A Queen in time

The Queen’s special broadcast today brought back a vivid memory of my youth, a 67-year-old memory, the year of my 13th birthday. 

Today, we set aside a few minutes to see and hear the Queen’s Covid-19 address streamed on our iPad. 

This was a far, far different scene to the day I sat with my family, huddled round the household’s one radio, to hear her Christmas broadcast from Auckland, New Zealand. 

That broadcast had a sombre conclusion as not 24 hours earlier the country experienced its worst-ever rail disaster at Tangiwai, in the lower part of the North Island.

Just before midnight on Christmas Eve, a locomotive and carriages dived headlong into the river when a lahar flood knocked out the bridge piers. And 151 people perished. 

It was a tragic introduction to the country’s first visit by a reigning monarch. 

We received the appalling news on Christmas Day via the radio, that news link to the whole country as newspapers did not publish on Christmas Day. (Television did not arrive in the main centres until 1960.)  

The Queen and Prince Philip arrived in New Zealand by the chartered Royal Yacht SS Gothic. They stayed in the country until January 31, travelling the length and breadth by car, train, and plane before reuniting with their ship at the southernmost part of the country. All told, more than three-quarters of the population must have turned out to see them. 

Prince Philip amended his itinerary to take part in a state funeral for many of the rail disaster victims.

1953 was a landmark year in other ways for me as an adventurous 12-year-old living in the shadow of wonderful Mt Taranaki. I’d followed the conquest of Mt Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa Tensing. And yes, I still have my scrapbook documenting the world shattering news of that achievement on May 29 just a few days before Queen Elizabeth 11’s coronation on June 2, the actual day the epic news hit London.

A virus and Vegemite

Breakfast at our house toasted homemade bread and Vegemite.

I heard the comment this morning among the very depleted supermarket shelves that “we’ve never seen it like this.” It brought a smile and a swift recollection of the post WW11 polio epidemic in New Zealand.

While that was not the worst polio epidemic in that country it affected us little guys in that schools were closed and we did our schoolwork around the dining room table as we ate our morning toast and Vegemite and listened to a correspondence school over the radio. That’s about as much detail as I can recall. Polio was very close to us in that our next-door neighbour’s son-in-law died as a result.

Those times are part of the enthusiasm I had in writing my latest novel Beginnings at the End of the Road.

And the way my mind works this memory of a bygone era came to a head this morning when I read about quarantined US actor Tom Hanks who, it appears, enjoys that popular Down Under spread Vegemite. The story was all about his fervent use of the salty, tasty delight on toast being laid on too thick for the average Aussie.

As a believer in the Vegemite spread since before those polio days, I am amused and thankful that I always have a jar of the stuff on my breakfast table each morning, seven days a week.

It is a staple of my home. Trouble is, it is not available in Canadian grocery stores. It was banned a year or so ago for some strange reason which I have not been able to get to the bottom of. The federal regulators apparently figure there is something weird in it.

Simply speaking it’s extracted from yeast grown on barley and wheat. It has been around Australia and New Zealand since 1923 or so. We either have visitors bring us a jar or we can obtain from an online store. It is allowed in the country, just not at the supermarket. Go figure.

An advertising jingle came out in the 50s for the “Happy little Vegemiters…it puts a rose in every cheek.”

So go for it Tom, I know you will survive the Vegemite storm as you and Rita recover from the Covid-19 virus there on the Gold Coast. Eat as much as you like, spread as thick as you like.

Poles apart

Zyon in his playground, The warm black sands of Fitzroy Beach, New Plymouth, New Zealand

I sit  in my little Calgary, Alberta,

George and Eleanor in their playground at Patricia, Alberta. (Not today)

room with vivid memories of six months in Antarctica some 50 years ago.

 Not a lot of difference today when I woke to -38 degrees and expected daytime highs close to the -30 mark.

 Move north to New Zealand from the polar memory and I find my great grandson Zyon (4) on a sandy surf beach in the mid to high teens. (It’s tomorrow there). 

Travel a couple of hours east from where I am now and we find our great grandkids George (3) and Eleanor (1) bundled in their world on a recent day.

Poles apart maybe, yet totally connected in a flash through the magic of internet: we can see, hear, or read about each other in second. Gotta love it.  

Bookshelves that surprise

The best surprises come at the oddest of times and in unexpected places, like the washroom I spoke of in my previous blog. I gravitate towards the used book racks in out of the way places on the off chance I’ll find a gem. That happened in Kaeo, New Zealand. It’s a fascinating little town, so full of history and for the traveller a good place to snag a ubiquitous kiwi meat pie.  

