Out of the Camp

Out of the Camp Ch. 37 – Canada

As I’ve so earnestly engaged myself in bearing my soul on these pages over recent months, I have from time to time unintentionally unearthed the strangest recollections. For example, my early mornings in Moredun would often find me lying in bed having just woken up and listening to the radio playing from the kitchen. The radio, or the wireless as we sometimes called it in those days, was always tuned to the BBC Light Programme and, on those early mornings one would hear a style of music known then as light orchestral and d’you know, I really loved it. I’m certain that that must sound really strange coming from a kid with my background, but I’m serious. I didn’t ever tell anybody for fear of being made fun of. Actually, that’s not entirely true as the notion that someone of my age say around, 7-9 years, would consider articulating such experiences is not very likely under any circumstances. Of course, there are always exceptions, but I was no prodigy. To clarify, the music of which I speak was produced by such luminaries as Sydney Torch, Charles Williams, Eric Rogers, Stanley Black, Eric Coates, Vernon Handley, Cyril Ornadel and countless others. I’d get this warm euphoric glow all over and I didn’t ever want to move for fear of breaking the spell which, inevitably of course, I had to, almost daily. I’ve never articulated this before because, I guess, there was never an appropriate moment. Also, as I’ve aged, I guess my skin has thickened considerably and I don’t any longer give a toss. Besides, if folk are gonnie take the piss that’s what they’ll do.

Fast forward again, to my days in “ile”, as they say in Peterheid (‘oil’, actually!), when I was preparing for my annual trip to the Offshore Technology Convention in Texas and had decided that while in the States, I’d extend my stay to include visits to the corporate offices of some of our clients, not only in Houston, but also in Dallas and New Orleans. There’s not a great deal to say about the meetings themselves as they weren’t particularly exciting and not always interesting. No, the fun part was the travel and the sight-seeing and meeting interesting people, many of whom, I have to say, were the people I dealt with who worked for our client companies. But the trips always started, naturally enough, on the plane. I almost always took advantage of the subsidized fares with the group jointly organized by the local Aberdeen paper, the Press & Journal, and the North of Scotland Development Authority (NESDA). They would reserve accommodation in Houston and block-book seating on a scheduled flight, and immediately on boarding the plane, the group of mostly male business executives would transform into an unruly hoard of mischievous kids. Everybody had a blast, some even became sozzled, but all were always in good, high spirits and there were never any problems. My first trip to Houston was also my first to the US, only my second overseas, and I was beside myself with excitement. I don’t think I was quite thirty but certainly naive and very overwhelmed by it all. I remember a coach with air conditioning (Wow!) met us at the airport and transported us to our hotel, actually, a motel on the West Loop (at the time the Loop was Houston’s equivalent of the London North & South Circular). The bar I recall had a Mexican theme and it seemed that no sooner had we all checked in than everyone was in said bar drinking margaritas served from huge jugs and munching on miniature gherkins. Isn’t it funny the things that sometimes stick in your head?

The convention/trade exhibition was held in the Astroarena complex which was a huge area comprising the AstroDome (home of the Houston Astros at that time) where most of the exhibits were located, and four additional exhibit halls hosting further companies showcasing their wares and services. There was an upper level with several meeting rooms where presentations and sales pitches were staged and, finally, outside in the huge parking area were massive exhibits of offshore equipment such as drilling rigs, cranes, pipelaying machinery and the like.  Of course, there were various hospitality suites located discretely in the rear of the larger exhibits, with restaurants and bars in a variety of locations. I don’t remember much about the event itself apart from the interminable walking around the place. At the time it was the largest trade convention of any industry anywhere in the world. All I remember about the Houston business meetings were that everyone without exception was very hospitable and welcoming, helpful when they were able and very accommodating with their time. For the most part, these people had no direct dealings with us but were aware of our company and the extent of the relationship in regions such as the Gulf of Mexico, West Africa and of course, the North Sea.

I only had one meeting in New Orleans, but it was with another major client who was, and remains, like our client in Houston, one of the largest offshore engineering, construction and pipelaying companies in the world. I was fortunate to have a direct contact there who I’d had dealings with from time to time. His office was located a couple of blocks from Bourbon Street, and we were able to take a short walk along part of it on the way to the restaurant where he took me to lunch. He was head of electronics & communications which was our area and my main contact in Europe, his opposite number, would regularly collaborate with him on international projects. In fact, it was the new build project at Tamano Shipyard in Japan where we sent twelve technicians to build the communications and navigation room, and install the electronics, plus a 1,200-cabin public address system on a new construction barge when we first were in direct contact with him. Walking along Bourbon Street around lunchtime was a strange experience. The atmosphere was already building with what sounded like New Orleans jazz (or ‘Trad’ as we in the UK used to call it in the ‘60s) emanating from every other bar or restaurant and I was surprised at the standard of playing I heard. I didn’t say anything, of course, for fear of offending my host but I sort of expected I’d be hearing the likes of Oscar P., Paul Desmond or even Louis Armstrong, but perhaps the cream emerges only after dark! Anyway, I had fun, a nice lunch and was looking forward to driving back to Houston on that huge, elevated highway across the swamps. I stopped overnight in Lafayette where I was following up a lead with a potential client, but nothing ever came of it.

