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Every good review, every message of praise of my book, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, makes my day.

Two reviews, both by former colleagues and lengthy for an Amazon page, have been especially rewarding.

The latest popped up on Wednesday, written by Ron Cohen, an editor who encouraged me when I was a rookie reporter at United Press International in New York, and went on to become managing editor of UPI.

I hesitate to use the word “literature” in reviewing a memoir — mostly out of fear that my old UPI colleague Ken Becker will cross the border into his native land, track me down, and kill me. But literature it is, in the finest sense.
The stories are interesting, the pace compelling, the writing snappy. There are many phrases I wish I had written and would like to steal — one of my personal measurements of quality “literature.” The central character performs some feats of derring-do, but understands that even brash and bluster sometimes encounter uncrossable lines.
Having recently completed a memoir, I know full well what a slog it can be. Mine took seven years — there is a fine line between braggadocio and clear-eyed self-examination, and Ken Becker has toggled it beautifully. Read this excellent book and take a journey through the mysterious world of journalism that denizens of “The Outside World” rarely are afforded.

The first review posted came from the first person – as far as I know – to buy and read the book, Ken Ernhofer, a favorite coworker from my CBC days, now at CNN in Atlanta.

Ken Becker weaves his own life story as a disinterested kid and baseball fan growing up in New York, through his first marriage and travels abroad, into journalism with some of its legendary figures. Ken will have you laughing or outraged and yelling at him, probably both at the same time. He is a blunt, no-nonsense character — yeah they once made movies about this kind of guy — who writes news leads that will grab you by the throat. He’s been insulted by at least one prime minister. And he’s made enemies all over the place, but also lifelong friends. The section about how he taught journalism to university kids who couldn’t write has so much good advice about writing, news gathering, and life it could be a textbook, but no textbook was ever so entertaining. It helps if you know something about journalism, but you do not need to be a reporter to like this book. Breathing will suffice.

Yeah, I know, a rave on a screen is not a printed page in the New York Times Book Review. But I’m operating at a disadvantage here.

I didn’t have a literary agent to sell my manuscript to a publishing house which, in turn, has a publicity department to courier review copies to newspapers and other media, and publicists to promote the book.

I’ve had to solicit reviews in emails to book editors at the major newspapers in the United States and Canada.

I tailored the message to fit the paper, its geography and readership, added the Amazon link to The Expat Files, and ended with the same line: If you are interested — but not enough to buy the book — I would be happy to send you a review copy.

I have no idea whether the Times, or the Washington Post, or the Globe and Mail, or the Toronto Star, or any book editor, has ordered my book. None has asked for a review copy.

In the meantime, I pass my days playing publicist – as I am doing now – and taking pleasure from every review, every note from readers:

  • From my cousin Brian Meyer, the rabbi (pictured above), in Portland, Oregon: “I am loving this book … Beautifully written. About the grit of life.”
  • From Hugh Wesley, a great companion with a camera on assignments for the Toronto Sun: “A good read – smooth as butter.”
  • From my son-in-law, Hugh McCrie: “I just flew through this book, only disappointed when I ran out of pages.”
  • From my accountant, Peter Newhouse: “Excellent story … Well written and easy to read.”
  • From my old tabletop-baseball pal Gord Shank: “More like a fireside chat with an extremely interesting journalist than reading a book.”
  • From an old acquaintance not forgotten, Greg Eby from Thunder Bay: “I really enjoyed it … Very well done! I hope it is widely read, and a ‘best-seller’!”

Why are they all men?

Sorry. Almost forgot an email from an old drinking companion and fellow scribe in Vancouver, Christine Hearn: “I loved your book. I read it in two huge gulps … What memories … Those early newsroom years seem like yesterday. The clatter of the typewriters, people yelling ‘copy,’ deskers screaming, long nights at the press club.”

Look forward to the next one.

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Author! Author!

On the top shelf of a bookcase in my living room, between Catch-22 and Portnoy’s Complaint, are a couple of proof copies of my new book, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

When the first one arrived in the familiar brown cardboard Amazon packaging, I tore it open with an enthusiasm and anticipation not felt since I was a kid.

I wrapped my right hand around it, measured its heft. Raised it to my face. Was there a secret scent only the author could detect?

Author!

“You’ve been waiting for this your whole life, dad,” daughter Jodie said on Christmas Eve when I showed her the book.

She’s not far off.

In my early twenties, while paying my dues and learning the craft of reporting and writing news, I dreamed of someday picking up where Hemingway left off, engaging in literary combat with Mailer, going Gonzo alongside Hunter S. Thompson.

My writing heroes changed over the years, but I never lost the belief that I would someday have a book – many books – published.

All the false starts, frustrations and disappointments are chronicled in The Expat Files. What’s not included is how this book came about.

In November 2006, I turned sixty, a time for looking back and trying to figure out how I got that far. I’d kept all the files of my working life, from the letters I wrote and received as a teenager applying for newspaper jobs in New York to the memos and emails that ended my career at Canadian Press and revived it at CBC News in Toronto.

