Robert Kennedy and Mỹ Lai; A Coincidence That Matters

Talented Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette enjoyed a hit song a few years ago listing a number of things she found ironic. Actually, the things about which she sang were not ironic at all but merely unfortunate or at best coincidences. Coincidences are fun. Sometimes they matter. Let’s consider one that resonates today.

The Coincidence of March 16, 1968.

The Americanized portion of the Vietnam War had been grinding on for nearly four years. Despite President Johnson’s repeated assurances, there was no end in sight. The people trying to carry on with their lives in tiny, rural villages were regularly terrorized by men fighting for one or the other of the war’s many sides. The horrors felt by the men doing the terrorizing were overwhelming. By the spring of 1968 it was clear to everyone but the willfully blind that the war would have victims but no victors.

One afternoon a group of Americans walked into two small hamlets and went insane. They ceased to be soldiers. They ceased to be human. They murdered between 350 and 500 unarmed men, women, and children. It took a long time. Many were shot and some were hacked the death; many were tortured. Children watched their mothers being gang-raped. A few soldiers laughed as one of their comrades took three shots to kill a baby who was lying on the ground. It became known as the Mỹ Lai Massacre.

On that same day, Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Everyone knew him because he had been his brother’s attorney general and in many ways the co-president. While John Kennedy was a realist disguised as a dreamer, Robert was a true romantic with a realist’s understanding of how to get things done. After the assassination in Dallas, he became a New York senator. He led a number of initiatives including the reconstruction of Brooklyn’s tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood through partnerships with three levels of government, banks, corporations, and community organizers. He got things done.

As he stood before a bank of microphones that March afternoon he didn’t know about the massacre. But he knew that Vietnam was among many things that were wrong as he announced that he would run to be president in an effort to end the war and make some of those other things right. He said, “I run to seek new policies – policies to end the bloodshed in Vietnam and in our cities, policies to close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country and around the rest of the world.  I run for the presidency because I want the Democratic Party and the United States of America to stand for hope instead of despair, for reconciliation of men instead of the growing risk of world war. I run because it is now unmistakably clear that we can change these disastrous, divisive policies only by changing the men who are now making them.”

RFK

As he campaigned he spoke to Black audiences about taking more responsibility for their families. He spoke to university students about the unfairness of their draft deferments. He spoke to business leaders about being responsible to more than just their bottom lines. He made people mad. He made people think.

Consider his beliefs regarding how we measure wealth: “Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

On the same day that some men were visiting unspeakable horror on people they did not know, another man was pledging himself to help people he would never meet. It was not ironic. It was a coincidence. It is a coincidence that matters because it enabled Americans then and us today to consider the dark side that lurks within us all and right alongside it our yearning to do better; to be better, to do good.

The March 16, 1968 coincidence challenges us to ask whether we can accept horrors that make us cringe without losing faith. Can we remain idealistic without being naïve? Can we remain realistic without being cynical? Today we are inundated by images of hatred and despair and there are plenty that match Mỹ Lai’s power. Can we reject those who use the images to sell themselves and their divisive views and instead remain convinced that our public discourse is a place for respect, for alternate opinions, the telling of hard truths, calm determination, and for hope and even for love?

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John F. Kennedy and My Mother’s Tears

I recall the first time I saw my mother cry. You need to understand that my mom was a tough woman, as tough as burnished leather, at least on the outside, the side she allowed most folks to see. But on this day she was sobbing. It was the afternoon of November 22, 1963. I was a middle-class Canadian kid in a brush cut just rolled home from the rigours of grade one but now standing in my living room, still and stunned at the sight of my mother, slumped into the couch, red-eyed and weeping before the flickering television.

She explained that a man had died, a good man, and that he had been shot by a crazy man. I remember that I cried too. It was not for him – I had no idea who the good man was – but for her, for her grief, and for my addled efforts to understand. Today, for the same three reasons, I cried again.

You see, the little boy grew up to be an author and this week I’m doing research at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Boston is a terrific city. On my first morning I jumped the red line to Pawk Street, that’s right, that’s what the man said. Within 200 steps of the subway stop I glommed on to a walking tour of the Freedom Trail led by a gentleman in period costume who was among the best guides I have ever experienced. It was marvelous; there were great sites and greater stories. I then watched a legalize marijuana rally in the Commons and laughed out loud when at the count of three the thousand or so folks splayed on blankets on the grass lit up their grass. I told a yellow T-shirted volunteer about Justin Trudeau’s pledge up in Canada but she didn’t care.

