Hawaii

Uppsala

9 December 2017

It is late afternoon and already bible-black.  Earlier it was universal grey.  The sun seems to have long-deserted this forlorn northern country in winter.  It is no wonder that the old people have a look of desperation when they pass.  They know that they have several months before they may smile again.  Younger people seem to be more cheerful, but in time, many will also succumb to glum.

I pass my time waiting for my long-sought South African residence permit.  I started the process back in June.  I had all my papers and certificates available within a month, except for one; an FBI certificate from the US.  Somehow the Americans managed to take more than four months to respond.  When I thought that I would patiently pass 6-8 weeks in Europe in pleasant autumnal weather, waiting for the wheels of South African bureaucracy to slowly grind, I have found myself shivering once more in the frozen north.  Two years ago I was stuck in winter months waiting for a new passport and last year it was a wintry wait trying to prove to my bank of more than 30 years that I was not now a money-launderer.

Ya basta…

But I am never lost for things to occupy me: my investments, writing and family research, never mind my daily 2-hour walk, regardless of the weather.  And in the late evening, I have the life-long habit of reading before going to bed.  At the moment, I am once more reading James Mitchener’s Iberia, based on his four decades of travels and extensive research in Spain.  It is a book that never fails to whet my appetite for walking on the Spanish caminos.

Over the years, I have read many of Mitchener’s books – The Drifters, Sayonara, Caravans, Centennial, Chesapeake, to name but a few.  The first that I read was Hawaii.  When we set off from Toronto in February 1971, I had that book in my bag, and most evenings I slowly progressed through the epic tale, covering the history of the islands, from their creation to modern day; it is a formula that Mitchener has oft repeated in other novels.

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James Mitchener (1907-1997) in 1991 (photo from internet)

For four days we crossed a frozen Canada by train, to be welcomed by Vancouver to four days of torrential rain.  We flew south to San Francisco, but the weather was not much better, with more rain and fog.  By the time we flew west to Hawaii, I had had enough of crap weather; I never wanted to be cold and wet again.  And with its tropical climate and luxurious vegetation, Hawaii did not disappoint.

For the first few days we stayed near Hilo, before moving on to the island of Oahu and Honolulu.  We found a lovely small hotel on the beach.  It was bliss to lie at night with the screen doors wide open, a warm breeze, and the sound of waves crashing on the shore.  What luxury that was!

On one of the days there, I set off alone to walk into the nearby hills.  I walked all day, following a quiet country road, seeing nothing more than occasional plantation buildings.  At one point I came across a small museum, set back from the road.  I paid the modest entry to an old regal-looking Hawaiian lady and for a time browsed among the exhibits.

As I was about to leave, I noticed that I could buy ice-cold drinks there, so I rested in a comfortable chair, while I sipped on a beer and chatted to the lady.  It turned out that she was something of an expert in Hawaiian history and culture and the contents of the museum were items that she had collected over very many years, for she appeared to be quite ancient.

When I mentioned that I was currently reading Hawaii and asked if she had ever come across it, she clapped her hands and with enthusiasm told me that not only had she read it, but that James Mitchener was a great friend, and that she had assisted him in the research for his book.

I have never forgotten that day.  My life has been full of coincidence.  It is almost as if there is an unseen plan for me and every now and then I come across an encouraging sign that I am on the right path.

And here I am, once more in the frozen north, waiting to go back to the warm south.

As Yogi Berra once said, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again‘.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Pedrette

Toronto, 1965

I had been in Canada for some ten days, I had very little money, I was only 18, but I did have a job starting the following Monday.  But where could I stay? (see https://lenblackwood.com/2017/05/28/80)

It was the result of a phone call to my dear friends, George and Eileen Darragh, that my dilemma was solved, at least temporarily.  They had just recently moved into a small one-bedroom apartment at the corner of Keele and Lawrence, had few financial resources themselves, and welcomed the pittance that I could offer, in return for my sleeping in the corner of their living room and an occasional evening meal.  And as it turned out, George worked only two blocks away from my new employer, so we travelled in each morning by bus to Yonge Street, and then by metro into the city, a journey of about an hour.  (see lenblackwood.com/2017/05/13/78).

