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Books, Criticism, Seen & Heard

Death By Champagne: Nanaimo Girl

June 16, 2020

“Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?”
– The Beatles

§ § §

wtgwg-nanaimo-coverPrudence Emery is the eponymous “Nanaimo Girl.”

Now in her early 80s and living on her native Vancouver Island just outside Victoria, Pru has written a memoir that is quite astonishing in its detail. While recounting events that chronicle her personal life, the reader is left with a dizzying array of interlocking stories that culminate in – if you’ll excuse the phrase – one hell of a life.

The book follows an ‘everyone is from somewhere’ thread, and this book, this woman’s life, unspools its thread beginning in “…a murky little coal town…”

“…in a lifetime of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous,
almost no one I met had heard of Nanaimo…”

wtgwg-nanaimo-baby-dancer

Pru as a young entertainer

And so her story begins, and rich and famous they were!

By her own admission, she “…behaved so badly…” as a child, she was sent off to a boarding school (twice) to learn her manners. Her first tastes of life outside the clutches of parental control gave her free reign to push envelopes and test boundaries. She was precocious to a fault, but her ‘antics’ still managed to earn her ‘black marks’ in school and scowls from her elders. Despite her rebellious ways, she graduated grade 12 in the mid-1950s with a B+ average and was promptly ‘launched into society’ as a debutante. Not bad for a girl who was once slapped by a teacher, the result of one of her escapades.

After a short stint at the University of British Columbia, Pru had had enough. She packed her belongings into two trunks, and with her best friend, shipped off to Europe.

Her decision to drop anchor in London after a whirlwind tour of the continent would serve her well for the rest of her peripatetic career, for it was here that the ‘rubbing of shoulders’ began in earnest.

Although attending art school during the day, it was during her ‘wild evenings’ in the pubs of Chelsea and Covent Garden that she met Irish screenwriter Patrick Kirwan. He gave Pru her first real job in the film business, typing a script for the musical comedy feature, “Tommy and the Toreador,” starring pop star Tommy Steele, and British stalwarts Sidney James and Bernard Cribbins. Pru and Patrick hit it off, and he soon became her mentor, a mentor with ‘benefits,’ shall we say.

Her time with Patrick was fruitful. He introduced her to the prestigious Irish Club in Eaton Square and squired her to the Royal Ascot. The connections she began making would go into a Rolodex that would soon become the foundation of her professional life.

Those early personal and business contacts, however, did not immediately help generate income. Pru remained ‘an impoverished London art student’ until she one day landed a job as a barmaid at the famous le Pétit Club Français. Not a high paying position, but her contact list grew.

wtgwg-nanaimo-sophia

Pru with Sophia Loren

In the Spring of 1962, after five years in London, Nanaimo Girl returned to Canada and decided to try her hand as a proofreader at The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto. Then she landed a job working on animated films in Ottawa for Canadian film icon, Budge Crawley. She loved the film business, and so she pursued acting, finding herself in movies directed by Irvin Kershner (who would go on to make The Empire Strikes Back) and working with actor/author Robert Shaw who still had Jaws and The Sting to add to his resume.

Her people skills were amiable and infectious, and those in high places remembered. It led to Pru being employed in Visitor Services for Expo 67. It was her job to escort VIPs around the huge Montreal site. The list of those famous people is a literal Who’s Who of the day: Liberace, Hugh Hefner, Twiggy, Haley Mills, Jack Benny, Marlene Dietrich, Glenn Gould, David Frost, and even the leader of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. But it was playwright Edward Albee and one prominent Soviet journalist who had the most impact on Pru’s life. Albee, who had already received a Pulitzer Prize for his play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would become a lifelong friend, and the reporter from the Russian wire service TASS (who may or may not have been a KGB spy) became her lover.

Pru with playwright Edward Albee

Pru with playwright Edward Albee

It’s been said that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. While Prudence isn’t entirely convinced of the former, she has had oodles of the latter and capitalized on it. When Expo 67 closed, she took an extended vacation back in London to relax and catch-up with old friends.

One day over a cup of tea, the father of a family friend, knowing her background, asked her if she’d like to be a press and public relations officer at his hotel. He was the Managing Director of The Savoy, one of the most luxurious and famous hotels in the world. She yes, of course, and her stories during the five years she spent as Head of PR with The Savoy are among the most entertaining in the book.

The final act of Nanaimo Girl’s professional career began with her requisite ‘rubbing of shoulders’. Back in Toronto, she was interviewed for the freelance job of Unit Publicist on a Canadian feature film. But not just any feature film. Black Christmas would eventually gain cult status and remains one of the most successful Canadian films ever made.

Although Pru would navigate many other career moves, it was filmmaking that she found herself best suited for, and it was, after all, where her contacts sent her.

Beginning in 1975, Nanaimo Girl started work as a publicist on her second film, and there was no turning back. She never accepted a permanent job again. Her work for another Canadian film icon, David Cronenberg, put her name on the map as the ‘go-to’ film publicist. Over the next thirty-five years, Pru would work as Unit Publicist on one hundred and twenty film and television productions, ten of those for Cronenberg. Her motion picture career, although based in Canada, would take her around the world several times, and allow her to work with some of the biggest names in international cinema. Her stories and anecdotes during this period are illuminating, with many falling between amusing and hysterical.

Author Prudence Emery

Author Prudence Emery

After a dizzying professional career spanning some 60 years, Prudence celebrated her 80th birthday in 2016 back home in Victoria. While she is reflective of those years ‘rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous,’ she reveals neither conceit nor false modesty in her remembrances. Even Pru’s love life that “…bobbed like a duck in a storm…” doesn’t escape her self-deprecating pen.

One of the best sections of this memoir is entitled, “Turning Eighty.” It should be required reading for anyone over the age of fifty, if only as a primer for their later years.

Memoirs, as with all forms of autobiography, are complicated animals, good ones even more so. Many historical accounts of a personal nature, written and verbal, tend to drift into ‘I went here, I saw this, I did that’ – “Nanaimo Girl” is no different. What sets Pru’s entertaining stories apart, however, is that there are so many of them. The result is that the reader finds themselves asking… Where’s she going? What’s she doing? What happens next? And of course, that’s the perfect chemistry of a page-turner.

The Beatles once sang: “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?” And play she did. What a life!

NANAIMO GIRL
A Memoir
Author: Prudence Emery
Cormorant Books
ISBN: 9781770865273

§ § §

This book review first appeared in The Ormsby Review #809 – April 25, 2020

Books, Criticism, Music, Seen & Heard

Song Book: 21 Songs From 10 Years (1964-74)

June 16, 2020

“Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music,
Any old way you choose it,
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it.
Any old time you use it.
It’s gotta be rock and roll music,
If you wanna dance with me.”
– The Beatles (Chuck Berry)

§ § §

wtgwg-song-book-coverIt’s been said that if you remember the 1960s you weren’t there.  Well, I do, and I was.  And like many others of my generation, the music of that time was a massive part of who we were.  New bands, new singles, new albums were erupting from speakers big and small on our favourite AM – and increasingly, FM – radio stations.  If you owned a car, it was not unusual to pull alongside another vehicle at a stoplight and hear the same song emanating from both.  Smiles and peace signs would be exchanged, and then both cars would continue on their separate journeys.  The music was a uniting force.

In the new book, “Song Book: 21 Songs From 10 Years (1964-74),” author Fiona McQuarrie chronicles the inside story of fourteen songs from the 1960s and seven from the early 1970s.  She digs deep into the history of those twenty-one compositions and takes the reader on a personal journey of discovery – frequently surprising, always musical.  Each song’s long strange trip is traced from creative inception through studio production and on to release.  McQuarrie details each tune’s historical impact (or lack thereof), and the trials and tribulations involved in getting lyrics and music from paper to vinyl (with the occasional lawsuit adjusting the ‘written by’ credit).  That would be enough content to whet any appetite for subject matter such as this, but there’s more.  She reveals why some songs – many that were under-appreciated when initially released – found themselves re-recorded and released years, sometimes decades later; some even became hits by well-known artists.  Tim Hardin’s original song, “Reason To Believe,” written and first recorded in 1966, is a good example.  Hardin, who also wrote, “If I Were A Carpenter” (he sang both songs at Woodstock), never seemed to crack the ‘hit’ market with any of his songs.  But many were covered and recorded by the likes of Bobby Darin, The Carpenters, Rod Stewart, Cher, Johnny Cash, and dozens of others.  “Reason To Believe,” in particular, became extremely popular and made the Top 40 more than once.  McQuarrie’s description of Hardin’s musical career is a stand-out and a rockin’ good read.

wtgwg-song-book-45-hardinAuthor McQuarrie knows what she’s talking about here.  Aside from significant research and an eye and ear for detail, she was music critic for The Vancouver Sun and The Province newspapers for six years.  She’s been writing about music for much longer, and although she is now part of the Faculty of Business at a B.C. university, her musical interests haven’t waned.  We should be thankful for that.  It’s to the reader’s benefit that she has, in her own words, “…a mind full of useless musical trivia.” After reading this book, I would take issue with the word ‘useless.’

wtgwg-song-book-deshannon-2The songs and artists she includes in this collection are certainly favourites of hers, and it’s clear that her musical tastes are eclectic, to say the least.

The first installment is about the rise of Jackie DeShannon.  We know her as the songwriter behind such hits as “Put A Little Love In Your Heart,” “When You Walk In The Room,” and even the song that made Kim Carnes famous in the early 1980s, “Bette Davis Eyes.”  But did you know that on the strength of her singing and songwriting The Beatles chose her as an opening act for their first North American tour in 1964?  (She celebrated her 23rd birthday on stage at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium.)

wtgwg-song-book-bonzoLater, we are introduced – many of us for the first time – to a British band called The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.  Their live performances are described thusly: “…horror masks, weird instruments, explosions, and a life-size rag doll named Alma.”  While the ‘Bonzos’ were very well received on the club circuit and through multiple appearances on a children’s TV show in England, their popularity decidedly did not translate to hit records.  However, their one major release, “I’m The Urban Spaceman,” was the exception and ended up spending 14 weeks on the U.K. charts, most of that time in the Top Ten.  Author McQuarrie relates this fascinating tidbit about the song.  When the band went into the studio to record ‘Spaceman,’ the day would be a memorable one.  During a break in the session, the producer of the song sat down and played what was likely the first ‘performance’ of “Hey Jude.”  The producer was Paul McCartney.  According to Paul, The Beatles had always been fans of the Bonzos, and he eagerly agreed to produce the record for them.  Once word got out that McCartney was involved the song became so popular that the single was selling more than 15,000 copies per day.

wtgwg-song-book-beatlesA handful of years later one of the Bonzos, Neil Innes, hooked up with Eric Idle of Monty Python and supplied music to many of the Python’s TV shows, records, and films.  Neil and Eric eventually collaborated on a hilarious television rock ’n roll satire of The Beatles entitled, “The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash.”