There were boxes of bylined newspaper and magazine clips and stacks of cassette tapes from dozens of interviews I’d conducted as a reporter.

I finished the second draft of a memoir on May 1, 2007. What happened next is in the book.

Flash forward to last summer, when I decided to rewrite the manuscript with the intention of publishing it through Amazon. I took an axe to the original and added more personal stuff than I’d ever revealed in my writing.

My goal was to have it published when summer turned to fall. Didn’t make it.

I set a deadline of my birthday in November. Missed it too.

I kept rewriting, cutting, trimming, making corrections. When I sent the manuscript to Amazon in early December, and it came out to 600 pages, I screamed “holy shit,” pulled it back, and cut 18,000 words.

The Kindle edition came out on December 21. The print edition was available the next day in the United States.

I was told it could take up to thirty days to release the paperback in Canada. Every day, I checked Amazon Canada. One year ended, another began.

Amazon sent me those proof copies I mentioned. But, as far as I knew, I was the only one in Canada with my hands on my book.

Finally, late last Friday, I found the listing on Amazon.ca.

I immediately fired off emails and social media posts – already prepared – to spread the word.

I spent the weekend replying to messages of congratulations and encouragement. The most gratifying was a Facebook comment from a former CP colleague, Dan Slovitt, who wrote: “Your book is captivating so I haven’t accomplished a damn thing for the past day.”

My sister called twice from New York to tell me again and again, “I didn’t know about that!”

I talked to my pal Ken Ernhofer in Atlanta, one of my favorite people from my CBC days, who had finished the book. He offered praise and kind words, though we argued about the merits of hockey – he loves it, I hate it.

Will writing I hate hockey cost me book sales? I hate thinking about such things more than I hate hockey.

Salesmanship – salespersonship? – makes me queasy.

All I want to do is get back to the real work – writing – move on to the next project, a novel.

Maybe next year I’ll get my mitts on another book. Then I can call myself not only an author, but a novelist.

 

Good stories well told

My old UPI colleague, Ron Cohen, has written a delightful book called Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast!: A Journalist’s Uncommon Memoir.

The title reflects the 80-year-old Cohen’s gift of his life’s stories to his grandkids. The subtitle foreshadows a charming and amusing brew of tales from inside and outside the newsroom.

Throughout the narrative, Cohen weaves personal anecdotes with memorable news events, such as:

  • The day killer grizzlies in Montana competed for his attention with the birth of his first child in New Jersey.
  • How his high school French teacher, FiFi Allen, helped him report a major development in the 1970 October Crisis in Canada.

I worked with Ron in the early 1970s when he was running UPI’s overnight operation and I was a rookie reporter/editor at New York headquarters. He would move on to Washington where he would become managing editor of the wire service.

The essential attribute of a supervising editor is news judgment. And Cohen exhibited it in spades the day President Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady, were shot in March 1981.

While AP, Reuters and the U.S. TV networks were erroneously reporting that Brady was dead, Cohen insisted the news “must come from a responsible source at the hospital,” he writes in one of the most compelling chapters in the book.

I was reminded of the Brady blunder 30 years later when many in the media “killed” Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords –and when Aaron Sorkin highlighted the fiasco in an episode of The Newsroom on HBO.

A couple of Sorkin’s characters at fictional TV network ACN appear to be channeling Ron Cohen when they refuse to follow others reporting Giffords is dead.

“Get me official confirmation,” says one producer.

Adds another: “A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news.”

When their judgment is proven sound, there is sustained gloating.

There is little self-congratulation in Cohen’s memoir. Just good stories well told.

Statesman, egghead, lover, hero

The first story in this space appeared exactly two years ago. I’m big on dates that have meaning, so I chose July 14 because it was the 50th anniversary of the death of Adlai Stevenson.

Stevenson was a hero in my house when I was growing up. My mother’s hero, anyway.

She voted for him for president, in 1952 and 1956. He lost twice, of course.

Dorothy Becker and Adlai Stevenson, with apologies to Jude the Apostle and Bernie Sanders, are my patron saints of lost causes.

Stevenson was the inspiration for the character of William Russell in Gore Vidal’s play The Best Man.

Russell was a former secretary of state running for his party’s presidential nomination. The rap on Russell – and Stevenson – was that he was an egghead, too brainy to be president. He lost, of course.

In the movie version of The Best Man, Russell, played by Henry Fonda, is asked by a reporter, “Do you think people mistrust intellectuals like you in politics?”

“Intellectual? You mean I wrote a book? Well, as Bertrand Russell said, people in a democracy tend to think they have less to fear from a stupid man than an intelligent one. Actually, it’s the other way around.”

Flash forward to the White House in 2017. On second thought, for the moment, let’s stay in the past.

Stevenson was JFK’s ambassador to the United Nations. It was the former Illinois governor, the egghead, whose words crushed the Soviet ambassador, Valerian Zorin, in the Security Council during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

“Let me ask you one simple question. Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium and intermediate range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no?”

