Off to Greece!

March 30, 2013

In April 1965, David flew from Montreal to Athens via Zurich. He spent a few days in Athens, then took local buses and walked to Corinth, Delphi and Olympia. David said many times that he had often been in the wrong place at the right time. His visit to Greece would definitely qualify, as the country suffered a series of moderate to serious earthquakes, starting on the 9th and 31st of March 1965 and continuing through July 1966. One hotel he stayed in, though damaged, was open, but without a kitchen. All meal orders from the hotel dining room were sprinted away to the restaurant across the street!

David enjoyed telling the tale of a bus trip, likely from Corinth to Delphi (he wasn’t sure – his mind was still very fuzzy from his treatments at the Allan) that involved a great deal of uphill and downhill travel on steep, winding and narrow roads. On one leg of the journey, the driver gave him the seat of honour, in front of the door, with a clear view forward, to the side and DOWN. The bus, on encountering a hairpin bend, would have to be manoeuvred so that the right front wheel was JUST at the edge of the road before being cranked around to make the turn. David’s seat was directly above the right front wheel, and he often described the view downward as “clenching”. Another time, sitting farther back in the bus, a tiny crone of an old woman, dressed all in black, mounted the bus with a huge bag of lemons on her back. Before she was able to sit down, the bus took off and she dropped the lemons, which all rolled to the back of the bus. Everyone on the bus howled with laughter while the old lady shouted curses at the driver and the other passengers. After a minute or so, she started to laugh as well, and then everyone helped gather up the lemons and put them back in their sack.

Another of David’s stories about this trip centred on the theatre in Delphi. He was sitting near the top of the seating area, looking down over the valley below the townsite. An older couple wandered into the theatre from below, the woman taking a seat and the man taking a position on the old stage area. He then began to recite the history of Delphi from a guidebook in a very pleasant and professional-sounding voice. When the man was done, David strolled down to introduce himself. It turned out that this couple were on their way from Dublin, where the man had recently retired as a professor of history at Trinity, to India. On foot. They had no fixed agenda and were making their way by local transport when necessary, and walking the rest of the time.

The one tale David told of his time in Greece has a certain mythical quality to it: When not taking local buses, David walked, picking oranges and lemons from roadside trees for refreshment. When he got tired, he’d hitch a ride to his next destination. On one such occasion, he was befriended by one of the locals and invited to a local taverna for a midday meal. This local chap spoke some English and was very interested to know that David was not an American and not part of a tour. The lunch progressed to coffee and ouzo, by which time the taverna owner had joined the table and wanted to know if David knew his cousin in Chicago.

It turned out that the young man who had asked David to lunch was with a national theatre troupe that was in town for a performance, and of course David simply HAD to attend the performance that evening. On protesting that he knew no Greek, he was told not to worry, that a translator would be provided. On making his way to the theatre, where he was given free admission, David found that the place was packed, but he was escorted to the front of house to find the two centre seats in the front row were marked “reserved”. His young friend dashed out from backstage with one of the actresses and told David that his translator would change throughout the performance, as he or she would have to be on stage. With that, the curtain rose and a five-act play ensued, apparently one beloved by the audience and completely impenetrable to Our Mister Nixon, despite the series of actor/translators taking the seat next to him to explain it.

After the play, David, who really wanted only to sleep, was gathered up by the cast and swept along to a party that carried on until dawn. David asked why they were treating him so well when he was just a tourist. The answer was, “But you are not a tourist! You are not an American in an air-conditioned bus, you are here among us, living as we live. And for that we honour you!”

The following day, after waking to find himself in the arms of one of the actors, David prepared to continue his journey. He shouldered his pack and walked up out of the town toward the hills and the next town. On a rise in the road a good distance from the town, David looked back for a last glimpse and was amazed to see most of the town gathered to see him off. He waved and they all waved back. David said that there was nothing he could do then but sit for a moment and cry.

When not being taken up by theatre troupes, David usually stayed in youth hostels, after being assured it was alright to do so even if he was 30! He soon discovered that one didn’t rent a room at these hostels, one rented a bed (usually one of two) in a room. If others checked in, he might awaken to someone in the other bed. If not, he had the room to himself. His favourite was on Mykonos, a plain , modern building above the sea and the sailors’ chapel pictured in the slide above.

After a month away, living out of his pack and enjoying a carefree time in a country where he couldn’t speak or read the language, it was time for David to return to Canada and commence his next career… in the modelling business.

