The Guitar That Reminds Us Who We Are

Sometimes the craziest of ideas can be terrifically inspiring. This one involves a guitar and a nation.

It was 1995 and Canada was coming apart at the seams. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had decided that because Quebec had not signed the constitution when it was finally brought home from Britain in 1981, that he would seduce the signature by transferring a host of federal powers to it and the other provinces. The provinces loved it, of course. Then the whole package, called the Charlottetown Accord, went to the people in a national referendum. That’s when the arguments began. Revolutions had been fought about such things. In the United States, over 700,000 people were butchered in their Civil War deciding whether dominant power should rest with the federal or state governments. But Canadians are different. We reached not for guns but gavels. We debated in public meetings. We argued at kitchen tables, and over backyard fences. It got ugly.

Jowi Taylor reacted differently. The CBC writer and radio host met with luthier George Ritzsanyi and suggested that they make a guitar. They would call it Voyageur. Ritzsany was a first-generation Hungarian immigrant who had worked as an auto worker but had become renowned among guitar lovers for his unique and fine work. But this would not be just any guitar.

Taylor would assemble this guitar from fragments of the nation to which it would be dedicated. David Suzuki, the well-known environmentalist and TV host, was instrumental in pointing Taylor to the Golden Spruce. It was the rare, 300-year-old albino tree on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) that was sacred to the Haida people. It became a symbol of resistance to broken treaties and land rights encroachments when, in the middle of the night, an angry logging scout chainsawed the sacred tree to the ground. Suzuki introduced Taylor to Haida elders and, after great debate, they agreed that the guitar would be an honoured place for part of the felled tree to live on. Voyageur would be made from a piece of the sacred Golden Spruce.

The tree was an important and inspiring first step but Taylor needed more items to embed in the guitar and money to support their collection. He called his project The Six String Nation. He set up a website and wrote emails and snail mails and made countless phone calls. He traveled. He begged for funding and was disappointed more often than pleased. The Globe and Mail published a front page story about the project but even that brought frustratingly little funding. The CBC offered to make a film but that fell apart.

But Canadians came through. Individual sponsors stepped up and big and small donations were made. Many people logged on and bought guitar straps to help finance the project. (Full disclosure, one of them was me. The black strap holds my Gretsch at every gig I play.)

Taylor’s persistence began paying dividends and more precious objects were collected. There was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a fragment from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick and another Paul Henderson’s stick. There was an antler from a moose and another from a mastodon. There was a piece of steel rail from a CPR track, one from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard, and a chunk of copper from the roof of the parliamentary library, Canada’s most beautiful room. There was a chunk of a seat from Massey Hall and another from the old Montreal Forum. There was a piece of Nancy Green’s ski and one from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.

Finally, on June 14, 2006, the fragments had been collected and incorporated and the guitar was done. It was beautiful. It played beautifully. A week later it was in Ottawa where preparations were being made for the Canada Day celebration. Renowned bluesman Colin James strummed it for gathered reporters and said it was a fine guitar that he was proud to play. Colin Linden played it at a press event the next day. Then, on the big stage, on July 1, the guitar’s story was told and the enormous crowd thundered its approval with applause that echoed off parliament’s centre block. Stephen Fearing took Voyageur in hand and kicked off his set with the Longest Road. It had indeed been a long road but it was not over.

The Guitar and the Nation

Jowi Taylor and Voyageur (Photo: Doug Nicholson)

The guitar toured the country. Professionals and amateurs held it and played it. As guitarists know, playing a guitar is an intimate act. It is the only instrument the player cradles when playing like a child, like a lover. And Canadians loved the guitar.

Canadians are a nation by choice. We are a nation not of blood but of laws. We build bridges not walls and we extend our hands to those in need whether suffering the aftermath of World War Two, or the Vietnam War, or the Syrian War. We all know, and most of us recall, that we are nearly all from away and at one point we were the aliens on the boats, risking all to seek a better life and contribute to nation worthy of our dreams. Canada, after all, is less an entity than a conversation. Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur guitar has become an important part of that conversation by inviting us to consider the fragments within it that are fragments of ourselves.

Please visit http://www.sixstringnation.com/ where you can scan the guitar and see all the amazing fragments  embedded it in. Please consider sending this column to others.

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Concussion: Out Cold but Now I See

I woke up with Maple the golden lab licking my cheek. I blinked, squinted, and he drew back a little with his sad, brown eyes appearing to ask, “Are you OK?” I wasn’t. I started to get up but sank back onto the long soft grass. I have no idea how long I was out cold but there was no doubt that I had been out and even less that I needed to gather myself before standing.