“I am not in an American courtroom, sir,” the Russian replied, “and therefore I do not wish to answer a question that is put to me in the fashion in which a prosecutor does. In due course, sir, you will have your reply. Do not worry.”

You are in the court of world opinion right now and you can answer yes or no …”

The Russian tried to duck the question once again.

Stevenson went in for the kill. “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over … And I’m also prepared to present the evidence in this room.”

Which he did. Three days later, the crisis was over.

Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come

In yours and my discharge.

Shakespeare, The Tempest

Okay, let’s fast forward to last week’s Trump-Putin tryst in Hamburg, the German city where the Beatles first made their marks.

Oh, please, say to me
You’ll let me be your man.
And, please, say to me
You’ll let me hold your hand.
You let me hold your hand.
I want to hold your hand.

trump-putin

Trump and Putin met for more than two hours in Hamburg. Here’s how the American CEO described his faceoff with the ex-KGB officer on whether the Kremlin orchestrated a cyberattack on the U.S. election:

“I said, ‘Did you do it?’ He said, ‘No, I did not, absolutely not.’ I then asked him a second time, in a totally different way. He said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

Phew!

Not exactly Stevenson facing down the Russian bear – “I want to say to you, Mr. Zorin, that I don’t have your talent for obfuscation, for distortion, for confusing language, and for doubletalk.”

His words would today fit Putin. Or Trump. (Though the vocabulary might be beyond the comprehension of the Tweeter in Chief.)

Stevenson was in London in July 1965 with his longtime lover – her husband apparently didn’t mind, and he was divorced – Marietta Peabody Tree.

Marietta Tree

The daughter of a Massachusetts Episcopal Church rector, the young Ms. Tree had been an ardent supporter of Stevenson’s presidential runs and served under him as the American representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Marietta Tree reminds me of the Viennese socialite and seductress Alma Schindler (1879-1964), who bedded, among others, composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius and novelist Franz Werfel.

Alma, tell us,
All modern women are jealous.
Though you didn’t even use Ponds,
You got Gustav and Walter and Franz.

– Tom Lehrer

Marietta’s romantic tree and progeny included a first husband, New York lawyer Desmond FitzGerald and their daughter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Frances FitzGerald; film director John Huston, with whom she had a passionate affair; a second husband, Ronald Tree, a wealthy British politician, and their daughter, the ’60s fashion model Penelope Tree.

Stevenson popped up in the show biz scandal sheets as well, as a frequent escort of Lauren Bacall after Bogie’s death.

In any case, on July 14, 1965, Adlai Stevenson and Marietta Tree, who was nearly 20 years younger, were walking through London’s Grosvenor Square when he had a massive heart attack and crashed to the pavement.

He died later that day in St. George’s Hospital at the age of 65. LBJ dispatched Air Force One to London to bring Stevenson’s body home.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson II – his namesake grandfather had been vice president under Grover Cleveland – was buried in the family plot in Bloomington, Illinois. President Johnson and Lady Bird sat in the front row at the funeral.

I couldn’t make it. I was a counsellor at a camp in the Catskills and had lifeguard duty that day.

My Canada: The expat experience, Part II

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the last of seven parts.

I’ve now lived in Canada much longer than I did in the United States.

Yet, I’m afraid, I will always view Canada from an American perspective.

I know what July 4th is – it’s American Independence Day.

But what is July 1st?

That’s a bit more complicated.

The Fathers of Confederation – John A. Macdonald and 18 other lawyers – spent about three years yakking and hatched a scheme to create something of their own out of the British colonies in North America.

There would be four provinces – Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – which they proposed to call the “Kingdom of Canada.”

But that didn’t sit well with the Brits, who were still in charge and would be for another century or so. They came up with the Dominion of Canada, a made-up word with roots in Middle English, which, roughly translated, meant frigid stepchildren.

Since the Brits would still have dominion over Canada, their Parliament passed the British North America Act, which was given royal assent by Queen Victoria on March 29, 1867.

It did not take effect until July 1, 1867 since, as Queen Victoria noted, “Our subjects across the sea prefer to go to the cottage and set off fireworks after the ice melts and the black flies lose their sting.”

July 1 was not proclaimed a statutory holiday, Dominion Day, until 1879, when the governor general, Lord Lorne, the Duke of Argyll, and his wife, Princess Louise, Victoria’s daughter, hosted a wiener roast at Rideau Hall.

By then, there were seven provinces, from the Atlantic to Pacific, breweries were bottling beer from Saint John, N.B.. to Victoria, and Sir John A. had sent the Mounties out to tame the west.

But there were still more beavers in Canada than people, the last spike had yet to be hammered in a transcontinental railroad, and hockey was a new game played by dilettantes at McGill.

When I first moved north of the border in 1973, I figured Canada’s birthday – it was still called Dominion Day – was celebrated on July 1st just to get a three-day beat on the Fourth of July.

I also didn’t understand why Thanksgiving was in October or why Queen Victoria’s birthday was a national holiday.

Or why Canadian kids didn’t get off school on Yom Kippur like I did in New York. Or why I never met a Jew in Vancouver.

