Thursday, January 29, 2009

Postal honour for a woman who put her own stamp on Canada

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 28, 2009


It was during a budget debate on agricultural estimates, of all things, when Rosemary Brown was interrupted by a woman's voice from the government benches.

“I wonder why that member doesn't go back to Jamaica!”

The ensuing bedlam included cries of “shame!” and “racist!” amid calls for order. In the shorthand of Hansard, the shouting from both sides was reduced to a decorous single word – “Interjections.”

As New Democrats and Socreds exchanged accusations, Patricia Jordan, who spoke the offending words, denied having uttered a slur.

Such was the reception afforded Ms. Brown after more than a quarter-century in this land, a time during which she had distinguished herself by earning two university degrees, winning election to become the first black woman to sit in any Canadian legislature, and by leading the first serious national party leadership campaign by a woman under the cheeky slogan, “Brown is beautiful.”

Even three decades after the raucous exchange in the B.C. Legislature on the afternoon of June 28, 1977, Ms. Brown's response to so provocative a taunt stands out for its understated eloquence.

“I am a Canadian,” she said.

“This is my country,” she added.

On Tuesday, her adopted land will honour the late activist by releasing a postage stamp with her image to mark Black History Month.

The stamp depicts Ms. Brown posed with arms crossed in front of the legislative building, inside which she was once told to return to the island of her birth.

She shares the postal honour with Abraham Doras Shadd, an American-born, 19th-century shoemaker and anti-slavery campaigner who aided escaping slaves as a “conductor” and “station master” on the Underground Railroad. He moved to North Buxton in Southern Ontario in 1851 and was elected to the Raleigh Township council eight years later, becoming the first black person to hold public office in Canada.

In philatelic lingo, the two form a pair of non-denominational permanent commemorative stamps. The post office is issuing two million panes of 16 stamps (that's eight each of Ms. Brown and Mr. Shadd on every pane).

Canada Post's program for the year includes stamps featuring ringette, five-pin bowling, roadside attractions, Bryan Adams, Stompin' Tom Connors, the centenary of the Montreal Canadiens, the Newfoundland pony, the International Year of Astronomy, and rhododendrons. With all due respect to Mr. Adams and his music, photography and charitable contributions, Ms. Brown will be by far the most remarkable British Columbian to grace an envelope this year.

Born in Jamaica in 1930, Rosemary Wedderburn lost her father at a young age and was raised by a grandmother of means. She left home to attend McGill University in Montreal, where she discovered a bigotry that was “polite, denied and accepted.” No classmate was willing to share a dormitory room with her, and she later found difficulty in renting a room and finding work.

After marrying Dr. William Brown, she moved to the West Coast, where she earned a master's degree and worked as a social worker. In 1972, she won election in the dual-member riding of Vancouver-Burrard along with fellow social worker and New Democrat Norman Levi. Despite her dynamic personality and riveting speaking style, Ms. Brown was not invited by premier Dave Barrett into the province's first NDP cabinet.

Her demands for the creation of a women's ministry went unheeded by her male colleagues, although they did agree to fund rape crisis centres and battered-women's shelters.

Being a backbencher allowed her to run for the national party leadership in 1975, during which she shocked the NDP establishment by lasting until a fourth-ballot showdown against Ed Broadbent. The campaign made her a national figure.

The Barrett government was crushed at the polls that December, although Ms. Brown and Mr. Levi narrowly managed to hang onto their seats. The victorious Social Credit Party soon after had the electoral boundaries redrawn, eliminating their Vancouver riding. Ms. Brown managed to win re-election in nearby Burnaby.

A feminist and an advocate for visible minorities and the working poor, who count among themselves many women, Ms. Brown later became chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. She died in 2003, aged 72.

In recent years, awards have been created that carry her name. In 2005, a park in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano was named for her. As well, a park near the Decarie Square shopping mall in Montreal bears her name. (Just around the corner are Rue Tommy-Douglas and Rue David-Lewis, the latter named after the NDP leader she came so close to succeeding.)

The green space has a playground, picnic tables and a bocce court. When it was renamed two years ago, Montreal Mayor GĂ©rald Tremblay said he hoped Parc Rosemary Brown Park would be a place of “openness, democracy and solidarity.”

This province has a rich lore of black history, a story well told in Crawford Killian's Go Do Some Great Thing, which was released in a revised edition in November. Among the earliest settlers was a prosperous merchant named Mifflin Gibbs, who was elected to town council in Victoria. He also financed the Victoria Pioneer Rifles, British Columbia's first militia unit. Imagine the sight greeting American prospectors coming north to seek their fortune in the gold fields – a militia of free black men. This land would be different than that to the south.

