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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‘…?

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.


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.


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.

§ § §


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.

Books, Travel

Drive, She Said

September 8, 2015

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd.
The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.”

– Albert Einstein

§ § §

Let’s begin with an indisputable fact of nature. No one has ever travelled around the world using an automobile as the means of transportation… ever. Can’t be done. Geography is a bitch in that regard, always putting seawater in the way of a good ribbon of blacktop, or even a navigable dirt road for that matter. Nope, sorry – can’t get there from here.

This doesn’t stop people from suggesting they have, or will do just that – drive around the world.

However, take away the literal context of the journey, and add a ship or three to assist in the ‘portaging’ of said vehicle across vast expanses of ocean, and attempts to accomplish such a feat take on a competitive edginess.

heidi-hetzerHistory shows that for well over a hundred years many would-be thrill-seekers, from all walks of life, have attempted to circumnavigate the globe by car, several also laying siege to the claim of having been the first to do so. Whether merely pursuing a sense of adventure, participating in sponsored or money-making schemes, or simply for the bragging rights, the words ‘drive around the world’ have always held a certain sense of freedom, excitement and escape, even danger. And it’s not just men who have fallen victim to this internal combustion version of wanderlust – women have not only tackled this ‘extreme’ pursuit, they have excelled.

Heidi Hetzer hopes to be one of those women. And therein lies the beginning of a story with more twists and turns than the Nürburgring.


Heidi owns one of the largest automobile dealership chains in Germany, and cars have always been a part of her life. She is also a race car driver and has competed in many major races including international rallies such as the famous ‘Mille Miglia‘. In 2013, she embarked on her dream quest in her treasured Hispano-Suiza roadster. The car is 91-years-old. Heidi is 75.


As Heidi tells it, the inspiration for her long trip comes from a book she read a few years ago about the first woman to drive around the world, a feat completed back in 1929. Heidi thought: ‘Why not me? I can do that, too.’

That ‘first woman’ Heidi read about was fellow German, Clärenore Stinnes. Like Heidi, cars were in Miss Stinnes’ blood, and she was an avid racer. She competed in dozens of automotive competitions and won seventeen first-place trophies by 1927 when she was barely 26-years-old. By then, she was famous throughout Europe for her driving prowess.

Attempting to duplicate this amazing feat of geographical tenacity and skill, if not stamina, is remarkable, especially for someone like Heidi who is now approaching octogenarian status. And taking nothing away from Miss Stinnes’ original accomplishment, Heidi’s plan of following in the footsteps of the first women to drive around the world would be amazing but for one not-so-small detail. With all due respect to Heidi, the story’s not true.

Clärenore Stinnes was not the first woman to drive around the world. Aloha Wanderwell was.


In a world of competitive ‘firsts’ – first person to reach Antarctica, first person to sail the Pacific Ocean, first person to ascend Mt. Everest – the claim of ‘first person to drive around the world’ has had a murky history, with several men and women staking that claim. Even the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this (and they get it wrong, too).

But let’s compare these two women and put their accomplishments side-by-side.

clarenore-stinnesClärenore Stinnes left Berlin, Germany on May 25, 1927, at the age of 26 in an Adler Standard 6 automobile. She was accompanied by a cinematographer named Carl (whom she subsequently married), two mechanics, and a support vehicle containing spare parts and equipment. The entire venture was supported by the German automotive industry to the tune of 100,000 Reichsmarks – about $25,000 in 1927 (U.S.) dollars, which has a relative value over $300,000 today. Using ferries, ships and other modes of assisted transportation, Miss Stinnes and company returned to Berlin two years after departure.

Aloha Wanderwell left Nice, France on December 29, 1922, having recently celebrated her 16th birthday. She was accompanied by a Polish aloha-wanderwelladventurer and cinematographer named Walter (whom she subsequently married) driving a modified Model-T Ford. This particular ‘Tin Lizzie’ had a canvas roof and plywood floorboards, but no windows. There were no support vehicles, no spare parts and no extra equipment. They had no external cash support whatsoever. The entire venture was supported solely by Aloha’s and Walter’s wits and resourcefulness. Using ferries, ships and other modes of assisted transportation, Miss Wanderwell and company returned to the south of France five years after departure.

In short, Aloha not only began her circumnavigation of the globe while still a teenager, and more than four years prior to Miss Stinnes’ departure, she completed her trip while Clärenore was still on the road.

Was Clärenore Stinnes the first woman to drive around the world? No. Was she the fastest? Quite likely. But there can ever only be one ‘first’, and Aloha is it.


If you suspect that I have an axe to grind, or perhaps a hidden agenda in my telling this story, congratulations, you’re wearing the clever trousers today.

The world is full of people and events lost in the wisps of time. Aloha Wanderwell is one of those.


Aloha was once spoken of in the same company as Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham, Nellie Bly and Amelia Earhart. She was one of the most celebrated adventurers of her day. Her importance is such that museums the world over contain collections of Wanderwell memorabilia and artifacts from her global tours and explorations during the 1920s and 1930s. The Smithsonian Institution maintains a Wanderwell section in their archives for her films and photographs, and they regard her as one of the foremost ethnographers of her day.

Now, a new book will finally tell her amazing story. It will place her and her accomplishments – including being the First Woman to Drive Around the World – back into the pages of history where she rightfully belongs, and introduce her to a new audience.

The new book is called, “Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer”. It is the culmination of many years’ of research, travel, writing and editing by myself and my co-author, Chris Fink-Jensen.

To suggest this project had a long gestation period might give the false impression it was completed in nine months. It was not. The research phase alone took some years and plenty of international travel to both established and esoteric archives alike. The book was written once and rewritten three times because of the eye-popping discoveries we made while attempting to document this adventurous woman’s life and times.

Discovering that she was Canadian was the first revelation… how had we, nor anyone else, never heard of her?! Then, astonishingly, we found ‘Aloha Wanderwell’ was not her real name. We uncovered a birth certificate buried in government bureaucracy that revealed her true birth name and proved she was born in Winnipeg, and then raised in North Vancouver and Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. We unlocked a long-hidden tin box containing her personal diaries begun the first day she left the south of France in 1922 at the age of sixteen. We found her daughter living in an extended care facility in Honolulu, and her son living on a houseboat in Sausalito – both siblings now in their 80s – and two granddaughters. They all opened their homes, their hearts, and their memories to us, thrilled that we were going to tell Aloha’s story. But that wasn’t all we discovered.


Some photographs and documents hidden amongst her personal memorabilia, and notes, references and marginalia scattered throughout her personal writings, contained references to people, events, places and dates that appeared, at first blush, to have no correlation to the story we were telling. Was there still more to this tale, more to her life and adventures that we hadn’t uncovered?

hooverSixty Freedom of Information Act (FOIA – American) requests, a half dozen Access To Information Act (ATIA – Canadian) requests, queries to British government archives, and countless hours poring over subterranean historical material at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., revealed a second, completely unknown history buried in the shadows.

Documents, internal memos, ‘action reports’ and even personal correspondence involving the FBI, the Justice Department, the Secret Service, purvismilitary intelligence on three continents, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Homeland Security) revealed that Aloha and her companion Walter, were under constant surveillance. They were being investigated for various unsavory matters, including espionage. J. Edgar Hoover himself was so concerned about the Wanderwell’s world tour, he issued specific instructions to more than 20 FBI field offices requesting “…any and all information…” about their activities. Melvin Purvis, the G-Man who a few years later would ‘get’ gangster John Dillinger, was put in charge.

And then, of course, there was the murder. The killing that remains unsolved to this day. What about that…?

Aloha’s life was many things, boring was not one of them.

From the book’s publicity material:

“During the Roaring Twenties a young girl ventured to the ends of the earth armed with nothing but a car, a camera, a few companions, a make-up kit and an attitude. Within a few short years she had driven around the world, hunted elephants and tigers, dined with world leaders, dodged a Russian firing squad, fought alongside Chinese warlords, talked her way into and out of countless life-threatening confrontations and become the kind of media star only Hollywood could invent. She had also become the centerpiece of one of the biggest unsolved murder mysteries in American history. Her name was Aloha Wanderwell. This is a true story.”


If you think that Aloha, Clärenore and Heidi are ‘vehicular’ exceptions, go stand in the corner.

The first long-distance journey by automobile was also a promotional tour, and the car’s very first endurance test. The year was 1894. The driver was Bertha Benz (yes, THAT Benz), wife of Carl who actually invented the motorcar.

The first person in history ever to pass a driving test was the French Duchess Anne d’Uzes. The Duchess was also the first person in history to ever receive a speeding ticket (you go girl!)

londonderryThen, of course, there’s Annie Londonderry (aka Annie Cohen Kopchovsky), the world’s first ‘spokes-woman’, so to speak. Annie was the first person to ‘drive around the world’ on TWO wheels. She bicycled her way from Boston and took the long way back… in 1895!

Women such as Violet Cordery, Alice Ramsey, Osa Johnson, Dorothy Levitt, and many, many more, all made their mark in the motorcar world long ago. And although Aloha was only 16-years-old when she began her life’s journey, other young girls were getting a head start even sooner. In 1916, the Girl Scouts of America introduced the ‘Automobiling Badge’ for which girls between the ages of 11 (!) and 17 had to demonstrate driving skill, auto mechanics, and first aid.

Ladies, start your engines!

Personal, Travel

Welcome To The Breakfast Show

August 27, 2015

“I was born in a cross-fire hurricane.
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain.
But it’s all right now, in fact, it’s a gas!”

– ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, Rolling Stones

§ § §

I: By The Time We Got To Woodstock

Danniel (with two ‘N’s) wandered over to me beer in hand, a common sight. Barely audible over the din of the party, he yelled, “Road trip! You in…?” Here we go again, I thought, and rolled my eyes. “Hey, c’mon, man. Hear me out!” And so I did.

Danniel liked the Stones, but loved the Airplane. He knew I was a Stones fan, too, and that I loved Santana. So that night he tried to twist my arm into traveling with him to a concert to see all three. “That would be great, right?” he’d yelled. “Hard to argue,” I’d yelled in response.

But there were obstacles. It was November, and there was snow on the ground, lots of snow. And this concert was in San Francisco. “That’s California,” I’d said. “Are you nuts? That’s… that’s a thousand miles away!” More, he’d said. Fine. But then there was the issue of transportation – how would we get there?

Obstacles for sure, but there were mitigating circumstances as well. Could I be swayed…?

breakfast-show_05Danniel had recently gotten his much older girlfriend pregnant. They were getting married in June as soon as school let out, and the baby was due not much later. Everyone involved seemed okay with it, especially his father. He was so thrilled he bought Danniel a car as an engagement present. And not just any car – a used 1963 two-tone, shit-brindle-brown Lincoln Continental with suicide doors and automatic-electric everything. The beast could sleep six without popping the trunk. But Danniel was antsy. He desperately needed to get outta Dodge before his life changed forever, he’d said, and a free rock ‘n roll concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (where it was much warmer for starters) seemed like the perfect ticket. Danniel was 16-years-old.

