A Chequered Career
My widowed father, now 89 and living in an assisted living facility in Niagara, has had an interesting life, right from the start.
First of all, his mother was probably not his mother. She was a grand Toronto lady to whom the concept of giving birth was as remote as climbing a mountain. No, his mother was probably a loyal family retainer known as Auntie.
In the depression, his father, an insurance adjuster, lost his job and went to work on the docks at the bottom of Yonge Street as a stevedore. His grand mother came down several notches and worked as a telephone operator at the King Edward Hotel, where she wore white gloves because she thought the equipment was dirty..
Later, after his father died, dad quit high school to work as an organist to support his mother and brother. He met (and played for) Fats Waller once, and Fats played some Barrelhouse Blues for him.
Never religious, but always a friend of the clergy, dad was to later count Archbishops and Cardinals among his friends. An interested bishop helped get him into the Royal Conservatory despite his lack of a high school diploma. His natural gift for the keyboard, powered by his long slender fingers, became even more accomplished.
He went to war as soon as he could, six feet four inches tall and one hundred and thirty pounds. Unfit for the front, he was posted to the Army Bureau of Current Affairs in London, where he lectured war brides on what to expect when they arrived in Canada. The Archbishop of Canterbury was a friend, and he played the organ at Westminster Abbey.
He attended Weekends at country houses with Smart People and generally had a ‘good war’. His only casualty was a case of gastritis brought on in Ireland on leave from eating too many fresh eggs (then rationed in Britain).
After the war, he went to work for Paddy Conklin, the famous showman, as his driver, This made him an honourary “Carny” and he was also Paddy’s “strategy man”, cruising the Midway to settle disputes between the carnies.
Later, he worked for a man who made inflatable garages and boats. I remember an inflatable hut in our front yard. The man offered him 10% commission and 90% salary, or 20% commission and 80% salary. Dad asked for 100% commission, no salary, and promptly sold the government all the inflatable liferafts for the new aircraft carrier Bonaventure.
Soon, he was doing what he was born to do, selling pipe organs. He traveled North America, and later the world, entertaining Bishops and Monsignors and other clerics. He knew what whisky they liked, where they got their cigars, how risqué the jokes could be. He fit in with these princes of the church. And he was a complete nonbeliever.
He worked for all the leading pipe organ manufacturers, ending up with the best, a company in Quebec, where I grew up. He was a meticulous model maker, cutting facades for miniature organs from Bristol board in complicated patterns that could all come apart and fit in his briefcase.
I slept in his dressing room. I’d hear him in the morning, whistling under his breath as he brushed his hair and tied his tie and shined his shoes. I do that today. He owned cars that were bizarre for the day, Corvairs (2), Peugeots (3) Citroens (2). He once owned a used Mercedes that cost him more to keep than his five children.
He bought a sailing dinghy he never learned to sail. He bought an island in a cottage lake for back taxes, and surprised all the old-timers by building a cottage in the middle of their lake.
He always had the latest camera, tape recorder, hi fi, binoculars. He took trays and trays of Kodachrome slides of us growing up. He sent us to interesting educational summer camps run by socialists. He and my mother worked to elect, in order, Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern, and then moved back to Canada.
He retired and moved to England, then Vermont, then the Maritimes. Each place they went, he and my mother made new firm friends, usually much younger, and always eccentric. Wherever he went, he’d sidle into the local Anglican church and ask if he could try the organ. He’d cut loose with an impromptu recital and the existing organist, usually a little old lady, would quietly go home and kill herself. He was the local organist and choirmaster everywhere he lived until he was 87.
He doesn’t do much now. Sleeps. Complains. Won’t eat. Can’t hear. But, boy oh boy, I hope I have memories like that when I’m his age.