Category Archives: rambling

That 1959 St. John’s Blizzard

Battery after avalanche

Reports from the huge blizzard besetting St. John’s this weekend brings inevitably to mind the night of February 16, 1959, when a savage blizzard blockaded the entire city, precipitating a disastrous snow slide at the Battery that snuffed out five lives. The avalanche struck two houses, sweeping them downslope. Several people were injured, including one woman who was rescued after 12 hours buried under the snow.
The tragedy sounded a grim reminder of the perils of life at the edge of the Atlantic, but the experience had its lighter side as well for those of us coping with winter at its wildest. I told this story in my first book Yesterday’s News, describing adventures in my days as a St. John’s news reporter:

Bill and Margaret Werthman

The storm caught us – my fiancée Madeline Roche and me and another couple, Canadian Press correspondent Ian MacDonald and his wife Lillian – enjoying a little party in Glendale, Mount Pearl with friends Bill and Margaret Werthman. Telegram reporter Tony Thomas and his fiancée Sylvia Gooden were there too but had left for home before the storm struck. What started as a gentle snowfall blew up into a massive blizzard, so we had no choice but to stay put for the night.

Ian and Lillian MacDonald

A wood stove kept us from freezing entirely, but it was a cool and uncomfortable night, especially for some whose footwear had been soaked in early attempts to get cars on the road. No spare beds being available, chairs and coffee table tops had to serve as makeshift supports to prop up our aching bodies. Discomfort gave way to hilarity at one point when a whiff of something burning was traced to Ian‛s shoes, carefully tucked in the oven to speed up the drying process.
Next morning, snow drifts were still at rooftop levels, and the best we could do was to wade hip deep through the drifts to nearby Samson‛s Supermarket to fetch bread and something else to eat. It was late afternoon before the rumble of snow plows encouraged us to set out for home. Even at that, the narrow track along Topsail Road was in zigzag pattern – at one point the zag took us between the gas pumps and the building at Parsons‛ garage as the highway drifts were too high for the plough to topple. We were so relieved to get home at last.
Yet, despite a surfeit of aches and groans, and the stench of smouldering shoe leather, that night we spent by Werthman‛s woodstove is one none of us was likely to forget for many a day.

Harry and Meghan

Meghan in “Suits”

I’ve had a soft spot for Meghan Markle since I began watching “Suits,” the made-in-Canada TV show about a passel of angry high stakes lawyers. Her good looks helped a lot but the character she played was likeable – more so than some others in the cast – and she played it well.
When her romance with Harry came to light, my general disinterest in royalty mellowed as they were both likeable people, as most everybody came to feel. Seeing them come to Canada for Christmas had a nice feeling about it, but nothing to get avidly excited about. And by all means let them come to live here if that’s what they want.
Controversy about their druthers to back away from lifetime royalty roles has thankfully ebbed with the Queen’s philosophical acceptance of their wishes, so let us hope their future may be a little less in the media spotlight.

Governor General Vincent Massey

One outcome than ought never to be allowed is the alarmingly popular notion of appointing Harry as Canada’s Governor-General. Admirable as the young Prince may be, he lacks the essential qualification for the job – he is not a born Canadian. The country had its fill of Brit Governors – 17 of them – from 1867 until 1952 when Vincent Massey became our first Canadian Governor General. He filled the post admirably, promoting Canadian unity and identity and enthusiastically encouraging the arts. He was tireless in his travels, visiting every corner of the country – where plane or ship couldn’t reach, he went by canoe or dog team. His immediate successor, General Georges Vanier, was a distinguished armed services veteran and diplomat. And other prominent and accomplished Canadians have carried on the traditions they established.
So please keep this record of Canadian achievement alive and banish any thoughts of handing over this all important honour to an outsider, no matter how commendable.
Indeed, why not go that further step toward national self-respect by cutting ties entirely with the British crown, and re-designating the position by whatever title as official head of state. It surely is time – after 163 years of self-government, for Canada to be fully independent of Britain and the British monarchy. I have no problem of Britain keeping its monarch, as long as it is no longer ours.

The John Crosbie Roast of 1986

My most memorable experience of John Crosbie was the time he was on the receiving end of a very public roasting by some of the country’s leading politicians. I had a hand in making it happen. The date was October 26, 1986, and the event, held in Ottawa’s Westin Hotel, went down in history as The John Crosbie Roast for the Rick Hansen Man in Motion Tour.
He was Canada’s Minister of Transport then, and thus a fitting subject for a major fund raising project on behalf of wheel chair athlete Rick Hansen’s magnificent worldwide public awareness campaign.

