I would like to buy the three remaining salmon sandwiches for the price of one. That's when things fell apart. It was now late in the afternoon and few customers were expected, she explained, making matters worse.
In that fatal moment, I considered it. I first decided not to, but in doing so, I weighed all the ramifications of the question. Would my table mates want a salmon sandwich? Perhaps one would and the other wouldn't. What would happen to the orphaned sandwich? Would I eat it? What if there were two orphaned sandwiches? At last I said no, but as I turned away feeling guilty about the lady's disappointment, an element of my understanding slipped away and by the time I got to the table, I was pretty much back where I started and feeling quite depressed.
In closing, I would like to assure all that I bear the Atlantic salmon no grudge. In fact I eat Atlantic salmon cheerfully when it rarely appears. But I confess the Pacific salmon did me one good service, in that it converted me to the principle of supply-side economics. That is because, despite my dislike of Pacific salmon, I ate tons of it during that three-year stint in Vancouver. That proved to me that if there is enough of it around--whatever it is--people will consume it whether they like it or not.
But I digress. The salmon is both a fresh-water and salt-water fish, Canadian children are told. For reasons of national unity we avoid saying whether they are Pacific or Atlantic salmon. They are simply Canadian salmon born in the spawning pools deep inland near the source of Canadian rivers (American rivers too, but shush!). Once born, they grow and mature as they head downstream to the sea, where they spend four years of their lives before heading back unerringly to the very same spawning ground, where they have their last sexual encounter, lay eggs and die.
From a Department of Fisheries point of view, this is a renewable resource, and to sustain it, it was policed thoroughly. So much so that the government had sealed off Lake Nitinat for 10 years from fishing by all but Indians, who had perpetual rights, and the grizzly bears no one wanted to mess with. And now that it had been reopened, fishermen with the appropriate craft for inland fishing were allowed to take as much as their boats could carry.
We were taken by a small motor boat from the plane to the fishing boats themselves. On the way, one could see how successful the conservation measure had been. The lake was seething with fish; one could not glance at the surface without seeing fish jumping into the air. More impressive still was the scene aboard fishing boats. Crews were still bringing fish aboard, but with the holds having been long filled, they were now filling the cabins and wheelhouses with still flopping fish. The decks were ankle deep in fish; aboard another boat, bunks were loaded with fish.
We flew back and I wrote the exuberant tale everyone enjoyed, including the Department of Fisheries.
Looking at the staff, most everyone was from somewhere else, which included a high number of Brits, many of them heavy hitters, from the Yorkshire Post, the Scottish Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Melbourne Argus, and the Auckland Herald. There were many like myself from other parts of Canada and about ten who came from local universities, mostly Vancouver's University of BC and Simon Fraser University in the adjacent municipality of Burnaby, which had the distinction of being the only city in Canada to have the RCMP as municipal police. Most provinces, except for Newfoundland, Quebec and Ontario, use the Mounties as provincial police.
Before local journos took over a dying Chinese restaurant across the street from the Pacific Press building, and set up a drinks counter and a few card tables that became the BC Newsmen's Club, a great number of us were established not far away in the War Amputations of Canada, described earlier. Its comparative advantage was that it had an up-to-date jukebox, (Credence Clearwater Revival, Crosby Stills and Nash, The Band etc.) and a dance floor that attracted a good number of girls who loved to dance, some of whom could have founded schools of their own.
My pals back then were Jim McCandlish, a Lowland Scot and highly talented reporter from the Scottish Daily Mail; Larry Still, a Londoner who managed to get a job as a reporter for Time magazine, who made his name covering the 1966 Aberfan Welsh coal mining disaster; Jeff Wells, ex-Melbourne Argus and later New York Post; and Doug Campbell, recently of the Calgary Herald, who soon moved from reporting to editing and eventually went to the Toronto Globe and Mail, from where he retired after decades of service.
It was the height of hippy-dippy time--our hair was long, our clothing outside office hours tended toward the outlandish. I noted that many of the men in the backshop came into the office with shirt and tie to impress neighbours that they weren't the Joe Lunchbuckets they were, only to change into open-necked overalls stowed in their lockers and return home in their jackets and ties.
I did the reverse. I left a suit jacket with a tie hanging in the office, but arrived at the office with suit trousers, a dress shirt and either a sweater or a red and black checked lumbermen's jacket, which I changed into on arrival. But sometimes the desk, being a mean-spirited lot of assistant city editors, who delighted in magnifying errors and making much fuss of whatever came their way, liked to catch me wrong-footed to twist the knife.
On one such occasion, before I changed into my suit they ordered me in hippy garb to go with a photographer to Camp Chilliwack to do a story on militia summer training. The three army officers, but more so the two NCOs who conducted us, didn't like hippies and looked at me with obvious distaste.
The one wearing a red hackle in his balmoral looked at me with astonishment when I said: "So they didn't make you rebadge." It was an odd thing for a hippy to say. Odder still when I said: "Hated unification, lost the Watch, the Guards and the Queen's Own."
After that, they were silent and bewildered and answered questions cautiously. My photographer also changed his tone. When I thought it would be fun to be in the middle of a battle with everyone firing blanks, it was arranged, and I stationed myself by a concealed .30 calibre Browning machine gun and appeared to be watching a column of infantry coming down the road. Soon the battle began and that was the basis of my story, which I thought adequate but silly and superficial; yet everyone loved it.