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Montreal 1963-64: The Dark Time

March 29, 2013

David’s return to Canada in early 1962, via Boston on the “Wienertor”, was at the urging of Sylvia. He had arrived on her doorstep in London seeking employment and a way to try to understand what had been done to him the year before, when he had been ordered home from a posting in Leopoldville, summoned to an “interview” with the RCMP, and confronted with the accusation of being a homosexual and a security risk, unfit to continue working for the federal civil service. He was one of thousands purged from government, RCMP and armed forces from the early 1950s until the 1970s simply for being a suspected homosexual.

[This purge was covert, despite having support from Parliament. Its roots can traced to the defection of Igor Guzenko in 1945, which prompted the government to be ever more vigilant against security risks within its ranks – possible Soviet agents, communists, etc. – but it eventually expanded to include others who could be considered risks. Homosexuals were suspect because of their “character defect” and assumed susceptibility to blackmail.]

Unable to find meaningful work without references from External Affairs and unable to discuss the reasons for his sudden departure from the civil service, David moved to Montreal in the hope that a change of scene and culture could help him start over. Already in a deep depression (according to Sylvia – one of the reasons she urged him to go home), David’s mood did not lift after his move. He finally decided to seek medical attention and was referred to a psychiatrist. That psychiatrist, in turn, referred David to a clinic at the Allan Memorial Institute, part of McGill University.

"Ravenscrag" the Allan - today

“Ravenscrag” – the Allan – today

Sometime after being admitted to “the Allan”, David came to the attention of its director, Dr. D. Ewen Cameron. Dr. Cameron was doing experimental work for the RCMP and the American CIA, using combinations of drugs and other treatment in order to effect behavioural changes in patients. Once under Cameron’s “care”, David underwent at least 36 grand-mal electroconvulsive (shock) treatments in quick succession, was prescribed doses of drugs including Seconal that were far beyond the doses normally associated with treatment of depression, and possibly other treatments.

This particular phase of David’s life, even the timing of his admission and treatment, was indistinct for him for many years. The only things he was sure about was that he had checked himself in sometime in 1963 and checked himself out – against the wishes of those running the clinic – sometime in late 1964. David recalled that he left the Allan feeling “blank”. He had little recollection of where he had been, who his friends were, where he had worked – it was all pretty much gone. Through talking to his brother, his father, and the friends he could remember, reading his letters from overseas, and looking through his photos and slides, David was able to reassemble some memory of his past life. Whatever treatment he’d received at the Allan achieved some level of security for the government: David said that every time he tried to visualize the cipher machines or codebooks he’d used in his time with External Affairs, it was as if a hand pushed him away and he could never picture them for more than a fraction of a second before being “redirected”.

[In the late 1980’s, the Conservative government under Brian Mulroney offered a compensation package to those who had been affected by Dr. Cameron’s treatments. David obtained the application and wrote to the Allan for a copy of his file. Several hundred pages of photocopies arrived not long after with a note saying that these were just David’s clinic records. All records belonging to Dr. Cameron had been destroyed – by him – shortly before his death. David’s doctor read through the file and noted the numbers and strength of the drugs given. He then shook David’s hand and congratulated him on still being alive. As it turned out, David didn’t qualify for the compensation package – he wasn’t damaged badly enough. Obtaining his file from the Allan at least gave David firm dates about his admission and release, allowing him to put a few more pieces in the puzzle of his earlier life.]

Our Mister Nixon was made of stern stuff. Not long after getting out of the Allan in late 1964 and piecing his life back together, David was once again in the job market and had his usual amazing luck at finding something extraordinary. But not before taking himself on a journey to celebrate not only the end of his ordeal, but of turning 30 – officially “old” – in December that year. He’d already been to Asia, Africa and a good chunk of Europe. Where would this survivor choose to celebrate the start of his new life as a 30-year old?


Passport as Travelogue

March 29, 2013

Back in the good old days, travelling meant accumulating interesting stamps in your passport. Crossing borders between countries (by air, sea, rail or car), meant going through a checkpoint and changing money – things that are generally no longer required, especially in Europe.

Here is David’s passport – a special one with a green cover – issued in 1954 when he went to Indochina. It continues through 1959, when he returned to Canada from Germany. Viewing its pages, one can track David’s travels to his assignments as well as his holidays during and in between. This passport, on its own, is essentially a condensed travelogue, with bureaucratic illustrations in varying levels of complexity. Some are just small, basic stamps, but others are much more forceful in their statement of “officialness”.


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