Chapters on Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, The Bee Gees, Donovan, The Beach Boys, Long John Baldry, and many more are provided by McQuarrie.  But along with the popular songwriters and bands we are also introduced to esoteric recording artists like the Bonzos, and a band called ‘Hotlegs.’  Who…?  By the end of the six-page chapter on this group and their music I realize I’ve been reading about the birth of one of the seminal ‘artistic’ rock ’n roll bands of the 1970s, and one of my personal favourites: 10cc.  How did I not know this? All the stories detailed in this book contain surprises.  Each story could easily be the pitch for a documentary.

In the early 1970s, the Government of Canada instigated Canadian Content regulations for cultural industries.  Radio stations would, henceforth, have to adhere to ‘CanCon’ rules that required a certain percentage of radio play be Canadian.  McQuarrie uses multi-award-winning musician and songwriter Michel Pagliaro as an entry point to help explain the Canadian music scene – English and French – during this period.  By detailing Pag’s ascent into rock royalty, McQuarrie attempts to decipher the issues that affected both musicians and radio Program Directors that CanCon presented.  A difficult task, but she mostly succeeds.

You don’t need to like these twenty-one songs, and you don’t even need to know who the bands are; the stories themselves are worth the price of admission.  You can find articles and non-fiction books that treat their musical subject matter with reverence, sometimes bordering on sycophantic hero-worship.  This is not that book.  McQuarrie’s writing is eloquent, to the point, and pulls no punches.  If she likes something, she says so.  If she doesn’t, she says so in no uncertain terms.  No pussyfooting here.  Even her publisher suggests the book contains “…the occasional dose of snark.”  I can tell you, it’s a refreshing style.

Author Fiona McQuarrie

Author Fiona McQuarrie

Parsing the DNA of 60s and 70s popular music has become a bit of a cottage industry in the last few years, primarily through websites and podcasts.  Radio, too, is prone to looking back into the ‘stacks of wax,’ with Santa Monica super station KCRW’s “Lost Notes” being one of the best examples.  Is this just nostalgia?  I think it’s more than that.

The 1960s gave an entire generation its own music – rock ’n roll as a genre, a cultural phenomenon, and ultimately an art form, came of age.  In the 1970s it matured.  Old, white, male politicians and lawmakers, whom, with few exceptions, adhered to old school ways and means, and perpetuated post-war ideals and policies for a new war, were put on notice.  Of course, we were disaffected.  But the voting age was lowered, and ultimately, the bar was raised.  The youth that asked for change, then pursued and protested it, and then demanded it, got it.  And the music wasn’t in the background – it was the soundtrack.

If I have any quibble with “Song Book” it’s that it’s too short!  I’m hoping there’s a second volume lurking on McQuarrie’s computer hard drive somewhere.  Reading this book was not only enlightening; it was also fun.

It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  If so, I’ll leave the final comments to ‘dancer’ Fiona McQuarrie.  In her introduction to this book, she says: “The best songs, or our favourite songs, are like sparkling jewels – from different angles or in different settings, they shine in different ways, but each of them fuses sounds and words into something else entirely distinctive and wonderful.”  The same could be said of her book.

SONG BOOK
21 Songs From 10 Years (1964-74)
Author: Fiona McQuarrie
Walthamstow, UK & New Haven Publishing
ISBN: 9781912587155

§ § §

This book review first appeared in The Ormsby Review #611 – September 9, 2019

Economics, Politics, Travel

Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’

June 10, 2020

“I hear hurricanes a-blowing
I know the end is coming soon
I fear rivers overflowing
I hear the voice of rage and ruin…”
– Creedence Clearwater Revival

§ § §

Recently, Faceplant and other social media outlets have been ‘alive’ with stories
about the COVID-19 impact on the airline industry.
Rightly so – it’s devastating. But that nasty iceberg carries a lot of baggage,
and not just in its overhead compartment.
The story is larger, and it ain’t pretty.

On May 11th, the car magazine Road & Track published a story about the effects of COVID-19 on the car rental business in America. Its evaluation was not good news. Two days later, another R&T article focussed specifically on Hertz and gave a detailed account of its predicament. The numbers were quite staggering.

Mere months ago, Hertz had between 550,000 and 650,000 rental cars (depending on sources) installed on 12,400 lots around the world. Hertz’s parent company also owns Dollar and Thrifty car rental companies which raises those numbers significantly. These companies (Enterprise and Avis/Budget, too) operate with a constant turnover of vehicles so that they have the newest models in stock for customers. Part of that turnover involves selling off older models as used cars and bringing in new, updated vehicles once mileage numbers reach a pre-calculated figure. As part of that ‘business model’, last year Hertz purchased a further 1.7 million U.S.-made vehicles. This purchase alone accounted for approximately 10% of the entire output of the U.S. automotive manufacturing industry.

At the end of the first quarter, this year – March, the true beginning of the impact of the virus – Hertz had a debt load of almost $19 billion with less than $1 billion in cash reserves. The share price dropped by 82%. They renegotiated with lenders, and the first ‘adjusted’ payment was due on May 22nd.

Late on that same Friday Hertz filed for bankruptcy essentially setting in motion a veritable waterfall of global insolvency proceedings against it. The creditors – of which there are many – unanimously rejected Hertz’s ‘business as usual’ stance while they maneuvered for more time.

Now operating under bankruptcy protection and restructuring, practically any outcome is possible. But this event only hints at the bigger picture.

A sell-off of Hertz assets is likely – they’re already unloading big-ticket vehicles such as their Corvette Z06s and Camaro ZL1s. The sell-off addresses two major points: It creates some much-needed cash flow, and it reduces overhead. The latter will surely mean closing a number of under-performing rental lots. However, because of the virus and the global lockdown that has accompanied it, most locales will be under-performing, with perhaps airport locations taking the biggest hit. The TSA announced recently that domestic air travel in the United States is down 94% since the end of last year. Foreign long-distance travel hasn’t fared much better.

car rental signs at airportIn general, this one segment of the travel industry has reached a calamitous state. I have personally experienced this downturn. Twice since February I have rented cars for short shopping trips, and the rates have been insanely low. A rental a week ago for a camping trip (a premium 4×4) resulted in a total cost for four days (taxes in) that was less than I would be paying for one day (pre-tax) in normal times! I actually visited the rental office in advance and asked if the agreed cost was a mistake or an oversight. Not at all, I was told. It was explained to me that obviously rental cars make no money sitting in lots. Plus, without mileage being added onto the cars they will not meet company accounting matrices that trigger resale. This same company was renting a Toyota Yaris or a Hyundai Accent for as little as $9 a day, pre-tax!

There are two other aspects of this issue that compound the dire consequences that could await a car rental industry collapse.

1. The selling-off of assets. The assets are, of course, the cars themselves (most of the locations are leased) which brings us to the used car market. For decades the used car industry, which is sometimes euphemistically referred to as the ‘pre-owned’ auto market (think: Little Old Lady From Pasadena) has thrived. Year-on-year increases in sales were the norm. At the end of March, sales figures were off – down by 20%. So imagine hundreds of thousands of vehicles suddenly entering a used car market in decline. What happens to THAT business model?

2. The car manufacturing industry. As noted, a sizeable chunk of Motor City’s output goes to the car rental industry. (Another big chunk goes to corporate leasing and fleet sales. With most companies, big and small laying off employees, even in middle and upper management, and some shuttering altogether, the market for leased vehicles and fleet sales has diminished significantly.) What happens to Ford, Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, and others? Less demand – significantly less demand – means fewer new vehicles required, means smaller quotas, means fewer new cars, means fewer assembly line workers, means shuttered plants in towns existing almost completely because of the auto industry. At various times over the past 30 years (economic downturns), each of these auto behemoths survived only because of U.S. government bailouts. They were all kicking the government tires within the past month for some form of a cash infusion, loan guarantee, or significant tax break. What happens later? Next month? Next year? What of the big overseas automakers that supply vehicles to the rental market: VW, Toyota, Hyundai, BMW… how long is THAT list? It should be noted that prior to the pandemic ’lockdown’ various auto manufacturers began experimenting with short-term rentals from their own new car lots across Canada and in the United States. That’s direct competition.

While yet another large company with equally large brand name recognition goes down, the effect of Hertz’s imminent demise goes much deeper than might be noticeable at first blush. Here’s the second blush.

On the same day that Road & Track published their Hertz story the CEO of Boeing was interviewed about how the aircraft maker was coping with the effects of the COVID-19 virus. Among other things, he said, “…with certainty…,” at least one major American airline would collapse by the end of the year. I suppose that might have been a veiled reference to an anticipated drop in Boeing’s sales figures, a warning of sorts. But think of this… The airline industry was in upheaval long before the pandemic arrived. Consolidation, buy-outs, sell-offs, bankruptcies, even incestuous code-sharing deals have been the norm for more than 20 years. Remember Canada 3000? What about Canadian Airlines, Wardair, and Pacific Western Airlines…? All three, over the course of several byzantine ‘deck chair’ shuffles, ended up as part of Air Canada.

panam-twaToday, because of the virus, Air Canada has lost more than a billion dollars and cut more than 20,000 jobs since January. WestJet, Air Canada’s only real national competitor, has canceled 18,000 domestic flights in the last month alone. Both airlines are now having talks with the Trudeau government about some form of emergency relief. And that’s just in Canada.

In the U.S. both PanAm and TWA, once the most recognized brands in the sky, went under (in 1991 and 2001 respectively). Continental completed its merger with United Airlines less than 10 years ago, and now the Continental brand has been almost entirely erased. Delta Airlines absorbed Northwest Airlines. American Airlines took over U.S. Airways and America West Airlines (and what was remaining of TWA in an earlier deal). Eastern Airlines was completely liquidated due to bankruptcy. Virgin America was purchased by Alaska Airlines. Braniff, Frontier, and Aloha Airlines just disappeared. Thomas Cook Airlines collapsed in a single afternoon just this past September, stranding thousands of passengers worldwide. Their assets were liquidated by the end of the year. In Europe, Air France and KLM merged, and Alitalia has had such dire financial problems for years that it is now being run by the government of Italy.

The list goes on and on. Virgin Australia and South African Airways are now bankrupt. Other airlines are canceling orders for new planes, and mothballing new ones that have already arrived. Airbus SE, the Europe-based competitor to Boeing, has 60 of those new airplanes stored in hangars with no buyers. They are predicting a minimum of 8,000 grounded planes by September. With an average of 6 full crews per plane (times two for the long haul flights), it’s possible that more than 90,000 pilots, navigators, flight attendants, and other staff will be out of work.