I was 15, and I’d already been burned once that year by a ‘road not taken’. At the time that happened I was only pissed that I’d missed hanging with Keith and Butchy for a few days south of the border. A couple of months later, when the impact of what I’d missed went global, I lost my shit.

It began like this…

On a hot Saturday afternoon, I was stuffed into a lurching school bus along with three-dozen other teenagers – all male, all about my age, all heading home. The bus was on loan to the Canadian Army from some rural Catholic parish – Our Lady of Something or Other printed in big black Helvetica on the side. The bus was transporting us from Camp Ipperwash on the shores of Georgian Bay back to the thriving metropolis of London from whence we came. I had marched, bivouacked, fought, bitched, complained, and marched for the past six weeks. To make matters worse, this was the summer of 1969, and I had the shortest hair of anyone I knew. I couldn’t wait to kick the Army-issue attitude to the curb, drop the khaki fatigues, and slip back into t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. And a hat. I was glad to be going home, but I had to wonder… how had Keith and Butchy’s roadtrip worked out…?

They had come to visit me at the camp a week earlier in Butchy’s pride and joy: a turquoise Chevy Nova. It had more bark than bite, the curse of a small block engine, but it had Mickey Thompsons, hood pins, and a giant STP sticker on a hood that we’d all painted flat black with spray cans back at the first sign of spring. Even when it was parked it looked like it was going fast. At least that’s what we told ourselves.

Cruising the drag that day in Grand Bend with the windows down and the music up, Keith and Butchy were trying to persuade me to go on a road trip they had planned for the following weekend. We’d done a handful of minor trips in the past year, mostly to The Pinery to camp out, look for girls, and get drunk. I’m pretty sure we were all still virgins at this point. Well, maybe not Butchy. The Pinery was always a great place to test those waters – the girls were just as adventurous as we were – but nothing much ever happened, so the order of priorities frequently changed.

Between Army camp and Labour Day I had only two weeks of summer left before Grade 10 commenced, and I began work on the school play. So I was all ears. I wanted to know what the master plan was. “Where ya goin’, anyways? What’s the deal…?”

“Rock and roll, baby!” Keith said, “Rock and fucking roll!” Butchy wasn’t giving this intervention his full attention. He was concentrating on a well-developed bikini on the back of a Kawasaki that had just pulled up next to us. “Ya gotta come, man,” Keith continued. “Fuck theatre arts – this is life. Besides, school doesn’t start till after Labour Day. We’ll be back long before then.”

“We’re leaving on Thursday morning,” Butchy finally said. “Cross the border into Buffalo, be at ground zero by late afternoon. Tent pitched and scopin’ chicks by dinnah tahm.”

“Pass me anuthah beah, tarbender!” Keith added. We all laughed, but Keith and I shared a knowing glance. We both knew from experience that we’d be the ones pitching the tent, while Butchy pitched himself to the ladies. “Three days of peace and music, if you catch my drift. Pure bliss, pal.” Butchy’s favourite saying. Keith just kept laughing and shook his head.

That capped it – I couldn’t go. I was at camp until Saturday afternoon. I may only have been a cadet, but the army still had fairly strict rules about going AWOL.

So that’s what I was thinking all the way home in that crowded, sweltering school bus. What was this rock and roll weekend going to be like? What was I missing?

It was August 16th, and at that precise moment I was missing Santana take the stage at Woodstock. So, yeah – you might say I had my own mitigating circumstance.

It took a couple of more conversations – quiet ones, no more yelling – and a few more beers before Danniel and I decided to piss on the pitfalls and embrace the adventure of possibility. Danniel’s parents…? His mom had passed away, and his dad had given him the Beast, so yeah – he got it. My parents…? Fuck it! We were going on a road trip!

§ § §

II: Born To Be Wild

This was the plan…

Monday after school we’d pack the car, drive to Sarnia and cross the water into Michigan, and then head south. Continuing south, we’d drive until the snow disappeared, and then hang a right and drive straight to the coast. We gave ourselves four days – plenty of time. Seemed simple enough.

Monday blew past like a Denny McLain fastball. Before we knew it the Beast’s trunk was loaded and we were ready to depart. My idea of packing was somewhat less bohemian than Danniel’s.

Me: 2 changes of clothes, 1 toilet kit, 1 blanket.
Danniel: 1 blanket, 2 two-fours of Labatt’s Blue.

Packing didn’t take long. By dinnertime we were off.

The snow persisted for more than ten hours. As the sun was coming up around breakfast time the next day, we were just within sight of the Louisville city limits. The skies opened, the sun came out, and the roads were clear as far as the eye could see. We made our pre-destined right-hand turn.

The half dozen music mix tapes that Keith had made especially for us (labeled Stuff 1 through Stuff 6) were getting heavy airplay courtesy of the Craig 8-track sound system Danniel had installed in the Beast. Marvin Gaye, Steppenwolf, Cream, Hendrix, CCR, Bowie, Sly, Zep, and of course Santana and the Stones. Music up. Cruise control on. California here we come!

Cruise control off. The break in the snowfall had been just that – a break. Approaching St. Louis we made the decision to slide on down toward Oklahoma where we serpentined our way through more snow. The white out conditions rendered any serious attempt at keeping the car on the road a 50/50 proposition at best. Black ice leading to blind ditches was a combination barely avoided on several occasions. My nerves were on edge. And I wasn’t driving.

Somewhere in Oklahoma (God knows where!) we detoured again and headed south, then west driving through the Texas panhandle, and skimming the tops of New Mexico and Arizona. We made for Las Vegas, thankful for the desert and warmer climes.

There was nothing but blackness on the highway for hours, then – BOOM! Vegas reached out of the darkness with throbbing neon fingers as we approached. Was it beckoning us to come closer, welcoming us into its grip, or warning us, waving us away? We were too tired to entertain any activities The Strip may have offered, and we were way behind schedule. We crashed at a cheap motel in Henderson. They were the first real beds since leaving Southern Ontario four days earlier.

At the first hint of light we were back on the road, blasting through Death Valley, finally on our way to San Francisco. It was Saturday December 6th. Concert day. We made the city limits around lunchtime.

§ § §

III: Go Ask Alice

A couple of days earlier, at a gasbar in Texas (maybe New Mexico, who knows) we heard a rumour that the concert at Golden Gate Park had been cancelled. Parking issues with an expected 100,000 plus fans apparently the cause. Someone else said they’d heard on the radio that Sears Point Raceway was the new venue. Regardless, it didn’t matter to us – we didn’t know where these places were anyway. We needed answers and directions and soon. And food, sooner.

breakfast-show_08We pulled off the 101 into the Mission District, and stopped into a family restaurant for much-needed sustenance, and some much-needed information. After quickly gorging on a cheeseburger and fries (his), and a Chicken Clubhouse (mine), we settled on a plan. I was still in Cadets, and I still had the shortest hair, so it made sense that the these people would be more likely to talk to me, and not Danniel, whose hair was long past dusting his shoulders. I was now the designated requester of directions.

Had I given the mostly middle-aged clientele of this eatery even a cursory look before I started grazing the tables, I would have known without asking that they were the last people in Frisco to have known or cared where the Rolling Stones were staging their free concert.

Stymied, I hit on what I hoped was a brilliant solution: The Fillmore. Fillmore West was one of those rock palace meccas that became positively iconic in the 1960s. Everyone who was anyone, especially if they were SFO-based, played the Fillmore.

On the way there, amidst a plethora of fantastic FM radio stations in the Bay area, we’d settled on KSAN (I still have the t-shirt). We were rewarded with the news that the ‘free’ concert was now underway at Altamont. Shit! Ten minutes later Danniel and I were introducing ourselves to Tulip in a messy suite of offices on the top floor of Fillmore West, and asking what and where Altamont was.

Tulip was short and cute, with long red hair in pigtails. She wore a bustier, a purple mini skirt, purple ‘Roger McGuinn’ glasses that were perched on the end of her nose, and purple go-go boots. Tulip corrected me – the go-go boots were ‘fuschia’, not purple. “Oh, most definitely,” she said.

breakfast-show_03She was surprised to see us, because no one was around. Everyone was at the Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway, she said. She was even more surprised that we’d come so far. “Wow! Canada! That’s a long way. You must be disciples or something. Groovy!” We asked about directions to Altamont. She proceeded to tell us all about the free concert issues and the seemingly constant shifts in finding a location. Then she added: “Everyone in town is trying to come to terms with the issues of the day. The persecution of young people by the ‘Man’, you know? And the oppression we feel over our entitlement to free expression and free thought.”

I could dig it, but we needed directions, not an SDS tract.

Danniel had had enough. Remembering the middle-aged restaurant clientele, he said, “Everyone? Not everyone in town can feel that way…” he chided her. “Oh, most definitely,” Tulip said.

Our window was rapidly closing. “Directions…?” I asked again. “How do we get to this race track? Where is it, exactly?”

“It’s not a race track, it’s a speedway,” Tulip said. “Cars, not horses.”

Danniel saw a stack of napkins on a sideboard, grabbed one and handed it to our flower child. “A map! Could you draw us a map?” he said, barely containing his frustration.

“Oh, sure. Just jump on the highway and head outta town. It’s about an hour east.” She took a pencil and began drawing lines on the napkin. Danniel and I looked at each other, and then he looked at his watch.

The lines, as it turned out, were practically meaningless – tic-tac-toe without the symbols. Next to those lines she wrote, “Go this way,” with an arrow pointing to the right side of the napkin. I assumed this meant ‘east’. Underneath she wrote, “Good luck. Have fun. Love always. Toolip.” The two Os were little hearts.

breakfast-show_13“Well, THAT was a fuckin’ waste of time! Jesus!” Danniel said as we jumped back into the Lincoln. He gunned the V8 and wheeled out into traffic without looking, squealing the tires and blowing smoke. I reminded him that this was the city where they shot ‘Bullitt’ and that he should be careful. “A Charger could come FLYING OUT OF A BLIND ALLEY at any moment,” I said, trying to put a smile on the deteriorating situation. Danniel wasn’t biting. He was serious, and he was seriously pissed off. I kept forgetting that he’d been doing all the driving, and the fatigue he was feeling must have been overwhelming. His crankiness had been earned.

