Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Where there's a bug, there's his blog

The actor Victor Kilian in undated portrait. His grandson, North Vancouver writer Crawford Kilian, is seen below.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 8, 2009

VICTORIA

First came the Chicken Little reports. Then came the predictable lull, a hushed period of post-hysteria updates. Now we know the chicken was just under the weather. It’s his pal, Porky, who’s sicker than a dog.

Through it all, for the past four years, Crawford Kilian has dutifully monitored reports from around the world, posting regularly to his blog on pandemic influenza.

The blog is called H5N1, which is the official name for avian flu. These days, his reports more often cite H1N1, the swine flu. If you followed his blog earlier this week, perhaps prompted by his Twitter feed (@crof), you’d have been linked to stories from Spain (832 cases, six “grave”), Brazil (905 cases), Tasmania (first death), and Jamaica (first death). You’d also be able to read a 16-page plan by the American College of Emergency Physicians to cope with this fall’s expected surge in cases.

He sent alerts about three deaths in Canada, 231 cases in Thailand, 11 sick students in South Africa, not to mention the secretary-general of the United Nations calling for a billion-dollar fund to help poor countries fight the infection.

Perhaps the most disconcerting report concerned hospital staff in Argentina (“now the epicenter of the world”) refusing to help treat a stricken three-year-old girl in Entre Rios province.


The blogger seems indefatigable, though recent events are starting to tire him out.

“It has run me ragged the last 10, 12 weeks,” he said. “The news has come in so fast and furious.”

The flubloggia (the cyber community of influenza obsessives) finds redemption of sorts in the current cascade of bad news following the anticlimax of the avian flu scare.

“We knew we were cranks,” Mr. Kilian said. “We were making a huge fuss about and spending a lot of time on a non-existent pandemic.”

Now, Mr. Kilian reports on Argentina coping with a surge of demand on its medical resources. In Canada, the reaction to the spring outbreak of swine flu is just a dress rehearsal for what’s coming this fall.

Mr. Kilian is doing his part in keeping the public informed. At 68, he likely has some resistance to the illness having lived through influenza pandemics in 1957 and 1968.

The flu blog is one of 16 he maintains, though admittedly some are “cobweb sites” with irregular postings. A prolific writer, the retired college instructor has published novels, historical fantasies, a critique of the education system, a thriller set in Antarctica (admiring critics called it a “chiller”), and a terrific history of pioneering black settlement in British Columbia (“Go Do Some Great Thing,” reissued last fall in a revised edition by Commodore Books). Self-Counsel Press will be issuing his latest book in September, titled, “Write Your Non-Fiction Book Online.”

He has yet to publish in print what may be his most compelling tale — life as a Red Diaper baby in the midst of a Red scare.

Born in Manhattan in 1941, he graduated from Columbia University with an English degree, then completed a comfortable two-year tour of duty as a clerk in the U.S. Army before becoming a technical writer at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley, Calif. In 1966, Mr. Kilian saw on the cover of the radical magazine Ramparts a photograph of the man who drilled him, Master Sergeant Donald Duncan, “one of the coolest guys I’d ever met in the army.” The cover line read, simply, “I quit!” with the tease, “The whole thing was a lie!” The decorated sergeant wears a green beret. The next year, Mr. Kilian abandoned the Bay Area in the midst of the Summer of Love to start a new life in Vancouver. Though he had fulfilled his military obligation stateside, he’d had enough of the Vietnam War, as had the sergeant who trained him.

Mr. Kilian soon after became a college instructor and, 40 years later, retired as the last original hire from what is now Capilano University. (“I know not only where all the bodies are buried,” he quips, “but I buried them.”)

In 1980, Canadian Weekend magazine predicted Mr. Kilian would be a household name as a writer by the end of the decade. That did not happen, though the author has never stopped writing. Perhaps he has been making up for an unhappy period in which his family’s politics led to exile.

Mr. KIlian is a rare person who can say “I owe my existence to Hitler.” His parents met at a rally of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

Their son was named for a family friend, the magazine illustrator Will Crawford. The artist spent time with Mr. Kilian’s grandfather at Free Acres, an experimental community in New Jersey whose free-thinking residents were dismissed by critics as “freakers.” The actor James Cagney, also a family friend, lived for a time in the utopian settlement.

Victor Kilian and Mr. Cagney were vaudeville partners, both later taking roles in motion pictures, Mr. Kilian more often than not playing a dastardly villain. Family lore has Mr. Kilian taking a misplaced punch in the head from John Wayne during the filming of a fight scene for “Reap the Wild Wind.” Mr. Kilian eventually lost sight in the eye, though at the time Mr. Wayne felt aggrieved because his punch failed to drop the rival actor.

Victor Kilian and his namesake son, an actor and screenwriter, both belonged to the Communist Party, the son once escorting the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune on a fundraising tour of New England in support of the Spanish Republic.

The senior Kilion was ordered to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He refused to name names and was blacklisted, as was Victor Kilian Jr., who moved his family to Mexico City. Young Crawford attended bullfights and remembers buying a cavalry sabre at the thieves’ market, an idyll somewhat circumscribed by fear a slip could cost his mother her job as a school teacher, which provided the family’s income in the wake of the blacklist.

It was in Mexico that he befriended the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who became a mentor. Mr. Trumbo won an Academy Award under an alias before effectively breaking the blacklist by being named as the writer for Spartacus in 1960.

Mr. Kilian’s grandfather later capped his career as a character actor by portraying the grandfather on the “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” television series. He was the Fernwood Flasher. In 1979, the veteran actor was murdered during a burglary at his luxury apartment in the Hollywood Hills.

His relatives’ misplaced devotion to the Soviet Union caused untold disruption for a son and grandson.

“I’ve seen my FBI file,” Mr. Kilian said, “which is all blacked out.”

The anonymous moles noted the young man did not attend Communist Party functions.

“I thought Communists were a bunch of old farts. Who wanted to hang out with them?”

Almost 20 years ago, Mr. Kilian wrote a memoir titled, “Growing Up Blacklisted.” It remains unpublished, a rare bit of Kiliania not to be printed, though he has included it in a digitized essay collection.

He remembers his father, a radio operator in the merchant marine during the war, operating a ham radio.He got postcards from fellow operators from half a world away.

Mr. Kilian does not receive much snail mail from correspondents, but he does conduct a page survey. His H5N1 blog averages 1,668 visits per day. Someday soon, the page will inform visitor No. 1,500,000, an audience eager for the latest information on a pandemic yet to have shown its full force.

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