What about hotels in the age of isolation (he says with only a hint of irony)?

More than two months ago CBC News headlined the following:

“Canada’s hotel industry hammered by COVID-19.
As occupancy plummets, hotels closing, cutting staff and worst is yet to come.”

Susie Grynol, the CEO of the Hotel Association of Canada, was quoted as saying:

“The hotel industry virtually crashed over the last 10 days.
In a period of 48 hours last week, occupancy dropped by 50 percent across the industry.
Today we’re sitting at under 10 percent, which is not enough to sustain business operations,
so in the last two days, we’ve seen at least 100 hotel closures.”

That was the third week of March.

In mid-May, HospitalityNET, a U.S.-based travel and leisure industry member organization whose focus is primarily hotels, released a press communique with the following double-barrelled subject line:

“Hotel Industry On Brink Of Collapse Releases Roadmap To Recovery”

hotelFor perspective, the first industry ‘roadmap to recovery’ was issued on March 1st! Consider the escalation of the global pandemic crisis since then.

I’ve spent the majority of my television career producing food- and travel-based TV programs. Since the late 1980s, I’ve cultivated relationships with the travel and leisure industry worldwide to assist in the production of those shows. Business connections for ground, air, transportation, restaurant, accommodation, resorts, government tourism agencies, and public and private consultants on a location-by-location basis fill my Rolodex. I’ve come to know many of the personal contacts across the industry very well. I can tell you when I talk to some of these people their outlook is dim, and the only ‘recovery roadmap’ they believe in is the one where everything returns to normal. Why? Because that’s the foundation on which their original business was built, and, more importantly, it’s how it operates. We can balk at that statement and say that it’s the same for everybody, that we’re all going to have to ‘adjust’ and learn to live with the ‘new normal’. But are we, the consumer, ready for the new tax on the new normal? Cost.

Are we willing to spend $1,000 to fly from Vancouver to Toronto for a visit? What about paying $4,000 in Economy Class to get to the south of France or the north of Italy only to discover your €1,000 per night hotel room has a shared bathroom down the hall? What about arranging a second mortgage for a night on the town for two in London’s West End? (Only partially joking.) The concept of ‘budget’ travel will need to be redefined in the world of the new normal.

There are at least two major hotel chains that have put wheels in motion to divest themselves of resort properties in Asia and the South Pacific in the last couple of months. I’m sorry – how’s THAT going to work?! You have a resort in Bali, or Malaysia, maybe Fiji that you wish to sell. Who’s going to buy it? Hotels have been taking over the management of other properties with or without rebranding for decades. Maybe these other hotels required a dose of austerity to stay afloat, and maybe the corporate board saw it as an astute business opportunity. But purchase a five-star (or higher) resort – with all the costs associated with running it – when it’s already languishing at barely 10% occupancy? When it costs $5,000 per person just to fly there? As they say in the Deep South: That dog don’t hunt!

§ § §

So, in the end, what we’re dealing with here isn’t the COVID-19 impact on car rentals, or airplanes, or hotels, or any of the small and medium-sized interstitial companies that supply or rely on the big names. This is about the future – short and long term – of the entire travel and leisure business.

Some people may not be aware that the Travel and Tourism Industry is the largest industry in the world – it’s huge. In terms of 2019 numbers, the industry contributed over $9 trillion to the global economy (U.S. dollars). Almost a third of that went directly to America’s Gross Domestic Product. Individual cities, counties, provinces, states, and regions can thank tourism for significant additions to their bottom line. There are entire countries where tourism is the major monetary provider to their GDP: Mexico, Thailand, Macau, Hong Kong, Morocco, Panama, Greece, Croatia, and Iceland, plus many of the smaller island nations in the Asia Pacific region.

In 2017 numbers – the latest year for which accurate statistics exist – tourism supported about 119 million jobs worldwide or almost 4% of the global workforce. With a few minor exceptions (mostly political hotspots like Iran, Libya, and Afghanistan) year-on-year tourism arrivals have increased in every country in the world since 2000. And now we’re not allowed to leave home.

If you ever wondered why gazillions of dollars are spent – in any denomination you care to choose – on convention centres, hotels, sports stadiums, and airport hubs, it’s because of the Travel and Tourism Industry. When tourists and travellers arrive anywhere (by plane), and drive around (by rental car), and stay for a while (in a hotel) they bring money with them and they spend it. In bars, taverns, and souvenir shops; at baseball, football, hockey, and soccer games; on clothing, gasoline, food, concerts… everything. That’s the true trickle-down economics of this global problem. And therein lies the math that, for the moment, no longer adds up.

Yes, it’s a complex issue, and the health and welfare of every human on the planet is and should be our combined primary focus. However, decisions are being made to move forward. Some of those moves are baby steps, some are giant galumphing missteps, but we are moving.

In the most ironic example of how twisted this whole tourism problem is, and how the Travel and Tourism Industry touches practically everything in our lives in one way or another, consider the fate of the Galapagos Islands.

The islands are an administrative province of the country of Ecuador and have been a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978. Because of its environmental protection policies (there are many for good reason) tourism is frowned upon by the locals and the mainland government, and as such travel and tourism is strictly regulated. Tourists are allowed on only two of the so-called ‘main’ islands – and only then after being screened – and banned from the remaining twenty. However, tourism dollars are what feed the islands’ economy, which in turn provides the administration overhead and support for the many ecological and environmental programs, research projects, and marine protection so necessary to its survival. In the last two months they have lost $50 million because of COVID-19 and – you guessed it – the lack of tourism is to blame. The result…? The administration efforts, including the programs and projects, have been curtailed, and only a return of tourism will bring it all back.

Sometimes it’s the small things. As I was finishing this piece this morning I received an email from ROAM Mobility, a small Canadian communications company that provides an American phone number and a second Smartphone SIM card for travellers to the U.S. Here it is in part:

“Dear Valued Customer: To call COVID-19’s impact on travel severe would be an understatement.
As a business built on enabling communication for travellers, Roam Mobility has, unsurprisingly, been significantly affected.
As a result, we regret to inform you that Roam Mobility will cease operations on June 30, 2020.”

roam-mobilityIt was a great system, and one of those little travel perks that filled a void. You pay a small fee for the phone number (which is yours to keep), and a VERY small fee for whatever day-to-day service you wish: phone only, phone and text, phone and data, or a phone, text, and data bundle. It switches on when you ask it and switches off when you tell it to. The best part… No exorbitant roaming charges on your home provider, and all outgoing phone calls and texts are free to anywhere in North America; data is available at varying low rates depending on which U.S. provider you connect with. I’ve been using them for the past five years and saved a bunch of money.

The house of cards has caught a breeze.

Is there an upside to any of this? I sure hope so. When you’re given the green flag, travel. Maybe small concentric circles locally at first. Go out, go shopping, go for dinner, read that newspaper at your favourite coffee shop again. Visit friends, relatives, co-workers, go out with them, see stuff, experience stuff. Buy something – small, medium, large, or Tall, Grande, Venti – whatever your poison. Purchase a keychain, a Smart TV, a car, a popsicle. TWO popsicles. Take a car, a bus, a train, a ferry, a plane – go somewhere beyond your block, your city, your country. Or stay regional – it doesn’t matter, it will all make a difference.

I’ll leave y’all with this…

Robert Louis Stevenson in his first career as a travel writer said it best:

“I travel not to go anywhere but to go. The great affair is to move!”

Sources: CNN, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, World Economic Forum, WorldAtlas, Statista, Hospitality Net, CBC, Boeing, Airbus

§ § §

But wait, there’s more! This from a June 15, 2020 article in Vanity Fair. A ‘Pandemic Zombie‘…?

Music, Personal, Seen & Heard

Ten In Ten

June 10, 2020

“And you’re a prima ballerina on a Spring afternoon
Change on into the wolfman, howlin’ at the moon…”
– New York Dolls

§ § §

I’m sure most of you have been introduced to the ’10 Albums In 10 Days’ meme that has been running through Faceplant for the past couple of months. This challenge of ‘life-altering’ music influences is designed to tell others all about you through your choices, I suppose, to generate some insight into your personality through your musical tastes. My issue with the whole ‘challenge’ is I’ve never really adopted ‘albums,’ per se, as a yardstick for my music appreciation. Songs, yes; individual songs from albums, usually the ones that weren’t released as singles, as it turns out. For this reason, I didn’t accept the multitude of challenges offered to me over the past months (sorry). And history has borne me out. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by…” and all that.

When Audio Dynamics released the Accutrac 4000 turntable in the late 1970s, I bought one and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was the first programmable record player. Attached to the turntable by a long cable was a silver globe marketed as a ‘wireless remote unit’ that worked in concert with its own handheld remote control. You could not only program which cuts you wanted to listen to and skip those you didn’t, but you could also play them in any order and even replay your entire ‘personal’ song list. The only feature missing was its inability to turn the record over!

napster-logoAlong comes Napster in 1999, and the world of cherry-picking what you wanted had arrived. This web app was crazy controversial, not least because stealing copy-written material – which is how it was viewed by many – was illegal. Regardless, millions upon millions of songs were downloaded to hard drives all over the world. Like it or not, Napster, and other ‘media services,’ increased sales in home computers and escalated the R&D into broadband technology exponentially. Only pornography had a more significant impact! MP3 players were soon all the rage. Consumers were impressed. Steve Jobs certainly was.

original-ipodTwo years later, Apple debuted the iPod and iTunes, with a purchase plan that allowed individual songs (or entire albums) to be downloaded for 99¢ a song. (Remember “Rip. Mix. Burn”…?) Artists like Metallica and others were incensed that their record production and sales business model was being usurped, and legal action was threatened. Record music executives and producers followed suit. Until it was revealed that Jobs had negotiated an output deal with many of the record labels that guaranteed them a big slice of the action. That guarantee was predicated on realizing big sales. Apple sold over one million individual songs the first week. The Beatles, who had a long-standing legal battle with Apple Computers over their very name (Apple Corps. Ltd.), refused to allow any of their music onto iTunes. When they buried the hatchet some years later, the band sold over two million individual songs in their first week.

To this day, individual cuts – with a few exceptions – is the way I decide on my music.

However, in transferring some new music to my iPhone recently, I discovered that, yes, there are indeed entire discs that grabbed my attention back then and even now – perhaps more so now.

You won’t find any Led Zeppelin or Allman Brothers or CS&N (with or without Y) or Elton John or any number of others who could easily be part of my personal ‘hit’ list. But these ten albums DID have a big impact on me, especially over time. And to me, they continue to be timeless.