About two minutes into our ‘getaway’, I consulted Toolip’s ‘map’. I knew from San Francisco’s orientation on the coast that we were paralleling the ocean on our right, so that meant we were headed south (I took my role as navigator seriously). I started to say to Danniel, “We’re headed south, so we should –”

“Fuck that stupid MAP!” he said. He grabbed the napkin out of my hand and tossed it into the back seat. “The first opportunity we’re turning left and heading east. Yell when you see a freeway.”

As we drove through an intersection, I attempted to retrieve the crumpled napkin. I noticed the sign of the cross street: Haight Street. My mind raced. “Danniel, um… that was Haight we just crossed.”

“What?!” he said. “Haight. Haight Street? Haight-Ashbury…?” Danniel looked at me with recognition. Then resignation. “FUUUUCK!” he yelled. Steve McQueen took the next right at speed, on an amber, drifting to the left. As we hurtled around the corner, I held on and secretly hoped we’d lose a hubcap, just for effect.

§ § §

IV: Do You Believe In Magic

We did NOT have time for this. But, hey… we were there, and when would we be again?

breakfast-show_10Haight-Ashbury is to San Francisco, what the Left Bank is to Paris. What Greenwich Village is to New York City. What gin is to vermouth. People who have never been to the Bay Area acknowledge the significance of the neighbourhood. Since the Summer of Love, more than two years earlier, this was pretty much ‘hippie central’. Or so we thought. As we were about to find out, by 1969 the area was barely a shadow of its former self.

Danniel and I wandered in concentric circles. We made our way to a park trying in vain to find 1967. And then, there it was, or at least the last vestiges of it. Or maybe a group of actors trying to recreate it. We wandered into the park and mingled. The whole corner of that park looked, felt and smelled like an acid-induced renaissance fair. I walked into the crowd of maybe a hundred people and immediately was swallowed by it. It was intoxicating. What a trip! I turned around with a big stupid grin on my face to see where Danniel was. Where was Danniel? I’d lost Danniel.

I turned around again and found myself face-to-face with a very pretty girl. She had long blond hair, a freshly painted flower on each cheek, and eyes as big as moons. She handed me a roach clip clinging to the tiniest of burning hash embers. A feather wisp of sweet smoke curled around her face. “Here… go ahead,” she said. I complied and inhaled. She smiled and tried her best to run her fingers through my hair. “You look funny,” she said, continuing to smile. Maybe it was the moment. Maybe it was the location. Maybe it was the ‘medicine’. I leaned forward and kissed her. She tasted like a girl. She giggled and began to move away from me, slowly fading into the crowd, disappearing into the colour of the corner. It was only then that I noticed she was naked. And pregnant.

I finally spotted Danniel on the other side of the street carrying a paper bag. He waved, and then pointed to a large sign. I looked. Golden Gate Park. How funny was that?!

Danniel was waving again. He pointed to his watch. I nodded. As I started to leave, I looked over my shoulder. Through the wrong end of the binoculars I could see what it was, what it had been, for real. People laughing, singing, dancing. Frisbees floating on air, competing for attention with soap bubbles being blown by… who knows how many people. People of all shapes and sizes… A guy with dreads sitting on the grass playing a lute. Bongos, and a recorder somewhere. And flowers… lots of flowers. Man, what was it like actually living here, I thought. As I stood on the corner waiting for the light to change I saw her. An elderly gray haired woman in a paisley pattern kaftan was sitting in a wheelchair and sucking on a makeshift hookah, her German Shepherd keeping watch beside her on the sidewalk. Haight-Ashbury, circa late 1969.

We jumped in the car and headed east.

§ § §

V: When The Truth Is Found To Be Lies

We knew the concert was already underway. That knowledge was a bitter pill. The thought of how much we had missed – how much we were still going to miss – burned. I wanted to turn the radio on, so we could at least get a play-by-play analysis of what was happening. Danniel didn’t even look at me when he said, “Don’t.”

We had lost all our enthusiasm. The whole trip had become an exercise in blending – one day into the next, one experience into the next, one distraction into the next. We were on the cusp of seriously losing it altogether, when our whereabouts suddenly was in question.

“We’re now 75 miles east of San Franscisco,” Danniel said, acknowledging what the odometer had been predicting for about ten minutes. “Where the fuck are we?!” He looked over at me.

We had driven through Livermore and were definitely headed for Tracy, but… we should have been there by then. I hastily consulted Toolip’s map again, hoping it would magically all make sense now. It didn’t. We were missing it, we were losing it, and we were fucking lost! Most definitely.

I was about to suggest we turn around when two low-flying helicopters buzzed overhead. One had large radio or maybe TV call letters emblazoned on its side. “They have to be going to the concert,” I said. “Which means Altamont is back there,” Danniel said pointing over his left shoulder, “and over thataway.”

breakfast-show_15A few minutes later we made the first left turn available, and then we saw it – traffic from hell, all six lanes of it. We made a slow curve down onto the highway becoming part of a parade of vehicles heading west. Ironically, missing the original route turned out to be a big plus. It meant we were approaching the speedway from the southeast, the opposite direction as most of the traffic. Then we heard it… a bass-reflex thumping that sounded familiar. Someone’s radio, perhaps. Maybe the stage….

We were getting close. Cars that weren’t slowing down were parked along both sides of the highway, now – nothing appeared to be getting through. A motorhome suddenly lurched out in front of us. With a loud sustained honk, and a few well-chosen expletives, Danniel quickly reversed into the spot, not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth. He threw the Lincoln into park, and shut off the engine. We looked at each other. “We’re here!” we said almost simultaneously.

Packing the blankets and leftover beer into a canvas bag, along with two orders of street souvlaki Danniel had scored in The Haight, I slammed the trunk shut. We crossed the highway in a slow motion dodge between motorcycles, mini buses and other vehicles that were now moving at funeral speed. Jumping a fence, we trudged through a dry field toward the speedway. Our internal compass led us to join a few thousand other stragglers on the same mission. This is what we’d come so far to be a part of. We were young refugees marching to the sound of a distant drummer that held the promise of peace and music, just like Woodstock. All of us drawn to a beacon of Daliesque rock and roll light a mile or so away, just over a hill.

The weather had cooperated all day, but the temperatures were beginning to dip. The mercury had dropped to near freezing in the Bay Area the night before, and KSAN said that there were portable heaters at the ready near the stage just in case. Some of the massive crowd that had arrived earlier – many the day before when the second change of venue had finally been widely reported – were still jockeying for position, possibly for heat, a frenetic dance of humanity against the music that had long since started. Twilight was already upon us, bringing with it friction and bad vibes mixed with the chilly air. We were dog-tired, so we gave up trying to get closer. Instead, we settled on a flat spot on a hill with a handful of hippies from Oregon about a half-mile from ground zero.

The full velocity of the music that we anticipated wasn’t there. We’d missed Santana AND Jefferson Airplane, and although the recognizable sounds of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were now apparent, their songs and harmonies were reduced to muffled acoustics. The sound was awful. Still, we were there. The great Rolling Stones ‘free’ concert. End of the tour, theirs and ours. Altamont.

§ § §

VI: Freedom’s Just Another Word

The gap between CSN&Y’s set and the arrival of the Rolling Stones on stage was long. Danniel and I drank and smoked, and did our best to enjoy the festivities, to soak it all up, to catch the party atmosphere. But it wasn’t there. It was all pretty hazy.

breakfast-show_01Later, the souvlaki was history, the warm Labatt’s Blue had been reduced to seven empty stubby bottles, the Stones’ erratic set was over, and our hippy friends appeared to be asleep. All except two of them – they were fucking.

The blankets and beers had come in handy, although we were now too stoned to mind the cold that had descended on the retreating, post-concert horde. We were also too tired to move. The weight of driving 2500 miles back to Southern Ontario after four days on the road and an anticlimactic day of seeking our own Woodstock hung heavily. We were road weary. The mechanical humping going on just to our right was at least entertaining.

Wanting to or not, I did think of the drive home. I wanted to go home. I was ready to go home. I had school – I liked school – and I had a lot to catch up on. I was going to stage-manage another play, this one a musical, and rehearsals would start a week before the Christmas break. I had a short story due in English class, and a history project worth 40% of my year was in jeopardy. What the fuck was I doing here?! Was I completely irresponsible? Was I a keener? Would a keener fuck off for more than a week without telling anybody…?

I was an “A” student with a “C” attitude, which meant I got a lot of “B”s. Life has a way of averaging out that way if you’re lucky. I still had the shortest hair of anyone in the world, but at least one girl thought I looked funny and let me kiss her anyway. See – averaging out. But what would my teachers think…? My internal conversation was filled with conflicting arguments. I was counting on the law of averages.

I thought of the drive home – the desert, the plains, and the snow. The snow that was lying in wait, waiting to rise up to fuck with us. I didn’t think of the bands we didn’t or couldn’t see, or the music we could barely decipher – I thought of the drive home.

Then I thought of my mother, my stepfather. What were they thinking? What – were – they – thinking…? What would they say? I hadn’t thought of them once during the trip, not even a flicker. I realized at that moment… I didn’t care. What would the negative results of this impromptu road trip amount to? Would there be any? I didn’t care. I sat forward on that hill, suddenly feeling very lucid, very aware… very alive. I. Didn’t. Care! Huh. Funny how some events, that may seem trivial in the moment, are recognized only much later as having left life-altering consequences in their wake. Mine did. But it would be years later before I made the connection.

I looked over at Danniel. He was watching the stream of people trudge back to the highway and the cars that would carry them home, wherever home was. He looked more than tired, he looked beaten. All the exhilaration of the past four days that had once been so present on his face had fallen away, revealing huge disappointment and failure. He looked lost. I wish I’d had some empathy at that moment, but instead all I felt was excitement. The clarity of my own feelings was crystal – command and control. Command and control of my own life. I thought of my mother and my stepfather again, just to check. Nope. I still didn’t care. I didn’t care what they would say or do. It was what I was going to say to them when I got home that I cared about.

Then, as if to signal the official end of the festivities, to our right there was an orgasm. And that, as they say, was that.

§ § §

VII: Waitin’ On The Judgment Day

It was decided that I would drive. Well, not decided in any democratic sense, so much as through the process of elimination. Danniel had thrown me the keys and said he was going to sleep for a while. He said the cops would be too busy directing the death march of traffic out of the area between Livermore and Tracy to bother checking for valid drivers’ licenses, or even existing ones in my case. Seemed plausible.

Eight hours and two fill-ups later I pulled the Beast into a gas station outside Lake Havasu City, and Danniel took over. He drove the rest of the way home.

breakfast-show_18Two and a half days later, we pulled up at the end of my snow-covered cul-de-sac in London. I grabbed my shit out of the trunk, and told Danniel I’d see him at school. “Yup,” was all he said.

As Danniel drove away, fishtailing on the icy road, I began the slog home in the almost knee-deep snow.

