Thursday, November 28, 2013

Quirky Canadiana at its finest - 101st Grey Cup in Regina

Last Friday, Hubby and I were relaxing at the Ottawa airport bar, having a beer and waiting for our flight to Regina, connecting through Toronto. Flying in winter can be dicey in Canada, but the weather looked good in all three cities, and I had checked the status of the flights before we got to the airport. No delays were reported, and all looked to be clear sailing.

And then, midway through my beer, I got an alert on my iPhone. AC465 to Pearson delayed. "Oh shit," I muttered. "What's wrong," said Hubby. "Our flight to Toronto is delayed, and we've got a really tight connection to make it to Regina." "Let's go see what this is all about," said Hubby.

And so off we went to the RapidAir desk. Where an Air Canada agent informed us that heavy winds in Toronto had closed down all but one runway - for inbound and outbound flights - at Pearson. "But don't worry," he said, "we still think you'll make the connection, and we're working on back-up plans just in case. We'll at least try to get you to Winnipeg tonight. And if you don't make it all the way through, we'll put you up in a hotel."

There was nothing to do but wait. So we waited. We waited while boarding was delayed by 30 minutes. We pulled away from the gate and then waited on the tarmac for another 30 minutes before leaving. We waited while we circled Pearson a few times because the one open runway wasn't ready for us to land yet. Finally, we landed. And it was 9:15 pm. One hour and twenty minutes later than intended. And five minutes after the flight to Regina was scheduled to depart.

As soon as we could turn on our cell phones, I checked to see if the flight to Regina was delayed. It was showing on time. "We missed it," I said. "Maybe they can get us to Winnipeg tonight and my sister can drive us to Regina tomorrow. It's only a 6 hour drive. I'm sure she won't mind."

Before Hubby could tell me what a stupid idea that was, one of the air flight attendants announced that the pilot of AC1119 to Regina was holding the plane. She kindly asked those not trying to make this connection to sit back and let those of us who were exit the plane first. This, of course, did not happen. But we made it off the plane quickly enough, and ran through the terminal to the right gate. There were about a dozen of us, all breathlessly handing our boarding passes and i.d. to the gate attendants.

We've all been on a plane stuck at the gate because it is waiting for the couple of stragglers. I admit it - I hate it when that happens. I usually mutter under my breath at the jerks responsible for making me sit in a plane a minute longer than I have to. So I was quite sure that we would face some fairly surly people when we boarded that plane. I put my head down - to avoid making eye contact - and shuffled onto the plane. But there was no grumbling. Only cheering. "Yay! You guys made it!" and "We were worried you wouldn't get to Regina in time!" and "Thank goodness the pilot held the plane for you!" Hubby and I got high-fives all the way down the row as we made our way to our seats at the back of the plane.

At any other time of the year, I would be willing to bet that the pilot would not have held the plane. That the passengers would not have so patiently and willingly waited for us, nor cheered us as we boarded. And that Air Canada would not have offered to put us up in a hotel were we not to make it to our destination. But at any other time of the year, the whole nation is not converging onto one city to celebrate that most Canadian and most quirky of events.

Yes, welcome to Canada in the days leading up to the Grey Cup.

Those of you with nothing better to do who follow this blog know that I am a regular Grey Cup pilgrim. Even when my team doesn't have a hope of making it there (it's okay, Winnipeg. I know we're rebuilding). And even when it takes me into the arctic chill of Regina in November. After all, that was my excuse for finally purchasing one of these bad boys:

I might have spent a small fortune on this Canada Goose parka...

The tight connection through Toronto was not my only challenge in getting to Grey Cup this year. First, there was booking a hotel. Hubby and I tried to book a hotel back in December of last year. But all these Grey Cup tour promoters bought up large blocks of rooms in advance so they could sell ridiculously overpriced ticket-and-room-packages. And with Regina being as small as it is, that meant buying up all the rooms in town. They even bought up all the rooms in hotels that were yet to be built! There was not a room to be had in all of Regina. Even neighbouring Moose Jaw, about 70k down the TransCanada highway, had no rooms available. For a while, it looked like Hubby and I were going to sleep in a snowbank outside of the stadium. Luckily, through a friend of a friend of a friend, we found the one Regina-ite who was leaving town for Grey Cup weekend, and we rented her townhouse. Which turned out to be much better than staying in a hotel anyway. Take that! - all you suckers who paid thousands of dollars to stay at the Super 8!