So, all you’ll get from me is esoterica!

In no specific order of likability (only chronologically), I will begin at the beginning.

§ § §

01-santana-abraxas1 of 10 – Santana – Abraxas – 1970

Santana blew the music world apart during their appearances at Woodstock and Altamont, with this seminal album still more than a year away. They were and are legendary performances. For an album that is fifty years old, Abraxas continues to amaze, especially if played particularly loud! And danced to. A lot. There must be dancing!

 

02-carole-king-tapestry2 of 10 – Tapestry – Carole King – 1971

When this album was released it surprised just about everyone. Consumers didn’t really know who she was, and the music industry knew her only as a writer. As half of the powerhouse songwriting duo Goffin and King, she was responsible for many popular rock and pop hits during the 1950s and 1960s. Tapestry solidified her place as a talented solo singer and performer as well. A position she maintains to this day. This record was a birthday gift from a girlfriend. I’ve owned it on vinyl (twice), cassette, and CD.

 

03-deep-purple-machine-head3 of 10 – Machine Head – Deep Purple – 1972

I went to a very large high school in grade 9 – a couple of thousand kids in a multi-building, multi-block complex in the centre of town. As such, lunch hours were staggered so as to accommodate hundreds of students in our massive cafeteria. Central to that cafe was the jukebox. And central to that jukebox was ’Smoke On The Water’. No self-respecting kid who had a turntable (and who didn’t?!) had to have a copy of this album. Many’s the day when we trudged back to class with the strains of ‘Highway Star’ or ‘Space Truckin’ blasting in the background.

 

04-new-york-dolls4 of 10 – New York Dolls – Self Titled 1st Album – 1973

The first time I heard ‘Personality Crisis’ I sank my teeth into any music coming out of New York City: The Dolls, The Ramones, The Stooges, Velvet Underground, Lou Reed… anything. I was lucky to have an independent record store in my home town that carried ‘esoteric vinyl’ – that’s what they called it. No Mantovani rubbing sleeves with Montrose in those stacks! In February 1982, I found myself in NYC on a mixed business/pleasure sojourn. I had one night all to myself, and I chose CBGB as my destination. Blondie was playing. By then they were almost the house band. No one knew it, but this would be one of the last public performances of the band before they split later in the year. What a trip! The stars were out that night. A mix of proto punk, punk, and post punk royalty: at least two Ramones, Tina Weymouth (with fleeting glimpses of David Byrne), Patti Smith, Fred Schneider (B-52s), and propped up in one corner, David Johansen. The Dolls were history, and his alter ego, Buster Poindexter, was still a handful of years away from achieving fame with ‘Hot! Hot! Hot!’. However, his songwriting and performing style kept him in the limelight, even opening as a solo act for The Who.

05-rush-21125 of 10 – 2112 – Rush – 1976

There aren’t many positive memories of growing up in Southwestern Ontario during the 1960s and early 1970s. Highway 401 leaving town in two directions might have been one of them. But fairly often another plus would raise its head. In grades 9 and 10 we had the pleasure of being the guinea pigs for an amazing rock and roll band named RUSH. The members were only a couple of years older than us, and they’d play any high school in the region that would have them – everyone did. High school dances with RUSH in attendance were always major parties. They were loud and tight, and drummer John Rutsey (pre-Neil Peart days) was a thrasher. Alex Lifeson’s guitar was amazing, and Geddy Lee’s high-pitched ‘Robert Plant-style’ vocals brought the house down. Everyone who heard and saw them up close knew they were set to explode. RUSH went from our high school gym to touring the U.S. as an opening act for some of the biggest rock names in history seemingly overnight. But when they toured much of Canada opening for KISS in their first Canadian visit they sometimes played two encores – unheard of! Their concept album, 2112, solidified their place in rock history and in the Hall of Fame.

06-al-stewart-year-of-the-cat6 of 10 – Year Of The Cat – Al Stewart – 1976

This may be the best produced album I’ve ever heard. It was blessed from the beginning by Stewart’s lilting lyrical style, expert musicianship, and overall sound. It was recorded in The Beatles old studio at Abbey Road, produced by Alan Parsons, and the album art was created by award-winning Hipgnosis (Wings, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, 10cc, Genesis, ELO, and many others). It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Just play the record!

 

07-kate-bush-the-kick-inside7 of 10 – The Kick Inside – Kate Bush – 1978

This was Kate’s debut album and it serves not only as a perfect introduction for all that came later, it contains many of her best songs. I first heard ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ on the radio on a Friday. The next morning I discovered that she was the musical guest that night on Saturday Night Live (then called only NBC’s Saturday Night). After that I was hooked and I have been ever since. Desert island, the music of only one musical artist allowed = Kate Bush. In Spring 1984, I went to the UK and plunked myself down in a small apartment in Camden Town in London. Upon dropping my bags I went out for a walk and popped into a pub at the end of my street called, The Spread Eagle (I shit you not!) After a couple of pints I wandered a bit passing by a music venue of some description. Kate Bush had performed there the night before. I may have cried myself to sleep.

08-warren-zevon-excitable-boy8 of 10 – Excitable Boy – Warren Zevon – 1978

Anyone who associates Zevon with ONLY ‘Werewolves Of London’ is not only missing the point, but a plethora of other memorable, lyrically poignant songs. His songs were quirky, funny, heartfelt, painful, and indelible. I saw him in concert twice – once at the Troubadour in L.A. in the 70s, and again here in Vancouver in the 80s. Each of his records revealed a new twist in his outlook on life, never more prevalent than his last three albums, ‘Life’ll Kill Ya’, ‘My Ride’s Here’, and ‘The Wind’ all recorded when he knew he was dying. His final public appearance with David Letterman is absolutely heartbreaking. But his music still resonates. This is a great album.

 

09-joe-jackson-im-the-man9 of 10 – I’m The Man – Joe Jackson – 1979

Another one of those albums that just manages to strike a perfect note. So much talent in a classically trained musician who drifted into New Wave and then into jazz-influenced music. I saw Joe in April 1995 on a first date night with a woman who was ga-ga for him. It may have been the only thing we had in common in retrospect. He had brought his largely acoustic ’Night Music Tour’ to the Orpheum, and we had fantastic seats. He was late taking the stage and when he appeared to thunderous applause he did so with a scarf wrapped several times around his throat. He had contracted a throat infection a couple of days earlier while traveling from Calgary, his previous stop. He apologized to the sold out crowd and offered a choice – he could continue as far as he could with his voice in tatters, or reschedule for a later date. We unanimously chose the performance. A piano, a sax, and an upright bass, and one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.

10-ofra-harnoy-vivaldi-cello-concertos10 of 10 – Vivaldi Cello Concertos Vol. 2 – Ofra Harnoy – 1989

Ofra Harnoy is not as well-known as she should be. An Israeli-Canadian her cello recitals are works of art, and her concerts are always sold out. She has been nominated for six Juno Awards, winning five. This album holds a special place in my heart as it was the soundtrack for a three-week romantic stay in Italy with a girlfriend. For a time we decamped at a renovated Tuscan farmhouse midway between Arezzo and the ancient fortified hill town of Cortona. Occasionally, we would venture out for coffee, dinner, shopping, or sightseeing, and this CD would be our guide. We laughingly decided one day that we would put the CD on shuffle, start the music as we hit the backroads, and stop… for the view as soon as the individual piece finished. There are 21 cuts on this album – some short, some long – so we were never sure where we would end up. Hell of a way to experience Tuscany! I highly recommend it.

Kirk out!

Books, Travel

In Her Own Words…

December 15, 2016

Back in December 2016, we created something special for readers of the new adventure biography, “Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer” (you are reading the book, yes…?)

The date marked the 94th anniversary of Idris Hall’s rebirth as Aloha Wanderwell and the beginning of her life’s global journey with the Wanderwell Expedition. She became known far and wide as the ‘Amelia Earhart of the open road’ and secured her place in history as the first woman to drive around the world.

Her ‘voyage of a lifetime’ began in 1922 in the south of France.

She was sixteen years old and at the wheel of a Model-T Ford.

Forbidden to write a personal record of her road trip experiences by the leader of the Expedition, Captain Walter Wanderwell, she nonetheless kept a logbook.

On Sunday, December 18, 2016, we began publishing, day and date, what those secret diary entries revealed.

Readers followed along and experienced life through the eyes of a teenager caught between two world wars
almost a century ago. In real-time!

If you’re new to the exploits of this adventurous, courageous, peripatetic explorer… a primer.

§ § §

Spring 1917

It was the mathematically square windows of the dorm room on Vancouver Island that pushed 10-year-old Idris Hall’s imagination into high gear. Staring through those windows she could see life before the war. A life when her father would take her and her baby sister down to the ocean at the edge of their property to play in the surf. Or perhaps take a tour on grand, sunny, daylong trips in their new boat, exploring hidden coves and watching seals and otters and even orcas. Idris had gotten used to people asking why the Inlet Queen had square portholes. ‘Because that’s what mummy wanted’, she would say. Margaret had always maintained that the Hall Family had to be distinctive, had to be different. Idris would often smile at that thought.

The smile rarely lingered. Idris’s mother had taken her baby sister, Miki, and gone to England to help nurse her injured husband, Bertie, back to health – leg shrapnel, the telegram had said, ‘recuperating at Aldershot.’ Idris didn’t go. Margaret enrolled her in an all-girl private school to tend to her studies until ‘this beastly war’ was over – a few months at best, her mother had said. That was a year ago. Letters were rare.

aloha-11The starched-collar attitude of private school life was not to Idris’s liking at all, and it was certainly no match for the teasing promise of adventure offered by the square portholes of the Inlet Queen. But she had discovered an antidote to her indentured scholastic existence – the windows of her stuffy domicile could be put to good use.

The window across from her dorm room bed faced south, and standing there she could move her head ever so slightly to reveal the tops of towering Douglas Fir trees waving against a perfect blue sky, or she could lean to one side and eliminate them altogether, revealing instead the puffy white clouds. At another window, standing exactly three steps back from the sash – no more, no less – Idris could frame the skyline of Victoria’s Inner Habour barely a mile away. She could watch two- and three-masted schooners and motor launches slide in and out of her view. Pictures, she thought – moving pictures.

Clear nights were best. Kneeling on her small bed, elbows on the sill of her own window, she could make out stars and planets and entire constellations, and frame the moon to suit her fancy. In those moments she hoped her daddy was looking at the moon, too. Occasionally, she wondered if her family had forgotten all about her.