At a distance I could see the curtains were open slightly, and a glow from the two floor lamps we had at opposite ends of the living room spilled out onto the drifts. It was dark and near dinnertime. “Good timing,” I said to myself, more than a little facetiously.

As I took the two shallow steps to the front door, I caught a glimpse of my stepfather lying on the couch watching television. I’d last seen him in the same position eight days earlier. I took a deep breath and entered. As I shook the snow off and began to remove my shoes, he neither stirred nor acknowledged my presence. My mother appeared in the alcove adjacent to the kitchen, spatula in hand.

“So… there you are,” she said. I smiled and gave a half-hearted wave awaiting the barrage. “Dinner’s in twenty minutes,” she said, and returned to the kitchen.

That was it. Not another word. I had been gone for more than a week, but it was good to know dinner would be ready in less than half an hour. What had she said, what had she done about dinner every night at this time over the past week?!

I had been putting up with this from my ‘family unit’ for far too long. If they didn’t want to be parents when I pulled shit like this, then they had lost the right to weigh-in anywhere or anytime else. As far as that history was concerned I was fifteen-years-old, but I could have been twelve, or eight – same shit, different day. Once someone decides to become a parent, they’re a fucking parent. They can be anything else they want as well, but parenting is 24/7, not an episodic avocation. You can’t look after your children Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, with weekends and holidays off. If that’s what they’d wanted, they should have installed a fuckin’ time clock with punch cards at the front door. Buy in, or get out. I’d made my decision.

I looked over at the still-life on the couch. My younger brother made an appearance at the top of the stairs with a wide-eyed ‘what-the-fuck’ look on his face. There was a hint of recognition from Friskie, our pet cat.

Dinner passed without comment. You guys just made this way too fuckin’ easy, was all I could think.

§ § §

VIII: Groovin’ On A Sunday Afternoon

Christmas came and went, likewise, New Years. Three weeks later I turned sixteen – the magic number. A few days after that, I met with three government social workers at City Hall. One of my teachers, Martin, had arranged for me to see them so I could detail my situation, and lay out my plan. I needed their written assessment and eventual approval to move forward. The meeting was scheduled for an hour, the usual amount of time it took for the panel to hear evidence pertaining to a petition for underage emancipation.

Two hours later we finished up. I answered all their questions, and asked plenty of my own. My presence was supported by Martin, who attended for the sole purpose of supplying confirmation about my academic standing, but he went above and beyond, and was one of the reasons this initial meeting went long.

A week later I was summoned to City Hall and presented with a paper form. I was told that my request had passed first reading, and that what was now required was signatures from both parents and a witness acknowledging my petition. There were check boxes that required ticking and initialing for each parent or guardian. One check box said ‘yes’, the other said ‘no’. The question: Do you agree to the terms of this petition? There was space to add further comments if necessary.

After dinner that night I sat both my parents down on the sofa. I handed my stepfather the form. I said, “Read it, initial it, sign it.” He read it, and then looked at me. He initialed it, signed it, and then handed it to my mother. She read it. “Are you sure this is what you want?” she eventually said. I just looked back at her. She initialed it and signed it. I took the paper back to check it – both tick boxes, ‘yes’. A neighbor who I occasionally housesat for witnessed it. Done, and done. All that remained now was the official interview the panel would have with my parents to confirm all the details, and give them one last chance to challenge the petition. They didn’t.

Two weeks later, two large manila envelopes with identical return addresses were delivered to our townhouse. I opened mine. Inside was a three-page official-looking document – Copy 1 of 3, was stamped in the lower right corner. It began,

“As of the execution date of this document, petitioner is granted…”

Blah, blah, blah. I had successfully divorced my parents.

In less than forty-eight hours it was Sunday. I piled the remainder of my belongings into the back seat of Butchy’s Nova. I waved to my mom standing in the living room window. “You got everything?” Butchy asked. “Nah. One more thing…” I said, settling into the bucket seat. “Peel out and squeal the tires!” Butchy laughed. The engine raced, the Mickey Thompsons spun, and we lost our grip fishtailing about twenty feet. Half a donut later we came to an embarrassing stop, sideways. Butchy slammed the steering wheel. “Fuckin’ ice!” Oh well, it’s the thought that counts.

breakfast-show_16That day, I moved into a five-bedroom brown brick bungalow owned by Vinod and Popi, an East Indian couple. Four of the bedrooms had been turned into housekeeping suites for university students. When I interviewed with them, and said I was a student, they assumed I attended Western, and was not just merely half way through Grade 10.

Butchy helped me move my stuff into the front bedroom. We talked about all the cool parties we’d have in this great place, a place for just hanging out. And a place for girls – like I hadn’t thought of that! I wanted to unpack and settle in. I walked with Butchy back to his car. We both stood out front, looking at the house. Snowflakes falling, Christmas lights still up. The place practically screamed ‘Happy Holidays’. Home sweet home, I thought. “Pure bliss, pal,” said Butchy. It was February 22, 1970.

§ § §

IX: The Kids Are Alright

I suddenly became the most popular guy in Grade 10 – I had my own place!

Weekdays were taken up with school, of course – projects, theatre, and creative writing. But weekends were party times. Friends and I would hang out, listen to music, drink, and get small. Occasionally, there was a girl.

As the weather turned and it got warmer, I also spent a lot of time on weekends with Vinny and Popi and their friends and family (many of whom didn’t speak English), cooking and learning about East Indian food and culture. The smells escaping from the newly installed homemade tandoor in the backyard created a huge issue for the neighbours, to say nothing of the Bollywood music blasting out the windows. On those occasions, Popi’s uncle would wander outside with his ceremonial talwar and start to sing and dance. And then the police would show up. Fun times.

That summer Danniel got married and became the father of a baby girl. I didn’t see him much after that. He dropped by Casa Waldo a few times to have a beer and shoot the shit, but we never did talk about the trip to California or Altamont again. I’d heard he’d sold the Beast and bought something more ‘family friendly’. “Yup,” was all he said.

breakfast-show_19The academic standing that Martin, my teacher friend, had been so convincing about on my behalf in front of the emancipation panel, paid off again. It allowed me to alter my own curriculum so long as I continued through Grade 13, in those days considered ‘college prep’. One day at the beginning of July Martin dropped by with a six-pack of Lowenbrau. He talked to me about a new course being offered by a friend of his at a different high school – Communication Arts. You needed decent marks through Grade 10, along with a letter of recommendation to even apply for one spot in a class that was limited to about twenty students. The school was getting applications from all across Ontario. It was a two-year course (Grades 11 and 12), and at the end, provided you graduated in good standing, you received a special course certificate along with your high school diploma. He thought I should apply.

“Right up your alley,” he said. It was bootcamp for radio, television, and filmmaking. Right up my alley, indeed. “You’re running the show, now. Time to move some of those chess pieces around on the board. But don’t wait too long to make up your mind. Let me know this week, okay? I’ll write the letter.”

breakfast-show_14Before he left, Martin handed me a present wrapped in butcher paper, and tied with a string. “Gird your loins,” was all he said, and then burst out laughing.

Popping another beer, I unwrapped the package. It was an old, used hardcover book. Its faded paper sleeve was tattered and could barely hang on. “Quiet Days In Clichy” by Henry Miller. My turn to burst out laughing. Yup, I thought, that’s Martin! Inside he’d written an inscription:

“Your life’s under new management now. Don’t fuck it up! – Martin, The Year Dot.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever been as moved by a gift as I was in that moment. Martin had some great books on his shelf at school, and also at his home where I’d been many times with groups of friends and students, drinking, eating, falling down. His wife, Candy, had bought him this book at Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris during their honeymoon in 1966. Her inscription to him was adjacent to mine:

“A cautionary tale… not a how-to! Ha, Ha, Ha! – Candy”

I blushed because I understood the reference.

§ § §

X: It’s A Gas, Gas, Gas

I got in to the ComArts course, and emerged with the certificate and the diploma. I then arranged my last year in high school, Grade 13, with five English courses, including CanLit, Classics, and Journalism; two theatre courses including theory and stage direction; and two creative writing courses that included play writing. I was set.

That summer I got a job with a cinema rep house playing second-run films in 16mm. It was one of the most consistently popular movie theatres in London. Patrons could see a double-bill for less than the price of a single first-run feature at any of the other cinemas. I became their new projectionist. And concession stand server. And janitor. However, I also managed to put together some killer double bills that increased the theater’s attendance.

The movie house played to a mostly university and college crowd – Western and Fanshawe students accounted for more than half of our clientele. However, because it was summer, most of the students had gone home and our box office receipts had fallen off. It was thought by the theatre owner that younger talent (i.e. me) would attract, and hopefully increase the younger audience with some targeted double bills.

breakfast-show_02My double bills became the talk of the town. Marx Brothers one week, War themed movies the next, then Swedish softcore, followed by a John Waters special week featuring “Pink Flamingos”. Most of the racier films I programmed weren’t available in what was called ‘theatrical 35’. In Conservative ‘Big Blue Machine’ Ontario at the time those films would have been heavily censored, or simply banned outright. My distributors in Toronto and Montreal, however, taught me a valuable secret – most theatrical films also had 16mm copies. They weren’t categorized as ‘theatrical’, but as ‘educational’, the only other designation available. I’m sure John Waters would have pissed himself over“Pink Flamingos” being categorized as having educational merit!

On Tuesday, the first night of its run, we had a smaller than normal house. However, two plainclothes vice squad officers made their presence known about half way through the film. After interviewing the owner, his wife and me, they issued a written ‘shut down and property seizure’ notice if the scheduled six performances were ‘held over’ due to popular demand. They were aware of the loophole, but were sure to close it soon, they said. They never did.

I sprang into action. I wrote a press release and sent it to both campus newspapers. I detailed the police presence and quoted liberally from the ‘asset seizure’ notice. I then offered fifty cents off the ticket price upon presentation of a copy of the published release, good for any screening.

On the Friday night during that run I went out with some friends to celebrate, because we’d sold out three nights straight and even turned people away. More free press! But, I got drunk. Really drunk. I forgot to change the marquee for the Saturday matinee (also my job). It was a FAMILY matinee. A photograph that ran in the Saturday evening edition of the local newspaper showing moms and baby carriages lining up to see “Pink Flamingos” instead of Disney’s “Fantasia” was… awkward. More free press!

