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Dusty Dreams and Troubled Waters

Dusty Dreams and Troubled Waters

A Story of HMCS Sackville
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Silver Hair and Golden Voice

Silver Hair and Golden Voice

Austin Willis, from Halifax to Hollywood
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Toronto Beckons

Once I got to Toronto I immediately got myself into radio drama, as this new world offered dozens of possibilities in those days. Everything the CBC sent to any competition invariably won and it was very difficult to get in as a young, relatively inexperienced actor.


Radio drama was also terrifying because it was broadcast live in those days—but at least we had our scripts in front of us. In rehearsal, directors would get you to do a scene over and over again. You would often do things you didn't know you could do. An actor named John Drainie gave me advice one day that I have never forgotten. We were rehearsing a fight scene and I knew I just wasn't getting it to sound right for radio. Drainie said, "Aust—you are not making any pictures. For every word that I speak on radio I make pictures in my mind. It's in colour, and that seems to get it off the page."


How I Started the Second World War

Shortly after I moved to Toronto to work for CBC Radio, I got blamed for starting the war. CBL was the "anchor" station for the network, because we broadcast news to the whole country. One day, I happened to be sitting in the CBL booth as we were playing "Smoke Gets in your Eyes." Someone came running in wild-eyed from the newsroom and handed me a piece of paper. I broke in and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen: I interrupt this program and bring you a special bulletin—Canada has declared war on Nazi Germany."

As required when announcing a bulletin of this importance, I read it a second time.

"Ladies and Gentlemen: I interrupt this program and bring you a special bulletin—Canada has declared war on Nazi Germany."

After making this grave declaration, I returned to regular programming. On this day, unfortunately, it meant listeners digesting the ominous news were served up an utterly ridiculous but popular novelty tune: "Inka Dinka Doo." (The Financial Post later reported that "incredible stupidity had been shown by Canada's state-owned broadcasting...with no sense of the sober gravity" that the announcement warranted.)

From that time on, I appeared in books as having started the war.

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The Last Canadian Knight

The Last Canadian Knight

The Unintended Business Adventures of Sir Graham Day
also available: Hardcover eBook
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The Hermit

He groans and takes off his red hat, scratching his summer buzzcut. His hair doesn't look so carroty when it's buzzed. "So, Woods Man Dan, when's this legendary waterfall gonna show up?"

I stand up, stuff my water bottle into my backpack, and start walking. "Patience, Benny boy. Patience. It's only been an hour. Maybe an hour and a half. It'll totally be worth it once we're..."

I freeze as a sharp screeching echoes all around us. "What the...?"

Spewing out the water he's gargling, Ben slams into me, one monster foot mashing onto my sneaker heel. "What is it?" he asks. "Another fascinating pile of blueberry bear scat? Perhaps some fewmets?"

"No—shut up! Didn't you hear that?" I shove him away, then bend down to cram my heel back into my sneaker. "Fewmets?"

"Deer droppings."

"Weird." I stand back up and look at the sky as the noise starts up again. "Where's it coming from? Is that what a screech owl sounds like?"

Ben's looking around now, too. "Try six screech owls, maybe." His eyes jerk up to something behind me, then bug open. "Holy horse apples!"

"What?" I snap my head around, expecting to see nasty owl talons coming at me. Instead, it's a giant spiky tree skeleton hanging with clumps of greenish-grey Old Man's beard moss. I give Ben another shove. "Idiot. And horse apples?"

He smacks me on the back. "Ha ha! Made you look! And it's awesome how many words for feces you can find online. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Google?"

"Keep moving," I say. "You've got some sad habits, and you watch way too many bad movies. But seriously, what's that awful noise, besides you yapping, I mean—a chainsaw?"

Ben shuffles along beside me, cupping both hands around his big ears. "Sounds like a parade."

"A parade in the middle of the woods?" I ask. The sound fades into a low buzzing, like a hive full of bees, then stops.

"I got nothin'," he says, shrugging. "How about an old tomcat howling?Looking for a girlfriend?"

"Yeah, right. A wildcat, maybe."