The dawn brought work. The Kennedy Library’s enormous, white, flat tower soars like a sail into the sky and overlooks the bay that reminds visitors of Kennedy’s love of the sea. The commissionaire found my name on the list, led me to an elevator in the back and with the turn his special key I was lifted to the fourth floor archives. For the rest of the day and the next two I time travelled to the 1960s. Tapping away on my laptop I recorded notes from box after box and file after file.

Kennedy library archives

My spot on the 4th floor.

On the afternoon of the third day I declared a break to finally see the museum. I stood with a group of women enchanted by home movie clips showing the Kennedys at play in Hyannisport. Kennedy smiled as he swung a golf club, sailed, swam, and at one point drove a gaggle of laughing, bare-chested, sun-tanned children far too fast on a bouncing golf cart. They were pictures of a family and life about which only the stone-hearted could not feel warmth. It was then on to politics. Films and artifacts depicted the nomination and then the election. No wonder people watching the debate thought he wiped the floor with Nixon. No kidding, did people really wear those goofy buttons and hats?

It was all good. I wandered with the gentle acceptance that like most museums its analysis was skimming as a stone over very deep ponds with its focus on entertainment more than education. But then I arrived at the gallery dedicated to the inauguration. The large screen with seating before it invited you to suspend belief and imagine you were there. About fifteen people were doing just that. There was a clutch of teenage boys with their big caps and big feet, three or four couples about my age, and a young man and woman whose eyes and hands betrayed either a honeymoon trip or one in the offing. I stood at the side not expecting to stay for the whole thing but I became entranced. There was Kennedy, tanned on that freezing January afternoon so long ago and speaking in that Boston twang. And here were these people, generations later sitting silent, eyes wide, many mouths agape, drinking in the idealism of his message as if cool water in a steaming desert oasis. I listened to him but watched them.

Kennedy inauguration

It was then it happened; a tear found my eye. I smiled and my lip quivered. I let it hang there and then run down my cheek, closed my eyes, and nodded. My mother has been gone for years now and I had not felt so close to her in a long while. The tear was not mine – it was hers. After all this time I think I finally understood that November afternoon.

The day Kennedy was murdered tore time. For millions of people the irreparable rending forever split the before and after. The violence in Dallas was visited not just upon the man but also on the very idea that everything was possible and all problems solvable. As I watched the people watching him and smudged my cheek I realized that in the final analysis, Kennedy’s gift was not his programs and polices but himself. His contribution, and the one that brought my mother to him then and the people to his museum now, was the courageous determination that idealism is not naive, hope is not silly, that acting collectively is not surrendering liberty, and that community can extend beyond one’s family, or city, or even country.

Of course Kennedy was a flawed man. The museum is silent about his hiding crippling health issues and the cocktail of drugs with which he was injected each day to carry on. It did not mention the women. He was a flawed leader. The museum ignored his ballooning the deficit to build a mammoth military and glanced over his being late in joining the march to civil rights and his having started the march to Vietnam. But that’s okay. There is no such thing as a perfect man or leader.

Now I’m back in my hotel scrunching notes into prose. When this book is published I hope that readers will understand Kennedy’s time a little better and consider the effects that his policies and personality had on Canada. What they will not know is our secret; that in the book’s writing I came to an understanding far more profound. In a city far from home, and for just a moment, I was once again my mother’s little boy.

Who Are We and Who Do We Aspire to Be?

The bread and circuses of patriotism thrives on songs and slogans. It swaps history’s complexity for misty-eyed nostalgia. Defining, unifying, inspiring state nationalism, on the other hand, is harder. Patriotism is about celebration but nationalism is about identity. While patriotism loves songs, nationalism demands sovereignty. After all, if your identity is up for sale to the highest bidder then you have no identity at all and might as well grab a funny hat and enjoy patriotism’s parade.

Two Canadian leaders whose parties and personalities were miles apart were quite similar in asking Canadians to look beyond the balm of patriotism to the challenge of nationalism. They asked Canadians to consider who they were and who they aspired to be: John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau.

The Trudeau campaign in 1968 was reminiscent of John Diefenbaker’s in 1958. Both raised a number of concerns and ideas but quickly became less about issues than a vague vision and more about charisma than anything. In 1958, reporters did not know what to make of Diefenbaker’s evangelical appeal. Ten years later, with the Beatles craze fresh in their minds, they wrote of Trudeaumania.