I used to receive flyers from distributors detailing new releases to the educational market. One of these flyers was devoted to documentaries. I hit upon what I thought was a terrific idea for a double bill: D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop” (produced by John Phillips and Lou Adler), backed with the Maysles Brothers’, “Gimme Shelter”, the documentary about the Rolling Stones ‘free’ concert at Altamont. Easily promotable, especially to our target audience. A couple of weeks later, the shipping canisters arrived. Obviously, I had ulterior motives for booking “Gimme Shelter”, and I looked forward to my own private screening.

breakfast-show_09It was a ritual I had followed many, many times. I took the three reels of 16mm film out of its shipping case and spliced them together onto a single one-meter aluminum feed reel. Then I spliced exactly one and a half minutes of white leader onto the head, and looped the film through the massive, clunky Hortson projector. Dimming the house lights and activating the automatic act curtain, I switched the projector on, bolted out the booth door, and ran down two flights of stairs. Rounding the corner on the main floor I had enough time to grab a bag of popcorn and a medium size Hires Root Beer. In the dark I settled into the center seat in the center aisle of this converted Salvation Army Chapel. As I popped the first kernel of butterless corn into my mouth, Mick Jagger announced to the Altamont crowd: “Welcome to the breakfast show”. Then the biggest rock band in the world launched into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.

Over the coming week I watched “Gimme Shelter” six more times along with almost sold-out audiences, primarily students as I’d anticipated.

What I saw blew my mind.

§ § §


“Well, the Rolling Stones tour of the United States is over.
It wound up with a free concert at the Altamont Speedway…
There were four births, four deaths, and an awful lot of scuffles reported.
We received word that someone was stabbed to death in front of the stage by a member of the Hell’s Angels.
Nothing’s confirmed on that. We were there – we didn’t see it.”
– Stefan Ponek, KSAN Radio, San Francisco – December 7, 1969
§ § §


Over 300,000 people attended Altamont. No one left unaffected, not even the bands.

Hours, days, weeks, months, years later, as its cultural impact grew and grew (in diametrical opposition to its Woodstock counterpart), the attendees would be forced to formulate a response to the question others would often pose when they discovered you had been to that infamous ‘free’ concert; the one where the black man in the lime green suit and fedora was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel. “What was it really like?” they would ask. There would be 300,000 answers, 300,000 stories to tell.

“Gimme Shelter” was NOT the Altamont I’d been a part of. Perhaps it was a matter of proximity – we’d been about a half-mile from the epicenter, and so the violence that was so raw and visceral in the movie was someone else’s violence, someone else’s experience.

The ‘adventure of possibility’ that Danniel and I had wished to embrace was far different than the one we found. But perhaps we’d found something more. I know I did. The epiphany I had on that small hill on a cold night in December 1969 in the middle of fucking nowhere was a direct result of everything that had occurred on that road trip. In the end, the possibility of leaving home and starting my life anew at such a young age became the adventure I sought. I was about to step out on my own, and for good. Would I, could I have arrived at that decision without the road trip, without Altamont?

If Altamont was my ‘beginning’, it also symbolized an ending. Some came to believe that Altamont signaled the ignominious end to the idealistic 1960s – the media still does. No news story, no documentary on the life and times of any segment of the Swinging Sixties is complete without a statement that includes the words, “…and then Altamont happened.” Altamont became the ‘fade to black’ for an entire era.

That decade affected everything.

The 1960s gave an entire generation its own music – rock and roll as a genre, a cultural phenomenon, and ultimately an art form, 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, were put on notice. The voting age was lowered, and ultimately the bar was raised. Of course we were disaffected. The youth that asked for change, then pursued it, then protested it, and then demanded it, got it.

Every generation has its own signature event, its touchstone moment that resonates so loudly, that its cultural and personal impact becomes part of its DNA: JFK, Vietnam, Moonshot, Beatlemania, Trudeaumania, King, Bobby, Woodstock, Altamont. All 1960s.

So, maybe Altamont in December of 1969 was the smoking gun. That year – 1969 – still sticks out in my mind because it was the year, for me, that everything changed. It was a hell of a year. President Nixon began peace talks in Paris to end the war in Vietnam, while at the same time authorizing the secret bombing campaign of Cambodia; Frankenstein died of a heart attack, Brian Jones and Mary-Jo Kopechne drowned, both under suspicious circumstances, and following separate roads Dorothy finally went over her rainbow and ODed, and Jack Kerouac reached the end of his; Zodiac hunted humans in Northern California, while Charlie and his family went all ‘helter skelter’ in the City of Angels; James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King, and Sirhan Bishara Sirhan pleaded guilty to assassinating Bobby Kennedy – both would eventually recant their confessions; John and Yoko made it official, so did Monty Python; ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ got naked, Stonewall got raided, ‘Abbey Road’ got crossed, and we all learned how to get to ‘Sesame Street’; Slaughterhouse Five was read, Hee Haw was watched, and In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida was heard; David Bowie and Major Tom took us to space, Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 took us to the moon, and according to Arlo Guthrie we could get anything we wanted (except Alice); and on August the fifteenth, I did not go to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York with my friends for three days of peace and music.

But there were other events that pivotal year, too. One warm September evening I became ‘acquainted’ with an older woman named Candy. And that, as they say, was that.

In a bankers box at the bottom of a closet there sits an aging letter-size manila envelope. Inside, there is a set of emancipation papers with a bunch of signatures and a government seal on it; a crumpled yellowed napkin with black squiggles on it; a pristine, never been unfolded road map of the State of Oklahoma, courtesy of Texaco; and a small plastic baggie containing one (1) alligator clip. Printed in black Sharpie across the front are the words, Welcome To The Breakfast Show.

§ § §

 Note: Copyright In The Photographs Remains With The Original Owners


Test Driving The Dragon

August 21, 2015

“I’m a dweller on the threshold,
And I’m waiting at the door.
And I’m standing in the darkness.
I don’t want to wait no more.”
– “Dweller On The Threshold”, Van Morrison

§ § §

I smoked opium once. I saw God.

They say God has many faces. In this instance, she took the form of an elderly Asian woman dressed head to toe in black. She hovered above me – a face creased with age, framed with straight gray hair and punctuated with a toothy, betel nut-stained smile. Who knew how many tourists she’d led down that laneway off Jalan Alor to a day bed in a back room of her meagre food business?

In the wee hours of the morning, the indigenous muffled shuffle of Asian slippers is replaced with the polished ‘clicks’ of visiting Cole Haans and Manolo Blahniks. But the dinner jackets, designer clutch purses and sparkly cocktail dresses fail to upstage the visceral history of the dimly-lit alley. Furtive, illicit glances shared between strangers are followed by faintly perceptible, but knowing nods of acknowledgement: we each know where we’re going and where we’ve been. I was going. It was my first time.

The back room was stifling and the air was a heady mixture of candle wax, opium smoke and French cigarettes. There was a hint of Jasmine tea – it was the one smell that seemed out of place, even in this part of town that was known more for its amazing food than its prohibited pharmaceuticals.

Lying on my side, God held a long, narrow pipe to my inquisitive lips. She mimed taking a deep breath, while genuflecting with her free hand – the international symbol for ‘inhale’. I obeyed as instructed.

I smoked only a small bowl – five hits, maybe six, I have no idea. Within minutes I had seven fingers on each hand. It didn’t matter. The extra grip on the bed didn’t stop the room from moving away from me, alternating between lightspeed and molasses.

“Close eye,” God said, her whisper barely audible above the din caused by the busy propane-fired wok in the next room. Shit – I couldn’t have kept them open if I’d tried. But it wasn’t sleep that took me.

She replaced the wash cloth on my forehead with a fresh cool one. I learned later it was soaked in a mixture of rosewater and mint. I managed to open my eyes, just a sliver, and just for a minute. Salvador Dali swam over to greet me. I giggled, loudly I think. The old woman continued to smile. I tried to smile back, and maybe I did, but my brain was preoccupied with the visions, my body with the feelings.

jalan-alor-3A few hours later I found myself wandering, floating almost, back through the streets of Kuala Lumpur looking for my 5-star, basking in the afterglow buzz, the delicious sounds of the early morning hawker stalls thrumming in my ears. I discovered the city anew that night. And I ate like a pig.

When I finally returned home, I resolved to do three things. One, return to Southeast Asia and spend more time travelling the world – life is too short. Two, to heed the mantra of author Paul Bowles, and never again be a tourist, but always a traveller – life is too short. And three, remember as much of the opium experience as possible and never repeat it – life is too short.

I mention this life-altering event for one reason. Addiction.

I knew once I’d straightened out that it wouldn’t take much for me to make a return trip to see the old woman. Many trips perhaps – the experience was that amazing. I loved it and wanted more – had to have more.

Travel affects me the same way, and luckily it’s the only vice I have. Not alcohol, not drugs – travel. The desire, the need to experience what’s around the corner, around the country, around the world is the only habitual inclination I possess. I simply must travel.

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

That quote is from a man who wrote eloquently about both drugs (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and travel (Treasure Island). Like many other authors who became famous for their literature, but were first and foremost travel writers – Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene among them – Robert Louis Stevenson’s fiction was a happy consequence of his real-life travels.

And so it is for me. Although my vocation is that of a media creative, my avocation is that of a traveller. It is when, on the all-too-infrequent occasions the two intersect, that I know I have arrived, and the monkey returns once again to my back – I am happy. More importantly, content. I live for those moments.

As for my resolutions, I’ve managed to keep them. All of them. So far.

Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 1

October 20, 2013


Life is strange. One minute you’re sitting there, sipping your tea, reading the newspaper (remember newspapers…?), and suddenly a thought occurs to you… “I wonder what soandso’s up to these days…?” Then your mobile rings and it’s soandso on the other end wondering what you’ve been up to.
Coincidence, happenstance, fate, serendipity… synchronicity, if Jung’s your cuppa tea. It happens all the time. But sometimes there’s a subject, an incident, a story that you think has nothing to do with you, that seems completely inconsequential, that keeps resurfacing, over and over, throughout your life; an event that holds no more significance for you than a pocket full of small change. Except that over time, as it resurfaces like a nagging football injury, you start looking for connections, seeking the links. And wondering… what the fuck…?!
This is one of those.
This story covers a twenty year period. It begins outside a truck stop in Northern Ontario in the middle of the night, and ends at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. more than two decades later. And yet for me it really all takes place during the course of a couple of very entertaining evenings in Bangkok. Before I was done I would come face to face with automatic weapons, mercenaries, spies, secrets, a redhead and a handful of the most colourful characters I’ve ever met.
But let’s start where all good stories begin – at the beginning. Time to connect the dots.

§ § §

“You know the day destroys the night,
Night divides the day.
Tried to run, tried to hide.
Break on through to the other side.”
– ‘Break On Through’, The Doors


It’s the middle of the night in sub-zero February, 1982. My friend Steve is sitting at a table in a roadside diner on Highway 102 just outside Thunder Bay, Ontario. His wife is breastfeeding their newborn daughter while he chugs his third cup of blackstrap coffee to try and stay awake.

Steve recently got a job at a new television station in Vancouver. He was moving his family west dragging a U-Haul behind a beat-up old van containing their combined earthly possessions.