The highlight of Ms. Brown's legislative career came three months after the “return to Jamaica” gibe. She pledged to do whatever possible to delay the Socreds' proposed elimination of a community welfare office. In her 1989 memoir, Being Brown, she described preparations for a filibuster: “I immediately focused on three things: Strengthening my legs so that I could stand for long periods of time, strengthening my voice so that it would survive long periods of speaking and increasing the ability of my bladder to retain fluid.”

She managed to talk for nearly 16 hours over five days of the sitting of the legislature, a performance unmatched in recent annals.

Putting Rosemary Brown on a stamp is about the only way she could ever be licked.

2009 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Frank Williams, baseball pitcher (1958-2009)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 26, 2009


Frank Williams, given up for adoption at birth, overcame his unpromising beginning to become a major-league pitcher. Hard work took him to the apex of his sport, but good fortune soured after he suffered injuries in a car wreck. His fall from baseball grace was sudden, his personal decline a much longer affair. He spent his final days on the streets of Victoria, where he was known as an alcoholic.

A popular figure blessed with a winning personality, Mr. Williams told a story as well as he threw a pitch.

His later years could be dismissed for having been lost to substance abuse. Yet the years he spent on Vancouver Island at the end of his playing career were ones in which he explored his aboriginal roots, forging extended family connections among the Nuu-chah-nulth nations along the West Coast.

A humble demeanour and modesty about his own talent did not earn Mr. Williams a prominent profile as a major-league pitcher. In 333 games, he had but one assignment as a starter, during which he threw a complete-game shut out. The San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers all used the right-hander as a middle reliever. The role lacks glamour, but insiders recognize the importance of maintaining a lead, or preventing the opposition from turning a narrow advantage into a rout. Mr. Williams performed his job with quiet competence.

He came into the world accompanied by a twin brother with whom he would forge a bond beyond that with any other person. Born to a tubercular mother, who already had seven children at home, the boys were left to be named by the staff at a Seattle hospital. One was named Frank, the other Francis.

They would not know the story of their origins for many years to come. Their first four years were spent in a series of foster homes, including one in which they were so underfed Frank Williams would later remember stealing dry dog food from a cupboard.

The twins were rescued from a Dickensian fate by being taken into the comfortable middle-class home of a Boeing aircraft engineer. Dick McCullough, born with a withered right arm, believed in sports as an outlet for children. One spring morning, the Williams boys awoke to receive an Easter basket containing a baseball and a glove.

They grew up in Kirkland, Wash., a Seattle suburb that billed itself as Baseball Town USA. Frank became a star pitcher, Francis his catcher on sandlot diamonds. The boys found an identity on the diamond, though they struggled as teenagers to understand their own place in the world. They were foster children carrying the family name of a biological father they had never met.

With copper skin and moon faces, they knew they looked unlike their teammates. “We didn't even know we were native,” Frank Williams told me eight years ago. “We had wavy hair and afros. We knew we weren't white.”

As a teenager, Frank Williams was picked to join a combined team representing Kirkland in the senior Babe Ruth League tournament. The team won city, state and regional titles before winning a national championship at Sicks' Stadium in Seattle in August, 1975.

As the twins prepared to set out on their own, they made a solemn pact. “We shook hands,” Mr. Williams said. “Whoever makes it looks after the other.”

He attended Shoreline Community College in Seattle before being lured to Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho, where coach Ed Cheff ran a stellar baseball program. In helping his recruit apply for financial aid, the coach learned the family background was as elusive as a knuckleball. Eventually, relatives were found at a Seattle housing project. It was then the boys learned of their aboriginal heritage, discovering as well an extended family with roots extending to Vancouver Island.

In one season with the Warriors, Mr. Williams lost more games than he won. He walked more batters than he struck out, but his earned-run average remained low because college opponents could not get around on a fastball usually timed at about 90 miles an hour.

At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he had the size and the speed to attract the attention of scouts in spite of his disconcerting wildness around the plate. The Giants chose him in the 11th round, No. 278 overall, of the 1979 free-agent draft.

In the minors, he pitched at Great Falls, Mont.; Fresno, Calif.; Shreveport, La.; and, Phoenix. He struggled with control, leading the Pioneer League in hit batsmen in 1979, the California League in hit batsmen in 1981, and the Texas League in hit batsmen in 1982. While these beanings did not win him any friends among opponents, it showed a tough-nosed willingness to pitch inside. He began to strike out enough batters to earn a call-up to the big-league club.

