Despite all my macho bravado and naïve ambition, when that early morning arrived for me to get up and leave home, to go off into the relative unknown, I felt suddenly quite nervous. The enormity of what I was going to do, with little money and even less marketable skills hit me, and I just wanted to find it to be just a dream. But my mother knocking on the bedroom door was real. I took a deep breath and got up.
I had a hurried breakfast, while my parents silently watched. Their faces said it all. They looked sad and concerned. It was a emotion that I did not understand until I, in my turn, experienced my own sons setting off for their first time, albeit from afar.
My friend, Stewart Barnes, arrived to drive me to the airport. I went to the bedroom to say goodbye to my brother. He was half asleep when I kissed him. I will never forget the sleepy look of bewilderment in his face. I don’t remember going to my sister.
The rest of the day passed in a blur – to Belfast, then Heathrow and on to Toronto, where my grandparents were waiting for me. I remembered my grandmother from a visit she made to us in Ireland, but I had never seen my grandfather. They migrated to Canada soon after the end of the war and he never returned. They lived in Brampton, about 50 km from downtown Toronto.
After a couple of days walking around sleepy suburban Brampton, I decided that it was not for me. My grandparents were keen that I stayed there, but to me, Brampton felt about as exciting as a night out in a funeral parlour. So I decided to try my luck in Toronto, where my friends, George and Eileen, had settled.
I took a Greyhound bus to the terminal in Toronto and went to a nearby restaurant to eat something, before starting job hunting. Apart from hamburger, I recognized nothing on the menu, so hamburger was what I ordered. There were no chips. Afterwards I realised that chips were called French fries in Canada. I had never been in a restaurant before. My innocence must have been glaringly obvious.
I walked towards the city, completely awed by the size of the buildings. At that time, they were completing the twin towers of the Toronto Dominion Bank, the tallest of which had 56 floors. I had never seen a building with more than three floors.
I stopped in a phone booth, close to the new city hall. In those days there were still phone books in phone booths, and in the yellow pages I found a small section for Quantity Surveyors; there were only three entries. One with the grand name of Helyar, Vermuelen, Rae & Mauchan, attracted my attention, and I called them. A gentleman called Peter Pedrette answered my call and suggested that I go and see them right away, as their office was close by the city hall, at the corner of Richmond and Bay, opposite the big Simpsons department store.
I was interviewed by Bob Maughan and James Rae, two Scots who had been several years in Toronto. They soon seemed to be more than happy with my capabilities as a junior and were more interested in the fact that I played rugby. They called a friend, Norman, connected to the Toronto Scottish, and arranged for me to attend their training later that week. And, by the way, I could start the next Monday on a salary of 55 dollars a week, a princely sum to me; that was more in one week, than I earned in a month in Ireland. It was only later that I realised that the cost of living in Toronto was much greater than that of Ireland.
I accepted their offer without any hesitation and I skipped and danced my way back to the Greyhound bus depot. I was deliriously excited about my new job.
I felt as if I had arrived.