Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Ahoy Matey - By Mike Sands

Our daughter, Madison, recently was invited to play for team Canada at the world ball hockey tournament.  My wife, Nadine, her sister Elanna, and I tagged along.  The tournament took place in Newfoundland .

Newfoundland is the eastern most province in Canada.  The Vikings discovered Newfoundland in the eleventh century.  It wasn’t settled until John Cabot landed on it in the early 1600s. Cabot noted in his journal that as he lowered a bucket in the Grand Banks, instantly the bucket became full of fish. When word got back to Europe of this abundance of fish, many pulled up stakes and set sail for what Eric the Red had called ‘Vinland’.  Newfoundland has rugged terrain and harsh weather that is similar to parts of Ireland.  Irish settlers felt at home on ‘the Rock ‘and were one of the few groups that remained.  Newfoundland has a distinctive Irish flavour to it that remains until this day.                                             

Up until the early twentieth century, Newfoundland’s economy was centred around the fisherman.  Back in the olden days, the occupation of a fisherman was one of the most dangerous ones around.  Many harrowing tales have been related of men battling the rough seas in an effort to get their share of the bountiful haul that awaited them. Many a b’y came back a man. A common epitaph in cemeteries was ‘’lost at sea’’.  In the good ol’ days, fishermen didn’t have the luxury of advanced weather systems or radios.  It was strictly ‘red sky tonight, sailors delight ‘as their only warning of inclement weather.   If the sea didn’t get them, they also had to worry about crashing into the shores by torrential winds, rain and waves.  Lighthouses eliminated many of these disasters.                                     

When we were in Newfoundland last month, we visited some of these lighthouses.  Plaques around the lighthouse grounds showed the evolution and historical significance of the lighthouse in Newfoundland. The first lighthouses were bonfires on the ends of points at harbour entrances.  Candles were used in the 18th century. By 1800, oil lamps were used.  Whale oil was often used after a kill.  Kerosene, which was invented by a Canadian in the 1840s, was used extensively in Canada after 1860 because it was cheap, reliable and efficient.   Electric lights came to lighthouses around the end of the 19th century.  The lighthouse remains a very important tool in the Atlantic region. It stands to reason that Newfoundland, being the eastern most point in North America, would have frequent interactions with foreign sailing vessels.  The following is one such interaction.  This is an actual radio conversation (released by the chief of naval operations) of a U.S. naval ship with Canadian authorities off the shores of newfoundland in October 1995. CANADIANS:  Please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision. AMERICANS: Recommend YOU divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision. CANADIANS: Negative, you will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.  AMERICANS: This is the captain of a U.S. naval ship.   I say again, divert YOUR course!  CANADIANS; No, I say again, divert your course.  AMERICANS; ‘’ This is the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States Atlantic Fleet.  We are accompanied by three destroyers, three Cruisers and numerous support vessels.   I DEMAND that you change your course 15 degrees north.  I say again, that’s one five degrees north, or counter –measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.’’  CANADIANS; This is a lighthouse, it’s your call.

When I was a kid growing up in the Toronto area in the 1960s-70s, I remember Newfoundlanders, or ‘Newfies’ as they were referred as back then , as always being  the butt of many jokes. These jokes were generally corny in nature; eg how did the first Newfie get to Toronto? Answer; He got a breakaway while playing ice hockey on the St. Lawrence River.  And how did he get back?  Answer; he was called offside.  Or the one where you ask your friend ‘’how do you keep a Newfie in suspense? ‘’Answer; I’ll tell you tomorrow.  In other parts of the world, these ‘corny’ jokes centred around the nationalities of Poland, Ireland or Scotland.  In Canada, we picked on Newfoundland.  I’m not sure why we chose Newfoundland over any of the other provinces to be the butt of our jokes.