While his fastball was good but not domineering, he became a much more effective hurler with mastery of a pitch in which the ball was held deep in the palm of his right hand. The ball was thrown as a curve, but acted on the way to the plate as a slider. The Williams' slurve, as it was called, fooled many a batter left swinging at empty air.

In his third season, Mr. Williams enjoyed a 3-1 record with a miserly 1.20 earned-run average. Hardly anyone noticed. “He had as quiet a great year as any pitcher alive,” noted Bill Mazeroski's Baseball, a respected annual.

The Giants traded him to the Reds for outfielder Eddie Milner in the off-season. Mr. Williams joined lefties Rob Murphy and John Franco as part of a superb bullpen staff.

(Fifteen months after the trade, Mr. Milner would be suspended for cocaine use. This would later give rise to the contention the clubs had swapped troubled players.) By this time, Mr. Williams was earning nearly $500,000 per season and had gotten married. Despite the newfound riches, he had a wild side. His college coach remembers watching in disbelief as the pitcher risked his livelihood by taking part in Tough Guy boxing competitions during the long Idaho winter.

Things were not well in Cincinnati, as the gambling of manager Pete Rose had come under scrutiny. Mr. Williams would later tell reporters about unsavoury characters hanging around the manager's office.

He was let go after the 1988 season and appeared in 42 games with the Tigers in 1989 before being released.

He then broke a bone in his neck and needed plastic surgery to repair his face after smashing into the windshield in a car wreck.

When his marriage collapsed, Mr. Williams moved to Vancouver Island, where he connected with his father's family at the Tseshaht First Nation at Port Alberni.

In 1992, a comeback attempt with an amateur team in Victoria fell far short. He worked in construction and did some house painting. His brother, who had suffered spinal nerve damage from a bicycle spill, joined him in the British Columbia capital. The injury made walking difficult for Francis. The brothers lamented they could no longer play catch.

In 2000, the Victoria fire department received an early morning call about a drug overdose at a notorious flophouse. Frank Williams was discovered unconscious on a filthy hallway floor. He stopped breathing, but was revived. One of the firefighters, Mark Perkins, recognized Mr. Williams. As it turned out, Mr. Perkins had pitched for the same Idaho college several years prior to Mr. Williams's arrival.

A few days later, Mr. Perkins returned to the flophouse with Walt Burrows, the Canadian supervisor for Major League Baseball's Scouting Bureau. Mr. Burrows slipped a business card under the door, while Mr. Perkins left one of Mr. Williams's baseball cards. The former pitcher was put in touch with the Baseball Assistance Team, a chartable group that aids ballplayers who have fallen on hard times.

Mr. Williams explained the overdose by insisting he had mistakenly snorted heroin instead of the cocaine for which he had asked.

In 2004, Francis was killed when his basement apartment caught fire. The death troubled Frank Williams, who blamed himself for not being with his brother. In time, he became more of a street person, scavenging metal and kicking around downtown drop-in centres for the homeless. He earned pocket money by signing baseball cards at a downtown shop.

Ill from pneumonia, Mr. Williams went into a coma after suffering a heart attack. He died in hospital without regaining consciousness. Abandoned at birth, in death his bed was surrounded by family.


Frank Lee Williams was born Feb. 13, 1958, in Seattle, Wash. He died Jan. 9, 2009, at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. He was 50. He is survived by a son, a daughter, and two granddaughters. He also leaves a sister, Ida Rudick, of Alaska. He was predeceased by his parents, by his twin brother Francis, and by other half-siblings.

A memorial service was held Jan. 14 at a Port Alberni reserve. Elders spoke highly of the former athlete. A videotape included highlights of his pitching, as well as tributes from such baseball personnel as Mr. Rose. Mr. Williams was also shown visiting first nations villages, as the onetime major leaguer provided inspiration for aspiring athletes. Among the many mourners was the Victoria firefighter who had once helped save the life of a fellow pitcher.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

While the U.S. is making history, here it's being brought back to life

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 21, 2009


History is on a lot of minds these days, what with all the big events happening south of the border.

What many of us do not realize is how close this land came to being annexed by our neighbours.

Simon Sobolewski knows. He haunts archives in search of the letters and diary entries that capture life back when this city was a fort on what was still known as Vancouver's Island and the mainland was called New Caledonia.

He belongs to the Royal Engineers Living History Group. Born in the 20th century, he re-enacts 19th-century events for 21st-century audiences.

“We try to do the personal history,” he said. “The regular Joe, the private, the officer, the Hudson Bay official, the civilian.”

On the weekend, he ceased being a 46-year-old restaurateur, instead adopting the dress, mannerisms and knowledge of Sapper Kennedy, a carpenter from Galway, so far disgruntled by his stint with the Royal Engineers in a far-off land.

