How often do you have cause to stop and wonder “What if”?
Could it be curiosity? Is there regret? Or, hopefully, the thought of what might have happened if Grandma hadn’t left you the house?
This week I have a “What if”? that is recalled because it’s a 50th anniversary.
In February, 1968, I emigrated to Canada after three years as a Gazette sub-editor and there are two amazing years to remember as a reporter on Planet BC (that’s British Columbia). I arrived with my first wife, Christine (she’s a sun-lover in Spain now) for an interview arranged with the Vancouver Sun.
The editor had heard about me from Brian Cartmell, a former Gazette reporter who had worked at the Sun in the early 1960s. The interview lasted five minutes and the editor said: “Start Monday on a month’s trial.”
And there we have the big What if!
I was on twice the salary I’d earned on the Gazette and the cost of living was lower. We immediately felt at home. It rained a lot!
In March, a photographer and myself were drenched, bobbing up and down on a fishing boat, waiting for two marine scientists, in wet suits, to establish the sex of a captured killer whale. If it was female they would purchase it for the Vancouver Public Aquarium. They did. The late spring and summer weather was lovely. No rain and not too hot and this reporter was in La La Land.
In May, the editor asked me to take the vacancy of music critic. Classical music. I had to admit I couldn’t tell Brahms from Lizst and didn’t fancy buying a velvet jacket and a bow tie.
“I thought all you English guys loved the classics,” he said, adding “Then it’ll have to be medical correspondent.”
Even worse! But it was a doddle covering the summer conventions of doctors, dentists, psychiatrists and chiropractors. They had press releases to guide the un-clued. I never had as many freebies as in the summer of 68! Leather goods, watches, fragrances and a box of monogrammed golf balls (the editor loved them!) – all left-overs from the drug companies’ “promotional” gift packs.
My good fortune ended when a qualified medical writer arrived from Toronto. In August, a good story dropped into my lap at the Abbotsford Air Show. Nosing around in the fliers’ lounge I heard British accents and pushed into an ante-room.
“Who are you?” demanded an RAF sergeant.
“Vancouver Sun,” said I.
“You’re British, come in.”
After a few more words he said: “You’re from Lancashire.”
Sgt Edward Mallinson, 32, a former pupil of Blackpool’s Sacred Heart School and St. Joseph’s College, was delighted and introduced me to the Pilot Officer in charge of the RAF Falcons sky-diving team.
A couple of minutes later the officer asked: “Do you want to come up with us?”
You don’t refuse an offer like that!
Then the officer said, almost as an after-thought: “Have you got any ID?”
In no time I was in an RAF blue overall with my Pacific Press ID card clipped to the pocket and climbing into a Hercules. A helmet was plonked on my head and I was strapped into a seat by a side door. At 12,000ft, 13 Falcons (they weren’t superstitious) exited the aircraft and I watched their smoke trails join into a circle and land on a tennis court – so it seemed. I sent the story to The Gazette (published August 16) and editor-in-chief Sir Harold Grime sent me a cheque for £3.50.
Another former Blackpool man was the central figure in another “small world” encounter.
In December, 1968, I was sent to cover the opening of a tunnel to a copper mine, near Stewart on the border of British Columbia and Alaska, 600 miles north of Vancouver. The Granduc Mine (you can Google it) could only be reached via an 11-mile tunnel drilled through a mountain. The press party and mining company bosses rattled through the tunnel on a train to inspect the mining camp and have lunch in the canteen. I returned to town before the main group and waiting for me at the end of the tunnel was a guy in a donkey jacket and yellow hard hat.
“You going back to town?” he asked in a familiar accent.
Eric Lomas, 36, came from Layton, just half a mile from where I used to live. He went to Layton School and Claremont and was a former Blackpool Corporation plumber. He was the avalanche control officer on 28 miles of road between the access tunnel and the one-moose town of Stewart. The road had 56ft of snow every winter but had to be kept open.
On the way back, Eric stopped his Chevvy truck, pulled back a tarpaulin to reveal a mortar, and fired a charge at a build up of snow across the valley.
“When things get really bad I call in a helicopter and go up with a box of bombs,” he said.
My days of outside assignments ended when I was promoted to be in charge of the city news desk on the afternoon and early evening shift. There were six nationalities – and some strong accents – in the office and communications had to be clear.
A few weeks after being given the desk, a reporter said: “You know why you got the job?”
What a question!
He added, dryly: “You’re the only person everyone else can understand.”
After two years in Vancouver we had had the adventure and wanted to be back among parents and old friends. But What if?
We flew home on a British Airways VC10 to Glasgow Prestwick. I rented a car and drove down the slope to the main road – and went round the big roundabout the wrong way!
Fortunately it was 6.30 in the morning.