Why did Canadians call November 11th Remembrance Day instead of Veterans Day? What’s with the poppies?

And what the hell was Boxing Day?

Why was it the Grey Cup and not the Gray Cup? Why did two of the seven teams in the Canadian Football League have the same name?

I never bought the explanation that one was the Rough Riders, the other the Roughriders. Why did they name teams after Teddy Roosevelt’s cavalry unit, anyway?

Also, if Canada is so damn politically correct, why is there still a football team called the Eskimos? And why is it the Toronto Maple Leafs and not the Maple Leaves?

Why can’t I get an edible pastrami sandwich in this country? And what the hell is a New York steak?

But Canada is my home and I’ve learned a damn sight more about this country than most Canadians.

When I was teaching college journalism in Toronto in the early 2000s, most of my students didn’t know John Diefenbaker from a ’49 Studebaker.

The other day, at a Canadian Tire store near my home in Mississauga, I was greeted by a gabby old clerk and a large banner heralding Canada’s 150th birthday.

While I wanted directions to the aisle where I could find something to clean my computer screen, the clerk had his own agenda.

“Where you from?” he asked, apparently detecting a remnant of my American accent.

“New York, originally,” I replied.

He chuckled. “What do you think of Trump?”

“I’m not amused as you seem to be.”

Driving home, I thought I should have been more polite, more Canadian, changed the subject, maybe asked the old chap why I was taught the War of 1812 was a draw and Canadians say they won.

Or, asked: How about that sesquicentennial, eh?

***

This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

My Canada: A country retreat

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the sixth of seven parts.

“We can go anywhere,” I said to the kids, looking at the map of North America on the dining room table, hoping to make it sound like a great adventure.

It was 1995. Daughter Jodie was twelve, Lacey nine.

We’d been living in the same house in Clarkson for a dozen years. I’d been at Canadian Press all that time, and a buyout was in the works.

For weeks, Linda and I had looked at that map and eliminated places we didn’t want to live. We knew we wanted a house in the country, with a view of water – an ocean, a lake – or mountains. Or both.

We decided to stay in Canada, hoping any culture shock would not be as jarring for the kids. We crossed out all of Atlantic Canada because it reminded of us Maine, where people were less welcoming of outsiders.

Quebec was also out. Language. So was southern Ontario, since we wanted a change from the flatland that had long been our home. The Prairies were never considered for the same reason.

British Columbia was eliminated because it was just too groovy.

In the end, we focused on Canmore, Alberta, and Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Canmore was a fast-growing community on the eastern edge of the Rockies. But, though we truly loved those mountains, it was just far from family.

So, the winner was Thunder Bay. It seemed to be a big enough city – with more than 100,000 people – to provide the creature comforts we required.

Linda flew to Thunder Bay and found us a fabulous house in the country, on a bay of Lake Superior, just outside the city. We arrived in late September.

The house was even more spectacular than Linda had described it. The pictures she’d taken had not shown much of the interior, the great open space that included the living room, dining room and kitchen, all windows facing the lake, tree-covered islands and the Sleeping Giant peninsula.

The kids seemed happy, taking the bus from the top of our driveway to the rural schoolhouse that included kindergarten through eighth grade.

Jasper, our second black standard poodle – Yaz lived to thirteen – especially loved our new home, since he was set free whenever he asked to go out, and could wander in the woods or saunter down to the lake for a drink.

Remarkably, he avoided confrontations with the foxes, wolves and moose that out-numbered the people in our neighborhood, though he did alert us one night to a huge black bear consuming a tub full of sunflower seeds I’d left on the deck, near the birdfeeder. Another time, he treed a small bear for entertainment.

treedbear2

I welcomed any diversion from the chore of working on a novel, taking long walks in the woods with Jasper, driving through Sleeping Giant Provincial Park to photograph wildlife, spending many hours splitting wood to heat our home. Very macho. Very Canadian.

Winter arrived on Halloween and lasted until June, when the ice on the lake broke up in a storm one night, throwing huge chunks onto our shore.

Ice on shore

By the next spring, I was taking freelance writing assignments. The most memorable was a magazine piece on an outfit called Blue Loon Adventures, run by a trio of Canadian biologists.

Starting at 5:30 a.m., I spent a morning in the bush with one of them, John Woodcock – yes, that was his real name – capturing and tagging a smorgasbord of birds: warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, vireos, grosbeaks, flickers, and many more of the hundreds of species that migrate to northwestern Ontario.

While the birds fed on bugs, the bugs fed on us. “That’s part of roughing it,” John said with a chuckle. The kid from the Bronx was not amused.

Despite growing to love the wilderness over my many years in Canada, I do not consider discomfort a requirement of being one with nature. Biting bugs – no thanks. Bitter cold – ditto.

My ideal wilderness adventures may begin with a hike up a mountain in the Rockies or along a trail through the rainforest on the west coast of Vancouver Island, but they end with a sumptuous dinner in a fine restaurant and a good night’s sleep in a king-sized bed at the Jasper Park Lodge or a five-star Tofino resort.