When the squawking starts up again, we follow it, leaving the trail. We stop at a line of trees along the edge of a gully. The steep banks around the ravine below are crowded with trees, but I find an open space between some bald branches and squint down into the deep gully. There's a small cabin pretty much buried in pine branches, except for two tiny windows and a stone chimney. From up here, it looks more like a brush pile than a building. I drop to my knees when somebody comes around one corner of the cabin, a wrinkly elf guy. He's blowing hard on a set of bagpipes. The sun's beaming right down on him, like a spotlight.

Ben flops down beside me and plugs his ears. "What the... is that a freakin' hobbit, or a wizard?"

The old guy marches around the clearing, lopsided, like one of his legs is shorter than the other. He's got long grey hair, a matching beard, and he's wearing a red plaid shirt, like some lumberjack.

"Whoa!" I grin at Ben. "Is he for real?"

"He must be crazy for real, living out here with the bears," he whispers, doing a fake shiver. "Maybe even escaped killers. It's creepy."

I take off my backpack and my yellow ball hat and stretch out in the dirt and pine needles at the edge of the bank. Through a skinny space in between tree trunks, I can see the elf guy, but he can't see me. Or, at least I hope he can't. "He must be a hermit," I say. "Like in some fairytale. One of his hands looks messed up. Is he missing a finger?"

Ben squirms in beside me.

"Put up your hood to hide your hat and your hair," I say.

He does. "Oh, yeah, the baby finger on his right hand. Probably chopped it off with that axe over there. But aren't hermits only in stories? Wasn't the Grinch supposed to be some kind of hermit?"

I shrug and cover my ears to block out the screeching bagpipes. This guy is for-sure real.

He finally quits blowing, sits down on a bench and leans back against the cabin. After a while, he takes his bagpipes inside, then comes back out whistling, carrying two tin buckets. He hooks them onto either end of a pole, puts it across his shoulders and limps off toward one end of the ravine. We can't see the water, but we can hear it. Probably Barnaby's Brook, which is what Dad said everybody calls this massive forest. The hermit's whistling fades away as he disappears down a hill.

"Amazing Grace," I say, sitting up.

Ben frowns up at me.

"The song he's whistling. I'm a band geek—so what?"

Ben sits up and digs a caramel out of his backpack. He unwraps it noisily, like everything he does. "Sounded like that Danny Boy song your nana always used to sing. The one about the pipes calling." He stuffs the candy into his mouth. Since he sucks at sharing, he doesn't ask if I want one.

"The tunes are kind of the same." I poke him in the gut. "Didn't your mom put you on a sugar-free diet?"

"These are sugar-free. Not as tasty as the real thing, but still good." Ben takes another drink of water. "You have no clue how painful it is being pre-diabetic."

"Lucky for you somebody invented sugar-free candy. And, just because your dad has diabetes, that means you'll get it, too?"

Ben shrugs. "Mom says it runs in families. Kind of like you having your dad's poofy black poodle hair." He sucks back more water, then does some loud gargling.

"Better than your carrot fuzz." I crawl over to a more open spot so I can see better. "Wish I had binoculars."

Two suits of grey long johns, footless onesies like Grampy wears in winter, dangle from a branch above the woodpile, flapping in the breeze. A witches' brew black pot hangs from a pipe over a crackling fire in the stone fire pit.

"Smell that?"

"What, smoke?" Ben crawls over beside me, sniffing like some hound dog. "Or your butt?"

"No, moron. Stew, rabbit stew I bet. Bunny stew. Yum..."I lick my lips, lean up on one elbow and pat my gut. "Hasenpfeffer, like in that old Bugs Bunny cartoon where the king's cook, what's that guy's name, the one with the big mustache?"

"Yeah, yeah. Looney Tunes are the best. I love that dude—Yosemite Sam. He's always hunting for rabbit stew." Ben stuffs a finger down his throat, like he's about to puke. "Except, rabbits are furry pets, not food. How d'ya think Jessie'd taste in a stew, huh?" He sticks his nose up in the air, putting on his bad French accent. "Monsieur Daniel, could I interest you in some savory puppy ragout with thin slices of beagle ear in a delicate tomato sauce, prepared especially for y..."

