As I said yesterday it was a given that when Tara MacLean celebrated Atlantic singer/song writers Rita MacNeil would be amongst them. The lady from Big Pond in Cape Breton was a force majeur on the Canadian – and world – music scene.
Rita’s story was often rehearsed in the media as she rose to fame in the late 1980s: cleft palate, poverty, single parenthood, shyness and her weight. A less than sensitive CBC reporter (imagine my surprise!) once asked, “What about your weight problem?” There was a slight beat and then Rita smiled and said quietly and sweetly, “Well yes dear, it’s MY problem. Isn’t it?” On another occasion, after her appearance singing O Canada at the opening of a World Series game, an American reporter suggested that they had used a forklift to get her to home plate. When asked if she would do the honours at a later game she said,“Yes, I’d do it, but only if they drive me out onto the field on a forklift.”
That mixture of sweetness, steel, and sly humour was the mark of where she was born: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She went away to begin her climb to success but returned to Big Pond, her extended family and her roots. Cape Breton was never far from her mind or heart.
As well as hearing her in concert on two occasions I once had a brief encounter with Rita. And yes I’ve used her first name throughout this post because she gave me permission to. It was the spring of 1990, I was working with Air Canada at Ottawa Airport. Laurent had been posted to Cairo the previous summer and I had spent Christmas there. (This will become important in a minute.) I was working at the departure gates one morning and received an assignment to meet a flight coming in from Halifax en route to the West Coast. There was a Vancouver bound passenger onboard in First Class (we had First Class in those days) who was incapacitated and as the stop was lengthy they would like to get off but would need a bit of assistance. Not an unusual request.
I headed down to aircraft and after everyone else had deplaned – and there seemed to be a bit of hold up with people dribbling off – the reason for the delay presented herself. It was Rita. She had recently had surgery and was heading out on her first tour in a year or so. She took my arm and in that distinctive quiet voice apologized for the delay but so many people had stopped to say hello and wish her well and she had to chat with them. I assured “Miss MacNeil” that it wasn’t a problem and was gently admonished “It’s just Rita, dear.” As we chatted I told her that my partner was living in Cairo and that one of the things we did at the holidays was play her Christmas Album to remind us of home. And I thanked her for it. She squeezed my hand, gave me that big shy “Rita” smile and said, “No dear, thank you. Knowing that has made recording it all worthwhile.”
There are many videos out there of Rita performing her signature song but I’ve chosen this one because it includes that gentle voice speaking – as she always found time to do – with fans and well-wishers.
Rita you’re still greatly loved and even more greatly missed.
The word for September 16th is: Cleft palate /ˈkleft ˈpalət/: [noun] A congenital split in the roof of the mouth that occurs when the tissue doesn’t fuse together during development in the womb . Often accompanied by a cleft in the upper lip. Cleft: 1570s, alteration (weak past participle of cleave) of Middle English clift “fissure, rift, space or opening made by cleaving” (early 14c.), from Old English geclyft [adjective] Palate: late Middle English: from Latin palatum
I have been following, with much sadness, the events in Hong Kong over the past year or so. And I fear for what will become of that once vibrant and maddening city as the People’s Party tightens the noose that will eventually squeeze the life out of it. Something they have waited patiently to do since 0001 July 1, 1997.
I have such incredible memories of the three months I spent there working back in 1995 and of subsequent visits to spend time with our friends Diane and Jean-Paul. That first visit was a bit of a pioneering venture: a small group was sent by Air Canada to set up the airport operation for our first route to Asia. We were from various stations and represented each of the departments involved in an airport operation. Though none of us previously knew each other we meshed well as a work team and a social too. It was a great opportunity to get to understand how we all fit in the giant jigsaw puzzle of an airport operation. It meant long days and sometimes longer nights because of the time change and headquarters seeming inability at times to deal with it.
And we were working at an airport that presented challenges on all possible front: Kai Tak.
An outdated and overburdened facility at the edge of the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour it was one of those airports where regardless of how modern the aircraft type or cockpit system the pilots were the ones landing the aircraft on landing not a computer. Nothing was automated. It was visual and manual all the way in – one miscalculation and you either ended up in Kowloon Bay or aborting the landing and going around to try again. The approach was over the city towards Lion Rock Mountain, making a sharp 47º right bank at the Checkerboard, guiding the aircraft through a canyon of apartment buildings so close that you could see what the residents were having for breakfast, calculating the frequent crosswinds and hitting the beginning of a single runway that stretched out into the Harbour. It was known as the “Heart Attack” approach for pilots, passengers and onlookers.
By the time I worked there a facility designed to handle, at the most, 24 million passengers a year was seeing upwards of 30 million making it the third busiest airport in the world. There were only six boarding bridges and everything else was tarmac boarding with buses to the aircraft. As I recall there were no boarding announcements allowed in the terminal only at the gate. It was also a favourite airport for passengers using false documents to enter North America illegally. On the Inaugural flight we stopped seven “sailors” headed for Toronto to take an oil tanker through the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Which was strange as the Seaway had closed early that year due to the premature onset of winter ice. As I said it was an airport that offered challenges on many levels.