The diner was a nondescript eatery of the type you’d find anywhere in North America – likewise the patrons. It was their first stop, other than for pee breaks, since leaving Southern Ontario behind ten hours earlier. They were making good time, considering. Besides, it was nice to not be driving for awhile – to just sit still for half an hour.

The baby was asleep now, and Steve decided to step outside to the parking lot to retrieve a fresh diaper and have a quick smoke.

Realizing he’d left his lighter on the table back inside, he noticed a flatbed semi with U.S. plates, and the driver checking out the ropes and tarps. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth, so Steve approached and asked for a light.

As the small talk ensued, Steve asked him what he was hauling. “I’d tell ya, but I’d hafta kill ya!” The trucker laughed, thankfully.

Never the introverted type, Steve kept up his side of the conversation and soon discovered they shared a fascination for military aircraft and air shows. Steve’s dad had been a commercial pilot, as had this trucker’s. They seemed to hit it off.

The trucker looked at his watch and said, “Gotta get back on the road. My escort bagged it for the night in Kenora. Gotta meet up before I call it a night. C3’s… gonna wonder where I am…” His voice trailed off.

“What’s C3?” Steve asked innocently, “And why do you have an escort…?”

The trucker looked around, perhaps realizing he may have misspoken. “You work in television, yeah? Are you a reporter…?”

“No – I’m a techie,” Steve said.

The trucker thought for a second. “Come here.” They walked around to the back of the truck and the driver undid a couple of the straps. He pulled back the tarp so Steve could see just the edge of one of the crates securely fastened to the deck.

“I’m not going to say what’s in the boxes. I can’t – even I don’t know,” the trucker said. “I just back the cab up, hitch it up to the trailer, grab my paperwork and hit the road.” He pulled the tarp back down, fastened the ropes and returned to the cab – Steve followed.

“Then I drop it off, collect a cheque – sometimes cash, and head back. Good money, too. Two, sometimes three times as much as I’d make hauling spinach.” Tapping the side of the trailer he said, “These ain’t vegetables.”

The remainder of the conversation unfolded this way: According to Steve, the trucker said he had buddies who did the same thing he did. That’s how you get hired on, he said, you gotta know someone.

One driver said they were transporting nuclear warheads (some crates bore the radioactive symbol). Some said the crates contained freshly printed hundred dollar Franklins. One guy had an accident when he hit a patch of ice in Oklahoma and spilled part of his load. A crate split open. Inside, he said, were packets of old 50s and 20s, wrapped with paper ribbons with the admonishment, ‘DESTROY’ printed on them. Each packet had three large holes punched in it. Old money headed for the incinerator perhaps.

But regardless of the cargo, it seemed there was another sinister element to these surreptitious midnight jaunts.

This particular trip had started in Tennessee and wouldn’t end until late the next night in a place called Mountain Home, Idaho. Oak Ridge, Tennessee is the number one nuclear weapons plant in the United States. Mountain Home, Idaho, was the location of a U.S. Air Force Base and home to a tactical fighter wing and ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) testing.

The trucker said that it wasn’t so much of a secret anymore – governments on both sides of the border allowed it to occur, mostly for security reasons. There’d been news stories, and a couple of truckers had been ‘caught’ with illegal cargo – dangerous, explosive cargo even. Residents of the areas where they were ‘caught’ went to the media. The media reported it and put local aldermen and provincial MPs on the hot seat, and in turn the politicians rattled their well-worn cross-border sabres at the Americans, chastising them for illegally shipping dangerous cargo across sovereign territory. After a few weeks the fuss would die down, and everyone would be back in business.

He said they all travelled at night, skipping past the weigh scales on the highway when time was of the essence, flying along back roads when trying to avoid urban centres.

Simultaneously, again according to what the trucker told Steve, there was, that night, a military convoy being transported by rail under heavy security across the American midwest destined for the same location. The difference between the two was, the train was the decoy… or maybe HE was the decoy, he never knew which and he figured that was the point. There may even have been a third decoy also, according to one of his buddies.

A little courier ‘sleight-of-hand’, the trucker said – did it all the time, always a different route, this time through Canada under diplomatic license – his words. There was an armoured unit only a codeword away via his mobile radio if he ran into any trouble. That unit was in an unmarked van loaded to the gunwales with everything required to ‘take care’ of the situation – again, his words.

This armoured unit was the ‘C3’ the trucker had referred to.

dangerous-courierVersions of C3 do exist – initially the brainchild of the Secret Service (Department of the Treasury) – and they don’t exist only in the United States. They have taken different forms over the years and served many diverse functions. But their prime task is to provide logistical support to the ultimate mission, whatever that may be.

C3 is an alphanumeric acronym which used to stand for ‘Courier Communications and Control‘. Its teams are mobile coordination groups assisting in the transportation and delivery of anything the government deems too ‘hot’ to be handled by the U.S. Postal Service or private courier. Sometimes it’s weapons-grade plutonium travelling from Hanford, Washington to a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility via lead-lined steamer trunks; sometimes coin dies for a new commemorative $20 gold coin hidden in an old valise destined for the U.S. Mint production plant in Denver; sometimes it’s human cargo – a spy or suspected terrorist – being transported from a safe house in New York City to prison in Leavenworth, Kansas (Gitmo is entirely an Army operation).

C3 teams are usually groups of no more than two or three people – retired Secret Service, FBI, CIA and/or U. S. Marshall Service personnel – posing as husband and wife or a small family or just friends on a golfing trip. In their luggage, however, is enough firepower and communications equipment to start a small war. They are the contact point for the person or group surreptitiously transporting the ‘goods’ from point “A” to point “B”. Their job is to remain in contact with the courier and stay one step ahead of them, supplying assistance whenever and wherever necessary and reporting back to headquarters on the progress of the mission. There are several, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of false apartments, houses, offices and warehouses across the United States that serve as contact points for the couriers. The tenants, usually members of the Secret Service, come and go at regular intervals so as not to arouse suspicion. Inside these accommodations is the materiel required to support any and all eventualities that might arise from a covert delivery. False walls hiding weapons and communications equipment, plus money, credit cards and disguises are only the tip of the iceberg.

Sounds like an episode of “Homeland” I realize, but I know of a building in Vancouver that the Combined Law Enforcement Unit (CLEU) used to run that’s now in the hands of CSIS.

The early media reports on 9/11 announced a complete “site lock down” by the CIA immediately following the crashing of the first jet plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. This was before the second plane hit and before anyone had seriously considered the possibility that it was a terrorist act, let alone that the buildings would actually fall. In fact, the main reason was that the CIA had a C3 office in the WTC and they were very concerned that material – everything from secret files to weapons – could be compromised.

During the Reagan administration in the eighties, the President signed an Executive Order allowing the CIA to expand its counter-terrorism activities domestically. Although the activity of domestic spying on Americans is against the law – if you believe the Constitution – the Order remains in effect today. In fact, it has expanded greatly with the creation of the Office of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act as exemplified by the National Security Agency’s ‘warrantless surveillance’ controversy. As part of Reagan’s secret order, the business of C3 was apparently transferred over to the CIA, which administers a multi-agency version of it to this day. Its acronym now meaning ‘Communications, Command and Control’.

I got most of this story verbatim from Steve via a phone call the next night from Brandon, Manitoba – the rest of it when he arrived in Vancouver a few days later.

The World Wide Web as we know it was still many years away back in the Winter of 1982, but online tools for searching public library databases and private information repositories – WAIS, Gopher, and other tools – were available. I had a VUCOM terminal at home hooked up to an old teletype printer for screen dumps and a 300 Baud modem/data telephone combination the size of a Volkswagen. The research I was able to glean using Steve’s information as a starting point filled in the blanks.

I could never be certain whether what I was hearing was just a tall tale made up by Steve to pass the time during a long, cold, arduous trip across the country, or whether part of it was true and he’d embellished the rest just for my benefit.

After a while it all became just another interesting story and life took over once again.

I didn’t give the whole C3 story much thought again until I met Frank almost three years later in a bar on a beach in Thailand. That one little phrase, C3, dropped into the middle of an innocuous conversation over a few bottles of Kloster Beer set in motion the events of a night I will never forget.

End of Part 1 of 4 ~ Continued In Part 2

Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 2

October 18, 2013

“When you’re strange
Faces come out of the rain.
When you’re strange
No one remembers your name.”
– ‘People Are Strange’, The Doors

§ § §


In December 1986, I was well into my second month in Thailand. After a few days in Tokyo, I’d come down the Asian coast to spend a few weeks lazing on a hot, sunny beach to burn off the remaining angst incurred from having spent almost a full year working at Expo ’86 in Vancouver.

Downtime in a practically deserted beach paradise near the islands of Koh Phi Phi in Southern Thailand would also help me get back to research on a crime novel I was planning to write (Subduing Mara – another story!)

Through a friend who was also staying nearby I met with a former U.S. Army private named Frank Davies. He’d retired to the south of the Thai peninsula after the Vietnam War and opened a small beach bar and hotel.

At the bar over several bottles of Kloster (a beer referred to locally as high grade ‘cat’s piss’), he would tell me stories of the Vietnam War, Special Forces operations he’d supposedly participated in, the implications of the My Lai massacre and various other ‘indiscretions’, and why he stayed in Thailand instead of returning home. All of it was very entertaining and punctuated with references to other people, places and events… but it all didn’t ring quite true to me. I was never certain if he was just spinning yarns or telling the truth, or if his version of history fell somewhere in between. However, three incidents that I experienced solidified my belief in Frank’s stories and information… well, most of it anyway. Here’s the first.

I asked Frank one day why he decided to join the Army at a time when most kids his age were burning their draft cards, smoking dope and listening to The Doors. It was his father’s influence. Frank told me that his dad had been in the Second World War and seen plenty of action. After returning stateside he joined the Military Police, and then became a cop. He retired early because of a limp that developed due to a piece of shrapnel in his left leg. However, he was a good strategist and had a ‘nose for the bad guys’, as Frank put it, and his superiors were always looking for a way to keep him around.

Frank was a good storyteller and I was an avid listener. Then one shoe dropped.

His father’s last job was working as part of a small covert division of the Secret Service hardly anyone knew even existed. He said it was called C3.

Cat’s piss came out my nose. I apologized and asked him to elaborate.

Frank told me his father continued to perform this duty long after retirement since he could travel as a senior citizen with an older woman (also retired Secret Service – both using canes) and no one would be the wiser.

“I saw what my dad had become, what he’d managed to do for his country, and I wanted to follow,” Frank told me. “Besides, I was going nowhere fast in Louisiana.” Frank noticed the look on my face. “Yeah – no one believes that story. I got more stories you won’t believe either, if you want to hear them. But right now I have to check-in some new guests.” He got up from the barstool and wandered over to a folding card table in the corner that served both as the check-in desk and buffet, depending on the time of day.

