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Books, Criticism, Seen & Heard

Death By Champagne: Nanaimo Girl

June 16, 2020

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

§ § §

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

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

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

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


Pru as a young entertainer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pru with Sophia Loren

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

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

Pru with playwright Edward Albee

Pru with playwright Edward Albee

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

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

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

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

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

Author Prudence Emery

Author Prudence Emery

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

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

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

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

A Memoir
Author: Prudence Emery
Cormorant Books
ISBN: 9781770865273

§ § §

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

Books, Criticism, Music, Seen & Heard

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

June 16, 2020

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

§ § §

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Fiona McQuarrie

Author Fiona McQuarrie

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

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

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

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

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

§ § §

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

Music, Personal, Seen & Heard

Ten In Ten

June 10, 2020

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

§ § §

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§ § §

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Kirk out!

Books, Travel

In Her Own Words…

December 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§ § §

Spring 1917

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

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

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

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

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

§ § §

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

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

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

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

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

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

§ § §

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

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

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

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

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

§ § §

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

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



Holding Coffee

September 25, 2016

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

§ § §

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, where’s the fucking bell?!

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

Okay – he had our attention now.

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

Futility 101 here I come.

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

What the…?! Excuse me?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” was all I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’m getting ahead of myself.”

I had good teachers.

Books, Politics

The Icebox Cometh

September 15, 2016

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

§ § §

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

§ § §

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that pure Sorensen…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clock’s ‘a tickin’!

Books, Politics

Back And To The Left… Back And To The Left

November 20, 2015

“It appears as though something has happened in the motorcade route…”
~ Sam Pate, Dallas Reporter, KBOX Radio

§ § §

Shortly after noon on Friday, November 22, 1963, the 35th President of the United States was being driven through the streets of Dallas, Texas in a black Lincoln Continental stretch limousine. He was accompanied by his wife Jackie, and the Texas governor John Connally and his wife Nellie. They were all on their way to a luncheon where the president was to deliver a speech at a gathering of the city’s business leaders.

Moments after their open-topped vehicle turned from Houston Street and onto Elm, John Fitzgerald Kennedy entered Dealey Plaza and the history books.

On this sequence of events, anyone who has ever dived into the deep end of the research pool regarding Kennedy’s murder agrees. However, it was from this point forward that doubt and certainty diverged, and fact and fiction became Siamese twins. Within hours of the shooting speculation and hearsay filled the airwaves, and rumor and guesswork dominated above-the-fold reportage in newspapers around the world.

Who killed JFK?

While doctors at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital attended to their mortally wounded president, city police, and the sheriff’s office scoured central Dallas for their number one suspect – their only suspect.

Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine who had once defected to the Soviet Union and returned, was employed by the Depository where some witnesses reported three gunshots had originated. He was tracked, cornered and taken into custody in a movie theatre after a short struggle with law enforcement. By this point, barely 90 minutes after Kennedy was hit, Oswald was suspected of not only JFK’s assassination, but of also killing a Dallas police officer while escaping the scene.

On Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after the assassination, Oswald, too, lay dying, felled by a single bullet. Audiences around the world watched the shooting live on television. Jack Ruby, who at the time was considered not much more than a local strip club owner and minor mobster, was immediately arrested and charged with the homicide.

Three days later, The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy was launched by the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was put in charge.

The Warren Commission, as it was more popularly known, also included a future president of the United States, a retired banker, two senators, a congressman, and a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency that Kennedy himself had fired. They were tasked with an investigation that aimed to ‘solve’ the president’s assassination, and bring closure to a shaken public by underscoring the ‘official’ stance that Oswald had acted alone. But what appeared to some people as an open-and-shut case, was to others murky and misguided, and the Commission’s eventual conclusions positively erroneous. Regardless, the ‘Oswald Did It’ camp filled up fast. Even though many questioned and protested the Commission’s explanations of the entire scenario, with some suggesting a massive government cover-up was at play, the ‘lone gunman’ meme had already begun to take root.