Although Newfoundlanders were the butt of many jokes when we were kids, they played a very important role during the second world war. Newfoundland was strategically located on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.  It was a strategic post that the allies used to fuel and launch aircrafts / destroyers / submarines.  It was also our countries first line of defense against any invasion from the German enemy.   One historic battle off the coast of Newfoundland that was related to me by an ‘old tar’ while I was visiting Newfoundland last month,  went as follows; The HMS Newfoundlander was approached by two German destroyers off the Grand Banks.  As the destroyers approached, the captain hollered out, ‘’ cabin boy, cabin boy, get me my red coat.’’ After the HMS Newfoundlander took out the two German destroyers, the captain took off his red coat and handed it to the cabin boy to put away. One hour later, five German destroyers approached the HMS Newfoundlander and again, the captain hollered out, ‘’ cabin boy, cabin boy, get me my red coat’’.  After the five German destroyers were sunk by the HMS Newfoundlander, the captain again took off his coat and handed it to the cabin boy to be put away.   This time, the cabin boy inquisitively asked,’’ Captain, why do you always order me to get your red coat whenever the enemy approaches?’’  The captain replied ,  ‘’Well son, I like to wear my red  coat because if I’m ever bloodied  during the battle, none of my crew will realize I’m hurt and that is good for morale.’’  An hour later, fifteen German destroyers surrounded the HMS Newfoundlander.  As well, the German destroyers had ten Stuka dive bombers accompany them.  The captain yelled out, ‘’cabin boy, cabin boy, bring me my brown pants.’’

I was diagnosed with ALS in 2011.  When someone tells you you’ve got three to five years to live, ones fear instinct kicks into overdrive.  Anyone who says they’re not afraid when first diagnosed, is just fooling themselves.   Even General George S Patton, who had ice in his veins when staring down his enemies, stated, ‘’ If we take the generally accepted definition of bravery as a quality which knows no fear, I have never seen a brave man.  All men are frightened.  The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened.’’  But you can’t stay in fear mode forever; you have to go on living.  Like the captain of the HMS Newfoundlander and so many of the seamen who stared death in the face while on the high seas, they had to carry on.  ’’When you’re going through hell, just keep going ‘’, was probably a motto many of these men swore by.  The secret to getting yourself through trying times is to get yourself in the right frame of mind.  In ‘’ The Wizard of Oz’’, the cowardly lion needed the Wizard to give him a medal in order to put him in the proper mindset to face his fears.  I look to God to get me in the right frame of mind to face this dire diagnosis.   In nautical terms, God is THE lighthouse.   When your boat is in trouble, you have to keep your eyes on the Lighthouse.   THE Lighthouse will make your paths straight and lead you to a safe landing.  Eventually all bad things must come to an end. There is a rainbow at the end of the storm. The rainbow may not be a cure for ALS, or a sudden reversal of my symptoms.  But if you have the belief, like I have the belief, that something grand awaits us after this life, then there is nothing to fear. I remember watching the movie, ‘Gladiator ‘. In it, Maximus Meridius (played by Russell Crowe) states, ‘’Never let your future demise disturb you.  You will meet it with the same weapons of reason which today you arm yourself against the present.’’  So I wait, knowing that my faith is being sure of what I hope for (taken from a plaque in my bedroom). 

P.S. One last Newfie joke that I remember from when I was a kid: Did you hear about the Newfie who was killed while ice fishing?  Ya, he was run over by a Zamboni at centre ice of Maple Leaf Gardens.  Corny, yes,  but it brings a nostalgic smile to my face every time.
I’s the b’y who builds the boat, I’s the b’y that sails ‘er.  I’s the b’y that catches the fish and brings ‘em home to Liza.
Kissing a cod is a Newfoundland tradition that welcomes newcomers to the island.  I couldn’t get Madison to kiss a cod, and had to settle for her kissing a lobster.
The Cowardly Lion receiving his medal for courage.



Monday, 15 July 2013

Swing Batter Batter

Mike’s friends, Ron and Dan came over last week for a visit. It’s baseball season, so that was one of our topics of conversation. We talked about how well Mike’s home team, the Toronto Blue Jays are doing. We discussed with excitement the Jay’s recent eleven-game winning streak. We also discussed with excitement the good old days when we all played slo-pitch together. That’s how I first met Ron and Dan years ago when Mike took me out to play slo-pitch with him on his co-ed slo-pitch team when we first started dating.

