Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Going to bat for the Slow-Ball Señor

Enrique Díaz, 41, known as the Rickey Henderson of Cuban baseball, visits with Conrado Marrero, 99, at his apartment in Havana in February, 2011. Marrero, who is the oldest living former major leaguer, turned 100 on April 25.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 27, 2011


On the first day of his second century, Conrado Marrero indulged his passion for Cuban tobacco.

A steady stream of visitors dropped by a small but tidy apartment in Havana on Monday to pay tribute to an old baseball player on his birthday. Among the gifts was a humidor containing 100 cigars, one for each year since he was born on his father’s modest sugar-cane plantation in the Cuban countryside.

Mr. Marrero is known at home as El Guajiro (The Hillbilly) for his rural roots and as El Premier (Number One) for his skill on the mound. He learned to throw as a boy by tossing ripened oranges against trees. After being discovered pitching for a local industrial team, he became the most popular player in a land in which baseball has long been religion. His status as national hero was confirmed by hurling Cuba to an amateur world championship in 1942, setting off wild celebrations throughout the Caribbean island.

He made his major-league debut with the old Washington Senators in 1950 just four days before his 39th birthday, making him ancient by professional sports standards. He spent five seasons with the sad-sack Senators, compiling a record of 39 wins and 40 losses, admirable enough given the quality of his teammates, his own advanced age, and a repertoire relying on a slider and an array of junk pitches.

The fans loved Connie, as did sportswriters, for the stubby pitcher (5-foot-5, 158-pounds) smoked stogies and cracked wise, his words invariably recorded in a cartoon Spanglish. He was profiled by the major magazines. Life dubbed him the “Slow-Ball Señor.”

After retiring from the field, he returned to his native land to scout and to coach. He remained after the Fidel Castro-led revolution in 1959 and, in time, he became estranged from the fraternity of baseball players.

Today, he is the oldest living former major leaguer. Among those sending birthday greetings on his birthday was Ernest (Kit) Krieger, a Vancouver man who has spent a decade trying to reconnect Mr. Marrero with former rivals and teammates.

As well, Mr. Krieger has campaigned for Mr. Marrero to get a baseball pension.

“There’s nobody older,” Mr. Krieger said. “There’s nobody who needs it more.”

A lifelong baseball fan, Mr. Krieger was visiting Cuba on a teachers’ exchange when he decided on a whim to look up Mr. Marrero, whose name was in the Havana telephone book.

The two men struck a friendship. They shared a baseball connection of their own in Mickey Vernon. The Gentleman First Baseman, as he was known, had played with Mr. Marrero on the Senators. As a youth of 19, Mr. Krieger subsidized his university studies by working as a clubhouse attendant at Capilano (now Nat Bailey) Stadium, where the manager of the home team was Mr. Vernon. The skipper was talked into allowing his young employee to pitch the final game of the 1968 season for the Vancouver Mounties. The rookie lefty held his own, surrendering just one run in three innings. Mr. Krieger’s pro career lasted just the one game.

Mr. Krieger started a group called Cubaball Tours in which he escorted fans to the island to watch baseball games. A highlight of the trip is a pilgrimage to Mr. Marrero’s second-floor apartment in a building just a long fly ball away from Havana’s largest baseball park.

On those visits, the two men partake of a shtick in which Mr. Krieger describes a game played more than a half-century earlier and Mr. Marrero shows off his phenomenal recall. Ten weeks ago, two dozen baseball fans from the north crowded into the apartment. Mr. Krieger prompted the old player by citing a 1951 game against the New York Yankees in which the underdog Senators prevailed, 7-3. He asked what the great Joe DiMaggio did in the game.

“Pinch-hitter,” Mr. Marrero replied without hesitation. “Struck out.”

Over the years, Mr. Krieger has solicited more than 50 letters from contemporaries of Marrero in which they acknowledge his skill and salute his longevity.

The centenarian lives with his grandson’s family in tightened economic circumstances not unfamiliar in Cuba.

The Cuban government recently raised Mr. Marrero’s monthly pension to 150 convertible pesos (about $142). For many years, he got just $7.62, a paltry sum for someone regarded as a national hero.

Mr. Krieger, 62, who is the registrar of the British Columbia College of Teachers, has had less success in his indefatigable effort to gain Mr. Marrero a baseball pension. His attempts have been thwarted by an uninterested baseball establishment.

That might finally change.

Last week, baseball announced a $10,000 US annual payment for former players in Mr. Marrero’s circumstance. The compensation was arranged following a campaign by retired player Eddie Robinson.

Mr. Krieger immediately contacted Mr. Robinson, who promised to get the money to Mr. Marrero, the slow-ball señor who had once been his teammate.

A vinyl souvenir from a trip to 'death incarnate'

An abandoned child's toy on the floor of an elementary classroom in Pripyat, a village in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear facility. Nic Hume photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 25, 2011


Nic Hume reaches for a vinyl record, slips it from a cardboard envelope, eases it onto a turntable.

The scratchy sound of piano music fills his apartment.

The Cyrillic label indicates this melodiya was issued by the Soviet Union’s cultural ministry. The side we are listening to features Concerto No. 2 by the Ukrainian composer Levko Revutsky.

The last people to listen to this record had been sitting in a Grade 6 classroom in an elementary school in a village along a river.

For more than two decades, the long-playing record remained in a building abandoned in a panic. By the time Mr. Hume came across it, scavengers had long since pillaged the school of wire and metal, leaving behind yellowing books and broken chairs and dusty records. He brought this LP home to Victoria, a reminder of those who once lived in what is now a ghost town.

On his return, he had a friend at the university run a Geiger counter over the vinyl.

Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, a name forever to be associated with catastrophe.

Entire villages were evacuated, abandoning lands that remain an “exclusion zone.” The guards seem to exclude only those unwilling to pay a daily bribe of about $400, which is how a curious Victoria photojournalist got to document a nuclear ghost town.