That evening there were really only two options for after-dinner activities. You could head down to the end of the second beach and set off fireworks, or grab a chair from your bungalow and find an empty spot in the open field to watch a movie being projected on the side of a bed sheet. The fireworks were fun, but if previous nights were any indication it would deteriorate into drunken competition. The Thai festival of Loi Krathong was just a recent memory, so many who had missed the original decided for the instant replay. On the other hand, the movie was the same as the night before… and the night before that… and the week before that. Once you’ve seen Streets Of Fire dubbed in German with Spanish subtitles (Strassen und Flammen / Calles del Fuego)… well, you’ve seen it.

I found Frank in his nearly empty bar chatting up one of the local girls. I knew I was interrupting, but I didn’t care. “Let’s talk about C3,” I said.

The pristine white sand had retained its heat from a stifling hot and humid day. The flickers of the movie projector a few hundred metres away, and the bright flash boom of the fireworks a short distance in the opposite direction were the only sources of light – there was no moon. Sitting there in the sand Frank and I chatted about C3, and Frank related some of those ‘other stories’ he’d mentioned earlier. Our faces bounced out of the night with each flicker or flash, and for the first time I noticed that Frank’s face was just a little too shiny, a little too tight.

Frank had fought in the Vietnam War and been wounded twice. The last time, he’d taken shrapnel in the face from a Viet Cong RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade) and spent a year and a half in a Thai hospital having painful reconstructive surgery. He spent the intervening time learning the difficult Thai language.

He decided not to return home after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and instead parlayed his savings and disability pension, not to mention his contacts, into the small bar and hotel on the beach. At the time he purchased, Kho Phi Phi, and nearby Phuket and Koh Samui were just a halfway oasis on the 750-mile overland trip from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It was now the hottest holiday destination in Southeast Asia and Frank was making serious money.

Foreigners can’t take up permanent residency, own property or become ‘naturalized’ citizens in Thailand, Frank said. They can, however, live quite well, lease property and buildings and take what are called ‘visa sabbaticals’ from Thailand. The sabbaticals allow for the immigration people to re-stamp your passport upon re-entry for a further ‘work permit’ of six months. All just red tape of course, but Frank had a collection of red tape dating back years.

What this meant was that Frank had to leave Thailand every six months for a couple of weeks vacation. One of these vacation periods happened to coincide with my trip. So, after a week and a half in Australia he returned to Thailand via Bangkok and agreed to show me around the Bangkok that he knew and introduce me to a couple of his friends that might add more fodder to the research for my novel.

He called me at my hotel late one evening and asked me to meet him at a bar on Patpong Road – a notorious area of four-square-blocks where everything from shoulder-launched missiles to thirteen-year old boys and girls were for sale. This is the Bangkok no one wants to talk about. Unfortunately, it was the Bangkok I needed to research for my book. As a friend of mine who has spent much time in Bangkok put so eloquently:

“Never have I been in a city where I felt so much like a sinner without having done anything.”

The Patpong area is still ‘owned’ (that is to say, controlled) by the Chinese-Thai Patpongpanich family, one of whom is a General in the Thai Army. Although to outsiders Thailand has a King and Queen and appears to be run as a Kingdom, it wasn’t always so. Until the democratic revolutions (quiet ones) of 1991 it was run by the armed forces. All the ministers and lawmakers had military rank. One could do anything with any commodity that was available – buy, sell, trade and steal (some say even kill) with impunity as long as the right palms were greased. This was the Bangkok that I was getting all too familiar with as my time with Frank went on. He may have been American, but his years in Southeast Asia – over twenty at this point – and his mastery of the Thai language allowed him to haggle and deal with the best of them. It also allowed him to move throughout the darker corners unencumbered, so too those in his company.

At a large crowded disco 60s music blared from the huge ceiling-mounted speakers as scantily clad girls danced and plied their trade. Frank told me that a friend of his ‘from the old days’ was returning from Africa and he wanted me to meet him. Fascinating guy apparently. They’d “…executed covert recon patrols in-country during the latter days of the police action.” He actually talked like this and it became apparent to me over the weeks of my stay that those who stayed on in Thailand after the war all communicated in this anachronistic ‘Viet-speak’ of 1960s-70s occupation.

What Frank neglected to tell me was that this ‘friend’ was a mercenary and was returning from Angola where he had ‘hired on’ with the Cubans to help depose a rebel leader. I took that to mean ‘kill’.

At oh-two hundred hours Frank’s friend entered the bar. All 260 pounds, six and half feet plus of him. Still dressed in camouflage fatigues and with the remnants of battle paint on his face, he carried a specially outfitted (I was to learn later) AK-47 Russian assault rifle, sometimes referred to as a ‘Kalashnikov’. This last accoutrement didn’t seem to phase anyone but me – apparently he didn’t go anywhere without his ‘baby’. I was to see more of these weapons a few days later under less amiable conditions.

The attention he received upon arrival was preceded by almost dead silence. Then several of the dancing girls erupted into laughs and smiles and threw themselves onto him like he was a ride at Disneyland. He was obviously well known, entirely welcome and not considered at all out of place, even with the weapon.

The name patch Velcroed to his fatigues’ left breast pocket read: JESUS in Army khaki green on green. He had ripped it from his dead buddy’s chest after a particularly fierce fire fight near Da Nang in ’68, and ‘borrowed’ the name. He’d had it so long he’d practically forgotten his own. Besides, that was a life and half ago, he said. Friends were forbidden to utter the name in his presence out of respect to “…the best damn Marine I’ve ever known”. So, his friends got in the habit of calling him D.B. – short for Dash Board, I was told. Funny guy, this mercenary.

A short conversation with D.B., Frank and myself followed, but I could tell my scintillating company was no match for the entertainment promised by the girls, now numbering six, vying for D.B.’s attention. He seemed to take an immediate liking to me, however. Perhaps it was because Frank introduced us – Frank, apparently, didn’t like anybody I was to learn later. Perhaps it was because I was genuinely interested in what he did for a living and his ego was being massaged. All I know is that two nights later the four of us (my friend from Vancouver showed up and joined the party) decided to go to the Bangkok Press Club so that we could talk in less frenetic surroundings. D.B. promised to answer all of my questions that he could, but that there were others that if he “…told me, he’d have to kill me!” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that phrase, but it was the first time it had been directed at me personally. I got the impression that this was a response he’d had personal experience with.

dangerously-dusit-thani-hotelThe Bangkok Press Club used to sit atop the Dusit Thani Hotel at the conflagration of King Rama IV Road – five major thoroughfares that converge into the most congested roundabout known to man.

The four of us arrived in the hotel lobby at different times – I arrived first to scope the place out. After the reception I’d seen given to D.B. at the Patpong bar, I was curious to see if his magnetism transcended the choking vehicle fumes of a few blocks away into a more upscale locale.

I was in for the second surprise in as many days. It was Frank, arriving in flowered shirt, drawstring pants and rubber beach thongs that aroused the staff of the hotel once he set foot beyond the immense revolving door. He could have been royalty – I’ve never seen such a fuss. Everybody seemed to know him.

Once the four of us had exchanged pleasantries, it became apparent what the commotion was about. The Press Club was closed for renovations. Too bad. I just assumed we’d move on to another bar, but Frank wouldn’t hear of it. Best view in the city, he said. D.B. didn’t have the patience that Frank appeared to have and as his voice got louder and less conciliatory, there were a couple of shoves, a potential fist in the face that never quite materialized, and, as an especially affecting exclamation point, several AK-47s pointed our way by slowly advancing army personnel.

Being a graduate of the less chaotic ‘table for four, si vous plait’ school of restaurant etiquette, I found myself on the verge of a losing battle with incontinence. Suddenly, the hotel manager who had been hastily summoned by a freaked-out bellboy appeared from behind the registration desk.

“FRANKLIN!” he bellowed, “This IS a surprise! How long’s it been…?” TOO fuckin’ long, that’s how long, I thought. Now, let’s all make nice – quickly.

The last time someone got in a fight in the lobby of the Dusit Thani Hotel was during an aborted military coup the year before, in 1985, when rebel forces within the army tried to overthrow the country. The flashpoint was King Rama IV Road, a local radio station, and, through sheer proximity, this hotel. One tank shell and several rifle bullets had pierced the plush velvet and rattan décor of the hotel lobby wounding three and killing Neil Davis, a famous war photographer and his sound man. At the time, Neil was Bangkok bureau chief for NBC News and, like Frank, had stayed behind after Saigon fell. In fact, the two were such good friends that Frank delivered the eulogy at Neil’s wake.

Neil was famous for any number of reasons, not the least of which was his bravery. He owned a very small Elmo 16mm movie camera and he was able to photograph much of his footage surreptitiously. But he will always be remembered for two short films that everyone the world over has seen. One was the crashing of the gates of the Presidential Palace by a Vietcong tank on the day Saigon fell. He was the only newsperson left in town when the North Vietnamese arrived. So impressed were they that he had the balls to stay when all others fled, that they arranged exclusive on-camera interviews with much of the so-called ‘enemy’ military once they’d secured Saigon. NBC ran those exclusives for weeks after and to this day remain the only first-person document of the period.

His other – his MOST – famous bit of footage made the cover of both Time and Life magazine. He was again the only photographer present during the interrogation of a captured Vietcong lieutenant. The ‘coercive questioning’ – no one liked to use the word torture – ended abruptly when the inquisitor, Saigon’s chief of police, pulled a pistol from his belt and shot the officer in the head. Neil was filming the entire time. Ironically, the police chief went on to become the new Ho Chi Minh City’s first mayor under North Vietnamese rule.

In September of 1985, Neil was covering another coup attempt and got caught in the crossfire when a military tank fired a shell at the radio station both he and his sound man were crouched beside. In fitting style, the final footage Neil shot was that of his own death as the camera fell from his hands and spun around to show his lifeless body being dragged away.

This incident was still fresh in many minds, and any argument in or near the hotel was met with pounding hearts and crystal clear memories. Frank introduced all of us to the manager, D.B. apologized to the manager (good move!), and then the manager said the words that solidified the veracity of Frank’s stories in my mind. It was the culmination of the first of the three incidents, as if D.B. arriving in full war paint wasn’t enough. “For you, Franklin, anything! ” he said. This from a guy who ran one of the most exclusive hotels in Asia, to a guy wearing flip-flops!

With that, the four of us were escorted to the private elevator that led to the Press Club. A padlocked chain was removed, the power turned on and the patio doors opened onto the wrap-around balcony that afforded the best views in Bangkok. Frank had been right.