That happens so often that I devised a mental formula of judging the quality of a story handed into the desk. If you thought your story was shit, it usually was. If you thought it was wonderful, it was usually shit. If you walked away from the desk confident that it was adequate, that you had done your duty for God and the Queen, then that's when the praise would come. The trouble with the formula, which was sound enough by itself, was knowing it when you handed in the story. One tended to manufacture the feeling that the work was adequate and one had done one's duty, blocking out more heartfelt feelings, knowing the undesirable outcomes of such feelings.
When we reached the rifle range on our army tour there were several relays of soldiers waiting their turn to fire. We were now in the hands of different officers and NCOs, who seemed intent on showing up the hippy as a fool.
As instructed, I put on the helmet as all shooters did and was handed an FN rifle. But the sergeant did not give me ammunition. A typical unmilitarised hippy would not notice an FN without a magazine because it does not appear to need one.
But I looked up and asked for a magazine, which the sergeant sheepishly provided. I snapped the mag into its housing, pulled back the cocking lever and shouldered and fired the weapon--I had been on the Black Watch shooting team after all--and did considerably better than the others on the relay, whose targets were still up in full view.
On another occasion, it happened the other way. I had changed from hippy garb into my suit when I was suddenly scrambled to Nitinat Lake on the other side of Vancouver Island for the fishing trip in the wilderness.
Part of the reason for this change in dress can be attributed to a pig-headed defiance against all the rigidities of the Vancouver Sun, which seemed determined to not allow you to do what you wanted to do, but insisted you do what they wanted you to do--not because they wanted it done, only that they wanted you to do it. The place was mean-spirited and it encouraged a mean-spiritedness in many of us, and certainly dampened an enthusiasm for the job. To be fair, McCandlish found his enthusiasm in the stories he did, as did Larry Still when he found a story that interested him. We all loathed the Port Coquitlam gravel pit stories, so much so that "Port Coquitlam gravel pits" became a generic term in our circle for dreary assignments that came from the desk.
But my method of dressing had a practical aspect. I did not want a car. Under the union agreement transport was provided by the office, and there was nowhere I wanted to go. I was still on the bicycle, and chances are I would have to go from home to the office--the frying pan and fire of my life--in the rain, so it was best to keep my suit jacket in the office.
There were famous people, or soon to be famous people of my acquaintance, though they had little impact on my life. Bob Hunter, a Greenpeace founder, I found silly, especially when he told me that men and women did not differ that much and we ought not make any distinction between male and female.
Not long after that there was beautiful feminist reporter in the office. I will not mention her name, because she was a decent stick and a good reporter. What happened was partly the result of McCandlish and several others at the War Amps wanting to bed our Jane Doe, whom we all lusted after.
Well, Jane and I by chance found ourselves alone at a table in the press club, and she brought up her feminist doctrine. Disagreeing with Bob Hunter's statement, I explained that as a man I would probably sleep with all but one of the five women in the press club at that moment, and I would bet that most men would do the same. "Women cannot say the same," I said.
"Yes, we can," she said.
"So you would sleep with me," I said.
"Yes," she said defiantly.
So we went off and we did it. Although her tits and bum were everything a man could ask, all I can say is the thought of being able to crow to McCandlish was the main point of the exercise. We did the deed fitfully, almost shamefacedly muttering something about us being still friends, before I fled the scene. As Jane Doe never came up in our roistering, I never did crow about my triumph until we accidently met in London near Fleet Street 10 years later.
There was also Alan Fotheringham, who was already a distinguished columnist and went on to greater things with MacLean’s magazine, when it was still a force in the land. Less important at the time was John Sawatsky, who eventually became famous for a series of books involving the RCMP and whether the head of the security service, Leslie James Bennett, was a wrong-way Kim Philby, first working for the Reds but, after being caught by the Yanks, becoming a US spy working against Canada.
Having rented an apartment at the unbelievably poisonous address of 1313 West 13th at the corner of Hemlock (there was an apartment 13 in the building occupied by a mean old lady with a mean old cat, but we had apartment 12), we moved to the upper storey of a two-storey house in the West End at Comox and Cardero, kitty corner from a playing field, a pleasant area a short walk from supermarkets and all the conveniences.
By this time, with Jenny getting on for 4, a second child, Aislinn, had arrived, this time with malabsorption syndrome, or celiac disease. It was not a happy time. Often I would arrive back from work and sit astride my bicycle in the rain knowing I did not have to go into the house quite yet. Inside I would soon sit down, earphones clamped over my head shutting out the weeping and wailing, waiting for bedtime and the next ride in the rain to work. I wouldn't have minded had my wife had gone out and left me in charge, but to be interfered with every time I said a harsh thing to the children left me with the earphones on, waiting for it all to be over.
The other solace was drinking at the War Amps or the press club, as the place across the street was eventually called. The idea was to stay there till the wee hours, wobble across the Granville Bridge, up and down Davie and home, getting into bed sans enfants et femme and only being berated for an hour in the morning for coming home late but quickly slipping off to work again. Unpleasant? Yes. But it beat four hours mired in domesticity.