As a reporter for a suburban Glasgow weekly in the early 1950s, my father Mike was assigned to cover the annual Jan. 25 supper celebration that marks the 1759 birth of the iconic Scottish poet Robert Burns.
It was, he would tell me a half-century later, a night to remember, particularly as he was unable to function for much of it.
It was a town hall affair of abundant haggis, poetry, song and whisky galore. Seated to his left was the farmer John Hodge, an old friend of my grandfather Hughie. Early in the proceedings, dad indicated to Hodge that he was not a whisky drinker. “Och, it’s the water of life, laddie,” said Hodge. “I’ll see ye safe.”
It was late when the festivities ended and only then did dad – by now in the critical stages of what Glaswegians term the whisky wobblies – discover that the transport home was aboard a vintage 1945 Ferguson tractor that doubled as Hodge’s preferred off-farm motoring.
After propping dad up in the rear-facing metal seat, Hodge looped a rope around him and then under his own armpits. “We’ll stop by the farm for a nightcap,” he cried as he fired the tractor into the cold night air.
There, Hodge’s formidable sister Nan appeared, informed him that she’d confiscated tractor and car keys and that he’d better find a way to get “this boy” home as surely his mother would be worried sick.
Outside the farmhouse, dad collapsed. He could still see and hear but was paralytic –flat on his back staring at the stars – when Hodge appeared leading his big Belgian mare called Nance. Hodge heaved my father onto her back, roped his hands and feet under her belly and then mounted up directly cross-country.
As they exited a field that bordered the main Glasgow-Edinburgh road, Hodge encountered local policeman Sgt. Dan Hastie who was on his routine nocturnal bike patrol. “That the reporter you have there?” he asked. “Aye, needs his bed,” said Hodge. “Best place for him,” murmured Hastie. “He’ll no be taking any notes today.”
True enough. But he would take many notes in the ensuing years, eventually emigrating to Canada and, via Ottawa and Edmonton, continuing a journalism career at the Vancouver Sun.
Just before he turned 40, he was editor of what was then called the Leisure section. And it was there that dad would write his part of a spread that also featured three of his colleagues and appeared Friday, Jan. 3, 1975, called Going on for 40: Four views on four decades.
He wrote: “The birth certificate certainly looks its age. Like a winter rose, it is grey, cracked, delicate. Unpeeling it, one appreciates that dust-to-dust business. A glance confirms that May will indeed close the fourth decade. Another glance – and a wee bit of calculation – discloses a fact that leaves me speechless…”
Viewing the document, he calculated that he was born exactly five months after his devout Catholic parents’ wedding. So he wrote a letter and popped it in the overseas post, because, well, that’s what people did in 1975.
Hughie responded (presumably months later):
Have you any idea what was going on in 1935? Japan and Germany withdrew from the League of Nations; there was a civil war in Greece, which resulted in restoration of the monarchy; Germany resumed conscription; severe dust storms swept North America; Mussolini’s troops swept into Ethiopia. And you want to know if perhaps you were born a trifle early?
You think I can remember trifles from almost 40 years ago? Can you?
Anyway, at your age you should be up to more than peeking at bits of paper. Are you aware that when your mother was 40 you had already turned 21? I remember that.
You’re only 40. In another 20 years you’ll have more sense. I’m 66 and I take life like the long-distance runner, who proves the wisdom of silence and the value of pace. And look at your grandfather: he was still running at 90. Unfortunately he ran into a bus. And your granny was more than a little wistful when she said: ‘I always knew drink would be the death of him. And him in his prime.’
My dad wrote in his story that he hoped Hughie was displaying a familial trait: never taking life too seriously. At any age. My grandfather concluded his letter with this postscript:
About that birth certificate thing: you want I should call in Scotland Yard?
Hughie died when I was a teenager, his wits ravaged by Alzheimer’s. I regret only knowing him as old.
But, as he’d have said, that’s life; feet point forward for a reason.
“Like a good boy I’ll take Hughie’s advice,” my dad concluded in 1975. “And keep cruising.”
So far, so good. This year, in a blink, he’s 75. And now, as I approach 40, it’s my turn to reflect. My son, London – dad’s only grandson – turns two in August.
Dad and I (with London in tow) see each other regularly. During our chat about the story he wrote on turning 40, I wondered when London would realize that his parents were never married.
“Times change,” my dad mused.
They do. And I’ll probably tell my son that over a 3D videophone some day, before changing the subject and asking him how to get its hologram clock to stop flashing 12:00. Maybe that’s when I’ll tell him the rest of the story about his grandfather’s memorable reporting assignment and how it concluded:
Still draped immobile over Nance’s broad withers, he could squint enough to see a light in an open window when they clattered from cobblestoned Main Street into the cul-de-sac of neat semi-detached houses. Hodge called: “Is it yourself, Hughie?” “’Tis too, John,” Hughie replied.
Hodge dismounted. “I have your boy here.” Hughie’s response sounded far away and hardly overlaid with concern: “I see that, John. Is he dead?”
Hodge, a big strong man, bundled him like a bale of hay into the cuddling arms of Hughie, equally big and strong. Realizing perhaps that he’d been delivered to the embrace of the most lovable man he knew, he passed out.
Story by Graeme McRanor originally published in the Vancouver Sun in June 2010