I flatten myself to the ground. "Shut up! He's back."

The hermit lowers the buckets to the ground, then pours the brook water into a blue plastic rain barrel close to the fire. He replaces the stewpot with a pot of water, then goes back inside.

He comes out carrying a wine glass and some dishes on a board, with a big, pink napkin tucked into the front of his red plaid shirt. Ben buries his face in his arms to muffle his hyena laughing.

The hermit pulls his bench up to a huge stump beside the fire. He ladles out some of the stew, fills his glass and starts eating, patting the corners of his mouth with the napkin every now and then. Something about him reminds me of Nana. He looks fussy, or what Nana used to call finicky. Between bites, he takes sips from the wine glass, closing his eyes and stroking his scruffy beard. He's chewing and humming loudly at the same time, drumming his fingers on one leg.

As he's eating, a fat raccoon waddles into the clearing and climbs up onto the bench right beside him.

"Sweet!" I mouth to Ben.

The man opens his eyes and laughs. "Tastes every bit as good as it smells, Rocky." He picks something off his plate, and the raccoon snatches it up with its grabby paws, then starts nibbling on it. The hermit laughs again and gives him another piece.

"Don't raccoons mostly eat bugs and eggs they steal from nests?" Ben shout-whispers.

I nod. "And garbage."

After Rocky shuffles away, the hermit takes his dirty dishes and a bucket of hot water back down to the brook.

"This is so cool," I say. "Like watching a movie."

Ben shrugs and unwraps another caramel. "An Outdoor Life Network documentary, maybe. You ever see that show, "The Beaver Brothers," about those two old guys that allegedly live in the back of beyond somewhere?"


"You should. It's freakin' hilarious. They're total rednecks."

When the hermit comes back, he bends over to stir the fire. And cranks out a big one. Not like he's trying to sneak it out, either. Definitely not a silent but deadly, SBD.

"Excremental! He plays the butt trumpet, too," Ben says, blasting out a laugh before I can slap a hand over his big mouth.

The hermit spins around.

"Idiot," I hiss. "You suck as a P.I. Seriously."


"Private investigator."

"Who's there?" The guy's voice is more like a mad teacher's than an old man's.

I press my chin to the ground and watch his laser eyes gradually zeroing in on me and Ben. When he picks up the axe and starts marching toward the bank below us, I grab my hat and backpack and jump up.

"Crazy crapdoodles," Ben says, elbowing me out of the way and butting in front of me.

"What do you think you're doing, you sneaky varmints? Get off my property!"

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Under Amelia's Wing

When the servicing was finished, I wiped my greasy hands on the towel Matt handed me. It was time to perform a ground run to see if my repairs were successful. The four of us pushed the plane out onto the runway and Cap asked me to start it up.

I could hardly believe my ears. I hesitated. "Really?"

"You serviced it," Cap replied. "You start it."

I stepped into the Taylor Cub's tiny cockpit and rubbed my hands together. The switches and dials on the instrument panel looked just like the ones in the City of New York. I took a deep breath and rested my hand on the throttle. Outside, Matt turned the propeller and a roar echoed in the autumn air. He cheered, Mabel's eyes widened, Cap smiled, and I heaved a huge sigh of relief.

When I turned off the engine, Matt said, "She knows more about planes than any girl I've ever met!"

"She's one-of-a-kind all right," Cap replied with a proud smile.

I stepped out of the plane and curtsied. Mabel just shook her head in amazement.

"You deserve a break after all that work. Let's take a spin around the campus," he said, patting the plane and looking at me.

My heart skipped a beat. "You're kidding," I said.

"I never kid when it comes to planes," Cap replied. "This one needs a flight check before the boys start their aviation classes anyway." He held his hand out to me. I stepped over the low door again and sat in the back seat. Cap stepped into the front seat, pulled the door up and the window down. I breathed in the smell of leather seats and machine oil. This was it. I was finally going into the air!