He wore thick wool socks, a wool scarlet tunic and a greatcoat so heavy it was “like wearing two great grey blankets.” He carried a mess kit, a bayonet and an ammunition pack. On his back was a wood-and-canvas knapsack.

Detail is important to the re-enactors. The sapper proudly acknowledged the wearing of what he described as “period underwear” – not that the public was to know. The authenticity of itchy undergarments can only help keep a middle-aged man in character as a sapper.

On the 150th anniversary of what is remembered as McGowan's War, Mr. Sobolewski marched up the Fraser Canyon to Yale. In the winter of 1859, Colonel Richard Moody led a small troupe of Royal Engineers along the same route to keep peace in the goldfields.

The chief trouble maker was an American prospector named Edward (Ned) McGowan, a shady character who had been implicated in bank robbery (while police superintendent in Philadelphia) and acquitted of a murder charge (while a judge in California). A petty dispute in the Fraser goldfields had tragicomic overtones, as a McGowan challenge to legal authority threatened to lead to an insurrection and possible annexation. About 30,000 Americans had spread along these British lands. A handful of Royal Engineers were dispatched by Governor James Douglas to enforce the law and calm the situation.

At a pivotal point, the engineers were challenged by an American sentry. Shots rang out.

“The Royal Engineers heard the shots, but didn't see the bullets,” Mr. Sobolewski said. “They chose not to fire back.”

Had they done so, argues the author Donald Hauka, the British Crown was likely to lose a colony it could only barely police, let alone defend.

Mr. Hauka wrote a well-received account of the incident in McGowan's War (New Star, 2003). He took part in the weekend re-enactment by portraying Matthew Baillie Begbie, remembered today as the Hanging Judge, though he had no need of the noose in this event.

“Now, as we all know, Begbie was about 6 foot 4, straight as a flagpole and a proper, polished barrister,” noted Mr. Hauka, who can claim none of those attributes, “so I am an obvious physical choice for the role.”

In the end, McGowan's War was a skirmish from which the only casualties were to reputations. It is a war that inspired more books than it caused harm.

Members of the public are encouraged to speak with the re-enactors, who remain in character as they engage in conversations, allowing their possessions to be held.

This summer, the Royal Engineers Living History Group will take part in a re-enactment of the Pig War on San Juan Island to mark the sesquicentennial of an incident in which the lone casualty is forever remembered in the naming of the war.

The Royal Engineers have been portrayed as red-coated paragons of Victorian virtue, impeccably dressed, reserved and heroic, Mr. Sobolewski said.

“We're constantly being confronted by the myth,” he said. “The reality is way more interesting.”

Research presents a far different image. The men in the field refused to wear dress uniforms and were instead issued rubber boots and floppy hats. They looked like slobs. Their officers backstabbed each other to curry favour from superiors. Some of the men even deserted.

Mr. Sobolewski knows the sapper he portrays will flee the colony in 1860, though he does not yet let on to the public his future behaviour. As it is now, he grumbles plenty about his lot.

History comes alive in story. Here are two.

Mr. Hauka is a former newspaperman for the tabloid Province. His colleague, the resourceful crime reporter Salim Jiwa, became the model for Hakeem Jinnah, a resourceful crime reporter featured in a detective novel and two CBC movies.

Mr. Sobolewski was a history major in university who changed disciplines because he found his studies to be too mind-numbingly boring. He wound up with two filmmaking degrees. His acting credits include a role in Hawkeye.

Mr. Sobolewski was born in Havana in 1962. He is a revolutionary love child. His father, Sigmund, born a Polish Catholic, became a Canadian citizen after surviving nearly five years at Auschwitz, where the Nazis marked him as prisoner No. 88. A socialist but not a Stalinist, he could not return to his Communist-occupied homeland after the war. Living in Toronto at the time of Cuban revolution, he heeded a call for international supporters to come to the Caribbean island. Just 10 days after arriving, he married a local woman named Ramona. The October missile crisis shortly after Simon's birth persuaded the couple to return to Canada.

The elder Sobolewski's story has been told in a book written by a rabbi (Prisoner 88: The Man in Stripes by Roy Tanenbaum) and in a documentary film by David Paperny.

The younger Sobolewski's story, as the Canadian-reared son of a Polish-Cuban marriage, is still being written. He launched a combined art gallery and restaurant (Havana) and a Vancouver video store (Celluloid Drugstore), in which clerks wore white laboratory coats. He is now business manager of Red Fish Blue Fish seafood restaurant in a converted shipping crate on the Victoria waterfront, where he sometimes wears period costume while dispensing fish and chips.