My granddaughter wanted a fort and like a good grandfather I purchased the wood, gathered the tools, and got to work. I was proud of the thing as it came together. I built two levels inside linked with a secure ladder. There are window openings with shutter-doors that latch from the outside and one allowing a view of the house.

Nearing the end of construction, I was kneeling over the last piece of particle board needed to complete the back wall when I stood to double check a measurement and wham. My forehead struck the two-by-four roof truss. Like in a Road Runner cartoon I saw stars. I felt myself crumble and fall backward. After Maple had done his recovery work and I had finally struggled to my feet, I marvelled at my luck. One foot to the left of where I fell was a tangle of sharp cedar branches I had trimmed to make room for the fort. One foot to the left of where I fell was a pile of concrete sidewalk slabs. It was as if a higher being or maybe sheer dumb luck had gently laid me on the sweet spot between where I would have been impaled or suffered a skull fracture.

When I was beginning to feel somewhat like myself again, I cleaned up the site and carefully drove the five-minutes home. I went to bed quite early that night and except for a few shuffles to the bathroom, I slept for 36 hours. The doctor examined me thoroughly the next day and declared that I had suffered a concussion, but that my body had done the best thing possible in shutting off my injured brain. After being knocked out it had knocked me out. She advised me to avoid screens of any kind, rest, and allow my brain time to heal.

It’s been three weeks and the doctor was right about everything. I felt nauseous, fatigued, and unable to focus. While my vision was not blurred, I found reading for even short periods of time quite difficult. The symptoms slowly subsided although my dear wife might say that during my recovery I was about narcoleptic and unfocussed as before I hit my head.

The experience made me consider more seriously the recent initiatives to have sports organizations take concussions more seriously. Most hockey fans recall when Eric Lindros was touted as the next generation’s Wayne Gretsky and the series of concussions that ended it all. Now 43, Mr. Lindros recently appeared at a press conference organized by Governor-General David Johnston, another former hockey player. Mr. Lindros confessed to having little faith that professional sports leagues will do anything substantive to reduce the risk of player concussions or help those who suffer them.

The event’s keynote speaker was Hall of Fame NHL goalie and former federal cabinet minister Ken Dryden. He equated doing something about concussions to doing something about climate change in that we all know the problem is real and must be addressed but we must somehow summon the will to do so. Like with climate change, he said, “It’s time for the decision-makers to catch up to the scientists.”

Some of the former athletes among the 80 guests spoke of hiding their injuries due to a fear of losing their jobs. But they also spoke of the long-term effects of multiple concussions such as memory loss, mood swings, loss of balance, and chronic pain. Everyone knew that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has taken the climate change denier stance of stating that the science on concussions is “nascent” and so there is nothing the league should do. Canadian Football League commissioner, Jeffrey Orridge, has taken a similar stand and recently seemed to miss the sad irony of appearing pleased that last season’s number of reported concussions had dipped from 50 to a still unacceptable 40. No one, of course, has any idea how many were unreported.

Too many professional athletes are suffering permanent damage to their brains despite the protective headgear they wear. Too many of our children and grandchildren are also suffering permanent damage to their brains as they traverse through our fascinating insistence on always having them signed up and suited up to play organized sports rather than simply going outside to play.

Something must be done. With professional leagues stuck in the dinosaur-thinking that has them worried more about their bottom lines than player safety, Mr. Lindros is right in saying we should begin with a national concussion strategy focusing first on children. Governor-General Johnston used a sports metaphor to explain: “When it comes to concussions, let’s skate to where the puck is going.”

Let us take a serious matter seriously and do something about, if for nothing else, for the good of our children. And by the way, my grandchildren love their fort.

out-cold-but-now-i-see

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The Gordie Howe I Remember

Hockey filled my eight-year-old mind with wonder and possibility. Pictures of NHL players filled my bedroom walls. They posed as gladiators, armed and with the power of savage youth just behind their eyes. While there were many among them, one had a shrine – my hero – Gordie Howe.

Every winter my Dad flooded our backyard. It was the best rink the world, my little world anyway. It boasted boards and nets and benches and even lights for skating past bedtime. The neighbourhood kids gathered every afternoon after school and all weekend to become the players on our walls. I was always Gordie Howe. I had a number 9 Red Wings jersey, red pants and red socks. It was Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater; a generation later and a province over.

me as Gordie Howe

(the author on his rink)

Gordie Howe was MVP 6 times and on the All Star team an astounding 22 times. He was a top 5-goal scorer for 20 consecutive seasons and amassed 801 goals. He was his own enforcer. A Gordie Howe hat trick remains a game with a goal, assist, and a fight. Off the ice, however, he was a gentle, shy, ambassador for the game and epitome of how one should wear celebrity. He often took sticks and pucks to hospitals where he visited children to sign autographs and pose for pictures. He never told the media. He did not do it because it would look good; he did it because it was good.