Cap signalled Matt to turn the propeller. I took a deep breath and in vain, willed my heart to slow as another roar filled the air. The wheels turned slowly and the plane rolled to the runway closest to the hangar. My heart pounded as Cap revved the engine to full power, eased the throttle forward, and started our takeoff run. The runway blurred with the increased speed and the force pushed me back in my seat. My stomach gave a lurch as the plane tilted and the ground fell away, and my whole body tingled with the vibration. Mabel, Matt, and the hangar got smaller and smaller as we soared into the clear blue sky.

All my studying with Uncle Harry had taught me what to expect during takeoff. But knowing was not the same as feeling. I wanted to hold my hands over my head and yell, "I'm free!" No more a fish out of water. I was an eagle, soaring, gliding, and swooping through the clouds. This was where an eagle belonged.

The roaring of the wind and the engine made talking difficult. Cap turned his head and yelled something to me that sounded like "football." I looked down where he was pointing and saw a huge green oval with white lines. I remember Mabel telling me the football stadium was at the end of University Street, so now I had a landmark. The next building I recognized was the Armory, with its sloping roof and big windows. When Cap flew over, the students streaming in and out looked up and waved.

We continued south where the buildings stood closer together. I wasn't sure what I was looking at, but I was impressed with how much bigger the university looked from the air. It seemed to spread for miles. Obviously, I'd only seen a small part of it from the ground.

Beyond the buildings were clumps of dark green trees and open yellow fields. The ripened corn stalks seemed to bow their heads as Cap and I flew over. In the pastures, cows grazed and horses ran away from the roar of the plane.

Cap turned around again and shouted over his shoulder. I heard, "Time...home." I smiled and nodded, although I hated to leave the sky.

Cap flew over more buildings until I recognized the runways at the airport in the distance. Slowly we lost altitude and the buildings, cars, and people grew. We bounced down onto solid ground and taxied back to the hangar, where Mabel and Matt still stood on the tarmac. They ran toward the plane as soon as it stopped. Cap pushed the window up and the door down. Then Matt held out his hand and I stepped out.

"What was it like?" Mabel asked right away.

I jumped down and practically shouted, "Amazing!"

Cap stepped out of the plane and I turned to him. "Thank you so much!" I took his hand in both of mine and shook it vigorously.

He chuckled. "Keep up the good work and you'll be flying the plane yourself in no time."

"That's my plan!"

"Amelia Earhart will be on campus soon," Cap said. "I know she wants to talk to people like you about aviation."

"She already—" Mabel started, but I shot her a look that made her stop. "That's a good idea," she finished instead.

"A very good idea." I agreed. I held out my hand to Cap again. "Thank you. It's the best present anyone has ever given me."

He laughed and said I was more than welcome. Mabel and I said goodbye and walked in the direction of our residence. My whole body still tingled from the flight. I'd often thought of what it would be like to fly but to feel it was more thrilling than I imagined—the smell of machine oil and leather, the roar of the engine, and the whole world stretching out below. More than all of that was the sense of freedom. I couldn't stop smiling.

"You could have knocked me over with a feather when you stepped out of that plane!" Mabel's voice brought me back to earth.

"Still think I'm crazy?"

She shook her head, but there was a sparkle in her eye this time. "Only slightly."

"Gee, thanks."

We walked in silence for a few more minutes before Mabel stopped again. "Why didn't you want me to tell Cap you already know Amelia?"

I walked to the side of the road and sat down on the grass. "It's this whole 'non-traditional role' idea. Being in engineering already has people talking about me. I don't want to draw more attention to myself."

Mabel sat down beside me. "Wait 'til they find out you want to be a pilot!"

"I'm not looking forward to that reaction." I thought for a few more seconds. "I'm different enough for now. Telling people I know Amelia can wait until she arrives."

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Amelia and Me

Amelia and Me

Book 1 in the Ginny Ross Series
also available: Paperback eBook
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August 1931

Even in August the early morning in Newfoundland was cold. I snuggled under my quilt until the grandfather clock in the parlour struck three. Then I swung my legs over the side of the bed and reached into the warmth under the covers for my clothes. I wiggled out of my nightgown and quickly pulled on my navy dress and red sweater. With my lucky penny wrapped in a hanky and tucked into my pocket, I grabbed my socks and shoes.