2009 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Meet 'The Man Who Refused to Die'

Fran and Bob Gauchie photographed by Deddeda Stemler

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 14, 2009


Bob Gauchie pilots his wheelchair along the pathway of a hospital garden, where a thermometer records the noontime temperature as a tolerable eight degrees.

The instrument can go as low as -50, a temperature unknown to the city, but not to Mr. Gauchie.

“I don't suffer from the cold,” he said, “but I hate snow.”

Once, he endured a trial beyond the experience of any surviving human, a test of will so dreadful that people called him The Man Who Refused to Die.

His survival was described as a wonder and his story appeared on the front pages of newspapers across Canada and around the world. But even the miraculous comes with a price.

“I'm starting to get paid back for it now,” he said yesterday between sips of hot coffee.

The former bush pilot has arthritis and diabetes, and can find it difficult to take a deep breath. He is no longer able to walk, partly due to the loss of toes on both feet.

A handsome man whose wispy hair falls across his forehead, he wears a brush mustache and a forearm tattoo. He celebrated his 81st birthday last month, an accomplishment for someone left for dead in the Far North some 42 winters ago.

Born in Edmonton and raised in Barrhead, Alta., he joined the military at age 17 as war raged overseas. He married a pretty young woman from Saint John, and took a job as a truck driver. It was his dream to fly, however, so he re-enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force, becoming a pilot while based at Cold Lake, Alta. He left military service to become a commercial bush pilot with Northern Mountain Airways.

He fought fires, hauled freight, delivered prospectors to isolated claims.

Flying in the north in winter is a test unlike any other. Sometimes, firepots were needed to warm an engine. Mr. Gauchie remembers sending passengers home for warmer clothing, because heaters were not to warm people but to keep frost off the interior of windshields.

“Winter flying is really, really tough,” he said. “And cold.”

On Feb 2, 1967, on a solo return flight from Cambridge Bay, NWT, Mr. Gauchie became lost in a whiteout. His compass failed. With fuel running low, he decided to land his single-engine, propeller-driven Beaver. He transmitted a radio message, receiving a faint acknowledgment.

He then put the Beaver down on a frozen lake, finding to his horror that both emergency beacons were broken. The radio failed on all frequencies.

He took inventory. He had a rifle, a flare gun, some matches, a ballpoint pen and an emergency kit with some dried food. He also had some white fox furs and about 18 kilograms (40 pounds) of arctic char that he was bringing home to Fort Smith, NWT, for his wife.

There was not much to do but await rescue.

He slept fitfully in a parka and mukluks wrapped in several sleeping bags.

A day passed. Then another.

The first week ended with him still isolated and alone.

A second week passed.

On Feb. 18, he noted his youngest daughter's 13th birthday in his log book.

The official search was called off. Back home, friends and family raised money for a private search. It was called off after a third week.

On the 25th day, Mr. Gauchie heard a plane.

“I fired a flare,” he said. “He just carried on.”

A fourth week passed.

He heard and saw aircraft. He had even fired a flare at a plane that seemed to fly directly overhead.

His wife, Fran Gauchie, talked to a priest, but resisted holding a funeral.

“I didn't have a service for him at church,” she said. “I just knew he'd come back.”

Mr. Gauchie bade farewell to his wife and three daughters in the diary, listing the family's assets.

A fifth week passed. And a sixth.

His only company were wolves who seemed not to fear him. He shot once at a wolf, missing though the animal was a few feet away. He instantly regretted the act, feeling the creature shared with him the desire to survive in so inhospitable a place.

A seventh week passed.

He had eaten so much raw, frozen char he could barely stand the thought of placing another piece in his mouth. On some days, he preferred not to eat.

The emergency rations were exhausted. One night, his meal consisted of licking the inside of an instant onion soup bag.

An eighth week passed.

As the sun set on April 1, another aircraft flew overhead. The setting sun reflected off the windshield of the Beaver. Mr. Gauchie fired off two flares. The plane returned.

The two pilots overhead would look down on the sight of a thin, hairy man standing with a suitcase in hand, looking like a man waiting for a bus.

“Have you got room for a passenger?”

Those were the first words he had spoken to another human in 58 days.

In Fort Smith, a fellow ran into the Legion Hall with news of Mr. Gauchie's rescue. He was hooted down by disbelieving veterans.

The family reunited at his hospital bedside, where the youngest daughter commented on the stench from his five rotten, frostbitten toes. They were amputated. He had been prepared to chop them off with an ax himself to save his life.

After several months of recovery and recuperation, Mr. Gauchie launched Buffalo Airways, which he later sold to one of his pilots. He learned to fly helicopters.