Once in office Trudeau channelled many of the old Chief’s strategic goals. Trudeau was inspired to enter public life by a desire to fight Quebec’s ethnic nationalism that he saw as dangerous to the country and an insult to Quebecers. Diefenbaker’s 1960 Bill of Rights had similarly sought to combat Canada’s ethnic and racial divisions by protecting the rights of all as individuals – as citizens. Trudeau took that vision a step further with the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its insertion in the constitution. Trudeau’s Canada was Diefenbaker’s “One Canada”. Both reflected a belief in a vibrant pan-Canadian identity.

Trudeua and Diefenbaker

Trudeau, Pearson and Diefenbaker

Diefenbaker and Trudeau’s state nationalism also reflected their understanding that Canada needed to be constantly vigilant in guarding against a chipping away at the frail and fragile walls protecting its sovereignty. This involved standing up to the United States. Trudeau spoke before the Washington Press Club in 1969 and famously quipped: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No mattered how friendly and even tempered the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

It was an apt metaphor describing the asymmetrical nature of the Canadian-American relationship that Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson accepted and upon which President Kennedy had based his bullying ways. At that point and for years, after all, Canada had a tenth of the American population, its economy was about was a tenth as large and a comparison of military clout was not worth making.            

Trudeau’s Foreign Investment Review Agency and the crown corporation Petro-Canada were not attempts to reduce Canadian-American trade and investment but rather to manage it while diversifying Canadian markets. They and other initiatives sought to render Canada less dependent upon the United States by increasing Canada’s economic autonomy. The old adage is that when the American economy gets a cold, Canada gets pneumonia. Diefenbaker and Trudeau both sought to strengthen Canada’s immune system. Part of that infusion of antibodies involved taking steps that Kennedy had warned Diefenbaker not to dare but he did anyway; he continued Canada’s trade with Cuba and China. Trudeau went a step further. He created even more trade links with both and even visited Castro and Mao.

After a long and complex review, Trudeau’s government published six booklets entitled Foreign Policy for Canadians. They presented recommendations that Diefenbaker’s government would have championed and a rejection of nearly everything to which Pearson had dedicated his diplomatic and political career. It insisted that foreign and defence policies should narrow its focus to reflect and advance Canada’s national interests. It should not, Trudeau said in an obvious slight to Pearson, involve Canada’s acting as a “helpful fixer” to the world.

It took a few years but by 1984 Trudeau had returned all the American nuclear weapons that Diefenbaker had said he did not want but that Pearson had welcomed into Canada. As Diefenbaker had during his tenure, Trudeau advocated and supported a number of initiatives to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world and to halt nuclear proliferation.

When an American oil company’s ice breaker called the Manhattan planned to move through Canada’s arctic waters, Diefenbaker rose in the House to demand Trudeau protect Canada’s sovereignty. Trudeau shared Dief’s hopes for the North’s potential and knew that potential would be dashed if Canada did not demonstrate its ownership of all its land and waters. Consequently, Trudeau managed the issue carefully and ensured that a Canadian ice breaker – the Sir John A. Macdonald, no lessescorted the American vessel. He also had Canadians put on the Manhattan’s bridge. Diefenbaker had promised to open the North by building roads to resources. Trudeau recognized that another of those roads was the North West passage.

As had happened with Diefenbaker, Trudeau’s standing up to the Americans and pushing where he could to promote and protect Canadian sovereignty was not well received by America. Echoing President Kennedy’s thoughts on Diefenbaker, President Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted, “It cannot be said that Nixon and Trudeau were ideally suited for each other…he tended to consider him soft on defence and in his general attitude toward the east.” In fact, in private Kennedy often called Diefenbaker a host of derogatory names and the Watergate tapes revealed Nixon calling Trudeau a ‘son of a bitch’ and an ‘asshole’. When told of the slurs, Trudeau responded that he’d been called worse things by better people.

Despite these personality problems, when in 1971 Nixon implemented a tax policy that threatened to damage all of its trading partners, Trudeau was able to sit in the Oval Office and negotiate a Canadian exemption. Once again, just as Diefenbaker had proven when there was a run on the Canadian dollar and Kennedy had helped; personal differences do not have to stand in the way of policy solutions.

Trudeau’s actions and intentions garnered criticism from the same groups of Canadians that had turned on Diefenbaker. Provincial premiers, business people and political elites who stood to lose profits, power and tax revenue objected to attempts to increase Canada’s autonomy.  A politician without enemies is a politician doing nothing and worthless. 