The third-floor hallway was quiet as I tiptoed past Mom's bedroom door and the messy hole my brother called his bedroom. The stairs creaked. But if I stuck to the banister side, I should be safe. Still, with every step, I imagined Mom's voice shouting down to me, "Ginny Ross, you get back here!"

On the second floor the only sound was the distant rumble of my grandfather's snoring in the bedroom at the end of the hall. Nana said it was a miracle she got any sleep with the racket Papa made. I turned and headed down the inside stairs to the store.

On the bottom step I pulled on my socks and shoes. A dozen giant steps to the front door and I slid the steel bolt to one side. That was when my plan fell apart. If I left through the front door, then I wouldn't be able to lock it behind me. At 7:00 a.m., when Papa came down to open up, he'd know someone had gone out.

I quickly scanned the store. The front windows on either side of the door didn't open—no escape route there. Behind the counters, floor-to-ceiling shelves piled with groceries lined the side walls. The four windows on the back wall overlooked the bay, but opening them wouldn't help. The drop to the ground was at least twelve feet because the basement led out to the backyard.

That was it! The basement.

The trap door at the end of the short counter was hidden by a box of carrots. I pushed it out of the way and pulled up the door by its rope handle. A damp, earthy smell greeted me at the top of the ladder. I took a deep breath and climbed down the first two rungs. They groaned under my weight, but I couldn't turn back. I was already late.

I grabbed the rope on the underside of the trap door, eased it back into place, and felt my way down to the dirt floor. In the darkness I turned and stretched my arms out in front of me. Still, by the time I found a path through the crates and barrels, my elbows and knees were some sore. I got to the basement door and tugged it open. A cold wind off the bay hit my face.

The moon and stars shone brightly, so I stayed in the shadows close to the stone walls of the store. Voices came from down by the wharf, but there was no one in sight. I crossed Water Street, slipped into the darkness beside Strapp's Pharmacy, and then cut through their back garden to avoid the street light at the corner of Victoria. When I emerged farther up the hill, my cousin Pat Cron stood in front of her house, waving at me to hurry.

The uphill climb tired me out, but I had to keep moving. Halfway up I bent over to catch my breath. When I straightened up and tried to run, I could barely lift my knees. My chest hurt and I panted like an old dog on a hot summer day. Finally I joined Pat, who pulled me into the shadow of the nearest house.

She turned and whispered in my face. "You'd be a better runner if you lost a few pounds."

"And you'd still be in bed if I hadn't told you about my plan."

Pat smiled. "You've got me there." She took my hand and pulled me toward Stevenson's farm, which lay beyond the top end of Victoria Street. As I trotted along beside her, she occasionally gave my arm a tug to remind me I was moving too slowly.

I raised my head to see how much farther we had to climb and saw Jennie Mae Stevenson running down to meet us. Her dad's breakfast pail swung in her hand. Mr. Stevenson ran their farm and also worked part-time as the night watchman for the Harbour Grace Airport Trust. It was his job to keep people away from the planes. If he caught us, Jennie Mae would say we were just bringing his breakfast.

She stopped in front of Pat and me, and the pail stopped swinging. "I've been thinking about your plan, and there's something we haven't considered," she said. "If we get caught by someone other than my dad, he could lose his job."

"So we won't get caught," Pat replied. She stepped around Jennie Mae and carried on up the hill.

"She couldn't care less about what happens to my dad," Jennie Mae whispered. "To her we're just those people from up the hill."

I took her hand and we continued walking. "Has she ever said that to you?" I asked.

"A few times," she replied. "But not when you're around. She's usually with Alice Brant."

Since Pat was my cousin, our parents expected us to do everything together. Usually that was fine with me because Pat could be a lot of fun. But she'd changed. She was moody and unpredictable. Instead of hanging around with Jennie Mae, me, and the rest of the grade sevens, she preferred to be with Alice Brant and her gang of grade eights.

Alice was a snob. Her father owned the biggest fishing fleet in Harbour Grace, and she thought she was right special. In fact, that was how Jennie Mae and I became friends: I stood up to Alice when she called Jennie Mae a farmer's brat.