§ § §

More than two thousand miles away, in the American state of Georgia, a young Polish adventurer named Walter was sitting in a small jail cell in Atlanta’s antebellum Fulton County ‘Tower’. He had been arrested along with several other ‘wanderers’ under suspicion of spying for a foreign power and was attempting, unsuccessfully, to negotiate his freedom.

While young men of the Dominion had been fighting the ‘wrath of the Hun’ for some years, the United States was not yet committed to the task. However, military attitudes and political desires were quickly changing. America’s entry into the ‘War To End All Wars’ was but a pen stroke away.

Captain Wanderwell, as he was known, was of particular interest to local constabulary and his activities within America had even attracted the attention of federal law enforcement officials in Washington. Very little had been confirmed, and much was suspect. To begin with, a check of international records revealed confusion over Walter’s true name. They had, however, discovered that he was from a large German-Polish family, and had been arrested numerous times in several countries for many different infractions. Authorities demanded answers to some very pointed questions.

aloha-carUnder suspicion for some time, police had searched a locked steamer trunk at his lodgings at the local YMCA. There they discovered photographs and camera negatives of important and strategic seaports, lighthouses, wireless radio stations and military encampments. Maps, weather charts, shipping schedules and even letters to and from German consuls and embassies throughout the U.S. were also found. There was also carefully concealed evidence of a great deal of cash in bank accounts scattered across the country. Most intriguing of all, his hiking partner and current fellow cellmate, Hugo Coutandin – also a German, not French as he was steadfastly maintaining – carried a two-way wireless telegraph apparatus on his back. With whom were they communicating, the Justice Department wished to know, and what were they saying?

Unbeknownst to the Captain, the Attorney-General for Georgia who was leading the investigation into the hikers’ intentions, had placed another of the so-called ‘wanderers’ into Walter and Hugo’s cell to act as an informant. The Dutchman had stated under interrogation that he was sick and tired of being lumped in with the German foreigners just because he spoke with an accent. He was keen to secure his own release and was more than happy to eavesdrop on this alleged spy.

Walter, however, for all his mysterious ways and means, was saying nothing of any consequence. He only continued to protest his innocence to anyone within earshot. However, while he stared at the scarred, peeling concrete and plaster of the mouldy prison cell, his mind was sorting through several optional stories he could relate at his next interrogation, wondering which one might be good enough to exact his freedom.

§ § §

More than four thousand miles away, in central Europe, Lieutenant Herbert Hall’s ears were still ringing. It had been almost a week since the tons of dynamite so carefully placed in the tunnels under Messines Ridge had been detonated killing more than ten thousand German soldiers instantly. The event was already being hailed as a major British victory, even though very few soldiers had known until recently what the Royal Engineers had been up to. The blast near Ypres, Belgium was heard as far away as Downing Street and rattled pint glasses in Dublin. All Bertie really knew was that the normally filthy dour faces of his fellow trench rats and even the ‘higher-ups’ had been replaced with smiles and talks of going home soon, and that was good enough for him.

Up the line about two miles from the former German stronghold sat an area referred to on their maps as Battle Wood, Hill 60. On a moonless night, Bertie and his troops of the 12th Durham Light Infantry were hunkered down preparing for a ‘fixed bayonet’ attack on an enemy encampment nearby.

aloha-helmet-gogglesThe German artillery barrage usually began early, long before the sun came up illuminating the vast wasteland both combatants called home; you could set your pocket watch by it, Bertie often thought. But this night had been unusually quiet for a battlefield.

The first pale signs of pastel orange and purple were creeping above the horizon. As the morning haze was beginning to burn off Bertie removed his helmet and slowly raised his makeshift periscope above the edge of the trench until the mirror was just level with the horizon. Beyond the wreckage of one of their own artillery carriages and the still rotting corpse of the unfortunate horse that once pulled it, he could just make out a German periscope peering back at him from the edge of an identical muddy trench barely 500 yards away. Bertie quickly ducked down sucking in the fetid air.

And then it began – ‘thump… thump thump’. The German launch of artillery had started, followed by the tell-tale ‘whiz bang’ sound of the incoming shells announcing yet another deafeningly dangerous day ahead. They’re close, Bertie thought.

§ § §

It was unseasonably warm for an almost-Summer evening in Victoria, British Columbia. In a bed she was quickly outgrowing, young Idris Hall tossed and turned on the edge of sleep, wondering what was to become of her.

Unknown to her then, and in ways she could not yet imagine, events were indeed unfolding. The British officer who was not her father, and the German ‘spy’ who was not yet her husband were about to change her life… forever.

brains-beauty-breeches

Personal

Holding Coffee

September 25, 2016

“That’s all I’m going to tell about.
I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all,
and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it. I really don’t.
That stuff doesn’t interest me too much right now.”
– Holden Caulfield, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’

§ § §

When I was just two days short of graduating from Grade 8, anticipating not just the end of public school, but Summer holidays and then high school life with my fellow geeks, dweebs and pencil necks, my teacher gave all of us one last assignment.

“Your life is about to change forever,” Mr. Andrews said.

Shit! If there’s anything worse than parents attempting the ‘birds and the bees’ dialectic, it’s one of your so-called elders telling you that ‘your life is about to change forever’ while they look wistfully out the window to the horizon, and you sit there praying for the bell that can never come soon enough.

“I have one last assignment for you,” he said, barely getting the sentence out before groans of ‘You’ve got to be kidding’, and ‘Give us a break’ drowned him out.

“Quiet down,” he said. “Seriously. You’ll all thank me for this when you’re older and have kids of your own.”

Oh, where’s the fucking bell?!

Mr. Andrews continued. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

Okay – he had our attention now.

“Your grades are already locked, and you all passed. But I’d like you to do it. I think you’ll find it an interesting exercise.”

Futility 101 here I come.

“I want you to take a pen and a piece of paper and write the first page of your personal autobiography.”

What the…?! Excuse me?!

“Pretend you’re 30 years old,” he said. More groans. “Holden Caulfield all grown up. Looking back on your life so far… what’s your story – your story so far?”

Terry leaned over to me and whispered, “What the fuck’s Holding Coffee? What’s he talking about…?” Reading The Catcher In The Rye wasn’t compulsory and was still a few years off for some of us. I hadn’t read it, but I had a copy I’d received as a birthday present from a distant relative.

“What would that first page look like if you wrote it… looking back on a life you haven’t lived yet?” Mr. Andrews turned finally to face the dumbfounded class. He paused, looking at us, then laughed the way he always did when he said something intellectual, something he knew was above everyone’s heads.

“Let’s simplify it.” He switched into full-tilt teacher mode, marching around the room, making points with his right index finger as he spoke in teacher sentences.

“What are your dreams – now? What do you want to do? What do you want to be? If you looked back over your life, then, what do you think you’d see, now…?”

They were rhetorical questions. We were all 13 or 14 years old – we had no fucking idea who we were nor what we wanted to be. OUT, was what we wanted to be. Out of there. Running across the school yard to the river. Hanging out under the bridge and trying to guess the make of the cars by the sound they made as they traveled on the overhead snow grate.

The ‘rest of our lives’ was more than two months away. It was summer, school was over, and we wanted out. Over and out – that’s all we were thinking, that hot late afternoon in June.

The bell rang. There is a God! We all gave silent praise. But no one moved.

Mr. Andrew’s right index finger had one more point to make.

“Think about it… what was your life like? What did you do? What did you become?” He paused for effect. “What did you accomplish…?”

Susan broke the silence. “Can we… go now…?”

“See you all tomorrow,” he said, barely completing the sentence before the sound of scraping desks and stomping shoe leather drowned him out.

“LAST DAY!” he yelled after us. We thought as one: Too fucking right!

Our class joined a few hundred other kids from all grades as we ran across the school yard to the river and the bridge.

“Are you gonna write anything?” I asked Terry later.

“Naw,” he said. “If it ain’t worth anything, what’s the point?”

“Yeah,” was all I said.

Later that night I picked up my copy of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye and read it… cover to cover. Half of it with a flashlight under the covers so as not to awaken my two younger brothers with whom I shared the room.

The next morning over breakfast I took out a pen and a piece of paper and wrote the first page of my autobiography. My life had changed forever, and I didn’t need to be thirty-years-old to see it. All it took was a small red paperback book with gold writing on the cover.

What I wrote then still seems like a logical place to start:

“I was born in the year of rock ‘n roll.

On April 18, 1953, while John Wayne was helping plant the American flag atop Iwo Jima, my mother was in the back seat of a ‘52 blue-on-blue Chevy Bel-Air Coupe having a cigarette and making small talk with a man she hardly knew.

Nine months later Bill Haley and the Comets released “Rock Around The Clock” and my mother went into labour – I was born the next day.

Ten pounds and a breach birth later the doctor slapped me on the ass to start me crying, and my mother slapped me across the face to make me stop. Such is life.

As the years went by, being a square peg in a round hole lost the occasional fascination of a hobby and took on the comfortable, every-day work clothes of a mantra. I’m still chanting.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.”

I had good teachers.

Books, Politics

The Icebox Cometh

September 15, 2016

“It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst…
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”
– Leonard Cohen

§ § §

[Note: I wrote this for a previous iteration of my website in September of 2008. Barack Hussein Obama and John McCain were neck and neck in the polls at the time, and the outcome of that year’s presidential election was anything but certain. The Sarah Palin ‘factor’, initially thought by Liberal hopefuls to have been the GOP’s Achilles Heel, had actually raised McCain’s chances in several polls. It was ‘crazy’ time and the media was having a field day. Eight years hence ‘crazy’ has taken on a whole new meaning. It seems like an opportune time to take a look back at what was, and reflect on the life of a man who had such a significant impact on Democratic rhetoric right down to public speeches and political discourse dating back to the campaign of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his run at the White House in 1960. – REW]

§ § §

As I write this, it’s exactly 53 days to the American presidential election. Republican Senator John McCain has been basking – some would say ‘wallowing’ – in the glow that is Sarah Palin. Democrat Barack Obama, meanwhile, has been huddling with his advisors trying to decide how best to counter the effect that having a female on the GOP ticket has had on McCain’s popularity – he’s on top in almost every primary tracking poll. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

About eight months ago some low-level political media darling who added ‘pundit’ to his resume suggested that “…a refrigerator could beat McCain this year…” But it was Howard Dean, head of the Democratic National Committee, former governor of Vermont and former presidential candidate in 2004 who said the following words on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart more than a year ago:

“The Republicans are the best campaigners. They know how to campaign – but they can’t govern. Democrats, on the other hand, know how to govern… but we have problems campaigning.”