In 1965 George Grant published an important book entitled Lament for a Nation. It lamented the end of Canadian nationalism and the surrendering of Canada’s sovereignty to the United States. He wrote that Diefenbaker represented the last gasp of Canadian nationalism. He was wrong.  Pearson gave Canada its flag and Expo ’67 but they represented merely shallow, transitory patriotism. Diefenbaker had gone further by challenging Canadians to think not as patriots but as nationalists. Three years after Grant bemoaned nationalism’s death, a new political leader took up Diefenbaker’s legacy and challenged Canadians all over again.

Like all political leaders, Diefenbaker and Trudeau sometimes lost their way and traded strategic goals for tactical victories; but both did the best they could. While addressing the myriad decisions and crises that came their way they asked Canadians to raise themselves from the muck of the everyday. Diefenbaker and Trudeau challenged Canadians to consider, if even for a moment, if Canada is a country worth fighting for.

Lessons Learned from Fear, Vision and Tradition

On a cool September afternoon a group of Canadians aboard a luxury ship arrived at the picturesque Charlottetown harbour. They dressed in their best finery and awaited a grand welcome. It didn’t come. Instead, a lone man appeared in a row boat far below and shouted up an invitation to dinner. It was an unexpected beginning to a week that for many would have an unexpected end. Within nine days, most of it spent dining, drinking, and dancing, a new country would be born.

The men assembled embarked on an audacious experiment that remains underway. In the shadow of a brutal war and the demands of an unforgiving clock they attempted to improve on what the British had bequeathed and the Americans seemed intent on burning. We can better understand today by considering what they created then.

Wily politician and political survivor John A. Macdonald led the Canadian delegation. At that moment – September 1, 1864, 150 years ago – Canada was a dysfunctional amalgam of what are now the southern bits of Ontario and Quebec. They were crashing a previously arranged meeting of delegates from New Brunswick, PEI, and Nova Scotia who were gathering to discuss a possible Maritime union.

photo

 

Author with Sir John A. and George Brown (OK, not really)

 
Confederation had been discussed and dismissed for years. But changes in the United States and Britain meant that to save itself Canada had to create itself. America had fallen into Civil War. It left cities burned and families destroyed. If we extrapolated the population then for now it would claim the equivalent of over six million lives.

Canada and the Maritimes were officially neutral but most newspapers were pro-South, Halifax and Saint John ports sold goods to both sides, factories ran weapons to the South, an anti-Lincoln political party operated from Windsor, and a Confederate spy ring organized raids from Toronto and Montreal. American newspapers and generals threatened and Lincoln hinted that when the war ended, the Northern army would turn north.

Britain had dispatched 11,000 troops to the border but a powerful group of British politicians were questioning the cost of that defence and of imperialism itself. They wanted the expensive and troublesome British North American colonies to find their own way.

Canada resembled a teenager whose parents were kicking her out of the house. She wouldn’t move in with the neighbours because their house was on fire. She needed to build a new house. The architects met in Charlottetown. They were government and opposition members who had pledged to surrender partisanship for the greater good.

The United States was the world’s first and most successful manifestation of John Locke’s 18th century Enlightenment ideas. But the men (and they were all men) in Charlottetown believed that while the sentiments were noble, the Civil War was demonstrating that America’s attempt to create an enlightened republic was a blazing failure. They channelled Irish nationalist and British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke. He believed that governments should not be based upon temporary popularity which he equated to shouts from a mob, but on tested and respected tradition. Facts and the circumstances of the day should dictate reasonable solutions; decisions should never be based on blind adherence to an ideology. With admiration for Burke and Britain and America as their negative example they envisioned Canada.

Power, they said, should not rest with the executive – they derided the American president as a four-year dictator – but with parliament. Through free elections, they argued, the people should not pick a prime minister or even a government. Rather, voters should create a House and the House would choose the government according to which group could earn support. Members of parliament must not be delegates merely echoing the views of their constituents but thoughtful free thinkers unencumbered by the often un- or ill-informed electorate or partisan newspapers. The Senate must be appointed to keep it illegitimate so that real power remained where it belonged – in the House. The struggle for State’s rights had led to the Civil War so they insisted that the federal government alone speak for Canada. They saw provinces as municipal in nature and restricted their power to areas on a short, proscriptive list. The British monarch should oversee it all as Head of State.

Anniversaries, and a 150th is one of significance, are invitations to reflect on the past and ponder the future. Canada was born of fear, vision and tradition. What of the old fear? The Americans may not be ready to bomb us anymore but have they bought us? What of the old vision? A democratic state locates power to best serve the nation but are we happy with where power has been relocated? What of the old tradition? Should we pursue our sovereignty by eschewing the sovereign? What would Sir John say? More importantly, on our collective anniversary, what do you say?