I want to view bears and moose and elk, not smell like them. And we had that luxury in our house on Lake Superior.

Still, over time, the isolation of the place overrode the scenic beauty. Living in a two-channel universe was no longer a novelty.

Our first winter, we were snowed in for days. One spring, when a beaver dam burst and washed out the Trans-Canada Highway, we were cut off from Thunder Bay – in fact, cross-country traffic had to turn back to Michigan or Minnesota on a detour of hundreds of miles to get around Superior on the U.S. side.

At 12:01 a.m. on my fiftieth birthday – November 19, 1996 – alone in the living room of my rural retreat, I knew it was time go.

By the time Linda and the kids were on the same page, it was the early summer of 1998 and I had taken my first job in television news, with the consigliere of Canadian culture, the CBC.

Tomorrow: The expat experience, Part II

***

This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

My Canada: Sleepy Toronto

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the fifth of seven parts.

My advanced studies in all things Canadian really took off after my transfer to Toronto from Montreal in 1976.

I was flying solo again in a UPI bureau, this one a couple of crappy rooms above a Canadian Imperial Back of Commerce branch at the southeast corner of Queen and Yonge streets.

Canadians claim Yonge as the longest street in the world since, north of Toronto, it becomes Highway 11, which runs for 1,178 miles (1,896 kilometres in Canadian) before smacking into the U.S. border at Baudette, Minnesota.

The street is named for Sir George Yonge (1731-1812), a British secretary of war after the American Revolution. Despite the weird spelling, I learned his name, and the street, were pronounced “young.”

My greatest pronunciation challenge in Canada was Newfoundland, until a nice lady at a visitor center on The Rock told me it rhymes with “understand” – so the trick to getting it right is saying “understand, Newfoundland.”

Anyway, I didn’t last much longer at UPI. I was tired of working for a wire service and wanted another crack at a newspaper. (My first reporting job was with the Livermore Herald & News in northern California.)

Pal Joey was then at the Toronto Sun, the first tabloid paper in a major Canadian city. He arranged an interview for me and I started as a city desk reporter on New Year’s Day 1977.

The first time I met Linda she was working as the secretary to the sports editor. She asked me where I was from.

“America,” I replied.

“No you’re not,” she said.

“Yes, I am.”

“There’s no such place.”

“Huh?

“We both come from North America,” she said. “But the country you come from is the United States.”

She deserved a Bronx cheer for that. Instead, by the end of July, we were living together in the lovely Moore Park neighborhood and were married a year later.

By the time I moved to the Big Smoke, Toronto had surpassed Montreal as Canada’s largest city. But it was still a sleepy, provincial place, where the sidewalks were folded up after business hours and on weekends.

Linda and I had a nice home, a new dog – a black standard poodle we named Yaz – and good friends.

I switched from news reporting to covering baseball, the 1978 Toronto Blue Jays, spending much of that time in U.S. cities from Boston to Anaheim.

And while I had no desire to move back to my native land, by the end of the baseball season I’d soured on the Sun and my wanderlust had returned.

On April 1, 1980, we left Toronto in a new 14-foot Mini Cruiser motorhome I’d bought in New York. The plan, if there was one, was to ramble west across Canada. No final destination. No return date.

My Canadian education on the road trip included:

  • Spending a day with a couple of Ojibway men tapping trees and making maple syrup on Parry Island, Ontario.
  • Spending a night on Manitoulin Island where “howling wolves (were) sending shivers down the spines of townsfolk,” as the Gore Bay Recorder reported. The upshot: A few dead sheep and 150 wolves shot.
  • Hearing news of the failed U.S. operation – eight Americans dead – to free the hostages in Iran. Yet Linda and I were more interested in Yaz chasing three bears up a tree during a hike that day in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba.
  • Chatting with the mayor of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, about his old pal, John Diefenbaker, who had died the previous summer.
  • Going to a rodeo, the Ponoka Stampede, near Edmonton.
  • Sitting around a campfire in Jasper National Park with three couples who told us they lived and worked in the oilfields near Fort McMurray, the first time I heard about that growing boom town and the tar sands.
  • Hearing the news that Quebecers had voted “no” in a referendum to separate from Canada. Since we were on the other side of the Rockies, in B.C., its own separate nation, nobody seemed to care one way or the other.
  • Looking for a hermit on the west coast of Vancouver Island and finding a lovely old man named Bill Billing, who told us about growing up in Cornwall, England, and his years as a policeman in Shanghai.
  • Crossing into Washington state and confusing the hell out of the pistol-packing U.S. border guard. American man? Canadian woman? New York plates?Where’s your home?” he asked. “Here,” I said. “Or New York, or Toronto. Take your pick.” He finally waved us through.
  • Stopping at a supermarket in Bellingham, Washington, for groceries, beer and wine. The lady at the checkout asked Linda for ID. Then she asked me. I laughed. She said she was just following orders. Maybe Americans and Canadians aren’t that different.

I know what it is to be an American. But what is the Canadian identity? In my experience, people tend to see themselves first as Newfoundlanders, Maritimers, Quebecers, Ontarians, westerners, northerners.