The office of Helyar, Vermeulen, Rae & Maughan (HVR&M) was on the seventh floor of an old building at the corner of Bay & Richmond.  One could tell that the building was ancient by the elevator, with its sliding mesh doors and which could only be operated by an attendant, day or night.  Across Bay Street was the huge multi-storey Simpson’s department store with its multiple storeys, plus a basement and occupying an entire city block.

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The corner of Simpson’s where I first met Sandy

When I joined HVR&M, there were only three employees – an Australian receptionist (Janice), an English bookkeeper (I can’t remember her name), and an English quantity surveyor, Peter Pedrette.  Soon after, we were joined by another Englishman –  Jack Brown, and a rather shy little Jamaican – Leroy, who rarely ever spoke.

Quantity-Surveyor
The typical desktop of a quantity surveyor

Peter was 36 when I first knew him and he had only recently arrived in Canada, with his wife, Barbara.  He had spent some years working in Kuwait and it was there that he met Barbara, a school teacher.  They were both devout Catholics and not long married.  Their first child was due later that year.  They were devoted to each other and they always addressed each other as ‘Darling’.  They were well-educated a well-spoken.  Apart from my father and his parents, Peter and Barbara were the first English people that I had ever met.  I developed a great respect for them.

It was Peter who fuelled my nascent interest in equity investment by talking of shares he was considering buying.  One lunch hour we went to the Toronto Stock Exchange and I was fascinated to see how the trading worked in the cacophony of noise, with traders shouting their offers and communicating with their team by hand signals.  And the tickertape of deals, moving relentlessly across the screens.  I was well and truly hooked and I spent many evenings in the city library, around the corner from the office, reading investment books, and forming my own approach to equities.  It has turned out to be a lifetime interest, and my methods today are little changed from my initial approach more than 50 years ago.

I suspect that Peter was quite well off, at least by my standards. One day he asked me if I would help him to carry some gold from the bank where he was going to buy it, to his deposit box in another bank further up the street.  I carried one of the bars for him, while he carried the other.  They were small but extremely heavy.  It was my first exposure to gold and those two bars would today be worth more than a million dollars.

Across the street from the office and a floor higher in Simpson’s, we could see girls in white uniforms working at the windows.  We used to wave to them.  Jack’s fiancée was a buyer in Simpson’s and one day he reported back that the windows were part of the Elizabeth Arden beauty salon.  One afternoon, Jack suggested that we take a large sheet of architects drawing paper and write ‘Telephone number?’  on it, and hold it up at our window, when the girls were looking out.  This we did, and a blonde girl signalled back their number.  But what to do next?  Peter was married, Jack was engaged and Leroy was too shy, so it was left to me to make the call.  Well one thing led to another and before long the girl – Sandy, and I became constant companions, a situation that lasted for the next eight years and through many countries.  And her friend Valerie, who was also at the windows, ended up married to my friend Howard, and thanks to internet, I am still in periodic contact with both of them.

Peter and Barbara lived in a small cottage on Algonquin Island, one of a chain of islands just south of the Toronto mainland.  There were no cars on the island and Peter commuted to work by ferry.  It was an idyllic setting.  Sandy and I visited them many times, sometimes for a meal, once to babysit their little son – Anthony, and another time to help with raking up the knee-deep layer of autumn leaves.  Eventually they bought a large old house with wood panelling, near High Park.  I helped them with the move.

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Toronto Islands, with Algonquin Island on the far left
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And could well have been their little cottage

Inevitably time moves on, we eventually left Toronto on our long journey across Canada to Vancouver and San Francisco and island hopping to Australia.  And I lost touch with Peter.  Apart from a brief business visit in 2001, I have never been back to Toronto.