Not a very soothing thought. Not a phrase that instills confidence in the left-leaning electorate.

sorensen_jfkWatching and listening to Senator Obama for the better part of nineteen months it’s tough to see how anyone could have launched, conducted and maintained a better-run campaign for the presidency, even if you forget the fact that he’s black and that his relatively rapid ascendancy to challenge for the highest office in the land is both historical and awe-inspiring. A comparison of his suggested policies and voting record opposite John McCain should leave no one in doubt as to who the better president would be. The last eight years alone should shave more than a few points off McCain’s chances with Vegas odds-makers.

And yet, here we are. Today’s Financial Times of London contains a banner headline, “Democrats On Capital Hill Fear Obama Fallout”. A wire story circulated to newspapers all across the United States last week stated that, privately, congressional Democrats are ‘suddenly’ concerned about Obama’s chances. Yesterday’s Gallup Poll on the congressional races was headlined, “Battle For Congress Suddenly Looks Competitive”. It would appear that the ‘refrigerator’ isn’t fully stocked. No, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

It seems so easy to have it all slip away. The brass ring, within grasp, is snagged by an interloper. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Perhaps a look back will help put some distance – literally – between the desire that was and the reality that is. Take that ‘sure thing’ and knock it off its pedestal so we can all get a better look.

counselor_sorenson_bookI’ve just finished reading Ted Sorensen’s autobiography, Counselor. Ted was President John F. Kennedy’s head speech writer, confidante, advisor, and friend. He was a policy wonk of the highest order when policy was everything. He wrote (or co-wrote) all of JFK’s speeches during his short presidency, and was on the front lines during all of Kennedy’s critical moments – the Cuban Missile Crisis chief among them. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Sorensen wrote it. Kennedy said it. America heard it and responded.

A lot has been said and written about Obama’s similarity to Kennedy, some of it even by Obama himself. There’s no question that the idealism Kennedy represented in the early 1960s is shared by the senator from Illinois almost fifty years later – the comparisons and connections are striking. And perhaps – perhaps – Ted Sorensen deserves some of the credit.

Ted was and is a proud liberal Democrat [Ted passed away in 2010. – REW] He’s been a supporter of Barack Obama from day one, and it’s been reported that he serves the campaign as an ‘unofficial’ advisor, sometimes writing sections of Obama’s speeches. During Obama’s Super Tuesday victory speech back in February – the now-famous ‘yes we can’ speech – Obama said the following:

“You see, the challenges we face will not be solved with one meeting in one night. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. We are the hope of those boys who have little; who’ve been told that they cannot have what they dream; that they cannot be what they imagine. Yes they can.”

Is that pure Sorensen…?

One of the significant aspects of Ted’s autobiography is the way in which he places campaigning, specifically presidential campaigning, into context. With the media reporting on every little mistake, misplay and gaffe the candidates make during this election cycle, I found it fascinating to read Sorensen’s ‘take’ on the subject. His insight is peppered throughout the book, but two of his viewpoints are specifically appropriate, and I wanted to quote them both. I think they help in putting this election, and the way in which it is being reported, into perspective.

“As hard as it is on the speechwriter and staff, a presidential campaign is even rougher on the candidate. It is impossible for him to remember the names of all the people whose hands he shakes, to remember the time of day, the day of the week, the town in which he is speaking; to remember his own previously stated positions on issues, much less those of his opponents. But if he sounds temporarily inconsistent, the press calls it weakness; if he is ambiguous, his opponent calls him a coward. Through it all, he must appear sincere and self-assured, smile through the rain and pain, protect his hand from being crushed and his suit from being torn, freeze in an open car, perspire in a stuffy banquet hall, smile at those who curse him, listen patiently to those who repeatedly advise the obvious, and repeat his own positions until he tires of his own words, restrain his natural candor, be cautious about his humor, and exude enthusiasm about the ordeal he is enduring and every person he meets. All day, the press is outside his door and window, the rooms are full of sweat and smoke, his hand is bruised, scratched, full of calluses…. Everyone you meet wants something from you, your time, your endorsement, your support for some local project or measure; and then you move on to three more stops in three more states before you fall into bed. It is an exercise best suited to fanatics, egomaniacs and superbly fit athletes.”

From: “Counselor” by Ted Sorensen – Chapter 15
Senator Kennedy’s Quest For The Presidency – pp. 186-187

Later in the book, he admits to having given advice to many presidential candidates and would-be candidates over the years. Considering the debate that still rages between the McCain and Obama camps (and in the media) over the ‘experience’ issue (or lack of it), I found this section especially appropriate. “For those future presidential candidates among my readers who want my advice, the following is a condensed compilation of all the related memos I’ve written to would-be presidents who approached me for advice over the last several decades – including Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Mario Cuomo, Bob Kerrey, John Kerry and Barack Obama…”

To: Presidential Hopeful
From: Theodore C. Sorensen
Subject: So You Want To Be President

“…am I smart enough to be president? I suggest you review that question in three contexts: First, compare your intelligence, judgment, courage and ability to lead with those of the others who have recently held, sought, or will be seeking the presidency. Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln is running this time. Experience is relative. No office provides meaningful preparation for the unique responsibilities of the presidency.”

From: “Counselor” by Ted Sorensen – Chapter 32
My Continuing Involvement In Politics – pp. 480

No office provides meaningful preparation for the unique responsibilities of the presidency. One assumes he means previous experience as mayor, governor OR senator.

sorensen_obamaI’ve never pretended to be ‘fair and balanced’ in my political views; I dress to the left, so to speak. Were I an American I would not only be voting for the Obama/Biden ticket, but I’d also be campaigning for it. My view of American politics has been shaped by decades of watching, listening, comparing and assessing American policies at home and abroad, mostly abroad. It’s why I believe that this election is the most important election of my lifetime – the most important election in the world, for the world. I say that because American foreign policy is one of its cornerstones, and it impacts not just Americans but everyone that its policy touches regardless of country. The Republican administration of Bush/Cheney is the perfect example of how NOT to govern, and Senator Obama’s mantra of ‘change’, while simplistic, has hit fragile nerves from Bakersfield to Berlin. And yet, here we are.

I’m hoping that the addition of Governor Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket energizes the Democrats anew. That on the heels of that idealistic ‘first wave’ of ‘change’ – a mantra now co-opted by the McCain camp – there occurs a ‘second wave’. One of firm opposition, surgical confrontation, adroit campaigning and unfettered optimism in the future with a Democratic administration led by Barack Obama, Joe Biden and a laundry list of the best and brightest minds in America that becomes contagious.

Clock’s ‘a tickin’!

Personal, Travel

Journey To The Center Of The Earth

May 18, 2016

“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
~ Witches Chant, Macbeth

§ § §

It was new. Brand spanking. My first new car ever. No more Ford Pinto, no more Renault R16, no more Chrysler Imperial with occasional brakes. She was fresh off the boat from Japan, all metallic green, and gleaming; I swear she practically glowed in the dark. Less than 30 miles on her and most of that the result of driving her home from the dealership. It was a 1980 Toyota Tercel SR5 sitting calmly in my driveway on a sunny weekend. It smelled that new car smell, and I smiled that new car smile, as I looked down on it from my perch on the second-floor balcony.

A thought occurred… Roadtrip USA! The decision was made. It was almost 6:00am on Sunday, May 18, 1980, and barely 250 miles to the south, after two months of rehearsals, Mt. St. Helens was getting ready for her close-up.

Shotgun!, Keith said.

I’d been in Vancouver for nearly five years already, but my friend Keith had arrived from the east only weeks before. He was up for anything that increased his fun quotient in this newly-minted left-coast, and if it involved wheels and had no agenda, so much the better. Riding shotgun? I laughed. It was a roadtrip – unplanned and spontaneous – and he would be the only other person in the car where else was he going to sit?

Sustained by that morning’s hot coffee and hastily consumed cold pizza from the night before, we drove south, heading for the Peace Arch border crossing in Washington State and the Chuckanut Drive. Between songs by Journey, Queen and AC/DC, the radio was telling us that the border line-ups were fairly light due to the early hour. It was cool and cloudy, but the forecast called for clearing later in the morning. That surely meant other Sunday drivers would soon be out and about, and the borders would get more and more congested as the day progressed. The radio also said that Mt. St. Helens was again spewing steam while it continued to rumble and shake. They’d been saying that for months. Indigestion, some said. All talk, no action. Mother Nature venting her spleen, nothing more. Same shit, different day. We paid no attention. I changed the station, cranked it, merged onto Highway 1 and pressed the accelerator. By the time we hit the border thirty minutes later (a new record I liked this new car!) the clouds had started to break up.

Crossing into the U.S. from Canada – even prior to 9/11 – was never a swift process, but this day we were lucky. A late shift change had allowed us to be waved through without the usual third degree – Whats your citizenship? Where do you live? Whats the purpose of your visit? – none of that, just a wave through. We barely came to a stop. Never happened before, hasnt happened since. Fortunate indeed.

7:30am and we’re in Bellingham taking the off-ramp from Interstate 5 into a Chevron gas station for more fuel for my new baby, and more coffee for us. While Keith used the facilities, I checked out The Bellingham Herald, The Seattle Times, and The Seattle Post-Intellgencer newspapers stacked neatly by the doors. Mt. St. Helens this, Mt. St. Helens that. What if? they collectively said. Who really knew?

Part of the old Highway 99 to Seattle called the Chuckanut Drive was always a class “A” picturesque panic to drive. Now known as Route 11, its a narrow, twisty bit of winding road, and it’s always reminded me of the road to Hana on the Hawaiian island of Maui, a trip I’ve done twice, once on a moped (another story for another time!) Travelling on it is an experience the likes of which you rarely encounter elsewhere in North America.

“One could easily imagine being chased by dragons through Middle Earth on a day like this.”

The Chuckanut was built near the turn of the last century, but because automobiles were still in their infancy it was a graded dirt road at the time used primarily by bicycles and horse-drawn buggies. Most of the road was blasted out of the sheer mountain rock face on one side and drops off into the gorgeous watery oblivion that is Samish Bay on the other. When it officially became a highway twenty years later – an auto trail as they called it then – they could only widen it slightly. It has two lanes and a solid yellow line that runs down the centre, but there all similarity to other roads end. Its two lanes are not easily divisible by one car in some places. To this day large trucks, motorhomes and RVs aren’t even allowed on it. If another vehicle is coming in the other direction, well what’s that they say about courtesy?

Throwing caution, and likely a great deal of common sense to the wind, we flew through the bends and curves at speed, the new Pirellis I’d had installed hugging the tarmac like a train on rails. We barely spoke, me concentrating on keeping that yellow line on my left side where it damn well belonged, and Keith staring out the passenger side at the lush abyss below, and wondering if there was ever going to be a return trip. What sun there was created strobes of light on the road and the windscreen as it flashed through the dense canopy of trees overhead. One could easily imagine being chased by dragons through Middle Earth on a day like this. Powering into sweeping left bends, gearing down and braking into sharp hairpin rights, and red-lining across small stone bridges and up hills into the next sweeping left bend, that twenty-minute buzz was exhilarating.