My soon-to-be-published novel Beginnings at the End of the Road is the story of Brandon Silverberry, a baker turned gardener who listens to God and develops his estate lands to help others.  The heart of the story grows from Brandon’s teenage days as a polio sufferer.

Imagine the size of my smile when I spotted Over My Dead Body by June Opie at the back of a very colourful local knickknack store. It was an instant buy ($3.00 I recall) of this 1957 long out of print book with its mellowed pages by a young woman widely known because of her illness.

Ms. Opie spent her early life just an hour’s drive north of where I grew up. Her story chronicles her arrival in London from a sea voyage from New Zealand in the late 1950s only to end up in a London hospital paralyzed except for one eyelid. It’s a sobering, yet inspiring read.

We spent a lot of time up at the beach at Mokau earlier this year. It is a wonderful getaway place, miles of sandy beaches and rolling surf. The village features a small museum that houses a feature on Ms. Opie and her family. The family graves are prominent in the cemetery high on the cliff overlooking the sea.

The editing phase of Brandon was well underway by the time I got to read Over My Dead Body so it thrilled me to learn that my new book conveys the flavour of a polio sufferer’s fight. In January, while I waiting in the hospital for a blood test, I came across another booklet about the polio sufferers of my home province of Taranaki, We Can Do Anything, the work of Shirley Hazelwood, herself a polio sufferer. All good background.

Westbow Press will publish Beginnings at the End of The Road. I’m expecting the final editorial work back any week now. My author review will take a couple of weeks and then it goes into the design and production cycle. My hope and prayer are that we’ll see a brand new book for Christmas buying.

Memorable distraction

Distraction comes easy to me.

For the past 24 hours my head has been in a space I left some 66 years ago — my primary (elementary) school in New Plymouth, New Zealand.

By chance, I started clearing out some old papers while searching for a short story I’d written some years ago and which I figured might be worth updating, or at least seeing how my brain worked back then.

In this futile effort of finding the paper file, I uncovered a newspaper clipping of my classmates and boy, did I get a sudden brain rush of memory. I counted 42 kids in that class of 1953, our final year together before heading off to high school. I’d just turned 13 when the photo was taken and I realize now that I’d shared the previous eight years with most of the faces I saw. I could name each person without checking the caption.

At the end of that school year, we began the journey into our respective lives. The girls headed to their high school and the boys too theirs. We entered into different career streams and slowly the bonds of our preteen years faded. 

One face stands out in the back row. He did not make it to high school. He and I had planned to meet on the corner and cycle to the big intimidating school together. We had it planned, but sadly a couple of days before he was electrocuted by an electric drill, making a milkshake I recall.

By chance, I did meet up with a couple of these guys earlier this year during my extended holiday in the old home town. The thrill of contact fades as fast as conversation drops over the cliff of “what have you been up to?” Sixty-odd years cannot be covered in that opener. After all, my career took me away from New Plymouth in 1969. I returned there for four years in the 1980s and since then there have only been irregular family-style vacations.

My memory names our teachers, the good folk who piloted us through the basics of learning: reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, as they say. The time they spent with us in the classroom and on the sports field. The fund-raising days too, like the penny (it was about the six of a loony) drive we had to line up the coins each day around the perimeter of the netball court; of delivering crates of half-pint milk to each child in each classroom.

I’m left to wonder now where each of us is and where the adventures of life have taken each one of us.

And Into His Arms

Kaye Donovan in her role as Eliza Doolittle in the Grande Prairie Little Theatre production of My Fair Lady in 1975.

Kaye Donovan in her role as Eliza Doolittle in the Grande Prairie Little Theatre production of My Fair Lady in 1975.

Forty-five years ago I arrived in Grande Prairie, Alberta, with my wife Lois and three young daughters, newly minted immigrants in an amazing new land of different customs and patterns of speech. We’d left our job in the Fiji Islands with money in the bank, enough to get us started. Our nest egg dwindled as Canada devalued its dollar in mid flight, the newspaper I was to work at as a journalist in Prince George BC folded the day after we arrived. Lois fell very ill and our resources were spent on a motel bill until we were rescued and given a place to live till I found work.