I glanced over at her. Her worried frown prompted me to stop and raise my right hand. "I promise I'll be careful, and between the two of us, we'll keep Pat under control."

She sighed. "I suppose that's all we can do at this point." Pat was way ahead; she waved at us to hurry. I took Jennie Mae's hand again and we continued our uphill climb. In less than five minutes, we crossed the railroad track and joined Pat at the Stevensons' farm.

"Come on, you two." She grabbed my other hand and dragged Jennie Mae and me behind her. "You're as slow as molasses in January."

I didn't bother answering because I knew she would comment on my weight again.

A left turn and we climbed to the height of land that formed the airstrip. First we saw the light in the window of Mr. Stevenson's shack. Then, there she was: the City of New York—the most beautiful plane I'd ever seen. She was only a silhouette against the early morning sky, but I knew her colours. She was painted maroon, with cream-coloured wings and cream letters down the fuselage to tell us her name.

A rectangle of light shone into the night. Mr. Stevenson had opened his door. We scurried onto the rocks on the south side of the airstrip. We crouched down and pulled our dresses over our legs to keep warm while he inspected the plane.

It was some exciting when she landed yesterday afternoon. It was the last flight until next summer, so a huge crowd came out to meet her. Even when she was no more than a speck in the sky, we all cheered. She touched down, taxied to the end of the runway near the watchman's shack, turned around, and stopped. And there she sat, still surrounded by the rope fence tied to empty oil barrels to keep everyone away.

We knew from the story in the Harbour Grace Standard who to expect. Mr. Brown, the pilot, emerged through the hatch above the cockpit. When Mr. Mears, the owner of the plane, climbed out of the side door, everyone cheered louder. He held a fluffy white dog, which barked at the crowd.

The newspaper went on to say the three of them would take off at 7:00 a.m. to fly around the world. But I knew a secret about the flight. I heard Uncle Harry talking to Papa in the store last night. Uncle Harry was the airport supervisor. He said Mr. Mears and Mr. Brown were not taking off at 7:00 a.m. Instead, they were leaving before dawn.

I barely had time to go to Jennie Mae's house and then to Pat's to tell them the news before Mom sent me off to bed. A lot of people were going to be disappointed, but not the three of us.

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Lay Figures

Staring at the outside of William's locked apartment door, its abstract shapes of flaked paint a sharp contrast to the painstakingly drawn figures teeming over the walls inside, I think I should try to find Henry. If anyone knows why William decided to cover the walls of his apartment with indelible images and then leave, Henry will. Everyone tells him everything—and what they don't he finds out anyway.

The cat yowls from behind the door of my flat. I can hear it as I climb from the landing below. It needs to be fed. In a maneuver practiced over thirty months, I unlock my door and sweep with my foot as I enter, to make sure it doesn't escape. William used to tease me about keeping it indoors, made all the predictable jokes about the metaphor of the locked-up kitty. Only he didn't use the word kitty.

I drop a mound of mashed chicken liver on a saucer. William used to badger me about that, too. He said the cat ate better than most people we knew. It didn't matter to him that the butcher slipped me the chicken livers for free on a Saturday when he hadn't found buyers for them that week. You couldn't win that kind of economic argument with William. The inequity he could see in front of him was what troubled him, not the background factors that might actually explain it. I listen to the cat's motor purring as it vacuums up the liver, enjoying it much more than any person I know would. If William were still around, I would descend the stairs and cross the hall to make exactly that point. My typewriter dares me to join it across the room and get some work done. Instead I grab my coat and leave the flat, kicking the cat away with my foot as I close the door.

Princess Street is deserted, probably thanks to the rain. I glimpse the back of the Capitol across the street and consider going to see a film (it doesn't matter what, anything to get lost in), but there is no change in my pockets. And I should be saving every penny. I head west toward the harbour and down the hill to Prince William Street, where I decide to break into William's studio. Seeing his apartment makes me wonder what other bizarre legacies he may have left.

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Fight On!

Fight On!

Cape Breton Coal Miners,1900-1925
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