A few years ago, I tried to trace Peter and Barbara through internet sites, but to no avail; I could not find their footprints.  It was only recently that I stumbled on them.  It turned out that Barbara died of cancer in 2004, Peter in 2005 and his oldest son five months later.

And Peter died the same month as I had my own near-death experience in Stockholm, the day before George died in Coleraine.

Of the three of us, I was the lucky survivor.

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Landing on my feet

July, 1965

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.

Greenacres May 1963
Photo taken not long before I left home

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.

Immigration card

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.

Adam & Flo Douglas Brampton 1963
My maternal grandparents in their living room in Brampton, in 1963

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.

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The new Toronto City Hall, with the old city hall on the right (photo from internet)

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.

George

Since my father died in 1995, I have not often been back to Ireland, in fact only in 2004, and again about eighteen months ago.  The north Antrim coast, from whence I come, is not on the way to anywhere; it is about as far as one can get from civilisation, unless one is sailing north to remote Scotland, the Faroe Islands or Iceland.  And once landed at Belfast airport, there awaits an hourly bus service to Antrim and an hourly train to Coleraine, both of which I always seem to manage to miss by no more than five minutes.

But when I step foot back on Irish soil, all the frustrations and aggravations of modern travel and living seem to evaporate, and I completely relax; I am once more 18 and on my way home again.

I met my brother the next morning at my hotel, and we headed off to the graveyard; I was anxious to visit the grave of an old friend, George.  We worked together in Coleraine in the mid-1960s.  He migrated to Toronto in 1965, together with his fiancée, Eileen.  They wanted to marry, but being of mixed religions, migration was their perceived solution.  George had a cousin in Toronto, and soon after they arrived, George and Eileen were married.  As crazy as it may seem today, that was the experience of many young Irish couples in that era.

George & Eileen

I followed soon after George and Eileen, and spent a few weeks sleeping on their living room floor.  None of us had much money and my contribution to the household was much welcomed. Eventually I moved in with five other guys, at 345 Eglinton Ave West –  Howard Abrahams, Michael Goldberg, Robin Jackson, Bill Stott and a Canadian, Gordie.  I am still in touch with Howard and Michael; Robin died a long time ago in South Africa; with the other two I have had no further contact, although I was once told that Bill did end up as the global boss of Hallmark Cards,

George worked as an estimator for a construction company – Pigott Construction, and later, he introduced me to his boss, who offered me a job, which I accepted.  Outside of work, I saw little of George socially; he was a settled suburban husband and I was a lad-about-town, playing rugby, football and partying.

Before I left for Australia in 1971, I last saw George and Eileen.  At that time, they had a little girl.  They seemed to be very happy and very much in love.  That was our last contact.

After I had a stroke in late-2005, it took some time, perhaps 2-3 years, for me to realize that my memory had not completely recovered.  I stumbled upon my own method of revitalising it – one day I may write of that difficult period of my life, and in so doing, I tried to find George.  Telephone directories, linkedin.com, facebook.com, internet etc. – there was no footprint.  I eventually dismissed him as being as a ‘Luddite’, resistant to new technology.

Until my good friend and genealogist, Norman Calvin, found him for me, or rather, found his sister.  And there I was, with my brother, looking for George’s grave.  It was no wonder that I had not been able to find him.  He came upon hard times in Toronto.  He lost his job, divorced and lost his family.  He eventually returned to Coleraine, but his situation did not improve.  On 25 November 2005 he died, a broken man.  On that day, I was fighting for my life in an intensive care ward of a hospital in Stockholm.

But where was his grave?  I had a rough idea where it was, but there were so many.  We split up, one each side of a path.  We walked up and down the rows, until I was on the point of giving up and getting more precise directions.  I distinctly remember saying out loud, ‘George, where are you’, when, in that instant, my brother shouted, ‘Over here’.

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It was another of the many co-incidences in my life.