Rick Hansen on 1986 tour

The Man in Motion tour had begun in 1985 and, by the time it ended in 1987, had raised $26 million and covered 36 countries. The final leg of the tour had begun three months earlier in Crosbie’s home town, St. John’s. John and his charming wife Jane had proposed the roasting approach to mark his 20th year in active politics. John and I knew each other from early days in St. John’s when I covered City Hall and House of Assembly sessions as a reporter.

A high powered committee organizing the roast was co-chaired by former broadcaster and MP Rob Parker and Dean Melway of the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association. As DOT’s Public Affairs Operations Director, I was given the job of coordinating publicity and developing a promotional brochure for release at the time of Rick Hansen’s launching his Canada tour in August.
I struck it lucky on this task by enlisting the services of a top flight professional, Judith Yaworsky, head of Communications Consultants in Ottawa. Donating the artwork, she produced the brochure in record time, with copy “a bit irreverent,” referring to Crosbie’s 20 years of service “and he’s still not speaking either official language.” Runge Press, also donating its services, handled the printing. Well and widely distributed, the brochure and overall publicity proved highly effective.
Timed to coincide with Rick Hansen’s arrival at his Ottawa stop on the cross country tour, the Crosbie roast drew more than 800 attendees at the $150 a plate dinner in the Westin Hotel. With Hansen as Guest of Honour, tribute was paid to his superb exploits to raise money for research into spinal cord disorders and for wheelchair sport, rehabilitation and public awareness.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Liberal Leader John Turner, NDP leader Ed Broadbent and former Newfoundland Premier Frank Moores headed a broad panel of eager “Roasters” targeting the widely known foibles and bon mots by which John Crosbie earned his standing as one of Canada’s best known politicians. Moores is credited as remarking that “Crosbie is the perfect antithesis to Hansen. Rick Hansen is a consummate athlete and Crosbie has trouble getting out of his limousine.” The evening program was taped for national television broadcast.
Rob Parker later commented: “Judging by the volume of raves in the past several days, it seems safe to say that the entire evening – dinner, roast and broadcast – was an outstanding runaway success, financially and in terms of awareness and publicity for Rick’s cause.” Rick Hansen thanked me in a personal note for my “great contribution to our efforts …It raised very important and useful funds (and) contributed enormously to public awareness of our cause from coast to coast.”
Of special value to me was John Crosbie’s “Thanks for all the help, Nix” in his letter of appreciation. He said, in part, “I am particularly pleased that your work, together with that of all the organizers, for the Man in Motion Crosbie Dinner, resulted in over one hundred thousand dollars being raised for the Man in Motion Trust Fund…Thank you for the part you played in making the evening such a resounding success.”

Taking Down the Tree

Call us old fashioned but maybe that’s what getting old is all about. Today is Old Christmas Day for us, and it’s only now that we can think of taking down our Christmas tree. Unlike many folks whose Christmas calendar seems to begin in early December and ends with Boxing Day sales. Yet to each his own.
We got our tree at a local tree farm – preferably the one we’ve gone to almost every year – Laird’s U-Cut Christmas Tree farm on Manotick Station Road in Osgoode. Until recent years, I cut the chosen tree myself but lately we get the cutting – rather the sawing – done by the always obliging owner ‘s family or employee. This time, our guy went above and beyond, driving us in his truck to a backup grove and loading the tree on our car. Balsam fir trees suit us best for their pleasant scent, sturdy structure and longevity when suitably watered at base. We do the decorating a day or two before Christmas Eve.
Ornaments of rich sentimental value date back as far as our first Christmas in Newfoundland in 1959 and range widely in content from a presiding angel and other handiwork crocheted by Madeline’s sisters to such dinky little artifacts as a rustic tea kettle, a pair of miniature Torbay socks, a Frosty the Snowman and a bird family tucked into leafy havens among the branches. Little pieces of tinsel sometimes pop up  to brighten the display,
We may take down our tree today but not before hoisting a toast to the Christmas season we’ve all enjoyed and in celebration of Twelfth Night, an event not only remembered by Shakespeare.