An edited version of this article appeared last week in the Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun. To discover more about Canada’s birth in the shadow of the American Civil War and about Canada’s involvement in that war please see “Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation”.

http://www.amazon.ca/Blood-Daring-Canada-Fought-American/dp/0307361462/ref=sr_1_1_title_2_pap?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410174613&sr=1-1

The Legend of the Six Inch Triple

It was the top of the last inning of the championship game and we were down by a run. We had players on first and second. The count was three and two. Everything hung on the next pitch. The park fell into a silence as ominous as the inky, dark clouds roiling overhead. We held our breath as an apparently equally enthralled Mother Nature held her rain. Finally, after chicken scratching at the mound, the pitcher released the ball. It seemed to hang at the top of its arc for a long, lingering moment and then Val stepped into a mighty swing. Her aluminum bat kissed the top of the spinning lime green ball which dropped with a thud at her feet – but fair. Val didn’t care. The bat flew and she was off like a rocket. The catcher leapt forward, snatched the ball but then, inexplicitly, sailed it two feet over the first baseman’s outstretched glove.

Our bench exploded. Our base coaches screamed. Our man at second did not slow down over third and passed home. Their right fielder’s angle must have convinced him that the ball was out of play for he was ambling toward it with a cool casualness; but we could see it. The ball lay clearly within the chalk line and so like the Monty Python villager it was not quite dead, in fact, it was still very much alive.  It was their bench’s turn to scream but Val was already sprinting to second as our other runner rounded third.

Their fielder finally awoke to the moment, ran to the ball and with a long stride hurled it toward home. Our runner from first puffing toward home and nearly there. The ball was nearly there. The catcher’s glove smacked and the umpire yelled, “Safe!” We had done it. Really, Val had done it. She stood on third base breathing hard and beaming. We were jumping and cheering and high-fiving each other, but, it was not over.

We were soon on the field for their last at bats. We were up by a run but earlier in the game they had scored seven in a single inning and so we respected their speed and power; we feared it. We knew they were younger and stronger than us. As one of our team mates had noted earlier: “They don’t even jiggle when they run!” A one run lead was nothing.

A long loping hit to left field put a man on second and with a bloop single he advanced to third – the tying run. Two quick outs and a couple of pitches later they were same spot in which we had found ourselves only minutes before. There were two strikes on the batter. It all came down to this pitch. He swung hard but spun the ball into a high pop fly in foul territory just a couple of yards from third base – my base. I edged carefully forward and to my right and moved my free hand to the back of my old black glove. I could not drop this. I had time to think: “Don’t drop this. Do not drop this!” I felt it find my glove and squeezed as tightly as I’ve squeezed anything. I heard the cheers. I heard the shouts. I stood with the ball in my glove still held high above my head. We did it. We won.

It was the second year in a row that our team, the Black Plague, had won the championship. This year was even sweeter because a dear friend of ours, a giant of a man who lived meagrely and gave generously and whose laugh sparked laughter in all he met, had died. One of his many nicknames was spray painted on the snow fence that delineated the outfield. Another was on the shoulder of our new jerseys. We had dedicated the season to him and now we had won.

Black Plague

The Black Plague is one of six teams in the Trent University slo-pitch softball league that has been playing for fun for thirty years. Everyone involved works at, attends, or went to Trent. The weekly games on soft summer nights bring hearty cheers, good-natured jeers and shouts of, “Yay Dad!” and “Way to go Uncle Mike!” During the season the diamond has neither lines nor umpires. The arcane rules that no one seems to fully fathom are enforced by mutual consent. Hit the plywood board and it’s a strike. The catcher calls outs and foul balls. No leadoffs. No stealing. There are occasional discussions but never arguments. One of the rules states that a team must have at least three women on the field at all times. I think it must be a hold-over from another era because nearly all the women are terrific players; many are a lot better than a lot of the men and nearly all are better than me.

You see, I love baseball. I love listening on the radio and following the season. I love the pace, the strategies, and the fact that it is a team sport that comes down to individual moments. I love that there is no clock, no regulation field size, no best way of doing anything and I love the game’s rich and storied history. It’s great that statistics say it all but the legends say even more. I love that every season starts as a story, slows to a paragraph and ends as a sentence.