Within a year of President Kennedy’s assassination the Warren Commission’s report was released to the public, its major thesis – Lee Harvey Oswald as lone assassin – was front and centre. As battle lines were drawn on one side and the other (he did, he didn’t) alternate opinions and conspiracy theories began to proliferate.

Was JFK trapped in the crosshairs of one crazed assassin firing from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository? (“I’m just a patsy!”) Or was he the victim of a conspiracy cut down by a cabal of a half-dozen hired guns firing from any number of hidden vantage points, including the equally infamous ‘grassy knoll’? (“Back and to the left, back and to the left…”) Those questions have been debated and fought over for decades by amateurs and professionals alike. The search for answers has become the Holy Grail of researchers and authors worldwide.

Hundreds of books, articles, documentaries, feature films, TV shows and websites have been devoted to ‘America’s loss of innocence’ that day in Dallas. Perhaps only the Bible has been more scrutinized. Every bullet and shell casing, each leaf and blade of grass, eyewitness testimony (both official and otherwise), photographs, films, charts, caskets, plane flights, recordings, admissions, rebuttals, reconstructions, dead ends, cul de sacs, hairpin turns, and divided highways… enough information has been collected and sifted to fill entire warehouses, and yet questions, doubts, and theories still remain. A CBS News poll asked Americans if they believed that Oswald had acted alone – 76% said they believed he had not. Some believe that’s the wrong question to ask, as it presupposes he acted at all.

‘Who killed JFK?’ became a mantra. More than fifty years later the chanting hasn’t stopped.

Into this decades-old riot of speculation and analysis comes author Barry Ernest and his book, The Girl On The Stairs – My Search For A Missing Witness To The Assassination Of John F. Kennedy.

If you’ve paid any attention over the years to the wealth of material available on the subject of the assassination, you’ll probably agree that the majority of it falls into three basic categories:

  1. The sixth floor, southeast corner window of the Texas School Book Depository and Lee Harvey Oswald;
  2. The Grassy Knoll;
  3. Cubans, Communists, Cosa Nostra, CIA, and Co-Conspirators.

With few exceptions, much of the assassination canon digs in its heels on one of these major points, sometimes just trolling around the edges. Mr. Ernest, however, followed a different path. A long and winding path, as it turned out, and the result is one of the best books available on the topic.

He has done something with his book that few before him have accomplished successfully. While many other authors have relied on brute force attacks of the entire Warren Commission Report, challenging its evidence, methodology and conclusions at every turn, Mr. Ernest has instead dug deep – very deep – into a mostly forgotten corner of the investigation: the secondary witnesses. One in particular.

That one witness is ‘the girl on the stairs’, a young woman by the name of Victoria Adams.

Why she’s the focus of Mr. Ernest’s book – why she matters at all – is quite the well-told story and a terrific read. The author spent the better part of forty years attempting to locate Vickie Adams to confront her face-to-face about her Warren Commission testimony, and to try and find corroborating evidence to support and justify her claims. His journey is fascinating, and his storytelling simple, clean and exciting. His conclusions offer a compelling and disturbingly accurate narrative account of one of the darkest days in human history told from a different perspective and observed through a unique lens.

The story begins with a bombshell comment to the Commission that almost no one grasped the significance of at the time, and most researchers have failed to recognize since.

On 22 November, Vickie was working for a small company that was a tenant in the Texas School Book Depository building. That day was special because it wasn’t every day one got to see the President of the United States and his beautiful wife Jackie. Ms. Adams and a couple of co-workers spent part of their lunch hour huddled in a stairway near a window that afforded a perfect view of Dealey Plaza and the presidential motorcade that was going to pass right by the building.

Everyone who worked inside the Depository and who was present that fateful day in 1963 was interviewed under oath by a Warren Commission investigator. According to the author’s research, witness testimony would be carefully transcribed and checked for accuracy against the stenographer’s record, and then a draft copy would be sent to the interviewee so they could check it themselves and make corrections before signing off. Vickie found some errors in her testimony, corrected them, and returned the document.

Ms. Adams thought that was that, and like most Americans got on with her life.