I like to recall a tradition once practised in old St. John’s and probably more so in its rural environs, like down Torbay way. They used to call it The Pilgrimage, a term reflecting its almost sacred status among stout hearted citizens mindful of the importance of preserving honoured customs of their ancestors.
Devotees of the pilgrimage tradition began on Christmas Eve by gathering at one of their neighbour’s homes in which they filled their glasses from household stocks and drank in solemn celebration of the happy and holy season. With many celebrants on hand, it did not take too long for spirits supplies to run out. Upon which, the party goers moved on another house, offered the same good hearted toasts, and made quick work of refreshments provided. Then on to the next welcoming abode. And so on and so on until all 12 days of the festive season ended at Epiphany time. Thus the pilgrimage came to a close for another year.
Christmas traditions, real or imagined, cling to our heart strings despite the excesses of modern merchandising, so let us cherish what is best of all that remains today, and keep its spirit alive and well.

European Scenes

Rounding out a photo story series on a wonderful 1987 trip highlighting a bus tour of Italy are some scenes encountered before and after that event.
Actually the last stage of the tour was an overnight stay at the delightful town of Arco on scenic Lake Garda, located in the northern Italian lake district. We only arrived at dusk so had little time to explore but enjoyed the views.
Our bus route to and from Italy took us through Switzerland, allowing us to marvel at its spectacular scenery but giving us few chances to take pictures.
Following the return to Lahr, we drove to Hoxter in Westphalia to visit our great friend Margaret Werthman, then mourning the death of her husband Bill. The town boasts its share of centuries old buildings, one of which displays the year it was built – 1540.
The German town of Baden featured a most unusual chess game, played in a town square using life size pieces.

A high point of our brief driving tour was discovering the site of the First World War Battle of Verdun along the Meuse River. The 10-month battle was the longest and bloodiest of the war, with 300 thousand French and German soldiers killed.
The most striking memorial of that war must be the Verdun Memorial Museum, which commemorates the deadly losses on both sides of the conflict.

In one part of the museum, a battlefield replica — complete with mud, shells, trenches, and WWI military equipment — is visible through the glass floor.

“On ne passe pas” (They shall not pass) is a slogan most famously used during the Battle of Verdun expressing the grim determination of the French in withstanding that powerful German offensive.

Winding up a most remarkable trip extending from southern Italy to northeastern France was a brief stopover in Luxembourg.

A small duchy surrounded by Belgium, France and Germany, it is mostly rural, with dense Ardennes forest and nature parks in the north, rocky gorges in the east and the Moselle river valley in the southeast.

The Lost City of Pompeii

Fascinating but very sad. Such was our inevitable reaction on our 1987 visit to what history may well call the lost city of Pompeii. Once a prosperous and culturally advanced city close to Naples in southern Italy, a devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried it and its citizens in 79 AD. Some 16,000 people are believed to have perished under layers of lava and pumice. Pompeii is famous for the casts the hot ash formed around victims of the eruptions. Victims suffocated on ash in the air, which then covered them and preserved amazing details of their clothing and faces.

Archeological excavations found the buried city remarkably intact, with bodies of victims almost magically preserved, along with public and residential buildings and their contents, including vivid examples of Roman art.
Led by an excellent tour guide, we traversed streets notable for their traces of ancient chariots to view classical temples, ornate private homes and evidence that Pompeiians’ homes were equipped with running water.
There were even posted street signs to ensure visitors’ convenience.  A menacing sight throughout our amblings was the looming spectre of Mount Vesuvius, described as the only active volcano in mainland Europe. Its last eruption was in 1944 but is still considered a great danger to Naples and other cities in that region.

Roaming Through Rome

Rome, renowned as the Eternal City and capital of Italy, was fascinating in its bustling energy as a modern metropolis surrounding timeless vestiges of its tumultuous political, cultural and religious heritage. Our 1987 bus tour group revelled in the joys of seeing world famous landmarks – the Coliseum, Roman Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican – and various other attractions.
The Coliseum ruins were almost disappointing – no gladiators or roaring lions to be seen – but just being there brought ancient history graphically to mind. It was thrilling to wander by the ancient Forum, located at the center of the ancient city of Rome and the location of important religious, political and social activities. Historians believe people first began publicly meeting in the open-air Forum around 500 B.C., when the Roman Republic was founded.
Ruins of many public buildings still stand in the Forum, while scores of cats may be seen throughout the area.

The beautiful Trevi Fountain was not to be missed, nor the practice of tossing coins into its waters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A tour of the Vatican allowed us to marvel at the splendour of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.

 

Modern architecture was also to be admired in viewing the enormous white marble Victor Emmanuel II monument, honouring the first King of a united Italy.
Sports fans were in for a treat when we visited what is known as the Stadium of the Marbles, lined by 59 Carrara marble statues in classical style portraying athletes performing various sports activities. The hockey statues were our favourites.