Slo-pitch is softball with a few minor differences. Softball was my sport. Boys played baseball and girls played softball, but I would just like to clarify that the ball isn’t soft at all. It’s bigger than a baseball, but when it’s smacked directly at you when you are standing on the pitcher’s mound, it’s definitely not soft.
I played the game from the time I was ten years old until I was about 23. I was a pitcher, or like one of my first coaches called me, I was “the shooter”. My dad to this day still calls me the shooter sometimes, imitating my old coach and laughing. I smile because it's a fond memory. Coach Bob pacing back and forth, yelling, “You’re the shooter! Come on shooter!” My parents and other parents and my team mates cheering me on and one team mate in particular, Mel, with her Martin Short impersonation from Saturday Night Live “You look marvellous” coming from third base.

I didn’t have the fastest pitch, but it was pretty accurate. I loved pitching, it was fun and exciting. I played a few other positions, including out-field, but I don’t think I could have been a fielder full time. Standing around waiting for the ball to come my way wasn’t my idea of excitement. Batting though, now that was exciting! I think the most fun part of the sport is running the bases. Stealing second was always my top priority, third was next and even home sometimes. I was a little greedy, I guess, but when an error is made by the other team, giving you the opportunity to score, you go for it, and don’t hesitate! 
Running bases was Mike’s specialty. His team called him “wheels” because he was so fast. I can still see him rounding second and sliding into third on a base hit; the infielders eating dust and the rest of us applauding.

I think the game of baseball (or softball, or slo-pitch) is a lot like life. There are a lot of exciting moments, but for the most part it can be quite monotonous. It’s about systems and routines and thousands of swings at different opportunities that come right “down the pike”.
Every batter faces a curve ball every once in a while. In the sport, a curve ball can change the whole game and in life, a curve ball can change everything.

On March 7th, 2011, when our curve ball, ALS crossed the plate, everything changed. You see it coming and suddenly you start to shake in your boots. You lose all the confidence you had the last time you were up to bat. The stance you perfected after years of practice is lost and you find yourself on your knees begging for mercy.
The late, great New York Yankee, Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS in 1939 at the age of 36. Two weeks after the first baseman was diagnosed, he retired from the game with 23 grand slams under his belt. He was twice named American League’s MVP, six times World Series champion, seven times all-star, and the Triple Crown winner of 1934. With the same courage and poise he had every time he stood in the batter’s box, he delivered a retirement speech to a jam packed Yankee stadium. He started his speech by telling the crowd that he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I’m sure Gehrig was overwhelmed by the support he received that day from his fans, friends and family, not to mention all the other Yankees including team mates, Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio.

Lou, nicknamed “The Iron Horse” for his amazing streak of consecutive games (2130 games), which held a record for 56 years was the first MLB player to have his uniform, number 4, retired and he was elected into the baseball hall of fame in 1939.
The truth is ALS really sucks! More truth, I have almost lost my mind a few times and still could. Mike though, is mostly good. He remains content. With one foot in the batter’s box and one foot out, looking to my old ball coach, Hawk (real name Bruce) for direction, I can hear him telling me to keep my eye on it. Mike’s eyes are still on the prize and mine have been wondering all over the place. I almost forgot the number one rule in the game, “keep your eye on the ball” and I almost forgot the number one rule in my life, “Keep your eyes on God!”

Lou ended his famous speech by saying, “I may have had a tough break, but I sure have an awful lot to live for.” Mike feels the same way! Lou passed away in 1941 at the age of 38, two years after he was diagnosed.
Jesus says: “In the world you have tribulation and trials and distress and frustration; but be of good cheer [take courage; be confident, certain, undaunted]! For I have overcome the world. [I have deprived it of power to harm you and have conquered it for you.]” John 16:33 (Amplified Bible)

                                                    Mike watching the game 1986

My first year of softball - 1979 - Bottom row left to right - good friends Jen, Jodi, Debi and then me.  Sadly Debi passed away five years ago...so missed and so loved by family and many friends! Debi's sister is top row far right.

Mike's slo-pitch team, The Jolly Coachman - 1986 (a year before we met). 
 Mike is bottom centre, wearing a Blue Jays ball cap. Good friend Ron, top row third from left.