All, outside the 416 area code, can be united in despising Toronto. And all can come together to cheer an Olympic gold medal in hockey, or mourn a Canadian death on a distant battlefield.

And while Canadians travel with the Maple Leaf on their backpack to proudly proclaim, “we’re not American,” it’s possible to live in this country watching exclusively American TV programs and Hollywood movies, and consuming U.S. news media.

Meanwhile, Linda and I completed our six-month trip by driving down the coast to Los Angeles, visiting the canyons of Arizona and Utah, Yellowstone National Park, crossing the northern states all the way to Maine – and going home to Toronto.

We would go back to Maine and live there briefly, boomerang back to Toronto, move to Clarkson in Mississauga, and have two daughters.

I’d go back to United Press, then Canadian Press, before uprooting my family, venturing into the hinterlands of northwestern Ontario.

Tomorrow: A country retreat

My Canada: Killer cat and hockey pucks

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the fourth of seven parts.

I’ve never read Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes. I didn’t have to. I lived it.

During my two years in Montreal, my home was an apartment on the top floor of a highrise at St. Catherine and Fort, in the Anglo enclave near the Montreal Forum.

I spoke only English to the clerk in the nearby English-language bookstore; to the barman in the Irish pub down the street; to the waiters in the upscale restaurants I frequented; to the people in my office; to the other reporters from the English media.

I had a bonjour-au revoir-s’il vous plait-merci vocabulary, just enough to be polite to the Quebecois, who were starting to get restless during my time in Montreal.

While I initially spent most of my workdays on the editing desk at UPI’s Canadian headquarters in Place Victoria, I did catch one hell of a story during my time in the city.

At about 2 a.m. on January 21, 1975, I was awakened by a call from photo chief Gary Bartlett, who told me to get up, get a cab and meet him at a topless joint called the Gargantua Bar Salon on the north side of the city.

“I’ve already been to a bar tonight,” I said. “Now, I need some sleep.”

“Well, this bar is on fire,” he said, “and we hear there are lots of bodies inside.”

Montreal is not the best place to be outdoors on assignment in the middle of the night in January. When I arrived, it looked like the set of an Ice Age movie – icy stalagmites rising from the pavement, frozen solid in seconds as water sprouted from fire hoses.

The ruins of the building were still smoldering. The scent of burning flesh spiced the wind-chill. The spinning lights of police cars and ambulances added an eerie glow to the scene.

As I stood there with my notebook and fast-frozen pen, the body bags kept coming out.

A couple of hours earlier, the bar manager, a waitress and eleven patrons had been in the Gargantua when a gunman – or gunmen – entered. The manager was shot on the spot.

The waitress and the rest were herded into a six-foot by eight-foot cold-storage room, and locked inside. A jukebox was pushed in front of the door to ensure their imprisonment. Then, the place was set afire.

The bar manager died of the gunshot wound; the other twelve of asphyxiation.

By morning, the police had a suspect, Richard “The Cat” Blass, implicated in a double-murder in the same bar a couple of months earlier.

He was known as The Cat because he had survived several shootouts with police and fellow gangsters, once getting out of a burning hotel room after being shot four times in the head. He’d busted out of prison twice. The media were counting his lives and the number was approaching nine.

The police put their most feared and accomplished detective, Sergeant Albert “Kojak” Lisacek, on the case, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later cop who hated bad guys and loved the spotlight.

The tabloids called him Kojak because he looked like the Telly Savalas television character, a big man and a sharp dresser, with a shaved head.

I used to run into him in the convenience store off the lobby of my apartment building, where he once walked in on a robbery, drew his gun, scared off the lowlife, chased him into the street and shot him dead.

Three days after the Gargantua massacre, Kojak and his cohorts crashed through the door of a cabin in the Laurentians at 4 a.m. and shot Blass 23 times, just to make sure he was out of lives.

The cops never proved Blass was responsible for the Gargantua. The case was written off, as many other murders were in the city in those days, as a reglement des comptes, an underworld settling of accounts, a synonym for that wonderful French phrase laissez faire, which, roughly translated, means: the hell with work, let’s go to lunch.

Less than a year into my tenure in Montreal, with no more massacres to cover, I managed to con my way into a position as the only fulltime UPI sportswriter in the country, charged mainly with handling the run-up to the ’76 Montreal Olympics.

But I would also do stories on the Expos, cover World Cup skiing at Mont Ste-Anne, the 1975 Canadian Open golf championship at the Royal Montreal Golf Club, a Grand Prix race at Mosport, and Muhammad Ali’s brief stopover at Dorval airport on his way home from the Rumble in the Jungle.

Growing up a sports nut in New York, I loved baseball, basketball and football, in that order. As a kid, the only reason I went to hockey games was because the tickets for the Rangers at Madison Square Garden were cheap – two bucks for a seat in the end balcony.

But covering the 1974-75 Montreal Canadiens turned out to be one of my most memorable experiences as a sportswriter.