“I’ve always had an interest in the extremes of human existence,” Mr. Hume said. “To see what was the world’s only bona fide urban nuclear wasteland sounded like something worth seeing.”

Last month, the unique misery of those who lived and worked near Chernobyl was experienced by survivors of the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, the site of the only other Level 7 major accident on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale.

After entering the exclusion zone, marked by a fence of rusted barbed wire, after being waved past saluting guards in Soviet-era uniforms, Mr. Hume wandered within a few football fields of infamous Reactor No. 4.

He also explored the nearby villages of Pripyat and Chernobyl. He carefully walked through an empty school with rotting floors, photographed a wooden gymnasium floor through which a tree had sprouted, peered into a drained swimming pool in which families once frolicked.

At an amusement park, bumper cars had been abandoned as though commuters had fled a cataclysm.

At a hospital, he noticed jars of human blood scattered on the floor, their contents blackened through the passing of the years.

An earlier trespasser in one of the abandoned buildings had scrawled in red ink on a white board — “Pripyat forgive me for what I’ve done.”

He met a squatter who survived by selling scrap materials from inside the zone. No one knows where these materials wind up. The self-proclaimed King of Pripyat — a ruler with no subjects — described suffering from a dry cough, scratchy throat and persistent headache, the telltale signs of radiation exposure. He self-medicates with vodka, a common prescription in the area where it is believed alcohol flushes the thyroid.

Away from the exclusion zone, Mr. Hume interviewed one of the surviving firefighters who attended to the reactor in the frantic days . He also had supper with the family of Alexander (Sasha) Yuvchenko, a nuclear engineer who had been on duty the night of the disaster.

Mr. Hume, 28, is compiling a photographic project in which he records the human experience in the atomic age. He has been to Trail, B.C., where “heavy water” — deuterium oxide — was produced for the top-secret wartime Manhattan Project, leading to the explosion of the world’s first atomic bomb. He has made pilgrimages to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next on his agenda: Bikini Atoll, the site of nuclear testing. After that, Fukushima.

He hails from perhaps the most prominent journalistic family in the province. A brother, Steve, is a columnist and essayist for the Vancouver Sun, while another, Mark, is a reporter and columnist for this newspaper. Their father, Jim, known as the dean of the Legislative Press Gallery, still writes an engaging weekly column for the Times Colonist at age 87.

The youngest Hume will never forget the impression made by his visit four years ago to the crown jewel of Soviet nuclear technology.

“At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the place is death incarnate,” he said. “There’s no future there.”

On the anniversary of the disaster, experts are debating how best to complete the current $1-billion stage of the cleanup for a reactor core that will remain dangerous for about another 99,975 years.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Former poet laureate not yet ready to rest on his laurels

The writer George Bowering poses for his wife Jean Baird in a photograph she titled, "Geezer at Giza."

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 20, 2011


The writer George Bowering puts the pro in prolific.

At 75, the poet, critic, playwright, essayist, and novelist continues to crank out works of merit with astonishing regularity.

He is “author of about a bazillion books,” notes New Star Books, one of his several houses, “virtually all of them good-to-excellent.”

On Thursday, he will receive the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, an honour bestowed in part for his “remarkable literary output.”

He has more than 80 titles to his credit, and counting.

In the past 18 months, he has had published The Box (a collection of stories); Horizontal Surfaces (criticism); A Little Black Strap (a chapbook); My Darling Nellie Grey (a book-length poem); and, The Heart Does Break, an anthology of Canadian writing on grief and mourning co-edited with his wife, Jean Baird.

Two more titles are to be published later this year — Pinboy, a comic memoir about his sexual coming-of-age in the Okanagan, and Diamond Alphabet, a collection of essays about baseball, a Bowering obsession.

Where does he find the time?

“What I’ve done most of my life is not have a social life,” he said. “My social life is mostly made up of going to baseball games and poetry readings. That’s about it. So, I get to write books.”

Mr. Bowering has been on the road in recent days to promote the B.C. Book Prizes with readings in Kamloops, Kelowna and Vernon. He will return home to Vancouver to receive his latest literary gong at a gala. He is also nominated in the poetry category for Nellie Grey, but he has yet to win a B.C. Book Prize and is not expecting to break his streak this week.

On hot summer days, Mr. Bowering can be found hollering from the grandstand behind home plate at Nat Bailey Stadium. The management of the Vancouver Canadians, the local minor-league baseball team, has designated the poet their Official Loudmouth Fan, as he is described on business cards which he distributes to headache-enduring seatmates.

It is an honour he seems to relish as much as having been named Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate in 2002.

Baseball cranks like trivia and statistics, so here’s some about Mr. Bowering. He was the first writer in English to receive a Governor General’s Award in both poetry (Rocky Mountain Foot, The Gangs of Kosmos, 1969) and fiction (Burning Water, 1980). (The achievement was later matched by Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.) He co-founded a literary journal called TISH, a cheeky anagram. He writes so much that Roy Miki’s annotated bibliography of the Bowering canon ran more than 401 pages. And it was published 22 years ago. Mr. Bowering has played sandlot baseball for such amateur teams as the Zunks, the Paperbacks, and the Granville Grange Zephyrs, a career described in his 2006 memoir Baseball Love.

Mr. Bowering considers himself to be the utility infielder of the Canadian literary world.

“I write just about every kind of book there is — novels and histories and poetry and non-fiction, baseball. So, I can play a little bit of shortstop, a little bit of first base, a little bit of second, etc.”

Mr. Bowering likes to tell a story.

He is traveling across the continent with Ms. Baird a few years back. The pins on their map include such baseball hot spots as Idaho Falls, Idaho,and Bozeman, Mont. They make a quick detour north for a reading at Moose Jaw, Sask. On returning to the frontier, they stop at a building no larger than a shack with a crossing-gate arm barring their entry to the United States.

They have not seen another car for an hour. With the car engine turned off, it is a moment of great prairie stillness in the midday summer heat.