Some time later, after the Commission’s report was released, she decided to check her testimony within one of the twenty-six volumes of evidence while visiting a local library. According to Vickie and the author, what she read in the official record, was not what she had said to the Commission. Not only had they misstated crucial parts of her testimony, they hadn’t included the corrections they themselves had asked Vickie to supply. To make matters worse, the official record stated that her recollection of events was inaccurate and her details wrong. Vickie was horrified. She dropped out of sight and never spoke of her experiences again. Until Barry Ernest finally found her.

What had she said to the Commission?!

The issue was a not-so-simple matter of timing. She testified that she and one of her colleagues had been on the stairs of the fourth floor of the Depository watching the President drive by smiling and waving at the crowd. Then, they heard what sounded like firecrackers going off. People in the plaza started running or laying on the ground as if they were hiding. Realizing that something terrible must have occurred, Vickie and her friend ran down the stairs to the ground floor and out of the building to find out what had happened. She was quite specific in her testimony as to the time of day, their location on the stairs, and the amount of time it took for them to race down those stairs to the main level of the building. She was also very specific, under direct questioning from the investigator, about who she did and did not see during this time.

Ms. Adams’ testimony was a problem for the Commission. These were the same stairs they said Oswald himself had come down after shooting the President from the sixth floor – it was his only means of escape. Except Vickie and her friend had neither seen nor heard anyone else on those stairs within the timeframe she had testified to.

Why is Victoria Adams’ memory of those events – her official, detailed testimony, and the subject of this book – important? If she’s correct, Lee Harvey Oswald could not have been on the sixth floor of the Depository at all, as he was discovered in the second-floor lunch room by a police officer mere minutes after the shooting, and again, within Vickie’s testified timeframe. If Oswald wasn’t on the sixth floor that means he couldn’t have pulled the trigger. He could not have shot the President.

Timing. Mr. Ernest contends that she is correct.

It would be easy to disregard this book as just another unsubstantiated theory based on ephemeral allegations or as another attempt to cash in on the JFK conspiracy cottage industry that has grown like an ignored weed since 1964. Easy, except for Mr. Ernest’s astonishing discovery of corroborating evidence supporting Ms. Adams’ claims, and the re-emergence of the subject herself. Vickie speaks at length about her experiences and responds candidly to the author’s detailed examination.

Whether, through absentminded omission or calculated design (Mr. Ernest believes the latter), the Warren Commission disregarded crucial details within Victoria Adams’ sworn statements; details that would have cast, and perhaps now does cast, doubt on the conclusions of its Report. It’s not the first book to do so, nor is this an isolated example, sad to say.

I’ve absorbed the vast majority of credible JFK assassination literature over the years – certainly dozens of books, perhaps more than fifty. I’m always curious to see what each new book brings to the table, or what a new documentary might reveal. Is it something new, or merely a rehash of old theories…? A fresh perspective, or a stale reimagining…? “The Girl On The Stairs” is the real deal – new, fresh and, perhaps most importantly, illuminating.

With the entire Warren Commission library now online (yes, including the 26 volumes of evidence from which the story of Victoria Adams eventually revealed itself), as well as the 1976 House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) report, perhaps we’re not done yet. Maybe there are other ‘clues’ hiding in plain site.

For some readers, perhaps, the revelations in this book will be summarily disposed of with the wave of a jaundiced hand (“Nothing to see here – move along, Johnny.”) Do we really need more independent analysis, more investigations, more articles, another documentary, another book…? As a teacher once said to me: An open mind is a terrible thing to waste.

§ § §

The Girl On The Stairs – My Search For A Missing Witness To The Assassination Of John F. Kennedy (ISBN: 978-1460979372)
is written by Barry Ernest and available in various forms from Amazon and the other usual suspects.

Personal, Photography

I Go Hoosegow

November 10, 2015

“Well, if they freed me from this prison,
If that railroad train was mine,
I bet I’d move out over, a little
Further down the line,
Far from Folsom Prison,
That’s where I want to stay,
And I’d let that lonesome whistle,
Blow my Blues away.”
– Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash

§ § §

The old British Columbia Penitentiary stood in the city of New Westminster for over a hundred years.