Escaping the talons of the dragons we emerged into the relatively flat 55 miles-per-hour expanse of the Skagit Valley. Slowing down for what seemed like the first time in a week, we eventually came to a junction between the tiny towns of Bow and Edison, Washington. We cruised past the Rhododendron Cafe and turned right at the post office. As we did, Keith pointed and said, Is that Mt. St. Helens? It was actually Mt. Baker, slowly becoming visible in the distance over our shoulder to the south. A good sign the weather was continuing to clear. It was just after 8:00am.

mt-_st-_helens_usgs2

Throughout the 1970s and 80s Edison was known as the town that time forgot, and it was, almost literally. With Interstate 5 (I-5) bypassing the most beautiful sections of the Skagit Valley there was little reason for traffic to go through the town. Once there, there was even less in the way of commerce to entice you to stay.

Edison sits on an ‘S’ curve – more of a discombobulated ‘Z’ curve, truth be told – where West Bow Hill Road and Farm To Market Road meet. Once through the town you’re on a straight line till you hit Highway 20, which will take you to wonderful scenic towns like Anacortes and La Conner to the west, or back to I-5 to the east and south if Seattle is more to your liking.

Keith and I were discussing the very same thing, trying to make a decision, as we took the corner in the first half of the ‘Z’. Seattle for lunch at Pike Place Market? La Conner for the stroll? Anacortes just because?

“I’m glad the brakes worked well on my new car.”

An old Buick had been towing a U-Haul trailer and miscalculated the ‘Z’. The vehicle, now unhitched, was sitting on the left side of the road with its hazard lights flashing. The U-Haul – one wheel in the ditch, the other on the actual road – was perched precariously on its rear doors on the right side of the road, its trailer tongue sticking up in the air like an exaggerated middle finger. We were screwed. A tow truck looked as though it had just arrived and was maneuvering into place to hopefully put the trailer back on the straight and narrow. Regardless, the road was blocked in both directions, so we opted for turning around and heading back to the junction.

Who drives a Buick, anyway? Keith said. We both laughed.

Seriously, I said. I mean — BANG! A small bird had hit the windscreen and lodged itself under the passenger side wiper. I braked, lurching, as we skidded to a stop.

What the hell! I began to say. Keith tapped the window on his side. Look, he said, pointing. A half dozen horses were racing around a fenced-in field, neighing wildly. As we watched, one tried to jump over the fence but tripped and fell over it. Then it got up and galloped away into another field. Instinctively, we rolled down our windows and started to move the car forward, slowly, looking out and around. In the sky, all manner of birds were screaming, swooping and diving haphazardly in all directions not flying instinctively in tight formations as you’d expect. A short distance away a lone cow was on the loose and was literally stampeding up the road ahead of us. Keith said later that he saw other cows knock down an old wooden fence and get tangled in the beams and each other. I accelerated. In the distance, I could see the cow running up a slight rise where a small bridge crossed a creek. It then disappeared over the other side. I drove faster. Then, we too came over the rise.

The cow ran up to and then through a dark cloud, a fog of some sort; a fog not only hanging over the road but right smack in the middle of it. The fog was moving in our direction. WINDOWS! I yelled. ROLL UP THE WINDOWS! I may have used other choice words at that moment too, I don’t recall. No sooner had the car windows been thankfully re-sealed, than I realized what was upon us. I floored it. And drove headlong into thousands upon thousands of BEES! I learned later that at this precise moment it was shortly after 8:30am.

If ever there was a shared WTF moment, that was it. On came the wipers full blast, pumping as much washer fluid onto the windscreen as I could, trying desperately to dilute and remove the bee guts – I’d completely forgotten about the poor bird. I couldn’t see a damned thing out the front of the car, and we were still traveling fast. Keith said, Wheres the cow? I don’t see the cow. I regained my composure, slowed to a crawl and squinted through the yellow-tinted glass, wary, now, of hitting the animal.

As we both looked around trying to see where the bovine had disappeared to, it came running up alongside my car, startling both of us. Apparently, in my own state of agitation, I’d raced right past it. Keith and I both turned to look at the strange sight that was close enough to touch.

In my travels, I’ve witnessed everything from religious devotees piercing their tongues and other intimate body parts with sharp needles at a Thaipusam festival at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, and watched a bloody knife-fight on a street corner in New York City. Ive eaten BBQ grasshoppers off a make-shift Hibachi at four o’clock in the morning in Bangkok, downed deep-fried dog on a stick from a food stall in a back alley in Hong Kong, and returned a plate of parasite-infested swordfish to the kitchen of an expensive restaurant in Vancouver (I’m adventurous not stupid!) I’ve been shot at, had machetes swung at my head and fallen through the ice into frigid waters, twice. But no experience compares to driving along a back country lane and watching as a cow, covered with angry bees, passes you. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it. I felt like we’d arrived unannounced on a Terry Gilliam film set. Horrified, I pressed gently on the go fast pedal, and sped away from the awful scene.

Keith and I started to laugh, almost uncontrollably. Our eyes and ears couldn’t explain what we were seeing and hearing, and our brains couldn’t compute. There was no frame of reference.

As we reached the junction again a few minutes later, I made the decision to pull into the tiny gas station across from the Rhododendron Cafe. However, there was a huge motorhome in the sole refuelling spot, so I parked along the side of the building and we got out. We walked around to the front of the car. Holy shit! we said, almost in unison. The entire grill, headlights, turning signals and ground-effects air scoop were covered, caked with dead and dying bees. “Yeah, us too”, said the motorhome driver. Keith and I walked over. I could hear rumbling. Had he left his engine running? Is that thunder?

It was only on approaching the RV that I realized he wasn’t refuelling, but spraying water from a hose to clean the front of his rig. The ground around the front of the motorhome was an inch deep in yellow water, and he still hadn’t finished.

What the HELL?! I said. The RV driver pointed behind us. “She finally blew”, he said. We turned and looked. There, due south, on the horizon, a thin wisp of smoke that might have been discounted as just another house fire on any given day. And then, in the distance, more rumbling. It had never occurred to us that an earthquake had caused Mt. St. Helens to erupt sending the animal kingdom into a frenzy.

Middle Earth had just given up the ghost!

mt-_st-_helens_usgs3An hour later, and back on the Canadian side, radio was reporting calamity of all stripes. Volcanic ash falling in the vicinity of the blast, lava flows and something called a pyroclastic flow had been reported by some close enough to see it, but far enough away to reach safety, thankfully. Initial readings of seismic waves revealed an earthquake and several strong aftershocks, and eyewitnesses reported lots of noise and lots and lots of smoke. Prevailing winds were carrying the airborne debris mostly east and south, so they said, but those winds could change direction at any time. Airplanes flying near ground zero radioed that the smoke was reaching their altitude, which meant that the smoke, volcanic ash and poisonous gas could result in a historical global event the likes of which had not been seen since Krakatoa. When that Indonesian volcano erupted in 1883, the explosion was heard more than 2,000 miles away in the Australian city of Perth, its shockwave was recorded to have circled the Earth seven times, and two weeks later parts of England awoke to see volcanic ash falling from the sky. That explosion also affected temperatures worldwide, reducing them by a degree or two, and having a disastrous effect on animal and plant life in many regions of the world for decades after. No one knew what the Mt. St. Helens eruption would mean for us in the Northwest, or the rest of the world.

Two days later the winds had changed slightly. Radio and television were reporting that ash had fallen overnight in parts southern British Columbia. And thats when I noticed it. Among the remains of bee guts mixed with a slight dusting of volcanic ash, someone had hastily written the words ‘Wash Me’ on the hood of my once-gleaming metallic green new car.

Shotgun indeed.

§ § §

mount_st-_helens-rew

I took this photograph of Mt. St. Helens near the town of Randle, Washington in August 2006. Had you not known that it was an active volcano you might assume this was just another majestic Northwest mountain. Perhaps its true, maybe time does heal all wounds.

As for the Chuckanut Drive and the area of the Skagit Valley in and around Bow, not much has changed. It’s still one of the best drives you can take anywhere in the world for my money, and out of Vancouver going south, or out of Seattle heading north, its still just a day trip.

Edison, on the other hand, has changed quite a bit. You now have every reason to stop and enjoy that discombobulated ‘Z’ curve and the commerce that’s been a part of it for the past half a dozen years. It now boasts a couple of taverns, an art gallery, a fun second-hand collectibles shop, a spectacular bakery, and one of the best wine and cheese shops to be found anywhere. In fact, I’d say Edison is now a featured destination. If you needed a reason to drive the Chuckanut – other than for the sheer beauty and exhilaration – Edison would be it.

Personal, Seen & Heard

Mystery Meat

February 19, 2016

“Ooooh that smell,
Can’t you smell that smell,
Ooooh that smell,
The smell of death surrounds you.”
– Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘That Smell’

§ § §

Allow me to draw your attention to the subject of ‘cattle mutilations’. (Didn’t see that coming, now, did you?!) Trust me – stay with me on this one.

Media stories of dead cattle appearing in fields seemingly overnight – their carcasses sliced open, many with their internal organs and body parts harvested – is a mystery that has been covered in local and national media since the 1960s. These gruesome bovine events are dotted all over the North American landscape, mostly in the west, but historically predominant in the American Midwest. Farmers and ranchers are left speechless, while townsfolk hypothesize and gossip, and media report and try their best not to laugh. Eventually, the cause celebre withers and life returns to normal. This scenario plays out time and again, as it did here in the U.S. state of Missouri according to this recent report: Police Not Ruling Out The Possibility Of Aliens

What’s going on here? Is there a rational explanation for these killings, or is the answer more… ‘otherworldly’?

I offer the following without editorial comment. This is a true story. Draw your own conclusions.

§ § §

One day I was sitting having a cup of coffee with a friend. In those days we both worked in broadcast television news, and that coffee conversation, like many others we’d had, revolved around local, regional and international news stories from the week before. We could often be found discussing the latest murder, kidnapping, robbery, catastrophe or political scandal that was grabbing our supper-hour headlines. This particular day, however, was different.

The night before our klatsch one of our reporters had filed a story originating in the lush farmland of British Columbia’s Thompson Okanagan region. Considered a bit of a ‘crank’ story, the two and a half minute piece was relegated to the post-weather report ghetto of our one-hour newscast; not deemed important enough for ‘real’ news, but interesting enough to elicit a humourous dialogue between the news anchors before throwing to commercial break.

cattle_mutilation_policeThe journalist in question was reporting on a farmer who had found a dozen or so of his cows dead in his field. They had apparently been quite skillfully butchered, and the grisly discovery created a local buzz of finger-pointing and unanswered questions.