After a minute, a door at the shack swings open and a uniformed border guard steps up to the car.

What is your citizenship? Canadian.

Where do you reside? Ontario.

What is your occupation?

Mr. Bowering glances at his companion before looking back at the guard.

He has been waiting for just this moment.

“I am the Poet Laureate of Canada,” Mr. Bowering bellows.

Please step out of the car, sir.

The guard roots through the trunk, spots a cardboard box.

What’s in there?

My latest book, Mr. Bowering replies.

He opens the box, hands the guard a copy. It is a re-issue of Baseball, a book-length poem originally published by Coach House Press back in Centennial Year. It is thin. It has a green cover. It is also triangular, shaped to look like a baseball pennant.

The guard turns it over in his hands, like a piece of contraband.

He says, “You call this a book?”

Everyone’s a critic.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tracking nature's not-so-cute critters

The blue-grey taildropper slug was first discovered on Vancouver Island by the Helsinki-born biologist Kristiina Ovaska. She photographed one of the slender critters atop a leaf.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 18, 2011


Pity the blue-grey taildropper slug.

Talk about poor public relations — slimy; scourge of gardeners; shares name with the habitually lazy.

Walt Disney gave cupboard-raiding vermin cutey-patootie cartoon treatment, but who champions the lowly terrestrial gastropod?

Kristiina Ovaska, that’s who.

She’s a biologist who likes slugs and snails and creatures that regenerate tails.

Not too much is known about the blue-grey taildropper. It is shy. It is small. It is extremely rare.

Its colour, as the name suggests, ranges from grey to blue with some light speckling.

“It has an unusual defence behaviour,” Ms. Ovaska noted. “If a predator grabs on the tail, the tail comes off just like a lizard. Then the slug can regrow the tail.”

So, the blue-grey taildropper was easy to name. But it was much harder to find

For two centuries of recorded history, no one knew the creature lived among us in its preferred haunts of Garry oak meadows and mature forests of Douglas fir.

Small and slender, stretching just three centimetres in full stride, the slug remained unknown in Canada until a certain biologist looked under a leaf at Rocky Point in Metchosin, outside Victoria, and — voila!

“I came across a tiny, little slug,” she said. “It could easily have been missed had I not been looking for them.

“I didn’t know what it was. I was interested enough that I thought, ‘I will take it home and grow it a little bit. I will try to find out what it is.’ ”

The specimen was placed in a modified temporary habitat retrieval carrier, which is to say a plastic yogurt container stuffed with moss with a lid in which breathing holes had been punched.

“Exactly like what a little kid would do,” the biologist conceded.

She sent photographs to molluscologists and fellow gastropod researchers in Oregon and Washington. Meanwhile, “I had this slug in my basement,” she said, a circumstance familiar to some parents. The creature was tentatively identified.

More specimens were rounded up. A genetic analysis was conducted. A dissection was performed. That confirmed the identity of Prophysaon coeruleum.

The taildropper provides a tasty hors d’oeuvre for birds scratching in leaf litter. The ground beetle considers the tail a complete meal in itself, a happy scenario for the slug considering the possibilites.

The original taildropper specimen now resides in a drawer at the Royal BC Museum. It is an ex-taildropper, sacrificed to science.

“You have to do that, so that there’s a permanent record and documentation,” Ms. Ovaska said.

“We don’t recommend people collect any specimens,” she added. The endangered slug is best recorded through photography.

This spring, the nonprofit Habitat Acquisition Trust is encouraging citizen scientists, especially those on the edge of preferred habitat, to check for the presence of such endangered creatures as the blue-grey taildropper slug, the western painted turtle, and the elusive sharp-tailed snake.

The trust encourages landowners to place moistened corrugated cardboard shelters for the slugs, as well as asphalt shingles for the snakes, who, like many southern Vancouver Island homeowners, prefer south-facing rocky hillsides.

At Swan Lake in Saanich, six turtles have been equipped with radio tracking, which has provided interesting preliminary insights into their behaviour. The turtles hibernate together in shallow water surrounded by willows.

It it is slimy, or slithers, or hops, Ms. Ovaska is interested. She wrote her masters thesis on the jumping mice of Nova Scotia. The Helsinki-born biologist has studied and photographed amphibians and other small creatures throughout Canada, Latin America and the West Indies.

“There is something mysterious about the small, hidden world that is all around us,” she said.

Gardeners, whether working in an Eden or an ordinary tomato patch, should encourage the presence of snakes, as they dine on several common garden pests.

But snakes perhaps should not be encouraged if one plays host to a population of blue-grey taildroppers.

“Here we have a dilemma,” Ms. Ovaska acknowledged.

Snakes consider slugs a delicacy.

The endangered sharp-tailed snake, including this specimen photographed near Vesuvius on Saltspring Island, is shy, likes the sun, and should be welcomed in any garden.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mandrake, B.C.'s greatest magician, kept his secrets beyond the grave

Mandrake the Magician, who grew up in New Westminster, became recognized as one of the great magicians of the post-war era. BELOW: With his lovely assistant (and first wife) Narda.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 13, 2011


Lon Mandrake, a retired science teacher, had a peripatetic childhood. He attended six schools — and that was just in Grade One. In summer, Lon swept stages and ran spotlights, focusing the beam on his parents, the Lovely Miss Velvet and Mandrake the Magician.

His father was a man of a thousand wonders, a master of prestidigitation, possessor of the fastest hands in the world. The promotions for his show offered the promise of an unforgettable entertainment: “An evening to see! A lifetime to remember!”

In a week filled by dates heavy with history, from the anniversary of the start of Terry Fox’s brave run to the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight, a family will take a moment to reflect this week on the centennial of the birth of British Columbia’s greatest magician.

Mandrake the Magician, who “amazed and mystified two generations on three continents,” has been gone now for 18 years. The magus of the large illusion show succumbed to the emphysema that was his reward for a lifetime spent in smoky joints.