His home today is a room in the tidy Mount St. Mary Hospital in downtown Victoria. It is more spacious than the cockpit that once served as his home for two months.

To this day, he does not eat fish.

2009 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Cold hearts keeping hot water bottles from seniors

Steve and Ann Thomson photographed by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 7, 2009


At first, the problem seemed so easy to solve it was a wonder no one had thought of it before.

The problem: The old folks in a hamlet outside of Yambol in Bulgaria were freezing.

Ann Thomson, 50, of Victoria, learned of the plight of the elders from friends working at a real estate office in the southeast of the Black Sea nation.

She knew from her visits the suffering peasants lived in huts and hovels lacking running water. Electricity remained a fantasy. But most had small wood-burning stoves atop which water fetched from a well could be boiled.

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If you had hot water, Ms. Thomson reasoned, you could stay warm by cuddling a hot- water bottle.

In North America, folks use space heaters, or electric blankets, or heating pads warmed by microwave ovens. An object filled with warmed water seems a hopeless relic of a previous epoch.

Ms. Thomson, the proprietor of a craft shop, figured a brief word in the store's weekly newsletter might persuade a few customers to donate their underused hot- water bottles.

The bottles arrived in dribs and drabs. She expected to gather perhaps a dozen. She recognized "hot water bottles for Bulgaria" is less than an inspiring charity slogan.

In time, a dozen arrived. A second dozen soon piled up. Then, a third.

The final total was eight dozen plus five. That's 101 bottles, not as cute as the Dalmatian puppies of the Disney cartoon, but far more practical.

The donations were neatly packed into three boxes. It was time to send them to Europe. That's when the troubles began.

The quoted shipping costs were as high as $1,600, which is far more than the value of 101 second-hand rubber Thermoses.

She eventually got an acceptable $500 quote from Air Canada Cargo. The clerk also offered a crash course in the intricacies of overseas shipments. To enter Bulgaria, Ms. Thomson needs only a Canadian passport. However, her hot water bottles required a sheaf of documentation, generating enough paperwork to warm even the cold heart of a bureaucrat.

At this point, Ms. Thomson decided to call her local member of Parliament for assistance. She met with Denise Savoie to explain the circumstances, feeling only mildly foolish since the NDP MP was eager to return to Ottawa during the constitutional crisis.

In turn, the MP met with Bulgarian embassy officials in the capital.

After overcoming initial confusion over the properties of the mysterious hot water bottle, apparently an innovation unknown in the homeland, it was agreed the packages could be sent to Bulgaria as charitable donations.

Last month, the boxes began the long journey.

They arrived safely in Sofia at 9:15 p.m. on Dec. 17.

Where a customs agent demanded duty payments.

Officials also began charging $10 a day storage for the boxes.

The Balkan state is balking at releasing the shipment.

If money is not paid by Friday, she has been told, the boxes will be seized.

She has put calls out to the embassy in Ottawa and to her MP in Victoria.

"I thought Canada was bad when it came to bureaucracy," Ms. Thomson said, "but Bulgaria wrote the textbook."

"We're not trying to cheat the Bulgarian government out of justifiable taxes. If I was trying to ship prescription medicines, or expensive sporting goods, I could see their concern about how they could end up in the wrong hands."

Until four years ago, after learning her father's birthplace on his death, she didn't know Bulgaria from Burundi. "I had to look it up in an atlas," she admits. "I didn't know where it was." The father she thought was German was in fact born as a Kalojanoff, fleeing the Communist regime in 1951. Fearing suspicion for having been born in what was by then a faithful satellite of the Soviet Union, he kept from his family his origins.

Intrigued, Ms. Thomson travelled to Bulgaria, where she found a people warm in spirit if poor in possessions. The cities reminded her of the Victoria of her childhood, a small-town idyll where folks kept chickens in their backyard.

Let's take a moment to reflect on the humble hot water bottle. Some credit the modern object, a precursor to the Thermos flask, to the Croatian inventor Slavoljub Eduard Penkala, who registered a patent in 1903. He went on to develop the world's first mechanical pencil, as well as an insecticide and a flying machine he named for a butterfly.

The hot water bottle was so simple in design it clearly did not exhaust his wellspring of ideas.

For Ms. Thomson, sending an ordinary household item from Canada to Bulgaria seemed a modest contribution to improving relations between nations.

"We're not building an orphanage, or something magnificent," she said.

"We were just trying to get a few old people warm."

Modest thought it may be, it remains a worthy goal. The forecast for Yambol today promised a nippy low of -7.

She already has a resolution for 2010.