After prison riots that occurred throughout the middle to late 1970s caused the closure of the by then infamous B.C. Pen, I started polling local and regional politicians requesting access to the jail so I could photograph it. I was turned down repeatedly. Various excuses, both official and anecdotal, were given for the refusal, but I persisted.

The prison, it was said, remained in a state of total disrepair and decay after a particularly nasty riot which resulted in its population being transferred to other correctional facilities across the country. In fact, if reports were to be believed, everything was left where it fell that final day before the prisoners’ relocation. The Pen was officially closed for good in 1980 and all but forgotten. The subject came up in the press once in awhile as to what would be done with the structure and land it sat on, but no one ever seemed to agree on the proper approach.

My photographic interest was historical, certainly. But the Pen was rife with stories about its sordid past, its attempted break-outs and even it’s cemetery which still exists to this day. A young woman who worked at the prison, Mary Steinhauser, was shot and killed by the Emergency Response Team during a hostage taking in 1975. The press had had a field day with that, speculating that perhaps she had been targeted because of an affair she may or may not have had with an inmate.

Sure, all of that was in the back of my mind. But I was also gripped by an intense child-like curiosity. How cool would it be to roam through this giant granite castle taking pictures? Cool. Very cool.

It was late January the year after its closure that I received a phone call from the mayor’s office of New Westminster. Had I received the letter, I was asked. The letter arrived the next day.

In it, I was told that a decision was being made as to the Pen’s future and the first phase of that decision was to turn control of the prison “…and its contents” over to Public Works Canada. If I really wanted to “…go inside and take your pictures…” I’d best do so within the next two weeks. After that, no one would be allowed to go inside and the Pen’s systematic ‘devolution’ would commence; this was as close to ‘permission’ as I was going to get. I seized the opportunity.

I supplemented my one camera and 50mm lens with a rental agreement from a local camera shop and a week later presented myself at the formidable oak front doors of the Pen’s Gatehouse. Struggling with a second camera body, three extra lenses including an 18mm Fish Eye, two bags containing lights, reflectors, a Megablitz electronic flash with battery belt, and a portable power supply, I was met with a hearty laugh when I introduced myself to the two Commissionaires who had been assigned to guard the complex.

“Didn’t they tell you?” one asked. “There’s no power,” said the other. “Been shut off for more than a year. No heat either,” he continued. “No prisoners – no point,” said the first. “I hope you brought gloves and a warmer coat.” I hadn’t.

Official-looking papers were arranged on the one desk that sat in the corner of a small anteroom in the gatehouse. The Commissionaires continued joking while I stuffed the two bags of useless equipment under the desk for safe-keeping. At least they had a small portable heater and a radio powered by a gasoline generator to keep them company. After a hundred years of ‘top security’ and dozens of personnel carrying weapons, the Pen was now guarded by two men without so much as a pocket knife between them. The irony was not lost on me.

After I signed a sheet that said I was to hold all and sundry harmless from any responsibility should I disappear down a rabbit hole or some such, I was given a short lecture about the dangers I was facing by “…traipsing about the grounds of a former maximum security facility…” by myself.

“By myself…?” I said out loud, perhaps a little too high pitched.

“Don’t worry,” said the officer. “The sun’s coming out. Once your eyes adjust to the dark, you’ll be fine.”

Right. No power – no heat – no light. No warmer coat: check. No gloves: check. No flashlight: check. Wonderful.

The second officer handed me a massive ring of keys, just like the kind you see in the movies. And damned if there weren’t several old-style skeleton keys on it.

“Just for show,” he said. “Used to work on some of the interior doors a ways back apparently, but once the prison was modernized…” He allowed his voice to trail off, perhaps realizing that the term ‘modernized’ in this context was entirely pointless. The prison in fact had changed little since the day it had opened in 1878.

“This one unlocks the main door,” the first officer said pointing to a key painted red. “Most other doors work off the master, and that would be this one,” he said pointing to a key that looked like the twenty-odd other ones on the ring.