During a long career, he encouraged the notion that the star of a popular comic strip had been named in honour of him. After all, did he, too, not wear a cape and a top hat?

Mandrake the Magician was devilishly handsome. He had a waxed mustache and spectacular green eyes. His stare hypnotized. At department stores, he sent shoppers scurrying along the aisles as they pretended to ride bicycles. At outdoor events, he drove a car blindfolded.

Mandrake sawed women in half, chopped off heads in a stage guillotine, caused a menagerie of rabbits and pigeons to vanish. He read minds and pickpocketed wallets. For a 1949 newsreel, he escaped after being restrained by leg irons and handcuffs, tied by ropes, and nailed inside a packing crate — while under water.

One of his most spectacular illusions involved being tied up and imprisoned inside a large bag. Moments later, he emerges — having swapped his black tie and tails for a white Palm Beach suit, insouciantly puffing on a cigarette.

Mandrake’s story was a simple one. He had been raised in New Westminster, where he attended vaudeville shows at the Edison Theatre on Columbia Street. Enraptured by the magicians, he received a birthday gift of a magic set, soon after preparing shows for neighbourhood children in the garage of his home. By 11, he was on stage at the Edison himself. Three years later, he was performing as a sideshow attraction at the provincial agricultural exhibition.

He dropped out of school to join a troupe of traveling magicians. In time, he had a show of his own, crisscrossing the continent. He married his assistant, who took the name Princess Narda, the same as the heroine of the Mandrake comic strip. After their collaboration ended, on stage and in private, Mandrake hired as his assistant an actress and dancer who was the only daughter of a vaudeville couple. They married on the road in Kansas City, the nuptials earning a mention in Billboard magazine.

The couples wanderlust resulted in children joining the family troupe in rapid succession, each hailing from a different state — Lon in Illinois, Ron in Florida, Kim in Ohio, and Geelia, known as Jill, in Oregon. The family moved into a home on Grosvenor Road in the Port Mann neighbourhood of Surrey. Mandrake built secret doors in the house, which became a haunt for visiting magicians who tested new tricks on the jaundiced eyes of the discerning brood.

“My father taught us all to perform,” said Lon Mandrake, 63, who maintains a stage show of his own and has performed at Science World in Vancouver.

One of Lon’s specialties is to rest on a bed of sharpened nails. His father’s lengthy list included dancing handkerchiefs and other routines so popular — and so imitated — that they now seem hackneyed.

The son says his father’s secret was in conjuring a story to go with his legerdemain.

“People think of the tricks. He had such a warm and embracing personality that he took you out of this world and into a world of fantasy and magic. He was a bit of a philosopher, as well, in his shows, so there were life lessons along with the magic. He made you feel good.”

One newspaper review described his show as “prestidigitation mixes with pulchritude to provide a peppy revue.”

Mandrake needed to constantly reinvent himself and his performance. Vaudeville gave way to a night-club act which gave way to campus lectures on the occult and extrasensory perception. He also altered his act from the big stage to the more compact theatre of the television screen.

When Mandrake died in a Surrey hospital in 1993, he took with him some of the secrets of his background.

These were later revealed in a 2001 documentary, titled Mandrake: A Magical Life. The filmmaker Mary Ungerleider went through dusty school records to uncover Mandrake’s real name — Leon Giglio, born in Oak Harbor, Wash. His stage name, later legally changed in California, had been inspired by the success of the comic strip.

“He was dashing looking,” she said. “He had the right appearance that he could get away with saying he was the model for Mandrake.”

It was the ultimate sleight-of-hand, a bit of ballyhoo as wondrous as any of his amazing escapes.

Mandrake the Magician performs the Dancing Handkerchief illusion.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Desert battle sites familiar to veteran of Libyan campaign

Peter Bunn examines a model of an American-built Sherman tank. Bunn survived three tank strikes in action during the Second World War. Globe photographs by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 11, 2011


A headline reads: Allied air strikes pound Libya.

The story could have appeared in a newspaper published today. Or 70 years ago.

Once again, war rages across the parched plains of North Africa. For a handful of surviving veterans, the place names recall distant battles — Tobruk and Tripoli, Brega and Benghazi.

Years ago, we learned of war from newsreels shown at cinemas. Today, we watch live action from the front on the Internet.

Peter Bunn, 89, squints at today’s television news broadcasts, seeing if he can spot familiar landmarks in a far-off land in which he and other Allied soldiers faced off against Germany’s Afrika Korps.

“I know every square inch of that desert,” he said. “I fought right where they’re fighting.”

Born in South London, he volunteered for the Second World War at age 19, serving with the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers. How did his war go?

“I was at the First Battle of El Alamein and then the big battle and then I went through right on to Algiers and I went on to Italy and ended the war in Austria,” he said. “I had a good run."

Only later does Mr. Bunn describe three harrowing escapes, any one of which could have left him buried beneath a grey stone in a Commonwealth war grave.

He came to Canada after the war, establishing himself here as a small general contractor specializing in renovating heritage buildings. He served for 19 years as a councillor for the municipality of Oak Bay, once making an unsuccessful run for the provincial Legislature.

The long years in office are remembered for advocating greater accessibility. He raised the issue after his wife found she could not use the public washrooms at a local beach while in a wheelchair. Entrances were eventually widened.

Now a widower, Mr. Bunn uses a motorized scooter to travel from his apartment the few blocks to the main shopping street of Oak Bay.

Seven decades ago, he joined a mechanized cavalry unit, eager to avoid the foot soldier’s burden of long marches. He was a radio operator aboard a tank, his duties including responsibility for feeding shells into the big gun.

He remembers the desert as a cruel battleground — relentless afternoon sun followed by the chill of night.

At El Alamein, he was aboard a British Crusader tank when a German artillery shell disabled one of the caterpillar tracks. In the middle of a firefight, his tank could no longer move forward, or backward, a sitting target on a moving battlefield.