My grandfather was a Yankees fan and so as a boy I was too. While I cheer for the Blue Jays now there’s still something about the Yankees that moves something within me no matter how much I try to dislike them and their pennant-buying, celebrity-driven ways. I’ve been to Yankee Stadium and Cooperstown. I saw the Expos at the Big O and saw Ripken play at Camden Yards and Griffey hit one into the Sky Dome’s third deck. But loving something does not automatically make you any good at it. In fact, despite loving the game I am really no good at it at all.

I take my turn at third base and most times I can stop and sometimes even catch balls coming my way. Most times I can make the long throw to first but I occasionally bounce it. My hitting is laughable. I try so hard. I try to ignore the ball jumping erratically every time its trajectory carries it in and out of my bifocal range. I desperately try to be patient and to wait for the ball to fall into the strike zone and to keep my elbow up and to swing level and to follow through and to turn my hips and to do everything else that jumbles my brain at the plate – at the board, that is. I have hit a few doubles and a couple of triples and a slew of singles but far too often I just pop it up or smack a toothless grounder to the short stop.

My lack of prowess is sometimes embarrassing but my team mates are as patient as they are kind. They coach. They tease a little but they never criticize and I always get my turn. Despite being so bad at it I have fun. And that’s the point.

Because you are good at something does not mean you have to do it. Consider that upon the birth of his second child, John Lennon retired from the music business. He didn’t publicly sing a note or record a song for five years. He wrote, “I’ve already lost one family to produce what? Sgt. Pepper. I am blessed with a second chance.” He baked bread and changed diapers and read stories and took his son for long walks in Central Park. Finally, right there at home, he found what he had been seeking for so long – peace.

Because you are bad at something does not mean you should not do it. It would be a quiet forest indeed if only the birds with the sweetest voices sang. So I look forward to next spring’s baseball season. I will try harder but probably not be much better but so what? For now, the Black Plague has received not a single challenge from any other team on the planet. That makes us World Champions. A few months from now, in the depths of a cold, Canadian winter, that thought and memories of Val’s legendary six-inch triple, will offer a little warmth. And could we all not use a bit of that from time to time?

The Honour in the Worst Jobs

All work is honourable but some jobs are awful. The luckiest among us marry jobs and passion and often have smaller houses but broader smiles. The saddest folks labour only for money and many end up struggling to fill holes in their soul with stuff. There is something to be learned from all work and perhaps the best lessons are offered by the worst jobs.

My worst job was not the winter I laboured as an Esso gas station attendant. Besides cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the place and occasionally swiping stale chocolate bars I would have made Pavlov grin when at the ping of the ding I jumped into coat and hat to leap to the pumps outside. With the temperature often far south of zero, I became quite adept at yawning hoods and checking oil in mere seconds and at kicking the frozen pail of ostensibly un-freezable blue goop to squeegee windshields. I had a cold all winter. I received one tip – fifty cents.

My worst job was not the two summers with the Peterborough parks department. I enjoyed the one morning each week when I drove the golf cart to ball diamonds around town to drag the angle iron in circles and then chalk baselines. But I also pierced garbage with a broken hockey stick with a bent nail in the end. In a hard hat and steel-toed boots I ignored my allergy to freshly cut grass while pushing a lawn mower in circles around trees and up and down hills and other places the big tractors couldn’t go. I nodded obediently when my suggestion for punctuation was ignored and then dutifully erected thirty signs that read: No Golf Playing Motorized Vehicles. They were certainly effective because after that I didn’t see a single motorized vehicle playing golf.

When it rained, the three crews of university students were gathered together under the Hunter Street Bridge where we sat in a large bunker-like room on makeshift seats with traffic rumbling above and covering us with dust. Against one dank and filthy wall lay a mountain of tulip bulbs. For several chilly, soggy days, hour after excruciating hour, we peeled each bulb and placed it in the correct bushel baskets: large, medium, small, and rotten. There were bulb wars and songs and jokes and one afternoon a guy entertained us with Penthouse letters; he inserted the word blank for the nasty bits, making each depraved offering seem even nastier still.

My worst job lasted only one night. My friend Chris and I were fifteen when we saw the ad in the paper and showed up at the Towers Department store parking lot that night at 9:00. At the yelp of the crew-boss we boarded the ancient yellow school bus, gasped at the smell, and tried not to make eye contact with any of the scary looking people around us. We bounced in silence beyond the city’s lights to a rural golf course that in the inky darkness was as creepy as our workmates. Given no instructions, we followed the others and secured miner’s lights to our foreheads. Using big elastic bands we fastened empty juice cans to our ankles and scooped a handful of sawdust into the left one. We began following the safest looking man but in a truly impressive demonstration of the manner in which the “F” bomb can be noun, verb and adjective in a single, complex sentence he suggested that we find our own spot. It took a while but we finally wandered to an empty fairway.