Montreal Canadiens

They didn’t win the Stanley Cup in 1975 – they would the next four years – but seemed to be a special collection of great and noble players: Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey, Serge Savard, and Yvon Cournoyer. I covered their home games in the 1975 playoffs.

For me, the scene in the dressing room after each game at the Montreal Forum was better theater than the play on the ice. Not yet educated in the post-game interview, I had trouble understanding why the reporters were asking players about what had just transpired. Didn’t they watch the game?

On my first visit to the Canadiens’ locker room, I noticed the Anglo reporters only spoke to English-speaking players and the French reporters to their fellow Quebecois.

I found it especially comical that all the English reporters gravitated to Ken Dryden, the self-anointed hockey scholar and lawyer – the Cornell grad had a law degree from McGill – who would expound on the minutiae of goal-tending as if it were a science, not the reflex of sticking out a glove, stick or foot to stop a puck.

Instead of exploring the Zen of Ken, I went to the locker of the great Cournoyer. I waited for the crowd of French-speaking reporters to clear, then moved in and asked him a question, in English. He looked at me like I had descended from Pluto. He wasn’t rude, simply surprised. He answered my questions softly and slowly, as if unsure whether I’d understand his accented English.

“Merci,” I said when we finished.

“You’re welcome,” he said.

***

This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

My Canada: Booze and bears

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the third of seven parts.

Early in my time as Vancouver correspondent for UPI, my phone rang in the middle of the night.

“Ken,” said the overnight editor on the Foreign Desk in New York, “there’s a ship going down off the coast of Labrador.”

“Labrador is closer to you than it is to me,” I said. “For Christ’s sake, look at a map before you wake someone up.”

My Canadian education began right after I accepted the job in Vancouver, when I looked at a map and saw where it was. Since my coverage area extended east to the Ontario border, and north to the Arctic Circle, I decided I should at least learn the geography, something about Canada’s history – which seemed to be mainly about English and French fighting each other, the English always winning, and the French forever pissed off – and its parliamentary form of government, with its Liberals and Tories and the Queen still theoretically in charge.

I spent the first month in Vancouver living at the Ritz hotel – my first Canadian friend was a bartender named Joe – before finding a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks from my office.

While I waited with the landlord for the moving truck to arrive, he asked, “Do you have a chesterfield?”

“No,” I replied, “I smoke Marlboro.”

The UPI bureau was two tiny rooms, with a desk, two teletype machines and a couple of filing cabinets. One teletype constantly belched out the news from around the world, the other was for me to punch my stories onto a tape and feed them to the editing desk in Montreal. Since there was little news from western Canada, I did little punching.

On Fridays, I’d fill a bottom file drawer with ice and beer and invite some of the reporters and editors from the Canadian Press bureau next door to join me for happy hour.

Making friends in the community of journalists in Vancouver proved easy. I was a curiosity – the brash New Yorker unleashed among the genteel Canadians in the laid-back Lotus Land of the Left Coast.

On my first trip to Victoria, to cover the provincial government’s Speech from the Throne, I checked into the stately Empress hotel and made a beeline for the Bengal Room, a bar where the waiters dressed like lackeys from Delhi during the good old days of the British raj.

Dominating the room, above a fireplace, was a tiger skin, complete with head and tail.

Sitting below it were a handful of guys – and one woman – drinking beer and laughing too loud. Obviously reporters.

I walked up to them, waited for a break in the conversation, and shouted, “Okay, which one of you sons-of-bitches shot that tiger?”

They sized me up, figured I was one of them, laughed, and introduced themselves. I enjoyed their company, the business our bond, as were the hangovers we took to the legislature the next day.

Planning drinking time in the puritanical British Columbia of the early 1970s became a preoccupation, if not my occupation.

On Sundays, when you could only order a drink with a meal, I would gather with journalist cronies at the Hotel Vancouver for what we called “brunch.” The waiter would place a moldy cheese plate, a prop, on the table and we’d drink until closing time.

The rare sunny day would be passed at the poolside bar at the Bayshore. In the evening, we’d kill bottles of white wine with Dungeness crab at the Cannery, and bottles of red with veal at Mama Mia’s.

Most nights ended at the Vancouver Press Club, a hole-in-the-wall bar just south of the Granville Street Bridge, a short walk from my office in the Pacific Press Building.

I had a wonderful time with a great group of journalists, mainly from the Sun and Province, CP and BCTV. We shared an instant and easy camaraderie, talked the same language, laughed at the same jokes, got turned on by the same things – booze, sex, adrenaline – read the same books and magazines: Esquire, Rolling Stone, everything by Hunter S. Thompson.

My role was the worldly New Yorker, the adventurer just passing through. To burnish my image as a foreign correspondent, I had bought a safari suit – to wear under my genuine U.S. Air Force Artic Parka – a trenchcoat and a couple of turtleneck cashmere sweaters at Bloomingdale’s before I left New York.

I further publicized my pedigree in a story I wrote for UPI, which ran on the op-ed page of the Province. It opened with an editor’s note:

Kenneth M. Becker, United Press International bureau manager in Vancouver since last spring, previously had lived most of his life in New York City, which has one of the highest crime rates in the world. He was never mugged. This is an account of what happened to him during a trip to the wilds of B.C.