What happened to the cattle?!

Scratched heads lead to various theories, and although none of the locals would commit to going on camera with such a claim, eventually ‘it was the work of aliens’ became a hot topic. It wasn’t the first time beings from outer space and flying saucers were considered the culprits in cattle mutilations, and it wouldn’t be the last.

I had heard about cattle mutilations before; this was nothing new. But it was rare for this to occur in Canada. Only a month before a similar story had come out of southern Alberta. A large ranch near the U.S. border had reported a ‘similar attack’ (that’s how the media had referred to it) on several heads of prime beef cattle.

I’d seen and read news stories in all the major American media over the years about this phenomenon, and the M.O. was always the same: Range animals – sometimes pigs or sheep, occasionally horses, even bison, but mostly cows – are found dead. Their sexual organs have been removed (female cows and sheep especially), and usually one or more (sometimes all) of the following are also missing: eyes, ears, lips, tongue, nostrils and anus. The events surrounding each catalogued ‘mutilation’ (or ‘bovine excision’ as it came to be known) are peculiar for sure. But beyond the similarities two items stand out, and tie each and every event together regardless of passage of time or geographical location:

  1. The incisions are almost always surgical in nature. Rarely are there any rips or tears present in the skin, nor is there evidence of a predatory attack, either pre- or post-mortem.
  2. The abnormal lack of blood at the scene, which you would expect to be present after so much cutting.

What’s a conspiracy factualist to do with such information?

Back to the caffeine.

el_paso_herald_headlineMy buddy mentioned that an older gentleman friend of his, Robert (not his real name), would be joining us that day, and he soon arrived – introductions all ’round. We began basic chit-chat, and I soon discovered that Robert had a fascinating, if not shadowy background. Both he and his wife were semi-retired (each had been in the military), but they had taken on part-time work to supplement their pensions – he as a security consultant, she as a law enforcement communications trainer. She was Canadian, but Robert had been born in America. His military service had included radar and communications work, and early in his career, he’d been stationed in northern Canada along NORAD’s DEW (Distant Early Warning) line. (His story about what he experienced on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, while sitting at a complex array of radar screens was startling. I’ll save that for another day).

We eventually returned to our original conversation about the reports of cattle mutilations. Without missing a beat (or a sip of coffee), Robert offered that he knew exactly what had happened.

“Must have been a leak,” he said. “Maybe an experiment. But more likely a leak. The only question is… was it accidental, or…” His voice trailed off.

Seeing the incredulous looks on our faces, he laughed. “Right,” he said, leaning forward. “Here’s what’s going on.” And he proceeded to explain his version of events that would ‘naturally’ – his word – lead to slicing up a cow. He didn’t provide verifiable examples (other than the one I note below), but his basic story was this…

It’s no secret the U.S. military in all its guises maintained stockpiles of high-end weaponry, everything from Nukes to Biological to Chemical (NBC) weapons. Even though international law argued that much had been destroyed, still more had been buried and supposedly sealed to never (hopefully) see the light of day. However, he said, certain military divisions, known primarily by their vaguely descriptive acronyms, continued to test certain ‘weaponized delivery systems’ in the form of rockets, aerosol dispersants and bombs, all in the name of ‘worst case scenario’ preparedness. Robert was aware, he said, because of his prior background, that things didn’t always go as planned.

Weaponized nerve agents, he continued, in their final deliverable form, were known in Pentagon-speak as ‘wet-eyes’. The American military maintains an entire vocabulary of innocuous terms to underscore the plausible deniability of the true intent and meaning of processes and weapons, and even for accidents that may occur. Phrases such as ‘Broken Arrow‘ and ‘Empty Quiver‘, for instance, relate to ‘lost nukes’ and ‘stolen nukes’ respectively. But the term ‘wet-eye’ is more nefarious, and in this case, makes perfect sense.

So-called ‘nerve agents’, or nerve gasses, such as VX and Sarin, are both tasteless and odourless. They are also the most lethal chemicals ever devised. In amounts that are barely discernible, they attack the central nervous system and shut it down, causing paralysis and death in moments. They were designed to do just that. It’s why they’re referred to as WMDs – weapons of mass destruction.

Why the ‘wet-eye’ designation…?

This is a reference to how the nerve gas attacks, how it enters the body. In a ‘gas’ or aerosol form, it does so through the mucous membranes of a human or an animal. The eye is an example of a mucous (or ‘wet’) membrane, as are the ears, lips, tongue, nostrils, anus, and in females, the sexual organs. Tear gas works in the same way, and it’s why it’s called ‘tear gas’.

Robert offered an example of what happens during the release of a nerve agent and its immediate after-effects.

dugway_proving_groundIn 1968, more than 6,000 head of sheep were discovered to have died overnight in an area spread out over several miles of grazing land in Utah. The incident occurred near the Dugway Proving Ground – a U.S. Army facility for the testing and storage of chemical and biological weapons and agents. After a lengthy investigation and autopsies on many of the animals, it was found that contact with VX nerve gas was the culprit and that the Army facility was responsible. Eventually, the Army compensated the farmers for their loss but admitted no wrong-doing. How the gas in this instance had been dispersed or escaped – accident or as part of a scheduled test – was never explained. They neither confirmed, denied, or even acknowledged chemical weaponry was in the vicinity.

In a case such as this, Robert said, the surgical removal of the eyes, etc. from a statistical sample of the affected sheep could reveal for investigators some pertinent data. For instance, it would show how they died, the level of toxicity in each animal, and, based on the location of the bodies, how the prevailing winds ‘moved’ the chemical agent from dispersal point to contact. [Roaming cattle would seem to be the perfect scenario for a ‘test’. – Ed.]

We sat sipping our coffees for a few minutes allowing the impact of this revelation to sink in. And then it hit me.

“But these events happen all over,” I said, “not just in Utah. What’s that all about…?”

Robert thought for a moment before answering.

“There are other places, other military and private facilities in use across America,” he said, “and Canada and England, too, I suspect. Porton Down in the U.K. would be a good example.”

There were certainly moral and ethical, even legal issues involved, I thought, but he never did go there.

“Prevailing winds are the unknown factor here,” he continued. He gave the example of blowing out a candle and watching the smoke trail away. The smoke will rise, but a slight gust of wind and the wispy trails change direction accordingly. Wind patterns aren’t consistent, he said, and they can be dependant on weather, time of day, and geography. Why is Chicago windier than Detroit, he asked rhetorically. Deserts and mountain ranges can both be windy places, but neither exhibits predictable or directional patterns. Weapons are tested in many different ways and in many different locales. A strong wind kicks up and who knows where a gas could travel to. He said he personally knew of several other nerve agent ‘incidents’ that had taken place over the years, and it was always interesting to see where they had occurred. He suggested there really was a pattern that connected the event to the locale.

My friend said, “Okay – so it’s not aliens then?” I truly appreciated that big laugh!

“Do either of you own a map of the U.S.?”, Robert asked. He could tell from our puzzled looks that we did not. “Buy one.” He then presented us with a task that, he said, would prove to us that these ‘cattle mutilations,’ while bizarre, and more than a little scary considering the obvious human implications, were completely explainable.

My buddy and I bought the map and proceeded to place a red dot in the general locale of each and every report of a cattle mutilation for which we could find a reference. There were dozens of events, but there was overlap – many occurred near the same locales, but at different times. In the end, our map had seven red dots representing cattle mutilation reports dating back fifteen years. We then gave Robert the map.

A few weeks later we reconvened for another round of fascinating, caffeine fuelled discussion. Robert sat down and tossed the folded map on the table. “I told you there would be a pattern,” he said, smiling.

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cattle_mutilations_newsAll these years later I still have that map. What it shows is a series of seven red dots spread out over six American western and midwest states. Adjacent to each red dot are nine wide, white lines painted on it with Liquid Paper as a label background. Each label contains the handwritten name of a U.S. Air Force base or Army base known for storage of biochem weapons, or of a military weapon facility. The pattern – the connection – was obvious. Whether by design (the result of a scheduled test of a weapon system) or by misadventure (the accidental release of gas) the existence and use of dangerous substances were both widespread and active, and cattle were being dissected.

But what about today? Didn’t President Richard Nixon end the U.S. biochem weapons program in 1969? Wasn’t the production and stockpiling of VX gas outlawed as part of a global agreement signed by 162 countries in 1993 banning biochem weapons? Yes, all true. However, poison gas was used by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds in Halabja in 1988; there was not one but two sarin gas attacks in Japan in 1994 and 1995; anthrax (also considered a biochem weapon) was delivered to a handful of U.S. politicians and reporters in 2001; and it is suspected that Syria uses nerve gas as a weapon even today.

The Dugway Proving Ground still exists. The U.S. Army still stores and tests various weaponized systems, and some of those are liquids and gasses designed for deployment in a combat theater. How they end up in farmers’ fields and on grazing ranch land is anyone’s guess.

But let’s bring this around full circle…

What about this recent unexplained cattle mutilation event in Missouri? Is some form of gas or aerosol involved? Was there a military test that went awry, did the prevailing winds shift unexpectedly? Are aliens to blame?

Not too far away from the event location in the ‘Show Me’ state where the dead cattle were found lies the U.S Army’s Fort Leonard Wood Garrison, home to the 23-acre CBRN School. CBRN stands for ‘Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear’. Their website describes the facility this way:

“Fort Leonard Wood and the Army CBRN School have world-class facilities in which to conduct training (in) the Chemical Defense Training Facility… where military students from across the globe train and become familiar with actual nerve agents in realistic scenarios (emphasis mine), and also conduct training with radiological isotopes and inert biological agents.”

While this scenario, first suggested to me many years ago, may offer a ‘reasonable’ explanation, I can’t say it gives me a warm, cozy feeling.

But that’s just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

A postscript…

While writing this, I kept returning to a nagging question? I realize that governments the world over (for the most part) have agreed to get rid of WMDs. But how do you decommission a WMD? What do you do with it? Where do you put a weapon of mass destruction so that it’s no threat to anyone ever again? In short, how do you kill something whose sole purpose in life is to kill you?

The U.S. Department of Defence reported only a few years ago that more than 120 tons of VX nerve gas were disposed of in the Atlantic Ocean. Thousands upon thousands of VX-weaponized rockets were loaded onto ships that were scheduled for scuttling and then sunk in very deep seas off the coasts of New York, New Jersey, and Florida.

Apparently, there are so many nerve gas weapons remaining in the world, especially in the former Soviet Union, that their destruction continues to this day.