We had been promised a cent a worm. Chris had calculated how much we could make in only one night and all afternoon we couldn’t wait to begin. But now that we were there, stumbling through the chill and darkness, we couldn’t wait to earn our first penny. We couldn’t find a worm anywhere. It was nearly thirty minutes before I lunged at my first victim. I missed him. It was another thirty before we mastered the plunge and yank needed to can one, as we began calling it. We jumped and ran when the automatic sprinklers clicked to life but then smiled when worms began appearing on the wet grass that glistened black under the August moon. We learned to time the rotations. We’d run in, can a couple, and then scamper back without getting too wet. The sawdust on our fingers kept the slippery buggers from sliding away and we learned to be quick. With a slip on the wet grass I lost nearly half my catch but we kept going.

We worked hard all night and at the horn’s blast returned to the bus. We were stiff and dog tired but stood proudly in line to present our haul to the crew-boss who sat behind a long beat-up wooden table. Some of our work mates had earned the money that we had dreamed about but I had managed to pick only one full can – 250 worms. The tough looking women with the Ukrainian accent counted out two dollars and fifty cents. Chris earned just a little bit more.

We napped on the dirty bus and stumbled out bleary-eyed and filthy. The city was shaking itself awake with cars piercing the morning mist as we shuffled across the street to the neon glare of the donut shop. We bought donuts and chocolate milk until our night’s pay was gone. Later that afternoon, Chris called and we agreed that one night of worm-picking was plenty.

Over the years I’ve written a number of resumes but I never listed worm picker. Perhaps I should have. This evening, when I slide between clean sheets, I’ll afford a thought for folks who will spend the night standing guard, serving coffee, buffing floors, dumping garbage, and yes, even hunting worms. There is honour in all work. Perhaps there is even more in work that needs to be done but most of us would rather not do and when we would rather not do it and all for wages we would rather not accept.  Maybe in that work, at three in morning, with folks doing the best they can for the families they love, rests the most honour of all.

Top Ten Ways that Canada Fought the American Civil War

The American Civil War was America’s third civil war. The first occurred within the Revolutionary war when about a third of the people were neutral and another third were loyal to the British king. Many loyalists were harassed and killed and thousands fled to the safety of what would become Canada. The second American civil war began in 1812 under pretences so rickety they would blush the chalky cheeks of Dick Cheney. Because so many of those dying in Canadian border towns were the same un-American Americans who had fled the Revolution, the War of 1812 was really a cousin’s war.

We are as wrong to consider the 1861-1865 American Civil War the country’s first and only civil war as we are to consider it only an American war. France, Britain, Russia and what was becoming Germany were all active participants. More than any other country, however, Canada fought the American Civil War.

At the time, of course, Canada was not yet a country but a group of British colonies lying on America’s porous border. The colony called Canada was a squabbling and politically dysfunctional amalgam of Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec). Most Americans also called New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Canada but such name-calling would spark a fight in any Halifax or Moncton bar.

Many Americans made no secret of coveting Canada with newspapers and politicians regularly reporting plans to buy, bomb or annex it. America had invaded Canada in the Revolution and again in 1812. The new civil war had Canadians steeling themselves to fight again.

Canada was involved in the Civil War’s cause, course and consequences. It affected when Canada was created and the nature of that creation. Here are the top ten ways that Canada fought the American Civil War:

  1. Slavery – Canada abolished slavery in 1833. About 30,000 racial refugees followed the North Star to forge lives of dignified freedom. Southerners were enraged because ex-slaves living happy, productive lives challenged everything they were saying about Black people’s desires and potential and the foundation upon which their society rested. The Canadian examples inspired Northern abolitionists. The Underground Railroad grew along with the animosities between North and South. Harriet Beecher Stowe based Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book that Lincoln said caused the war, on an escaped slave living in Canada.
  2. Self-Defence – With war on the horizon, Lincoln’s newly appointed Secretary of State William H. Seward secretly advocated reuniting America by instigating a war with Britain by capturing Canada. The attack, he said, would lead Southerners to rally around the flag and forget secession and Britain would negotiate an end to the war by ceding Canada to America. Lincoln considered the idea but said no – for now. British and Canadian officials took Seward’s public threats quite seriously. Canadians helping the South through arms sales and other means led many American newspapers, politicians and generals to call for invasion. Over eleven thousand British soldiers were dispatched to the border. The Royal Navy was redeployed. Canadian militia were trained and armed. Border fortifications were enhanced and artillery stood ready.
  3. Soldiers – About 40,000 Canadians donned the blue and gray. Nearly all fought in Northern regiments. Most volunteered, some were tricked, and others, even children, were kidnapped and forced into uniform. Canadians fought in every major battle and 29 earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Canadians swept down from Gettysburg’s Little Round Top, stood with Grant at Lee’s surrender and a Canadian led the troops that captured Lincoln’s assassin.
  4. Spies – When the war began turning south for the South, Confederate President Jefferson Davis created a spy network in Canada. Stationed in fancy Toronto and Montreal hotels, spy leader Jacob Thompson organized Confederates and their Canadian sympathisers to run communications for and weapons to the South. In Halifax, money was made selling supplies and information to Southern blockade runners and then to the Northern ships pursuing them.
  5. Sorties – Jacob Thompson disturbed and distracted Northern military operations with raids to free Confederate prisoners. He had yellow-fever infected clothing distributed in northern cities. He organized the plot that saw theatres and hotels simultaneously burst into flame along Manhattan’s Broadway. The raid on St. Albans, Vermont led to deaths, an incursion of American troops into Canada and Congressional reprisals designed to punish Canada.
  6. Separation – The Copperheads hated Lincoln. They were Northerners who wanted the war stopped with slavery and the Confederacy preserved and, failing that, the formation a new country comprised of several mid-west states. Lincoln called the Copperhead movement “the fire in the rear” and said that he feared its power as much as the Southern armies. The Copperhead’s chief spokesman was Clement Vallandigham who inspired Copperheads and campaigned to be governor of Ohio from his headquarters in Windsor, Canada West.
  7. Salvation – Joining Canada with the Maritime colonies in a new political arrangement through a process called Confederation had been discussed since the 1850s. When it appeared that Lincoln would win the war and then feared that he would then turn his massive army northward, the notion became a necessity. Canada needed to be bigger, stronger, richer and more efficient and the civil war meant that it needed it all now rather than some dreamy someday. Canada had to create itself to save itself. Former Reform Party leader and owner and editor of the powerful Globe newspaper George Brown got bickering politicians from both parties in a room, Macdonald kept them talking, Cartier forced federalism, and Tupper and Tilley brought in the Maritimes. The talks began in the fall of 1864 in the shadow of war and led to the birth of nation forged in war.
  8. Suspicion – Days after the guns fell silent there was a shot in Ford’s Theatre. Even while Lincoln lay dying in a boarding house across the street, investigators turned to Canada’s involvement in the president’s shooting and the attempted assassination of Seward. The border was shut. Agents were dispatched to Montreal. Weeks later, the very first question asked in the trial of the conspirators was about their links to Canada. It was proven that John Wilkes Booth had spent time planning the assassination while with Jacob Thompson’s Confederate conspirators and spies in Montreal.      
  9. Sanctuary – With the war over, many Confederate leaders faced either prosecution or life under the military occupation of their enemy. Many fled to Canada. Among them was General Pickett who led Gettysburg’s tragic final charge. President Jefferson Davis’ family had been in Quebec for some time and after his release from prison he joined them. Cheering crowds welcomed his appearance in Kingston, Toronto and Niagara Falls. The haggard, sick man lived peacefully in Canada until an amnesty allowed him and his compatriots to return home.
  10. Self-Preservation – Britain had helped the Confederacy by allowing ships to built in Britain and sold to the small Southern navy. One of the most deadly was the Alabama that roamed the seas sinking Northern supply ships and even a military vessel. After the war President Johnson and then President Grant demanded an inordinate sum from Britain as reparation – it was called the Alabama claim. American and British officials discussed erasing the debt owed in exchange for Britain ceding Canada to the United States. In 1871, Prime Minister Macdonald ventured to Washington to negotiate Canada’s survival in what became the Civil War’s final battle.

Canada played a role in causing the war, 40,000 Canadians fought in the war, and its border, streets and harbours were involved in the war. Those who created the country used the United States as an example of how not to organize a society; after all, they invented Canada while the war was demonstrating the American model’s abject failure. Canadians today are children of those who were inspired by the fear of one country and the vision of another.

An edited version of this article appeared in this week’s Macleans magazine. To learn more, check out Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation available through Amazon, Chapters and sensible book stores everywhere.