End of Part 2 of 4 ~ Continued In Part 3

Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 3

October 16, 2013

“Don’t ya love her madly.
Don’t ya need her badly.
Don’t ya love her ways.
Tell me what you say…”
– ‘Love Her Madly’, The Doors

§ § §


The manager bade us farewell, “Good to see you, Franklin. Enjoy your evening,” and left us in the company of an Army sergeant who proceeded to lay his weapon down on the bar and mix us drinks for the remainder of the night. A more surreal scene I could not have conjured.

At one point Frank excused himself to go to the ‘head’ and D.B. leaned in toward me in that way that can only mean one thing: I’m going to convey some information here that Frank would probably rather I not talk about… but what the hell.

D.B. told me that Frank had become quite the media source after his discharge from hospital those many years ago. Because he had been part of a Special Forces team and stayed on in Bangkok, the various news outlets sought him out for counsel whenever they ran into a dead end, journalistically speaking. The Army also realized Frank’s usefulness as an ‘un-named source’, as they call it. They would give Frank information that the U.S. government wanted released but couldn’t be seen as releasing through otherwise normal means. Sometimes it was factual data, sometimes it was a fabrication – disinformation. According to D.B., Frank never knew which. To that day Frank continued his uneasy alliance with the government that sent him to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia, although the service he was providing ten years after the war had officially ended was anybody’s guess.

D.B. stopped and looked at me. “You don’t believe any of this shit, do you?” he said. “An open mind is a terrible thing to waste,” I answered.

Everything I’d seen and heard about Frank and his cronies in the last few days was shrouded in a healthy skepticism. I didn’t so much care whether any of what I saw and heard was fact, as much as I considered how I would utilize it in my story, which was fiction. But, if this was all some kind of elaborate game, being played out simply for my entertainment, I was quickly buying in.

Thus began the second epiphany of my relationship with Frank.

“Frank’s KIA, you know. He doesn’t exist anymore,” D.B. said.

As in any war, when your tour of duty was finished you either returned home or you were listed as MIA, Missing In Action, or KIA, Killed In Action. There was a third category that no one really talked about – it had no official sanction. It was DA, or ‘Don’t Ask’. The DA moniker was reserved for those personnel who decided after they arrived in Vietnam to become ‘conscientious objectors’, or, more in keeping with army-speak, deserters. There were over seven hundred American deserters during the Vietnam War, not including draft dodgers and resisters… where are they now, I wonder.

According to D.B., Frank was KIA. This needed explanation. I was about to question him on it when Frank returned to the table. Apparently he’d overheard D.B.

Frank suddenly became quite animated, like he was unloading information he’d kept hidden for years. He told everyone at the table that in ’68 when he went ‘covert’ the government erased all traces of his prior history – including his life. Okay, now we’re on to serious ‘Willy Wonka’ territory, I thought. But still, it made for a great yarn.

He told the story about how one rainy morning he and several dozen of his fellow regular army privates were gathered around a faulty camp stove drinking awful coffee and force-feeding themselves RTE’s, Army slang for food (Ready To Eat).

There was a ‘hiss’. Someone yelled, “IN COMING!” The RTE’s went flying to the ground as every enlisted man reached for his weapon and dove for the best piece of cover they could find from what was sure to be a mortar attack.

Out of the blue a black UH-1B ‘Baby Huey’ helicopter swept into the small clearing and landed quickly with a thud.

Frank said the helicopter was all black – no markings. The pilot cut the engine and feathered the rotors, just in case a rapid extraction was necessary. They were just 30 kliks (kilometres) from the DMZ and no one was supposed to know Frank and his cavalry unit were there.

Frank described what happened next as like watching Liberace take the stage in Las Vegas.

The side door slid open and a perfectly polished black combat boot came to rest on the chopper’s starboard skid. Then another. Standing there, looking at the rag-tag group of grunts, was a Special Forces colonel with a handlebar moustache. He was decked out with a pearl-handled .45 pistol, a white silk scarf and a black beret. The rest was regulation khaki. Frank told me that when he first saw the film Apocalypse Now and watched as the Robert Duvall character came on screen he laughed so hard the theatre manager wanted to throw him out.

The colonel shrugged, smirked and stepped off the skid onto the wet grass. No one spoke. No one even saluted this superior officer, so mesmerized was everyone in attendance.

He grabbed a couple of food boxes and placed them on top of a crate, then asked for assistance as he climbed atop his hastily prepared pulpit.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, in a deeply southern accent, as Frank recalled it.

“Cav units such as yours have a mortality rate of about fifty percent. Take a look around. That means that half of you ain’t gonna make it home to your cushy little beds. And while you’re waitin’ for some gook to put a pungee stick in your eye or a bullet in your brainpan, you eat shit, drink shit, live in shit… you ARE shit! Well, ladies, I offer you an alternative.” According to Frank, this colonel couldn’t have held their gaze any stronger if he’d been painted blue. The colonel continued.

“I run a small group of Special Ops into areas of this war that you don’t know about and into territories you haven’t even heard of. It’s secret, it’s dangerous, and it pays ten times what you shit-eaters accumulate for your family’s estate. I’ve been authorized to tell you that I’m recruiting and I’m in dire need of a couple of replacements – now, today. Come with me and I guarantee you’ll drink the best booze, eat the best food and fuck the best pussy this side of the lower forty-eight.”

The interest level of those in attendance continued to grow.

“But there’s one small thing,” he continued. “Our mortality rate is ninety percent! That means the odds of you living through this are one in ten. Agree to come with me now and the tour on this duty is six months… unless, of course, you’re stupid and die. In which case you’ll be home all the sooner.” He pulled an expensive cigar out of his fatigue pocket, bit the end off and lit it with one flip of his Zippo. “So, what’s it to be…? Rust, or blaze of glory?! You’ve got five minutes,” he said.

Frank had been ‘in country’ for almost a year and seen most of his friends die in combat – most of it vicious, some of it hand-to-hand. He hadn’t waited for the draft – he’d enlisted. He’d done his six weeks of basic, got handed a rifle and told he was going to Vietnam to make the world safe for democracy. Frank knew he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. What was he going to do when he went back stateside? What if the colonel was right and he was the next body bag filler?

The colonel looked at his Rolex President (Frank now had one just like it), turned and walked toward the chopper, and with a swirl of his hand signalled for the engines to start-up. Frank looked at his sergeant and then at the lieutenant who had been wounded earlier in the day. He followed the colonel to the helicopter and reached him just as he was getting in.

“What do I need to do… now, I mean?” Frank inquired. The colonel looked at him and sucked on his stogie. A couple of seconds later he said, “Where you from, son?” “Louisiana, sir,” came the less than regimental reply. Another second, then, “Gimme your gun.” Frank handed him the regulation issue M-16 carbine he’d had since basic and the colonel looked at him again. “You sure you want to do this…?” he asked Frank. Frank turned and looked at his cav unit. “Yeah,” was all he said.

The colonel threw Frank’s rifle to the ground and told him to get in. “You won’t be needing this where we’re going,” he said. The chopper was already airborne and turning into the wind when the colonel added, “…or these.” He ripped Frank’s dog tags from around his neck, chucked them outside and slid the door shut with a bang. Frank was dead. Long live Frank.

That’s the way Frank told the story that night at the Bangkok Press Club, almost verbatim, with asides from D.B. I tape recorded most of our conversations and transcribed them when I returned to Vancouver, so I have most of the story correct complete with the inflections Frank added.

Now, I didn’t know much about the American armed forces, but I knew that the purpose of dog tags was to identify you in case of death – the sole purpose in fact. It was said that if you had the option of losing your balls or your dog tags you’d choose the former. You’d have them personally removed by your superior officer anyway if you lost the latter and self-determination was the last thing they beat out of you in army!

Frank explained that the group he joined was so covert the government didn’t want any record of ANYTHING they did. So, if you joined this force, you ceased to be accountable to your original unit. Also, if you happened to be captured the enemy couldn’t use you for propaganda purposes if they didn’t know who you were.

This type of covert operational procedure, although not common, has a history dating back to post-war, OSS days (pre-CIA) and the reign of über-spy ‘Wild’ Bill Donovan.

The super-secret groups were colloquially known as SOG, or Studies and Observations Group. This was an innocuous little term that fit the acronym perfectly, but in fact obfuscated the actual role of the group. While sounding like it might refer to someone ‘auditing’ an operation, in fact SOG stood for Special Operations Group and ‘observing’ was the least lethal activity involved.

A recent TIME magazine article elaborated:

“If a soldier is assigned highly clandestine work, his records are changed to make it appear as if he resigned from the military or was given civilian status; the process is called ‘sheep dipping’, after the practice of bathing sheep before they are sheared.”

With the exception of two men who were seriously wounded and air lifted back to the United States, his entire original cavalry unit was wiped out in a booby-trapped village some three weeks after Frank ‘went black’. The dog tags that had been jettisoned from the helicopter were picked up by a buddy of his and pocketed for safekeeping. During the heated exchange at the village, this particular buddy was killed and the dog tags were found.

“I’m on the wall, apparently,” Frank said wistfully. “There are a lot of guys on the wall who don’t deserve to be there,” D.B. added, not so wistfully. Another story, perhaps.

The two warriors exchanged a long knowing glance that spoke volumes and I was just about to interject with, “I don’t mean to question your memory, but…,” when Frank jumped up and said, “C’mon, we’re leaving. ”

“Where to now, master? ” D.B. joked. We all giggled, the alcohol combined with the heat and humidity starting to take effect. Frank looked at me and said, “Wanna meet some real spooks…?”

dangerously-thermaeD.B.’s eyes widened. “The Thermae…?!” he said. “You’re takin’ them to the Thermae? Are you nuts?! I can’t be seen there, you know that!”

Frank continued to look at me. “When do you go back to Koh Phi Phi?” he said. “I don’t,” I said. “I go to Hong Kong in two days, then home to Vancouver.”

Frank looked at D.B. and weighed the options. “We’re goin’ to the Thermae. I’ll see you later,” he said pointing to D.B.

“Watch your back and don’t be seen smoking nothin’ funny,” D.B. said to me. “You know what I mean… funny…?” “I get it,” I said. But I didn’t. I still don’t know why D.B. couldn’t ‘be seen’ at the Thermae. Considering his line of work it could have been anything. I didn’t want to know.

I said goodbye to Jesus – not by name of course – nodded and smiled at the heavily armed bartender as we exited the press club, and then the three of us hopped into an air-conditioned taxi and headed out into the hot fetid extremes of the Bangkok night.

Most of the short drive was accomplished in silence, but I could see Frank was excited. He was riding shotgun. I leaned forward and said, “So, what’s the Thermae? A club or something?” Frank didn’t react, he just said, “Or something… you’ll see.”

End of Part 3 of 4 ~ Continued In Part 4