Then there was getting the tickets. Season ticket holders in the host city always get first dibs, followed by season ticket holders across the league, followed by the rest of the country. I hold season tickets with a good friend of mine in Montreal, and so I wasn't too worried about getting four tickets. But I didn't realize that we would be offered the worst seats in the whole place. I don't want to complain because at least we got tickets. But those who entered the lottery for the third wave of seats - you know, the guys who get to go after league season ticket holders and who weren't supposed to have any guarantees of even getting tickets - got great seats along the 40 yard-line. Ours, on the other hand, were in the corner of the end zone. In the temporary stands. Where there is absolutely no coverage from that cold, howling, prairie wind. Cra-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-p-py! Here's the view:

Hard to see from way back here... At least that sky is spectacular!

It gets cold in those stands! Bundle up!

Okay, so the game-day view kind of sucked. But Grey Cup - even for the most hardened fan of the game like me - is about so much more than these four quarters.

It's about two great teams who battled hard all year to play in the big game. This year, the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West, and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East.


It's about their fans who come from across the country to see them play. In this case, Saskatchewan ex-pats returned to their home province in droves. And the infamous "Box J Boys", who've held season tickets in Box J of Ivor Wynn stadium in Hamilton since its construction, donned their kilts and descended on the prairies.

Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Spectator

It's about all the other devoted (and crazy) CFL fans who don their team colours with pride. Even when their team isn't playing. Even though their team had a horrible re-building season. Even when their team doesn't even exist yet (Hubby represented you well, soon-to-be Ottawa RedBlacks).

Representing our teams!

It's about spending time with old friends, and making new ones along the way. Both of which always seem to involve beer...

Finally meeting my fellow Twitter trash-talker. Of course, he has to be a Rider fan.

Taking a break from the cold outside to come into the Underground Tent and enjoy some music - and beer - with friends.

It's about meeting some rather interesting characters... Like this guy:

Green Simmons. I can't make this up...

...or this guy, who must have frozen his arse off in those temporary stands:

Cowboy Saskatchewan?

It's about RiderNation, the members of which are the craziest of the crazy CFL fans (you saw the picture of "Green" Simmons above, right). Especially this year - when the game was on their turf and you could not turn around without running into a wall of green or stumbling over a watermelon. They even got their storybook ending. Hosting only their third Grey Cup, and winning only their fourth, their team - which they so passionately love and support - gave them an early Christmas gift. RiderNation, I'm sure, has never been so pumped. And while it pains this Bomber fan to say it, Congratulations, RiderNation. I really am happy for you (and my fingers aren't even crossed behind my back... mostly because I wouldn't be able to type if they were).

The Green Mile - RiderNation takes over the streets of Regina after the game
Photo courtesy of the Regina Leader Post

Dwight Anderson hoisting the Grey Cup during a victory parade at the Saskatchewan Legislature
Photo courtesy of the Regina Leader Post

Even Fergus, who faithfully watches every Bomber game with me, became an honorary member of RiderNation this year. Of course, that's because he was brainwashed by the people who care for him while I'm away... But if sharing this picture doesn't show you how happy I am for you, Rider fans, I don't know what will!

Photo courtesy of Dogs at Camp Ottawa

Grey Cup really is that one week of the year when we all put aside our team rivalries and support one another in our mutual love of Canadian football. We take a time out from our regular lives to embrace our quirkiness. We meet each other again, or we see each other for the first time. We share a few laughs together. We drink beer together. And we do it all in a parka and a pair of sorels.

Is there anything more Canadian than that?

Probably not.

See you next year in Vancouver.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lest we forget

When I was in the first grade, I memorized the poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.