(Using a fighter’s salty language, he further described the tank’s limited mobility. “Theoretically,” he explained, “we could go round and round in a circle until we disappeared up our own asses.”)

The crew was lucky the tank had not caught fire.

For supper, he opened a can of beans with a jackknife, gulped from the remaining supply of warming water. There was nothing else to do.

“You just bloody well sit there for eight hours in a tin box with the temperature well over 100 waiting to be killed.”

Under cover of night, a rescue truck hauled his disabled tank away from the front.

Bunn learned to ski after the war.
Later, in the Tunisian desert, his tank was hit again. Once again, his crew was lucky the tank did not “brew up,” the colourful description for the horrific prospect of a tank catching fire.

Later still, while fighting in Italy, his American-built Sherman tank, “a Chevy with armour,” was knocked out by enemy fire. He had survived his third direct strike with not so much as a scratch.

At war’s end, after four years inside a tank, he had the further good fortune of being assigned to a military training centre at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, the future site of a Winter Olympics. He learned to ski, an unlikely skill for someone who spent much of his war on the shifting sands of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

He does not recognize the kind of battles being fought in the Libyan desert.

“Half the vehicles of the rebels are Toyota trucks with rocket launchers welded to the floor,” he said. “It looks so absurd to me.”

Trooper Bunn’s war resembled that of the Desert Rats later made famous by Hollywood. Today’s sequel with jerry-rigged fighting vehicles looks like a Mad Max movie.

Listen to Peter Bunn describing his war experiences for The Memory Project here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A tip of the cap to baseball's Charlie Metro

Charlie Metro lights a stogie for Spider Jorgensen after the infielder won a game for the Vancouver Mounties with an extra-inning home run. Photographs courtesy the David Eskenazi collection.

By Tom Hawthorn
The Tyee
April 6, 2011

Charlie Metro, a tough guy, had a reputation as a scourge of umpires. Once, when an umpire showed him an entry in the baseball rule book, Metro snatched the offending document before shredding it and tossing the confetti over his shoulder.

When Metro was hired to manage the Vancouver Mounties baseball club, the owners took out an insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London. The firm agreed to cover the first $500 worth of fines generated by their new skipper.

Metro was unforgiving when it came to his own players, too. He forced pitchers to run to stay in shape, which is not the kind of pampering to which hurlers are accustomed. Metro once absentmindedly left a young prospect to run sprints on the outfield grass at Capilano (now Nat Bailey) Stadium. After a while, the pitcher staggered like a lost Foreign Legionnaire in search of an oasis. The pitcher never did make the majors, but Pat Gillick turned out to be a terrific general manager.

Another baseball season has launched. Before the first pitch, dismal teams and powerhouses alike are equal in the standings. When Metro arrived on the West Coast for the start of the 1957 season, he took over a squad recovering from finishing a dismal 38 1/2 games out of first place in the Pacific Coast League. Not much was expected.

The Mounties soon showed themselves to be contenders, a surprising turnaround that made Metro a popular figure in the city, if not always among his players. One of his wisest moves was promoting infielder Johnny (Spider) Jorgensen to become a playing coach. Spider’s role was to be good cop to Metro’s bad cop.

Metro spent 47 years in baseball, three of those in Vancouver, a city that figures prominently in Safe by a Mile, his 2002 autobiography written with history professor Tom Altherr. “Things were greener in Vancouver than any place I’d ever seen,” Metro wrote. In those seasons, he gave the city a winning baseball team, managed to help save the career of a future hall of famer, and issued the first call for a domed stadium. A quarter-century later, he was invited to the opening of BC Place Stadium. He called it a good place to play football.

Metro died, aged 91, on March 18 in Buckingham, Va., succumbing to mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer. Charles Moreskonich, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, was raised in coal country in western Pennsylvania. The oldest of nine children, he worked in the bituminous mines, a dangerous job. The manager of his first baseball team was a former player known as Stumpy after losing fingers in a mine explosion.

As a boy, Charlie walked miles with his father, Metro, to a neighbouring town to watch baseball. When he started playing, the local newspaper squeezed only a few letters from his family name into box scores. Charlie, who was already known as Little Metro, took Metro as his last name.

At age 12, he hitchhiked to New York to see a game at Yankee Stadium. He also went to Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, where he saw the Pirates play, as well as the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues.

He skipped a day of classes at high school to try out for the St. Louis Browns. He was offered a $60 per month minor-league contract by scout Jack Fournier, a former major-leaguer. Metro demanded $100. He told Jack Fournier that he wanted the extra money the buy his mother a washing machine. Fournier was suspicious of the excuse, but, impressed by the boy’s moxie, ordered a $100 cheque to be written. Young Charlie refused to take it (not only did he not have a bank account, he was not certain what a cheque was). He insisted on being given 100 dollar bills.

At 18, Metro donned the uniform of the Easton Browns for the 1937 season before leaving for Virginia to play outfield for the Pennington Gap Lee Bears of the Appalachian League. After seven seasons in the minors, including stints in Texas with the Palestine Pals and the Texarkana Twins, the wartime shortage of players led to his promotion to the majors, where he would play for the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Athletics. Years later, he would get laughs by saying “I hit .400 — .200 each year.” The quip was typical Metro. In fact, he played three seasons. His career average: .193. When the war ended and players came home, Metro once again found himself in the minors, where he added managerial duties to help extend his career.

He skippered clubs in such metropolises as Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Terre Haute, Ind., before Cedric Tallis hired him in December, 1956. The Mounties had had a dismal first season after owner Brick Laws moved them up the coast from Oakland. Capilano Stadium drained so poorly during a rainy summer that wags referred to the damp outfield as Laws’ Lagoon.

Metro had the Mounties contending from the start. He had no qualms about upsetting baseball convention. In a preseason exhibition game, he presented a lineup featuring eight African-American players, possibly the first time that happened outside the Negro Leagues.

