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.