That job was with the Daily Herald Tribune in Grande Prairie. We arrived and within a day or so met an amazing family. They loaned us money, they shared their food, they bought us groceries, they embraced us. We weathered many storms together, we enjoyed many highs. We became like one big family, always welcome at their house to feast on toast and cheese. Simple and loving. They were Aunty Kaye and Uncle Grahame to our daughters. We were Aunty Lois and Unkie Graeme to theirs. It’s always been that way.

We went camping together, fishing, built bonfires, cross country skied, enjoyed the thrills of amateur theatre and epic stage productions. Money was always short in both our families but we found wonder living in a small Peace Country city.

Today though Aunty Kaye passed into the arms of Jesus, the place she always wanted to be and to meet up again with her son Harry, tragically killed many years ago in a highway accident.

Kaye has given us her infectious laughter, amazing optimism and love of Jesus Christ and her family. So we grieve and yet rejoice.

 

 

Finding Dermot

It’s that time of year every two years when the tiny town of Whangamomona, New Zealand, hosts its annual bust out — Republic Day for lots of genuine Kiwi fun. Whangamomona is central to my novel Finding Dermot. And the key part of the historic town is the Whangamomona Hotel (whangamomonahotel.co.nz) now 103 years old. Wonderful place in a magic part of this world. I love it there, midway along the Forgotten World Highway. Beautiful rugged country and spectacular native bush. Put it on your to do list and while you’re at it buy a copy of Finding Dermot, worldwide at any online book store or at the BookStop Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand, or Owl’s Nest Books in Calgary, AB, Canada.

Have fun! It’s midsummer somewhere!

Whanga

 

 

Blown Away

What a tremendous evening!

Calgary’s Owl’s Nest Books was standing room only last night for the third bi-annual Taste of Local Authors evening, Organized by author Randy McCharles and Owl’s co-owners Michael and Susan Hare.

Nine authors presented and read from their recently published books. For two hours people listened (three sets of three five minute reads), and mingled to the music of Calgary singer songwriter Vanessa Cardui.

For me, it was an evening to treasure, being among new-found like-minded friends. Guests came to me and chatted about my Antarctic experience and the two books I’ve written since — a memoir (Tide Cracks and Sastrugi) and a novel (Finding Dermot).

My fellow authors were Jodi McIsaac, Al Onia, Mahrie  G Reid, Nola Sarina, Randy McCharles, Eileen Bell, Gary Renshaw and Sherile Reilly.

Owl’s Nest is a place where readers can connect with books. And I have the distinct feeling that Michael has sampled every book the store carries. Earlier this week he moderated a book clubs evening at the Jewish Community Centre book week and highlighted 11 books (including Finding Dermot). The bookstore is located in the Britannia Shopping Plaza at 815a 49 Avenue SW Calgary. (www.owlsnestbooks.com). The store also features Owlets, an amazing children’s bookstore.

Mingling time

Mingling time

My turn at the mic.

My turn at the mic.

Vanessa Cardui entertains

Vanessa Cardui entertains

 

Along the path

Well, there I was out on the pathway today and saw Paddlewheelersomething that wasn’t new but really where I spotted it was new to me. The sight of Heritage Park’s paddle wheeler S.S. Moyie near the southern shore of the Glenmore reservoir lake caught my attention. Usually the vessel cruises over closer to Heritage Park.

I mentioned yesterday pathways reveal things and I thought back to our adventures in the Yukon Territory some 42 years ago. (golly, that long ago!) when we marvelled over the S.S.Tutshi paddle-wheeler in dry dock at Carcross. That vessel  was built in 1917 and restored about the time we were there. Sadly this queen of romantic Yukon history  was lost to fire in 1990. Remnants remain today.  The steamboat had such a big impact on us that we named our dog Tutshi. Sadly, he died too. Other examples of the steamboat era remain at Whitehorse (S.S. Klondike), Dawson City (S.S. Keno) and original and real S.S. Moyie at Kaslo in BC.

With that memory of today’s pathway I thought about the treasures we find in books. Take my novel Finding Dermot for instance. That story takes the reader from Canada to a magnificent city in New Zealand (New Plymouth) with its surf beaches, mountain and great bush walks, to one of the remotest villages in the country (Whangamomona) as well as a frozen winter in Antarctica’s truly wonderful and remote Wright Dry Valley and Lake Vanda. I weaved the story of Dermot and his strange adventure around those places.

The novel is available in all the online bookstores around the world in hard cover, paperback and ebook versions.

Pick up a copy, travel and enjoy the stroll along the reader’s “pathway.”