The next time Ms. Thomson gathers donations for Bulgaria she will pack them up in a suitcase, book a flight to Europe and deliver them in person.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Syd Thomson, soldier (1914-2008)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 1, 2009


The Battle of Ortona would be known over the years by other names — Italy’s Stalingrad, or the Bloody Christmas.

In December, 1943, Canadian troops faced the unenviable task of evicting battle-hardened German soldiers from the Adriatic port.

The battle reduced the ancient city to rubble, as warriors fought street by street, house by house, room by room. It was in this ferocious hand-to-hand combat that the Canadians developed a technique called mouse-holing in which they attacked an adjacent house by blowing a hole in shared walls.

The costs were heavy for the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, the latter commanded by Sydney W. Thomson.

The dawning of Christmas morning brought no peace, nor any respite from the fighting.

As men continued to do battle, Mr. Thomson and an imaginative quartermaster prepared a Christmas dinner so memorable the survivors gathered every year after the war to mark the meal.

He retired from the military as a brigadier general with medals to his name and a vicious scar in one leg, which he would show to his children at their request if they were on good behaviour.

Sydney Wilford Thomson was born in Salmon Arm in British Columbia’s Shuswap to Cyril and Eva (nee Bromham) Thomson. His Scottish-born father co-owned a garage and later became a dealer of General Motors cars and trucks. Cyril Thomson was elected mayor of the municipality in 1928, serving in the post for 14 years.

Syd Thomson dropped out of school in Grade 10 to earn money for the family as the ravages of the Depression began to be felt. He picked apples in the summer, worked in a grocery store, unloaded and delivered the contents of a freight car of coal, which he would always describe as the most arduous job of his life.

In the 1930s, he joined the local company of the Rocky Mountain Rangers, needing his father’s consent as he was underage. He trained as a signaler, and was a lieutenant in the company when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Britain declared war two days later. On Sept. 9, Mr. Thomson received orders to mobilize the company. Canada declared war the following day.

He was ordered overseas in 1940, by which time he had transferred to the Seaforth Highlanders, arriving at the height of the Battle of Britain. He served as a platoon commander under Major Cecil Merritt (obituary, July 15, 2000), the Vancouver officer who would win a Victoria Cross for his bravery at Dieppe.

While stationed in the south of England, officers were invited to take tea at Streat Place, an estate that boasted a Jacobean manor house. The teetotal hospitality not being appreciated by the officers, they drew straws to determine attendance. Mr. Thomson picked a short straw. As it turned out, Mr. Thomson met a young woman who would become his wife after the end of the war. He would later offer detailed descriptions of his first glimpse of the host’s 18-year-old daughter, Catriona Bromley-Martin, who wore a blue dress while standing against a magnificent fireplace.

Had the officers more fully appreciated the deprivations to be faced in the coming months of war they might not have been so reluctant to take part in the tea.

In June, 1943, the Seaforth Highlanders set sail for the Mediterranean aboard the Circassia. They joined in the invasion of the island of Sicily the following month, the beginning of a long and bloody Italian campaign. By now a captain, Mr. Thomson served as a company commander.

Three days after the invasion, the company stumbled across a makeshift road block. Italian soldiers opened fire, shooting the captain through the thigh of his right leg. The wound was treated. The medical officer gave the commander an injection of painkillers, after which he was placed in the manger of a barn, his sidearm removed by comrades for safekeeping.

He awoke to find he was sharing the manger with two peasants carrying pitchforks. He reached for his gun only to discover he was unarmed, according to the official regimental history by Reginald Roy. To his relief, the farmers sought only hay for their oxen.

Sent to Sousse, Tunisia, to recuperate, he was treated with the experimental wonder drug penicillin.

Mr. Thomson was soon back in the field. In October, he led his men in an advance across a rocky knoll near a heavily-defended hill. A company slipped across without incident, but the enemy pinned Mr. Thomson’s soldiers with artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. A smokescreen failed to offer cover and four enemy tanks appeared on the right flank. The battalion had yet to face such intense enemy fire.

Mr. Thomson, by now an acting major, led his men in an assault that called for an advance across an open, muddy field as long as 10 football fields. The Seaforths charged uphill while facing the afternoon sun to capture Hill 1007 (Monte San Marco). Their commander was awarded the Military Cross for his “cool and skillful leadership” that “was an inspiration to his men throughout.”

The Seaforths continued the slow fight northward. Their war took a different turn at Ortona, as the cramped port offered little room to maneuvre. Crackerjack German paratroopers defended the ancient town, building roadblocks with engineers to force the attacking Canadians into the few open squares, which were ringed by machine-gun nests to create a killing ground.