The two officers looked at each other in a sort of ‘anything else you can think of’ kind of way. Then, “Okay – that’s it. We’re done at five. Make sure you’re back here by then.”

“Yeah,” said the second officer. “Or you’ll have to sleep overnight in one of the cells!” They both laughed. This was no place for a child-like imagination.

I grabbed a couple of lenses from the big bag and walked outside into the prison yard. The large oak doors creaked and then slammed behind me.

It was early February. Snow was on the ground, and my breath froze in the air. I made the hundred meters from the gatehouse to the main door in short order. I put the red key in the lock and turned. The door opened with ease.

I was going to prison, and that’s all there was to that.

§ § §

I survived my day in prison wandering the halls, and cell blocks of the old B.C. Pen and the stories all turned out to be true. It was still in the exact same state it was left in after the final riot and relocation. I had been told the only things that had been removed were the mattresses and linens, but there were stacks of them stuffed into one very smelly room. Dampness and mold had taken over.

As a sidebar story to this, I had a robbery in my apartment less than two weeks after doing the tour and taking the pictures. According to my insurance adjuster, about $20,000 worth of ‘household’ items had been stolen, including three large binders of contact sheets and negatives. I mourned the loss of the B.C. Pen materials whenever I thought about it too long. Then, a couple of years later during a move to a new apartment, I discovered a handful of plastic sleeves containing mostly negatives of the B.C. Pen under a large Indian area rug I had inherited.

The pictures aren’t the best quality, unfortunately. With no power and no flashlight, many of the shots were taken in darkness, if not pitch black. I would fire the Megablitz strobe that I had attached to one of the cameras just to see where I was going at times, and this was frequently my only source of instantaneous light when ‘setting-up’ a shot.

Although the pictures aren’t the best, they are still the only ‘officially unofficial’ photographs in existence of the inside of the B.C. Pen before the place was razed and turned into condo units.

The majority of stills from the B.C. Pen can be seen HERE (Part 1) and HERE (Part 2) at my dedicated photography site, Enjoy.

Personal, Politics, Spies

I Spy With My Little Eye

September 30, 2015

“Then we got into a labyrinth, and, when we thought we were at the end,
came out again at the beginning, having still to see as much as ever.”
~ Plato

§ § §

Even after all this time (and perhaps BECAUSE so much time has elapsed), artwork and artefacts from World War II are still being discovered. Purloined paintings spirited away by the Nazis during the latter years of the war will always take centre stage, and rightly so. This story, about a looted oil painting, found hanging in a small home in Columbus, Ohio for 20 years, is a good example of what’s still missing and yet to be found. So too, is the recent unearthing (literally, in this case) of the so-called Nazi ‘gold train’ buried deep in Poland.

However, it’s not just precious metals and works of art from the war years that have remained ‘buried’, and eventually discovered in odd places. Documents, maps, letters, paperwork of all kinds continue to show up in long-forgotten, dust-ridden attic and basement boxes in locales that defy simple explanation.

My recent trip to L.A. was initially a short research excursion in support of a new book I’m writing. The job at hand involved viewing and making notes on a recently discovered cache of formal Nazi documents written in 1945 as the Russians closed in on Berlin. Those documents – including a crudely drawn map that lies at the heart of my new tale – were nothing short of eye-popping. But it was the story of how and where they were eventually found that was equally exciting.

No spoiler alert here, but this is the Reader’s Digest version.

As the top echelon Nazis increasingly saw the writing on the wall in the Spring of 1945, much of their work was occupied, not with trying to counterattack the Russian Army who had already infiltrated the Berlin city limits, but rather in attempting to squirrel away and/or destroy documentary evidence of their war crimes. Included in that effort was the mostly successful attempt to find secret repositories for material central to the their basic thesis of a ‘thousand year Reich’ – a FOURTH Reich, as it were, to rise from the ashes and live to conquer again another day, in another place – South America, as it turned out.