Courtesy of the Canadian War Museum

I don't specifically remember how I came to learn this poem by heart. I doubt that my teacher would assign a memorization assignment of this scale to a bunch of six year olds, although surely she read it to us. But I do remember the big blue book in which it was published, that I used to carry with me around the house. And day after day after day after day, I would read and re-read and re-read and re-read this one poem, until I knew it's every word without needing to glance at a page. And then I would recite it to my mother, to my father, to my sister, to my baby brother, and to anyone who would listen to me.

Where did this come from? I honestly don't know. There is no tradition of military service in my family. Grandpa was too young to have served in World War II, and Pepère was so arthritis-ridden that his service was refused. I have no siblings, no uncles, no aunts, no cousins who chose to join the forces. I myself never considered it. 

And yet, for whatever reason, this 15-line poem captured my young girl's imagination like nothing I had read before it. Perhaps it was because it left me with so many innocently child-like questions about why men and women kill each other. Whatever the reason, from the time that I was but a young girl, I have loved this poem. And Remembrance Day has long held a special place in my heart.

When I was 19 and attending university as a history student, I enrolled in a cooperative education program. My first placement was with the Canadian War Museum as an interpretive tour guide. My job was not only to give tours of the museum, but to do so in period garb to demonstrate the various wartime roles that Canadian women performed throughout our history. I was a colonial camp follower, a World War I nursing sister, a World War II Rosie-the-Riveter, and a member of the Canadian Women's Army Corps. And in these various states of dress, I would lead bus-loads of school-aged children and senior citizen tour groups through Canada's military history. It was a great way to spend my first summer away from home.

What made this job so special was not the fact that, for the first time in my life, my pay cheque was derived from something other than waiting tables for minimum wage. It was not that I was marrying my deep love of Canadian history with earning my keep. It was not even seeing the look of delight on children's faces when they turned the corner and saw the Spitfire. It was because of the many veterans who I had the honour to meet.

Like the Korean War veteran, who, in response to a young boy who asked him what all his medals were for, humbly replied, "Those, son, are for eating chocolate bars."

Like the best friends - both World War II veterans - who were at Dieppe together. One day, I caught them shedding silent tears as they followed me through the Dieppe memorial section of the museum while I gave a tour to a group of grade 7s. When they thanked me for my retelling of this tragic battle, I not-so-silently fought back tears of my own, overwhelmed with the ridiculousness of them thanking me.

Like the World War II veteran who, when he saw me dressed as a nursing sister, came in the following week with the veil that his wife, a real nursing sister, wore, asking me to wear it the next time I chose this particular costume.

Like the American naval veteran who, when he saw me dressed as a member of the Canadian Women's Army Corps, started singing to me "All nice girls love a sailor" and proceeded to regale me with stories about the pretty girls he dated when he was in the army.

Like the World War I veteran, one of only twenty-five remaining in Canada at the time, who told us stories of how, in the trenches of Vimy, he used to have to kill rats with his bayonet.

Like the former UN Peacekeeper, whose jeep had been overturned by a land mine in Bosnia, but who lived to see the unveiling of the new (at the time) Peacekeeper section of the museum.

Like the women who could not sign up for combat roles, but who joined the forces to help out in other ways because they wanted to support the Canadian troops.

It was these brave men and women who made this job the most rewarding that I have ever had. With their humility and with their quiet strength, they touched my heart, each and every one of them.

Fifteen years later, the make-up of Canada's veteran corps has changed dramatically. The last World War I veteran has passed away. There are fewer and fewer World War II veterans with each passing year, and at the national remembrance ceremony, their dwindling numbers can not but be noticed. There are more blue berets - from Korea and other peacekeeping missions - to be seen in the parade. And of course, there are the men and women who have served in more recent conflicts such as Afghanistan. These veterans are my age. They are younger than me. Some of them are friends of mine.

They are fewer and fewer in numbers.

The Veteran's parade

And so, like so many others, on November 11, I pause to remember. To remember my six-year-old's infatuation with a starkly beautiful poem. To remember Norm and Jerry and Nelson and all the other veterans I met during that long-ago summer. To remember the friends of mine who have, much more recently, done a tour of duty in Afghanistan. To remember the sons and daughters who gave their lives so that we could be free.

And to thank them.

Lest we forget.

The National Remembrance Day Ceremony