Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Katimavik Part II: They Yelled at Us!

Late in 1979, my Katimavik group left its friendly little Quebec village near the New Brunswick border. We had spent the previous three months getting to know the people there, working on community service projects, singing by guitar all evening, eating bean stew and whole wheat bread, and taking care of the environment. 

We boarded an airplane (if the guitar had been out, we might have been singing some John Denver) and headed for the west coast. In Victoria, we were met by a military bus. Katimavikers know what to do with a bus; on a bus, Katimavikers sing! And that’s what we were doing as we entered the gates of the Esquimalt military base for our three-month military option rotation. Our group leaders (military officers) were there to meet us. We were slow getting off the bus, and they yelled at us!

This was a big shock to us sensitive granola-crunching tree huggers. But we got used to it. Katimavik is, after all, supposed to introduce young Canadians to different ways of Canadian living.

The Katimavik military option was a three-month stint in the reserves. All through that Vancouver Island winter (which was delightful) we did a version of basic training: parade ground and fitness;
fun things like winter camping;

and scary things like rappelling.

Our lifeboat training was an all-day event on a decommissioned destroyer sitting in the harbour. 

My friends and I had fun exploring the empty ship during our breaks.

The best activity was our sea-training trip to Vancouver on two little boats.

We did man-overboard drills while crossing the Strait of Georgia,

and then sailed into Vancouver and docked at HMCS Discovery in Stanley Park. All the girls on my boat were stashed in the big back cabin.

It was like a girls’ sleepover, except that we had to take our turns on duty, and we weren’t allowed to sleep in. I know this, because I had the 5AM watch, and it was my job to wake everyone up at 6 (easily done: one cabin, lots of lights, one light switch). The early morning shift was lovely. I sat on the narrow deck outside the cabin and looked at Vancouver, such as it was then, in the early morning light. 

By the time our military training ended, spring had arrived in Esquimalt. In March, my Katimavik group boarded an airplane and headed for the Lake Simcoe/Georgian Bay region of Ontario. It was a return to winter. But it was also a return to guitar sessions, community service, tree hugging, and crunchy granola; in other words, back to the essence of Katimavik.



Friday, October 31, 2014

Tales From the First Century: the Veterans

When World War II ended, many ex-servicemen ended up in teacher’s college. Some of these were still teaching in the 70s when I went to high school. At my school, we all knew that a couple of our teachers were war veterans. One of them played the trumpet at our gym-based Remembrance Day ceremonies. The only one I heard talk about the war was our eccentric English teacher Mr. West. He claimed to have survived the war by acting strange. He was a messenger in a camp prone to snipers, and he figured that if he dressed funny and put weird things on his jeep, the snipers would decide he was unimportant. I think he used the same tactic on his teenage students.

My mom, Anne Hill, was a young teacher trainee in the late 40s. This is the story she wrote about one of her fellow trainees.

Bruce was a student teacher at the University of British Columbia (UBC) when I was. The strange fellow student and sufferer of the year of Teacher Training was a veteran. Teacher Training class began in the fall of ’49, four years after the war ended. Our class, beginning university in ’45, was lucky in having so many returning veterans in it, whose education was being paid for by a grateful government. Many of them were married and had children. The contrast between them and the 17-year-old freshmen was marked. Certainly no one tried to make them take part in the usual frosh pranks labelled “initiation.” Their contributions in class discussions left the rest of us in the dust. They were there to learn and get on with their lives, unlike many of us who felt life was still a long way off.

At UBC in Teacher Training, the Practice Teaching sessions were fraught with anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. Bruce, though, was unfailingly cheerful, which was enough in that year to make him strange. The rest of us tended to earnestness and sobriety. We would all be sitting at lunch in the cafeteria worrying, exchanging horrible stories of sessions in classrooms with teens. Into this cloud of gloom would come Bruce, almost leaping into our presence, declaring, with finger raised, “Never mind: Conflict is Life, Indifference Death!” My spirits lifted then and were eased by laughter.

My first Practice Teaching session was in Victoria in a huge Junior High School of about 1200 students in grades 7, 8, and 9. It was the first time that school had ever had student teachers. My group of three student teachers included Bruce and another veteran. We were required to sit in the back of the classroom and write critiques of whichever of us was in front of the class. Bruce’s notes about me included “You are looking very fetching this morning Miss Christie,” and “Do be kind to our Miss Taylor (a delicate child who looked like Elizabeth Taylor).” As for Bruce, he always left the kids smiling, if not laughing. He was a natural ham, which was not always appreciated by those who evaluated him. But his obvious regard for that age group makes me think he must have carried on as a teacher.