I then told of an overnight hike I took with a couple of fellow journalists to a remote lake where we camped overnight – my rum-soaked brain consumed with fear of bears – and the trek back down the mountain to my car in a parking lot off the highway.

Disbelief. It must have been the marauding bears come to the low country. The car was ransacked. All doors open, trunk broken into, battery gone, along with a set of golf clubs, a tennis racket and my baseball glove, a cherished possession from many memorable softball games in Central Park.

Drunk or sober, I thought, man is no match for marauding bears armed with wire coathangers and screwdrivers.

The piece concluded with a tow-truck driver arriving with a new battery.

“New York, huh,” the driver said as he spied the license plates on my immobile Fiat. “I guess this kind of thing ain’t new to you.

“Yes,” I said, “it’s the first time.”

I did come to love the wilderness of the west. I’d drive north on the scenic highway to the dead end of Highway 99 – passing Whistler before it was Whistler – at Pemberton; west across Vancouver Island to Long Beach; east to the Rockies.

But, after about 20 months in Vancouver, the rain and boredom of the news beat finally got to me. I asked for a real foreign assignment, in Europe, where my daughter was.

But all UPI would offer was a one-way ticket to Canadian headquarters in Montreal.

Tomorrow: Killer cat and hockey pucks

***

This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

My Canada: Arriving in Lotus Land

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the second of seven parts.

“What is the purpose of your visit to Canada?” asked the border guard.

“I’m moving here,” I said.

“May I see your immigration papers, please.”

I reached into my briefcase and pulled out the only document UPI had given me, a couple of lines typed on company letterhead.

To whom it may concern:

Please be advised that Kenneth Becker is the new bureau manager for United Press International in Vancouver, Canada.

“Where is your work permit?” asked the customs’ man.

“This is all I got,” I said, flapping the letter in his face.

“You’ll have to pull over there,” he said, pointing to a few parking slots beside a small one-story building. “Go inside to talk to an immigration officer.”

It was January 1973. I’d been on the road for a week, driving from New York to Los Angeles, then up the coast to Washington state-B.C. border.

My transfer from New York to Vancouver had come about with remarkable speed. My colleague Emil Sveilis – we’d been pals at UPI-New York – had become Canadian news editor based in Montreal. We’d kept in touch. He ended each conversation with, “When are you coming up to work in Canada?”

I’d laugh and say, “Who the hell wants to live in Canada?”

But when he had called in late November 1972, asking the question again and saying there was an opening in the Vancouver bureau, I replied, “Where’s Vancouver?”

“Near Seattle,” he said.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

Before I left New York, my ex-wife-in-waiting, Anita, bought me a genuine U.S. Air Force Arctic Parka, guaranteed to keep me toasty in temperatures down to 30-below.

I didn’t yet know the weather in Vancouver, year-round, was 58 degrees and drizzling, more like San Francisco than Ice Station Zebra.

At least my Fiat 124 wasn’t packed with snowshoes, ice-fishing gear and big-game-hunting rifles when I pulled up to the Canada Customs’ inspection station in Surrey, B.C., to talk to the immigration officer.

I was pretty steamed, thinking these Canadians had some nerve deciding who could work in their country. I’d visited Canada twice before: once driving to Halifax to see Anita’s aunt and uncle and cousins, another spending a weekend in Montreal. Neither time had anyone questioned my right to enter the country.

But now some snooty Canadian was telling me I couldn’t go to my new job.

“You need a permit to work in Canada,” the immigration officer said.

“Okay,” I said, “give me one.”

“I can’t just write a permit for anybody who drives up to the border,” he said.

“Why not? You let any draft-dodger into the country.”

“Are you evading the draft?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “I’m here to work, as you can see.”

He retreated to an inner office.

Evening dragged into night. I suggested he call my boss in Montreal, who’d confirm my employment. He finally agreed and, after scolding my boss on the phone, wrote me out a work permit, good for one year.

I was traveling with a guy I worked with in New York – the road trip was his vacation – and two American hippie chicks we’d picked up hitchhiking in a rainstorm outside Portland.

The women, who said they were joining a commune in the B.C. mountains, waited in the car throughout my interrogation. They had no trouble crossing the border since they’d lied, saying they were tourists planning to spend only a few days in Canada.

By the time we drove into Vancouver, it was after midnight. The two hitchhikers disappeared into the night when we arrived at my hotel, the Ritz, which failed to live up to its name.

I’d been in Vancouver about three weeks when, one day, in the cafeteria of the Pacific Press Building, I stood dumbstruck at the north-facing picture windows.

“Where the hell did they come from?” I shouted to no one in particular.

I was talking about the mountains. I hadn’t seen them before in the rain and gloom of my new hometown – did not know they were there.

And while I would come to believe Vancouver was the ugliest city in the most beautiful setting in the world, those mountains would always beckon.

Tomorrow: Booze and bears

***

This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.