It was to be replaced by Hong Kong International Airport on Lantau Island in 1998. After years of discussion and sitting derelict Kai Tak has became a transportation hub once again – the old buildings were demolished and a cruise ship terminal was built on the peninsula that was once the runway jutting out into Victoria Harbour. High rises now block the old flight path from the Checkerboard to Runway 13. And needless to say 22 years of tropical storms have dulled those peeling red Checks to a dull pink.
But back to 1995. The timing for the inaugural flight, December 22, meant that we spent Christmas in Hong Kong. Laurent flew in from Jordan, where he was living at the time, to join me. I met him at the aircraft and told him I’d see him on the other side of Immigration. I can still remember the look on his face when he came through those doors and confronted the hundreds waiting to meet their loved ones. Kai Tak, or Hong Kong for that matter, was not the place for agoraphobics at Christmas time.
We were extremely fortunate that we had two families to spend that Christmas with: our Air Canada family and the Delisles. Our beloved Diana and Jean-Paul are old friends from Cairo days and it was a chance to once again spend the holidays with them. We were to be with them again the Christmas of 2006: that was the Boxing Day when dinner was interrupted by an earthquake and several after shocks. A truly scary experience as we were at Mid-Levels surrounded by high rises. But that is a story for another time. This memory drawer in the archives of what is left of my mind is that Christmas in 1995.
So what caused this particular memory drawer to creak open, you ask? A t-shirt. A t-shirt? Yes, a t-shirt. An Alan Chan t-shirt that Santa Claus (but really I think it was Diane and Jean-Paul) gave me along with a host of other goodies that Christmas Day.
A t-shirt that I took out of the wash only yesterday and is one of my favourites. The colours have only slightly faded and it is as soft and comfortable as only oft washed quality cotton can be. When I put it on it brought back memories of that first visit to Hong Kong: my first taste of Singapore Fried Noddles at KaKaFuk, a dinner on a junk with the gang from the High Commission, watching the enormous Christmas light displays taking shape each night on Victoria Island across the harbour from my hotel window, my first tailor-made blazer and dress shirts by Mr. Wani, the old Star Ferry terminal in Kowloon, the gaggle of Philippina maids in the park at Central, the mad confusion and elation of that first departure, Christmas Eve with my Air Canada family, and Christmas Day with our dear Diane, Jean-Paul and their youngest Marc-André.
All those memories came tumbling out of that drawer – and what opened it was that treasured t-shirt. And it reminded once again that I have been granted a life filled with friends, family, adventure, travel, laughter and joy.
The word for July 16th is: Memory /ˈmɛm(ə)ri/: [noun] 1.1 The faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information. 1.2 The mind regarded as a store of things remembered. 1.3 Something remembered from the past. 1.4 The remembering or commemoration of a dead person. 1.5 The length of time over which a person or event continues to be remembered. 1.6 The part of a computer in which data or program instructions can be stored for retrieval. 1. 7 A computer’s capacity for storing information. Middle English from Old French memorie, from Latin memoria, from memor ‘mindful, remembering’. I find 1.2 is starting to make 1.5 of 1.3 question 1.1!!!!
For more years than I care to own up to I spent Christmas Eve at Ottawa Airport. Oh I wasn’t going anywhere and in some cases I had to convey the same message to holiday travellers. It was never a good feeling to tell people that they weren’t going to get home for Christmas – yeah go figure I really didn’t like ruining their holiday plans. Yes I know I was personally responsible for the blowing snow/pea-soup fog/unsafe conditions that I thought up as a flimsy reason to cancel or delay their flights but honestly I didn’t go behind the counter and laugh and call them names. And you know what I never did enjoy was being verbally abused or threatened with violence – it just didn’t seem to fit in with the Joy to the World message being broadcast non-stop over the Airport muzak from Halloween onward. But I understood their frustration and my colleagues and I honestly tried to do our damnedest to make things better – with a pretty good success rate.
So what triggered this trip down a less than Holly Jolly Christmas memory lane you ask? I heard this little ditty on the radio this afternoon and the unbidden Ghosts of Christmases Past came flooding back. Apparently Nick Lowe is well-known in the pub-rock and new wave scene though he and his Christmas airport lament are new to me.
I think the worst thing I ever had to do on a Christmas Eve was to go on board a flight that went from Ottawa to Halifax and then on to St John’s Newfoundland. St John’s was fogged in and there were no hotels available in Halifax – where I swear the airport is closer to Ottawa than the city it purports to serve. So the job of telling people that they wouldn’t be going home to Newfoundland for Christmas fell to me. I asked them to deplane and advised that there would not be another flight until later on Christmas Day. To this day I remember that there were 28 passengers, including a few families with children, and I felt bad for ever darn one of them. But the ones I felt the most for were the single-types who were up here working and heading home to their families. But not one of those people complained. No one yelled or carried on abusing my birthright or blaming me. But a few did cry and made me wish they had let loose about my parent’s marital status. When it was over most thanked me and wished me a Merry Christmas. One older woman gave me a hug and said, “That’s all right love, you did what you could.” And that was the night I swore I’d never work Christmas Eve again.
Telling the stories of the history of the port of Charlottetown and the marine heritage of Northumberland Strait on Canada's East Coast. Winner of the Heritage Award from the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation and a Heritage Preservation Award from the City of Charlottetown