In his three seasons as Mounties skipper, Metro gave opportunities to several black players, including Joe Taylor, Joe Durham, Charlie Beamon, Lenny Green, Connie Johnson, and catcher Charlie White, whose “brainy” position many managers in baseball reserved only for white players.

Metro insisted his pitchers follow his running regimen. Soon, even the notoriously sore-armed George Bamberger became strong enough to avoid injury. (Bamberger would adopt Metro’s philosophy as a pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles, including a season in which the staff counted four 20-game winners.) The manager also called on the young fireballer Chuck Estrada and the veteran Erv Palica, at whom he used to yell the dugout encouragement, “Don’t hang the curve ball!”

The skipper did not care for excuses. When Metro slotted Jim Marshall to start a game against a left-handed starter, the slugger complained that everyone knew he couldn’t hit lefties. “Well,” Metro replied, “you’ve got 30 seconds to learn.”

In 1959, the Mounties boasted a stellar infield with shortstop Ron Hansen, second baseman Marv Breeding, and, most notably, third baseman Brooks Robinson, who suffered an injury that could have ended his career during a game at Capilano. While chasing a foul ball, he impaled his catching arm on a metal hook projecting from the dugout. Metro rushed out to hold his prized prospect’s arm steady as trainer Harold (Doc) Younker fetched a stepladder. The trainer wriggled the arm free. (“He didn’t even use swear words,” Younker once told me. “I guess he hadn’t learned them yet.”) Their quick thinking prevented serious damage and Robinson, later to be nicknamed The Human Vacuum Cleaner for his skill at scooping ground balls, went on to a long career capped by induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.

The Mounties finished second, third and second under Metro’s guidance. He was named league manager of the year in 1957. He went on to manage briefly in the majors, including a turn as part of the Chicago Cubs’ failed “College of Coaches” experiment in which the job was rotated among several skippers.

A serious taskmaster, Metro never lost the impish sense that can make baseball so much fun. In the meaningless final game of the 1958 season, the 39-year-old skipper pencilled himself in as starting pitcher. He also placed his name atop the batting order. He went 0-for-2 at the plate and surrendered a couple of runs to take the loss.

Vancouver Mounties manager Charlie Metro offers a rebuttal to an umpire's verdict during a 1958 Pacific Coast League match. Emmett Ashford (left), who went on to become the first African-American umpire in the major leagues, later heard Metro arguments when the latter managed the Kansas City Royals. Photograph courtesy the David Eskenazi Collection.

Happy 125th birthday, city of glass

We arrived in Vancouver sight unseen, lured westward by such beautiful images as this found on a $1 definitive stamp. BELOW: The plaque for Wasserman's Beat.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 6, 2011


We pulled into Vancouver for the first time along Highway 99A, known as the Kingsway, a regal designation for a strip dedicated to car culture.

The view of motor courts and tattered used-car-lot pennants was a most unpromising glimpse of a city of such supposed beauty.

It was like being introduced to a debutante by a brash uncle in a loud sports coat.

As dusk gave way to dark, lights hovered in the distant sky to the north. It would be morning before we spotted the mountains, later still before the lit peak had a name. We were incredulous to learn the ski hill on Grouse Mountain was a short bus ride from downtown, stunned as well by the sandy beaches along the waterfront.

My family — parents in their 30s and two teenagers — arrived in the Terminal City in the summer of 1977 after a week-long, cross-continental trek by car. We had no home, no jobs. We knew no one. Like so many before and since, we arrived — almost empty-handed — in search of opportunity.

Not one of us had ever so much as seen the city, though my stamp collection included a mint copy of a recent $1 definitive, which featured the city’s apartment towers reflecting on still waters.

We found an apartment in Kitsilano and work as day labourers, my father and I, clearing debris from a building undergoing renovation. Our off days by necessity were filled with pursuits not demanding money. So, Stanley Park became a haunt, as did the old main branch of the public library, where the most popular local history book was subtitled, From Milltown to Metropolis. Frankly, coming from Montreal, it seemed more milltown what with Sweeney’s barrel company hard by downtown.

Today, as the city celebrates its 125th anniversary, Vancouver is the City of Glass, as Douglas Coupland calls it, the metropolis promised by the history book.

Happy birthday, kiddo, you don’t look a day older than 50.

Vancouver is a boom-and-bust town, but for my family it was almost all boom.

Our early days were tough. The stamp collection? Sold for groceries. But my father soon found work as a teacher and we were on our way.

Not long after we arrived, the mayor unveiled a brass plaque along the 600-block of Hornby Street. The street was to be known as Wasserman’s Beat in honour of nightclub habitué and man-about-town Jack Wasserman, who had died suddenly. A city that honoured saloon reporters was the city for me.

Mr. Wasserman got his start on the student newspaper at the University of British Columbia, which also claimed to be the training ground for the likes of Pierre Berton and Allan Fotheringham. I signed up for the Ubyssey on my second day on campus.

Two months later, a secretary ushered me into a city hall office for an interview. Jack Volrich, the slick-haired mayor of Canada’s third-largest city, the ceremonial Chain of Office dangling from around his neck, pumped the hand of one of his newest constituents, a long-haired, squeaky-voiced student reporter/urchin in torn jeans. He gave me the better part of an hour.

In retrospect, the moment captured for me the spirit of my new home — the boy reporter and the politico from the mining town of Anyox, both of us come-from-aways, reinventing ourselves in the big city.

As a teenaged reporter for a daily newspaper, an early story featured the arrival of the first Vietnamese boat people. Many had nothing at all, not even the language. Now, the anchor for the national public broadcaster canvasses the owner of a successful Vietnamese bakery for his political opinion.

People still come to the city in waves, from Asia and Latin America, from eastern Canada and the western United States. They come to live in a place of scenic wonder in an urban setting notable for its diversity and tolerance.