One day my Dad took me to an NHL charity golf tournament. We wandered a little until, oh my goodness there he was, and then, well, after that I really don’t remember. Mr. Howe rubbed my head and asked, “Do you play hockey?” I apparently looked up but could say nothing. Not a word. Mr. Howe asked, “What position do you play son?” I swallowed hard and I guess my lips moved but again not a word. I grinned for a picture with the clenched-fist excitement of an eight-year-old who, for him, had just met the equivalent of God, the Son, and Holy Ghost.

Gordie Howe has died. He’s gone. But for those of my generation he will always be young and strong: a giant of a player and honourable man. And a part of me will always be that skinny kid skating alone on a frigid night and begging Mom for just a little while longer; just a few more minutes to imagine himself bigger and better; just a few more minutes to be Gordie Howe.

Gordie Howe and I

(the author and Gordie Howe)

This article appeared in the Globe and Mail on June 14, 2016. RIP Mr. Howe.

 

The Difference Between a Father and a Dad

My father is a good Dad. Every winter he created the world’s best backyard hockey rink. Well, it was the best rink in my nine-year-old world and that’s all that really mattered. It filled our large yard. It had boards and nets and benches and even lights for night games.

One frigid night my Dad was out on the rink waving the hose with that long, slow sweep that I liked to watch from my bedroom window, when suddenly, he experienced an epiphany. He went to the basement and dug out the lawn sprinkler. He carefully placed it and delicately adjusted the direction and volume of the spray. With a smile, he went in and to bed and slept with the satisfaction that by morning the rink would thicker and smoother than ever before.

I awoke the next morning to an odd banging. I stood in my pajamas with my Mom and brothers, gazing out our kitchen window with wide-eyed amazement. It was like nothing we’d ever seen. You know, it’s the little things that always get you in the end. It’s the tiny overlooked detail. It’s the ordinary and usual that you have just stopped noticing. It’s like the clothesline that had been there forever and stretched the length of the yard, diagonally across the rink. It was the clothesline that with each cascading spray, all night long, relentlessly, had dripped and dripped and froze along its twenty-foot length and then dripped and froze some more.

My Dad had woken up and turned the water off downstairs, walked up the basement steps, and stopped dead. Reflecting the dawn’s brilliant sun was a wall of ice, eight inches thick, seven feet tall, and twenty feet long. It was beautiful. It was horrible.

My brothers and I begged to go outside but my Mom was wise and held us close. We watched as my Dad wielded a shovel. At first tentatively, and then more aggressively, he whacked the wall’s base. He banged and chipped and chopped until with a mighty swing intended to crumble the thing he smacked its centre.

It started slowly at first; almost majestically. The entire wall swung up and then back and as it swung again he gave it a mighty smack. With that it all became magical. It slowly swung up and then over and then up and over again. The whole magnificent wall swung clockwise over the top and then around. Long ice shards began rocketing off in every direction. Not knowing whether it was funny or terrifying we watched my Dad throw the shovel, cover his head, and run with ice missiles soaring over and around him as the wall swung, a little quicker now, three complete times over the top and around.

It took a long while to cut up and remove the wall and even longer to get the rink back into shape. But that very night, to his ever-lasting credit, my Dad was back out there braving the cold and waving the hose with that long, slow sweep. We agreed that despite everything, the sprinkler had been a sound idea. But it stayed in the basement until spring.

Even better, though, was the idea that when he could have been warm inside, he instead devoted hours alone in the frigid dark, night after night, trading his time and toil for his kid’s fun. That’s the difference between a father and a Dad.

My Dad is 80 now and doing the best that he can. I’ve heard Alzheimer’s called a slow goodbye but I never really understood it until now. He’s fading but he’s still him. As I take care of the man who took care of me I find myself remembering the fun and funny times. The difference between a father and a Dad has never meant more.

me as Gordie Howe

The author, a Gordie Howe fan, on his rink.

If you liked this column, please consider sharing it with others or perhaps checking out my other columns or even my books at Chapters, Amazon, or sensible book stores everywhere. Even better than that, call or recall someone who means or meant to you what my Dad means to me.