Walking the streets of Rome left ladies in our group more than a little annoyed by the arrogant tendencies of local menfolk to strut determinedly along the sidewalk, forcing women to step aside as lesser beings.

 

Three of us ventured to a place we might well have missed – it was a bit scary! The Catacombs proved every bit as spooky as imagined, especially when we learned that its labyrinthine underground passageways – all burrowed through dust-like loose earth – went on for miles. Make a wrong turn and you could be wandering for hours, or even forever!

Traffic on Rome streets was so busy that parking spaces were hard to find – but some took inventive ways to fit in.

Climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Pisa was another delightful destination on our 1987 introduction to Italy bus tour. Our visit was short, only a few hours, but we had a beautiful sunny day and were able to climb up into the famous Leaning Tower to catch the view, and just to say that we had been there.
Everyone posed for the usual pictures, some trying to suggest that the tower was leaning on them, but at a very safe distance.
We all climbed the tower and felt very brave, looking out through those huge pillars and, for some, hugging a tower as if for dear life.
Not long after, because of fears about the tower’s stability, a ban was placed on letting people into the tower, so we were lucky.
The tower was closed to the public three years later in 1990 when engineers began a major project to stabilize the structure. It took ten years and millions of Euros, but the project was completed successfully, allowing the tower to reopen in 2001.
Construction of the tower began in the year 1174 but was halted when only three storeys had been built because it was sinking into the ground. The building was completed 90 years later. A spiral staircase of 294 steps rises to the top at the eighth storey.

The Magnificent City of Florence

Florence, capital of Italy’s Tuscany region, is renowned as the cradle of the Renaissance. Our 1987 bus tour of Italy was immediately and totally enchanted by its natural beauty and the splendour of its magnificent heritage of artistic, architectural and cultural masterpieces.
An immediate attraction was the majestic Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fioro, one of the largest Cathedrals in the Christian world. Built in the 14th and 15th centuries, it is noted for its magnificent terracotta-tiled dome built by Brunelleschi. The facade of the Cathedral is relatively new, having been constructed in the late 19th century. Doors of the adjoining Baptistry are world famous, decorated with scenes ranging from Adam and Eve to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Flanking the Cathedral and Baptistry is the 14th century Giotto Bell tower.
The political centre of Florence, the Piazza della Signoria, seemed like an open air museum with its many statues. Those of Hercules and Perseus holding the head of Medusa were most impressive.

The Galleria dell’Accademia display of Michelangelo’s superb “David” sculpture was a popular attraction.

 

We spent two full days in Florence, being entirely on our own after a Saturday morning guided tour. For us the best part of being there was the pleasure of walking everywhere with no vehicles allowed in the city centre during the daytime.

The entire inner city is honoured as a World Heritage site.
The galleries like the fabulous Uffizi and the Pitti Palace, former home of the Medici family, were wonderful to see but mind boggling at the sheer number and variety of great paintings and sculptures. Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and da Vinci’s “Annunciation” were among numerous masterpieces on display.

Outside the galleries, we were dazzled by the beauty of the Ponte Vecchio, the arched medieval bridge adorned with goldsmith, jewellery and souvenir shops. Happily, it emerged undamaged from world war devastation, the only bridge over the river Arno to do so.

Bus Tour to Italy

A kind invitation to join in a military-sponsored bus tour to Italy in 1987 proved a delightful adventure shared with closest family members. Brothers Mike and Ed Davis were serving with Canadian Forces in Lahr, Germany so they gladly booked passage for wives Peggy (Madeline’s sister) and Miriam, and asked us to go along.

It was a top notch itinerary – busing through Germany and Switzerland to a first stop in Florence, moving on to Pisa, then Rome, and further south to Pompeii. Breaking up the homeward run was a few days resting at Lake Garda in the northern Italy lake district.
We flew to Frankfurt, Germany and went from there by train to Lahr.

Borrowing a car for a few days we got to see parts of Germany and the Alsace-Lorraine area of France. A highlight was driving up a steep and scary hill to enjoy spectacular views from a nunnery perched on Mont Ste-Odile, and see Stations of the Cross etched into the rock face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An offbeat point of interest along the homeward journey was a memorial marking the infamous Maginot Line, a massive defence system erected by the French after the First World War but totally overridden by German tanks in the early days of World War Two.

Our two week bus tour took us through Switzerland, traversing the extremely long St Gotthard tunnel, and landing us in the beautiful and exciting city of Florence.