Who wouldn’t want to live in a city where neighbourhoods are named Fairview, Grandview and Mount Pleasant?

In time, the beauty of the Kingsway revealed itself — the wondrous neon sign JESUS — THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, now in a museum; the 18 bungalows of the 2400 Court Motel, a throwback to a post-war era of plenty; and, especially, the dripping goodness of a deluxe chuck wagon from the old Wally’s Burger drive-in.

Thank you to those who preserved Stanley Park. Thanks to those who fought for equal rights and for good wages. Thanks to those who stopped freeways. Thanks to Don Stewart for maintaining MacLeod’s Books as a refuge of the old Vancouver, when rents were cheap and storeowners indulged their idiosyncrasies. Mostly, though, thanks for the opportunity.

Happy quasquicentennial, Vancouver. Let’s do this again on your sesquicentennial in 2036.

This magnificent neon sign now belongs to the Museum of Vancouver. It once lit the way along Kingsway in Vancouver.

Remembering the Port Alberni tsunami

Receding waters revealed cars caught beneath houses in topsy-turvy Port Alberni in the aftermath of the 1964 tsunami. BELOW: The cover of a post-tsunami report.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 4, 2011


A year ago, Port Alberni issued a tsunami advisory after a massive earthquake jolted Chile.

Doug Havard called his adult children to warn them. Then he headed for high ground.

To his dismay, he noticed families flocking to the harbour to watch for rising waters.

The sight so enraged him that he wrote a letter to the editor of the Alberni Valley Times. Imagine bringing your children to a disaster.

Mr. Havard, 61, knows this about tsunamis: They cannot be outrun.

He knows because as a youth he had to flee the black, churning, unforgiving waters of the sea as they destroyed his family’s home.

The shocking videos of the damage wrought by tsunamis in Japan last month revived memories in Port Alberni of a cold, dark and wet March weekend in 1964.

On the anniversary last week, snippets of 47-year-old newscasts were aired on the radio. Oldtimers at the local Tim Hortons reminisced about the night when the ocean came calling.

Mr. Havard was asked to recall a night he will never forget.

He was asleep in his shared second-floor bedroom when the family was roused after midnight on March 28. A neighbour alerted the family to what at the time was known as a tidal wave. A terrible earthquake had shaken Alaska and now the waters were coming.

“When we walked downstairs to the main floor, there was already water in the house, maybe two feet,” he recalled. “It was pitch black. The power was out. All the furniture was floating. We had trouble getting the door open.

“I remember the carpet, an area rug, was floating and we were trying to walk on top of that.”

The family home was below the grade of the street at the corner of Gertrude Street and Lathom Road, a low-lying area that in those days before the dike was built endured an annual flooding. In the distance, he could hear the whistle sounding at the pulp mill where his father worked as a welder.

“It was pretty cold. I had no shoes on. No shirt. Just pants.”

The family, including five children, walked two blocks uphill as the waters continue to rise. The family piled into the bed of a pickup truck. They drove to a friend’s home to spend the night.

They awoke to a topsy-turvy world.

Cars had been jammed beneath houses, some of which had been moved the length of three football fields from their foundations. Furniture, caked in mud, rested on front lawns.

The Havard home, like so many others, was a mess

“We just shoveled everything we owned into the back of a truck,” he said, “and took it to the dump.”

The fire department hosed the interior of the house, so the family had rudimentary shelter. Soon after, they had a house built down the highway at Whiskey Creek, away from the 60-kilometre inlet that funneled roaring waters into an unsuspecting city.

Incredibly, no one died.

A report issued soon after the disaster by the province’s civil defence coordinator described one chilling close call.

A man raced out to save his new convertible only to see two children floating past on a log. He abandoned his car to rescue the children, pushing the log to high ground, by which time water was up to his chest.

Six waves washed over the land that night, part of a wave surge that lasted 18 hours. The first wave was eight feet. An hour later, a second wave, higher still, roared onto streets at 386 km/h (240 m.p.h.), “smash(ing) everything in its path.” Boats, buildings and automobiles were tossed about like plastic toys in a bathtub.

The waters did damage elsewhere.

At the Hesquiat village of Hot Springs Cove, northwest of Tofino, 16 of 18 houses were destroyed. About 40 people were rescued by boat.

At Amai, a logging hamlet on Kyuquot Sound, 37 residents were left homeless after their homes were destroyed. The waves also cut off their radio access. People spent two nights in the open.

At Zeballos, a one-time gold-mining village, some 30 homes were swept from their foundation. Silt and salt water caused damage to personal property. As a report on the disaster noted, “This group made its own emergency arrangements.”

Mr. Havard, an electrician by trade, is now a maintainence foreman for the school district. He has never lost his fear — or his respect — for the damage wrought by a tsunami.

“You cannot outrun it,” he said. “It just keeps coming and it doesn’t ever stop.”

Today, the city has a sophisticated tsunami warning system, including radio-controlled public-address speakers. When they sound, residents are advised to head for high ground, not to go to the water’s edge to wait their demise.

Freeman Tovell, diplomat and author (1918-2011)

Freeman Tovell in his Victoria apartment in 2009. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 2, 2011


The diplomat Freeman Tovell, who has died, aged 92, once negotiated the release of hostages held by bearded revolutionaries in Bolivia.

The sang-froid displayed in that episode had also been helpful during wartime service aboard a minesweeper in waters under which lurked German submarines.

A long career in the Canadian foreign service was followed by another distinguished period as a teacher at the University of Victoria.

Of all his achievements, Mr. Tovell was proudest of a book for which the research and writing lasted decades. His biography of a Spanish sea captain who charted the waters along the British Columbia coast was well received on publication three years ago, winning a major prize as well as laudatory reviews.

Looking back, the book could be seen as the culmination of a life’s interest in the sea and the men who sailed beyond the horizon to explore its mysteries.