Eventually, more than five years later, some of that material ended up in the hands of the East German secret police archives – the Stasi. Amongst that material was a 22-page dossier – the one I made notes on a few weeks ago. How and why Nazi documents found their way into a massive archive in East Germany – a Communist bloc country (the Nazis, of course, were virulently anti-Communist) – is another, far more lengthy story, and odd enough for any researcher. However, it’s what happened to those documents next, in the early 1990s, that confounds imagination.

As the Eastern Bloc Communist manifesto-driven lifestyle began to falter politically and socially, and eventually fail completely in 1989, the Berlin Wall tumbled to the ground. The GDR, or the German Democratic Republic as East Germany was known, was caught completely off guard according to some historians. Two things were becoming abundantly clear to the members of the GDR politburo. Their ‘partners’ in the Soviet Union were going to do nothing about this deteriorating (to them) state of affairs, and, therefore, it would only be a matter of time before everything collapsed, and newly ‘freed’ citizenry would begin storming political offices and trashing or stealing everything in site. The decision within the secret police was to destroy everything. Ironically, this, in fact, is the reason so much Stasi documentation exists to this day.

The Stasi was the largest, most detail-oriented intelligence organization the world has ever seen. It was also the most devious, ruthless, and arcane. Their interrogation techniques were… creative, to say the least. It is said that at one time or another ALL residents of East Germany were working for the Stasi whether they knew it or not. The smallest, simplest detail rarely went undetected by someone, who then either ‘reported’ it to the police, or spoke about it to someone else in a bar, or on the street, and THAT someone revealed the information to someone else, which found its way to the Stasi. A phone number written on a used paper napkin in a small bistro and thrown away by restaurant staff after the meal would be retrieved and presented to the police in hopes that one day this little act of ‘patriotism’ would be remembered and, therefore, deflect any investigation or interrogation of THEM. It’s no wonder that the Soviet KGB would often send their agents to East Berlin for training in ‘technique’.

The Stasi, by design, destroyed nothing. They kept, and cross-referenced everything! As such, they had no incinerators or paper shredders! Their job was to KEEP everything, not DESTROY it – such was the root of their power.

While they scrambled to find incinerators and shredders in other parts of Berlin and beyond, the police concocted another scheme. Staff members of the Stasi (there were literally tens of thousands of individuals and married couples, as it turned out) were tasked with spiriting away bits, pieces, chunks, boxes, and crates of material. One such box was taken into the German countryside by a husband and wife team and hidden away.

After the tumult of the fall of Communism began to fade away, and Germany once again became unified, this couple emigrated to the United States taking some of the Stasi archives with them. The story goes that the 22-page dossier in question was found less than five years ago. In a steamer trunk. In a barn. On a farm. In the fields of Nebraska!

The dossier became part of a larger assemblage of Nazi documentation, and through some deep, forensic research over the better part of two years, I located its resting place.

Its discovery made me dig into what might have happened with the rest of the Stasi archive. Did it survive in some form? How much survived? How much was destroyed – eventually shredded or incinerated? Where is it?

In a large, very secure ‘business park’ within an office/warehouse complex just outside Berlin, lies the Office of the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records. It is the new international ‘home’ for the Stasi archives. Aside from materials that were ‘taken away’, most of the archive was NOT incinerated, and only a partial amount was shredded, although the word ‘partial’ here is entirely relative.

Inside this complex of buildings, an extensive staff of paid workers, volunteers and even students work tirelessly around the clock, seven days a week piecing back together the entire surviving archive. It is estimated that the job of reorganizing will take decades to complete. Why?

The archive as it now exists comprises almost a billion individual pages of data, which translates to about 111 kilometres of shelf space if it were all laid end to end. That figure doesn’t include 1.8 million photos, negatives, and slides; 30,000 films, videos, and audio recordings; 39 million separate file cards; 47 kilometres of microfilm; and 15,500 garbage bags stuffed with shredded material. Volunteers are painstakingly reconstructing the contents of those bags back into their original individual pages… one shredded sliver of paper at a time. This specialist group is known as ‘the puzzlers’.

Finding a needle in a haystack suddenly seems like so much child’s play!