At the end of the practice sessions, we went off in all directions to remote corners of B.C. and were never in touch again.

My Grade 11 granddaughter asked what I was scribbling, as I wrote this while we waited at the SAAQ for her driver’s test. So I told her about Bruce. “Oh,” she said with some spirit, “that’s the kind of person who should be a teacher.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Quest For Communication Part II: We Heard Already!

A Greek messenger runs through a Greek countryside with an important message. After a grueling twenty-six miles he finds the Athenian leaders and delivers his report: victory at Marathon! The Chief Athenian glances at his fax machine and says to the runner, “We heard already!”

This was a commercial on TV when I was a youth. It was my first clue that communications were speeding up. Now if we run long distances, it’s only for fun.

Twenty-six years ago, I hand wrote a letter to Morningside, put it in an envelope, addressed it, stamped it, and dropped it in a mail box. About a month later I began hearing from friends and family that Peter Gzowski had read my letter on the air. Gzowski always prefaced his listener letters with a brief review of what the show had been about. It had, after all, been several weeks since the topic had aired. That’s how long it would take letters to arrive at the Morningside offices and be processed.

These days on Q, we know immediately what Canadians think—that is, we know what speedy Canadians think. If I ever wanted to be Jian Ghomeshi’s “letter of the day,” I’d have to zip that missive off by email immediately. And Jian doesn’t bother reviewing the topic.

I was already vaguely aware of the concept of email when I heard Gzowski use the word on Morningside one day in the late 80s. He introduced a listener letter by saying that it had arrived by email (he emphasized the strange new word) from somewhere in Canada. He said the letter had been sent seven minutes ago.
      “That’s amazing!” I thought.
      “That’s amazing!” said Gzowski.
Things are even faster now. Radio announcers read tweets from listeners as they arrive.

Email slowly entered our house, but it took me awhile to adjust to its ramifications. Sometime in the late 90s, a friend and her daughter moved to Florida. The daughter was friends with my daughter. One day I mused aloud as to how they were doing. I didn’t expect an answer. It was a rhetorical muse . . . a whimsical reflection on life changes and distance. After all, there couldn’t be an answer. There had been no letter from them in our mailbox, and no phone call.
      “They found a nice house and a job,” answered my daughter.
She’d heard already!

I don’t have that Morningside letter anymore. There is no digital search feature on the planet that can call up a piece of paper from the past. But it was all about efficient new communications. I was a part-time receptionist at the time, and one of Gzowski’s guests had complained about newfangled office phones. I thought these phones were wonderful. They had lights and buttons and magical ways to send signals to the denizens of the Aviation Safety Board in their warren of corridors. I said as much in my letter. But now I can see that none of us—not me, not Gzowski, not his guest—had seen anything yet.

Back in the Greek countryside, the Chief Athenian glances at his BlackBerry and says to the fax machine, “We heard already!”


Friday, August 22, 2014

Tales from the Trail Part II: Bruce Revisited

In four short years, my sister Mary and I went from being the smallest children in the family hiking trip

to being the only children in the family hiking trip.

By 1978, my two older siblings had other things to do with their summers. These four years transformed us from foot-dragging children into teenagers that charged on ahead of their parents. This was probably the same year as that other famous reversal in our family…in which it was my eager parents dragging their sleepy teenagers out of bed on Christmas morning. 
We decided not to pick the trail up where we left off four years ago. We had found out how long it takes to get anywhere on foot, and it would have been impossible to leave the heavily populated regions of the trail. Instead, we started our hiking trip at the other end of the Bruce Trail. Driving up the Bruce Peninsula in a rented car, we parked in a municipal lot in Tobermory and set off.  

At this end of the trail, we enjoyed the same splendid escarpment as at the other end.


But the views off the cliff were of turquoise-coloured Georgian Bay rather than of farms and villages.

This trail was more challenging than in the tamed, populated Niagara region. Instead of farmers’ fields and accommodating stiles, we tackled rocky beaches and cliffs.


Sadly, just like at the other end, landowners sometimes kicked the trail off on to the roads.
We hiked for a week, arriving at a campground near Hope Bay. In order to collect our car, Mom and I walked out to the main road to catch the once-a-day bus to Tobermory. We were instructed to flag it down when we saw it. About a minute after a yellow unmarked school bus zipped by us, cheerfully honking its horn, we realized that this had been the bus. So we put our thumbs out and got rides up the peninsula from three different friendly locals.  
Every single local we talked to had complaints about the Niagara Escarpment Commission. It seems that even way up there in the wilds of Ontario the tension between wilderness and settlement requires negotiation. 