At age 14, his parents presented him with a handsome volume published in leather and marbled boards in 1784. George William Anderson’s book, popularly known as Cook’s Voyages, described James Cook’s three journeys into the unknown. His library soon after expanded with the addition of the two oversized volumes of the 1764 edition of Harris’s Voyages, which included engraved plates of exotic creatures from far-off lands, as well as folding maps.

Freeman Massey Tovey was born on May 9, 1918, to a prominent Toronto family. His father, Dr. Harold Murchison Tovell, the son of a Methodist minister, became a noted radiologist. In 1910, he married Ruth Lillian Massey, the daughter of Walter E.H. Massey, president of the Massey-Harris Company, the leading manufacturer of farm implements in the British Empire. The couple had met through her cousin, Vincent Massey, who, in 1952, became Governor General of Canada.

Freeman and three brothers spent their early years on the 100-hectare Massey family estate and experimental farm at Dentonia Park. The estate took its name from Ruth’s mother, Susan Marie Denton, who donated a substantial portion to the city in 1926 as public parkland. A par-3 golf course occupies part of the site today.

Mr. Tovell graduated from the University of Toronto with a history degree and completed a masters degree from Harvard University. He took a break from his studies in 1941 to serve as the best man at the New Year’s Eve wedding of J.M.S. (Maurice) Careless, the future biographer of George Brown. The two men roomed together at Harvard, where Mr. Tovell could only but admire his classmate’s frenzied, one-hand typing style, learned after losing an arm in a childhood accident.

On occasion, Mr. Tovell’s name appeared in the society pages of Toronto newspapers. One item described his dancing in the Oak Room of the King Edward Hotel with Rosita LeSueur, whose mother was from Peru and whose father was an oil-company executive. The couple later married.

At Harvard, he roomed with longtime friend J.M.S. (Maurice) Careless, whose frenzied manner of one-hand typing he could only admire. (Mr. Careless had lost an arm in a childhood cycling accident.)

Given his own boyhood fascination with maritime exploration, there was not much doubt which service Mr. Tovell wound enter as the war engulfed the world. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve.

He served aboard HMCS Ungava, a minesweeper tasked with hunting U-boats in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where merchant ships made an easy target. “We had one or two scares,” Mr. Tovell said, “but nothing that amounted to much.”

The young lieutenant was posted to the Canadian Naval Mission Overseas, based at London, though he was soon transferred to external affairs, serving for 35 years through the department’s golden age.

During the mid-1950s, Mr. Tovell worked in Ottawa as executive assistant to external affairs minister Lester Pearson, the future prime minister who won the Nobel Peace prize for helping to resolve the 1956 Suez Crisis. “He was wonderful to work for and with,” Mr. Tovell told me in 2009. “Those were happy years.”

In 1962, he was named Canadian ambassador to Bolivia and Peru, a dual accreditation. He felt at home in Lima, as the Peruvian capital, where his wife’s family made them welcome. He presided over the opening of a cancer clinic for children, sent reports home on the evolution of democracy in the South American lands, and spent time on the party circuit where he was addressed as His Excellency while receiving florid introductions as “ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Canada.”

In 1963, striking tin miners in Bolivian, described in one account as “bearded young admirers of Cuba’s Fidel Castro,” seized hostages, including four Canadians and four Americans. Among other demands, the miners demanded the release of two jailed Communist union leaders.

Bolivia sent 4,000 troops to the surround the Catavi mine, while U.S. President Lyndon Johnson pledged his support to the Bolivian government. In Ottawa, external affairs minister Paul Martin Sr. told the House of Commons that Mr. Tovell had been dispatched to the Bolivian capital of La Paz to negotiate the freedom of the Canadians.

An ominous undertone to the negotiations was the knowledge that a similar incident 14 years earlier had ended in the murder of four American mining engineers.

In this case, however, the standoff ended peaceably when 3,000 miners voted to release the hostages once the troops were withdrawn.

The Peruvian posting permitted Mr. Tovell to do research on Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, the Peruvian-born diplomat and capitan de navio who had explored the waters off what is now the British Columbia coast in the late 18th-century.

In time, Mr. Tovell arrived in Victoria, where he taught at the university while continuing to work on his project. He noted one of the city’s streets bore Quadra’s name, as did a large island off Campbell River. “No one knew much about him,” he said.

Mr. Tovell took it as his cause the promotion of the forgotten accomplishments of a Spanish mariner known for his hospitality, who had befriended Chief Maquinna at Nootka Sound and who had ended hostilities with his British rivals. It was George Vancouver himself who had suggested the large island that now bears his name be known as Quadra’s and Vancouver’s Island. (In time, the chauvinists of the Hudson’s Bay Company eliminated the Spaniard’s name.)

“Serving on the outer edge of the empire, he lacked the support of an influential patron at the Spanish royal court,” Mr. Tovell. wrote. “Furthermore, as a colonial-born subject from Peru, he was hampered by the governmental prejudice that hindered colonial subjects seeking high rank in the church and government. Despite his constant efforts to be promoted from four-ring captain to flag rank, he was never able to gain full recognition for his achievements from his naval superiors and political masters.”

Two centuries later, Mr. Tovell sought to correct this unfair historical verdict with At the Far Reaches of Empire (UBC Press), the first full English biography of the explorer. The book received strong reviews — “impressively sober, extensively researched,” Alan Twigg wrote in BC Bookworld — and received the Keith Matthews Award as the best book on a Canadian nautical subject in 2009.

His widow recently signed a contract with the University of Oklahoma Press that will see the posthumous publication of Mr. Tovell's translation of Bodega y Quadra's diary.

Mr. Tovell died at his home in Oak Bay, B.C., near Victoria, on March 7. He leaves Rosita, his wife of 69 years; three daughters; a son; four grandchildren; and, his brother, Vincent Massey Tovell, an Order of Canada recipient for contributions to Canadian culture. He was predeceased by brothers Harold, a physician who died in 2002, and Walter, a geologist and a director of the Royal Ontario Museum, who died in 2006.