Battling in close quarters, the Edmontons and Seaforths fought a slow, bloody battle in the waning days of 1943. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the Germans launched a dangerous counterattack, which, at such close quarters, eliminated the use not only of the Canadians’ artillery but even mortars.

The regimental history offers a crisp description of events that day.

“The threat was such that A/Lt-Col. (acting lieutenant-colonel) Thomson made his way to the company positions and, although constantly exposed to sniper, machine-gun and mortar fire, remained with the forward troops, directing and co-ordinating the defence, and showing a cheerfulness and coolness under fire which did much for the men beating off the attack,” Mr. Roy wrote in his 1969 history, “The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, 1919-1965.”

“To see the commanding officer of the battalion at such a time somehow gave confidence to the private soldier, and Thomson’s unruffled calm and big smile acted like a tonic.”

The Canadians held their positions before returning to the dangerous task of claiming streets one house at a time. Mr. Thomson would be awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his action in the battle.

Christmas Day dawned, promising nothing more than another full day of stiff fighting. However, Capt. D.B. Cameron, an enterprising quartermaster, scrounged linen, candles and chinaware from the ruined homes of Ortona on which to serve a holiday meal. Tables were arranged in rows behind the thick walls of the church of Santa Maria di Costantinopoli. The companies ate in relays. The pipe major played his pipes and a signals officer played the churchs harmonium, even as shells whistled and exploded outside. The padre led volunteers in singing “Silent Night,” as well as jauntier carols.

“Soup, roast pork, vegetables and Christmas pudding, along with a bottle of beer for each of the tattered, scruffy, war-weary soldiers was served,” Mr. Thomson recalled many years later. The menu also included cauliflower, apple sauce, mashed potatoes with gravy, and even mince pie.

Dirty plates were stacked on the altar, while a side altar was covered by boxes of fruit and canned food.

“Between December 20 and the 28th we lost 42 killed and 78 wounded,” Mr. Thomson said. “Christmas in Ortona — the meal — yes. But the spirit of the occasion, the look on the faces of those exhausted, gutsy men on entering the church is with me today and will live forever.”

After taking part in the fight to break the Gothic Line in 1944, Mr. Thomson returned to England as an acting colonel to command the Canadian Infantry Training Unit at Aldershot. He reverted to lieutenant colonel to take command of the Black Watch in the Netherlands, where he was mentioned in despatches.

After the war, he returned to the Shuswap, where he went into business with his friend Big Jim Stone (obituary, Dec. 27, 2005), a much decorated Seaforths officer. The men built a resort at Salmon Arm named Sandy Point.

Mr. Thomson followed his father by running a General Motors dealership. He also owned an interest in the local bowling alley.

In 1950, Mr. Thomson rejoined the Canadian army, serving with the United Nations Observers Group in Pakistan. He spent months wandering the disputed Himalayan border region, covering the valleys by jeep and the foothills by mule and pony.

“These two armies, Indian and Pakistan, under tough physical conditions, have been facing one another for five long years,” he wrote to Mr. Stone, who, in turn, would go on to distinguished service in the Korean War. “Daily they sharpen their knives, clean their weapons and scowl across the line.”

On his return to Canada, Mr. Thomson became an executive with Hiram Walker & Sons, rising through the distillery’s ranks until named European sales manager in 1964. While in London, he became a director of the United Rum Merchants as well as a trustee of a fund for Canadian veterans.

He returned to Canada on his retirement in 1977, building his own home north of Victoria, from which he sailed to explore the nearby Gulf Islands. He also built greenhouses, even coaxing tobacco plants and tropical fruits from Vancouver Island’s temperate climate.

In May, 1987, he returned to Italy, where he offered an eyewitness account of the fight at the Gothic Line for a battlefield study conducted by the Canadian Land Forces Command and Staff College of Kingston, Ont.

Mr. Thomson returned to his Salmon Arm birthplace in 1996, eventually living in a cottage next door to his eldest daughter, from which he looked out on Sandy Point.
The Seaforths held a memorial service for him earlier this month.
It was his final wish that his ashes be cast on Shuswap Lake.

Sydney Wilford Thomson was born on Nov. 14, 1914, at Salmon Arm, B.C.. He died on Nov. 8 at Salmon Arm Hospital. He was 93. He leaves daughters Jacqueline (Jacqui) Maxton, of Coquitlam, B.C.; and Linda Franklin and Terry McDiarmid, both of Salmon Arm. He is also survived by a sister, Betty MacLean, of Abbotsford, B.C.; six grandchildren; and, four great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by the former Catriona Mary Bromley-Martin, his wife of 54 years, who died in 2000.