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Elsewhere Part III: Tales from the Trail

My family’s 1974 summer vacation happened because of a geography book that was lying around the house. Our book about Ontario included several pages on the Bruce Trail, and we decided to give it a try.  We had done lots of camping already but had never attempted a long hike. My siblings and I pored over the book, estimating speed and distance, coming to the optimistic conclusion that we could get close to the end of the trail at Tobermory. We even equipped ourselves with a snake-bite kit, in case we made it to the Bruce Peninsula and encountered one of those fearsome Massasauga Rattlers. This just goes to show how little non-hikers really know about distance. It’s just as well that we weren’t really determined to finish the trail. In our three-week vacation, we barely made it off the Niagara Peninsula.
My family and I set off on this adventure in our usual fashion, which was by walking to the Longueuil Metro station. Fully equipped with knapsacks and hiking boots, we rode into Montreal with the morning commuters who (much to my self-conscious, 13-year-old horror) stared at us curiously. Boarding our train in Montreal, and using all means available to the traveller, we arrived in Niagara Falls. Everyone else was there to see the wonder of the Falls. We were there to find Brock's Monument, which is where the trail begins.
Our first day of hiking was very pleasant on the wide, flat trail. It was a good beginning, crossing the flat lands on the way to the Niagara Escarpment.

The next three weeks brought the variety of circumstance one would expect on a long hike.  We had a trail guidebook, and so our way along the escarpment was reasonably clear. But occasionally the trail departed from the dictates of the guidebook map. Where we should have been walking along the edge of the cliff, we would find ourselves on dirt back roads. It turned out that in the time since the guidebook had been published, individuals and developers had been buying up land along the escarpment, forcing the trail away from the edge. We were seeing the expansion of the Greater Toronto Area. In my modern-day version of exploring (googling), I was glad to see that the Bruce Trail conservancy group is even now working on that problem by buying escarpment land.
The back road routes were lovely but dusty and hot. Sometimes it wasn’t clear which way we were supposed to go and where we should pick up the trail again. Being off by a mile is a big deal when you’re on foot. It was a hot, dry summer in southern Ontario. The places to fill up our canteens were clearly marked in the guidebook, but sometimes they were far apart, and sometimes the smaller creeks in the forests had gone dry. We supplemented our hiker’s food by stocking up at general stores (also clearly marked in the guidebook), but meals couldn’t come soon enough for us. Dad’s military training kicked in when he was faced with four kids who all got tired at different times. He took on the task of dictating our (frequent) breaks, and he had a cheerful but no-nonsense way of encouraging us to keep going when we were tired. We were often hungry, but there were snacks at every break. Our daily “elevensies” chocolate bars were a previously unheard-of luxury. 
While packing for our trip, we had all grabbed books to read on the journey. Between the six of us, we ended up with the entire collection of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, which we shared around to take our minds off our tiredness as we sat in the shade and munched our chocolate bars.

Like Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, we found out just how long it takes to get anywhere on foot, especially when trails that should have been there are blocked or lost. Like Frodo and Sam, we knew what it was like to be hot and hungry and exhausted with the end barely in sight. Just like the nine companions of the ring, we felt that discouragement that comes of an uncertain and unclear trail. And remembering that first day of easy hiking, I could especially relate to Bilbo who, at some point on his journey, laments the fact that adventures are not all pony rides in May.
But, like all of those fictional characters, we knew the joy of rest and good food at the end of a day’s hike.


We got into a workable routine of daily walking, and when we did get views off the escarpment they were splendid.

The wooded walks were cool and dark.

The paths that wound through farmers’ fields and over stiles were bucolic.

We enjoyed to the fullest any cold forest stream we encountered, for drinking and for frolicking.

We were grateful for the luxuries that came our way…like our daily chocolate bars or a campground with a pool. Once, when we materialized out of the woods into a public campground, a friendly couple in a trailer invited us in for juice and beer. They then insisted we stay for spaghetti and moose meat sauce. This is on our family’s list of memorable meals. 
Somewhere in my long lost trip diary is the information about where on the Bruce Trail we ended our hike. It was somewhere in that heavily populated region of Ontario west of Toronto. When it was time to go home, we made our way to the GO Train and headed into Toronto. Our knapsacks took up an entire section of seat, and the morning commuters stared at us curiously. But by then I was used to being part of a group of rough-looking, hiking-boot-shod, knapsack-clad anomalies. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tales of Technology Part IV: Quest for Communication

In a highly fictional past, at an uncertain location on earth (as depicted in the movie Quest for Fire):
Naoh has been sent to find fire.  He succeeds, but upon his return the flame extinguishes before he can hand it over to his tribe. 
They are crushed.
Then Naoh announces (translation) “I can make fire!”
The tribe stares at him like he’s crazy.

May 2014, at the NK’MIP campground in Osoyoos BC:
My sister Mary and I, and our twenty-something niece Tamara, are hanging out at the trailer. Mary has pictures on her phone that we want to send, but there’s no Wi-Fi. 
We are crushed.
Then Tamara gets out her phone and announces “I can make Wi-Fi!”
Mary and I stare at her like she’s crazy.

Between one epoch and the other, some technology happened.  The consequence is that we went from wanting a constant supply of warmth to wanting a constant supply of communication.

A lack of warmth and communication came together one cold summer day somewhere on a northern Nova Scotia road in 1973.  The technology that my group needed was a Star Trek-style communicator so that we could contact our place of safety  and demand that it yank us from our trouble.  In this day and age we call that a cell phone.  Back then, we had to settle for a telephone at a Bible camp. 

My group consisted of me and my two older siblings, and a neighbour boy from our relatives’ Tidnish cottage.  We were on bicycles.  Our trouble was the cold, wet day, and the fact that we couldn’t find our parents and younger sister.  We had all set out on bicycles together from Tidnish for an overnight expedition to Pugwash.  But the four of us were faster than the others,  and we arrived at the fork in the road sooner.  Young, sure of ourselves,  and impatient, we struck off on what we knew to be the correct road.  My parents and sister clearly took the incorrect road.  Nevertheless, they found the Pugwash campground and we didn’t.

When my tired group saw the Bible camp, we hoped it was our destination.  It wasn’t.  But the kind people there let us use the office phone to call the Tidnish cottage, which my parents had already phoned from the Pugwash campground…and the cottage phoned my parents  who called the Bible camp who told us to wait there.  That’s how it was done in those days. My Dad bicycled over to get us, and showed us the way. 

Since ages past, the technology was there for my parents to make a fire and warm their soggy group of deflated teenagers.  But what they really needed was the ability to make Wi-Fi ─ and gleefully send a picture of us to the relatives at the cottage so that they could laugh at us.  Sometimes advanced technology comes with its own consequences. 




Sunday, May 25, 2014

Strike! Part II: The Demise of a “Rattling Good Paper”

In 1912, my great uncle Loring Christie wrote a letter to his parents, describing a political convention he had attended in Chicago.  Before launching into his description, he said:

You would get some ideas of it from the paper I sent. And looking over the copies of the Montreal Star that accumulated during my absence I find they had a very good story of it - and further they had very well informed, intelligent & shrewd editorial comment on the situation as it developed. (A rattling good paper that, by the way - it excites the admiration of many of my friends here.)

Sixty-six years later, the Montreal Star was still going strong and I was one of its teenage readers.  It arrived at our door in the late afternoon.  I liked to lay it out on the living room floor and flip through it when I got home from school.  The other Montreal paper, the Montreal Gazette, appeared at our door in the morning.  It actually belonged to Champlain CEGEP’s library, but was sent to our house so that Mom could bring it with her to work.  If I got up early enough, I could flip through that one before she left.

Then, in 1978, the Montreal Star pressmen went on strike.  I missed my afternoon paper, but (probably like most of Montreal) I shrugged and read the Gazette instead.  The strike was settled eight months later, and my afternoon paper returned.  But the Star had a problem; they had to get their readers back.  So, in direct competition to the Gazette, they started a morning edition.  Now I had two papers to flip through in the morning.  The Gazette retaliated with an afternoon edition.  Now I had two papers to flip through in the afternoon too.

It was an all-out turf war, a time of glorious superfluity.  For the few months that it lasted, Montreal readers were wooed by the word.  I barely knew what to do with all this print at my fingertips, this inundation of information.  I was like a present-day teenager that spends too much time on the internet.  My homework called me, but I had four newspapers to read.  

As with any age of excess, it couldn’t last.  The frenzied suitors that courted their Montrealers had limited resources, and the strike-damaged Montreal Star had been weak from the start.  Something had to give, and the Star folded in 1979.  The Gazette has been going strong ever since.