What I remember most about my trip to Dallas was getting pulled over. I was at a stop light in my big rented ‘boat’, or that’s what it felt like to a visiting Brit, a great big boat, the way it bounced around when you braked or accelerated.  I was sitting at the crown of the road waiting for the light to change and to turn left. It wasn’t until some other cars pulled up alongside me on my left that I realized I was on a one-way street. So, when the light turned green, I ‘gunned’ the gas pedal and swung around to my left ahead of the other cars before they could block my way. At which point I heard a siren, just a couple of whoops and a brief flashing in my mirror. I knew to just pull over from watching cop shows on TV, but my heart was in my mouth. The officer pulled up behind me, got out of his car and walked up to my door, by which time I’d wound down the window. What shocked me more than anything wasn’t that he was just polite but that he was extremely pleasant when he greeted me and asked for my insurance and drivers license. When I handed them over, that’s to say my UK Driving Licence and the rental agreement, he merely glanced at the rental papers but handed me back my licence asking me to unfold it and hand it back to him. I don’t know what British driving licences look like now but up until the 80s they were a piece of folded up paper in a small plastic wallet. Well anyway, he examined it and seemed to find it amusing which, far from being offensive, afforded me enormous relief. I apologized and explained what had just happened, but he was more interested in my “cute” license, my accent and where I was from. Finally, and after a very cordial conversation, he wished me a pleasant visit and suggested I drive carefully while I was in Texas.

The final stop on my extended US trip was completely unconnected with oil, I was invited to Boston to visit a friend, an arranger, Keith Maynard, who used to play trumpet with Rubber Duck in London. He had left the band when he won a contest organized by DownBeat Magazine and was awarded a 2-year post-grad course in composition & arranging at Berklee College of Music. After graduation he had remained in Boston and had established a production company, ‘Emergency Music’ in North End, together with Russell Presto and Tony Carbone who in turn were collaborating with Arthur Baker of Afrika Bambaataa and Planet Patrol fame. Keith had invited me to record a couple of the songs he’d written with Russell and Tony while I was in town. After I’d arrived it became apparent that the studio wasn’t going to be available for two or three days and so it occurred to me that I might have time to fly to Ottawa to follow up on inquiries I’d made with Veterans Affairs and the Public Archives about my biological father some years earlier. When I ran it by Keith and the other guys and filled them in on some of the background, they were both intrigued and really enthusiastic that I should go for it, as the flight to Ottawa was only just over three hours.

The following morning, I was up bright and early and outside the Bell Telephone building in downtown Ottawa waiting for them to open-up. I’d called both Veterans Affairs and the Public Archives offices the previous day from Boston before I left, to advise them of my intended visit but they both responded as they had to my prior enquiries mailed all those years before. All of this was now taking place in the early to mid-80s, many years pre-internet, of course, or any ancestry or DNA testing services and so, back then there was no other option I could think of for what I was trying to achieve than to plough through telephone books. I don’t now remember how I learned this, but I’d discovered that the Bell Building housed copies of all telephone books published in Canada. When they opened their doors, I discovered that there was a large room just off the hallway near the main entrance and mounted along two walls were a complete set the nation’s phone books. They were mounted on brackets such that they couldn’t be removed but rather swiveled over in such a way that the books could be opened and perused while remaining fixed to the bracket on the wall. This required that you stood by the wall while you flipped through each directory. I began this task at one end of the line shortly after 8.30am when they opened and worked my way along both lines until shortly after three in the afternoon when I had checked every directory and I was aching from head to foot. I was, however, very thankful that his name was so unusual because, believe it or not, I discovered that in all of Canada there was only one person with that name and initials who had a listing in a phone book anywhere in the country. My fortunes, however, continued to be mixed since the listing indicated that he wasn’t living anywhere nearby but, in fact, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Refusing to be foiled in my quest, I found a payphone in the building and called Air Canada to check flights to Vancouver. There was a flight to Toronto in about ninety minutes connecting with a Vancouver flight leaving a couple of hours or so later, so I made reservations on both flights. I was within walking distance to the hotel so I tore back, asked the receptionist to get my bill ready as I would be checking out, rushed up to my room, quickly packed, went back downstairs and checked out. I’d rented a car at the airport the night before which was parked in the hotel underground parking structure and so I got the car and made it to the airport which was only about six miles away within about twenty minutes.

I caught the flight and made the connection at Toronto successfully without problem so far as I can remember.

What I do remember, however, was sitting in the plane on the 5-hour flight next to a very sweet lady who was patiently listening to me droning on about my adventure and my plan to show up unannounced on my biological father’s doorstep and be welcomed with open arms.

We might have been 30,000 feet in the air, but my head was clearly in the clouds before we left the tarmac. In my defense I have to say that at that moment in time I believed that he knew of my existence as that was the impression that my grandmother, who’d been communicating with the Canadian authorities some thirty years earlier, had left with my aunt/biological mother and which she, in turn, had passed on to me. I picked up a car at the airport – in those days they used to give you a free map of the city – and looked up the Vancouver address I’d found in the phone book in Ottawa. It didn’t seem too far away and so I set off, deciding I’d find a hotel later. It was almost 8pm Pacific Time and I’d been on the go since 4am (7am Eastern Time) but I was so fired up that the adrenaline was masking my fatigue and it didn’t occur to me that an additional effect might be that my judgment could be impaired.

It took a little over 20 minutes to find the street and the house which turned out to be a bungalow with a semi-basement so that there were a few steps up to the front door. The lady on the plane had said that she felt sure that the family would be so excited and pleased to meet me, and so I was probably feeling more optimistic and positive about what was about to happen than was realistic. I walked up the steps and rang the bell and a dog inside started barking.


(1) This is me in the late 70s sitting in the Daily Mirror offices in Holborn having told my story to a very excited lady reporter. She wasn’t so happy later when I came to my senses and told her I couldn’t go through with it. (2) A Boeing 767-200 of the Air Canada fleet in the 80s. (3) Composer Eric Coates of Dam Busters March fame. (4) 1950s Theatre Royal & St. Mary’s RC Cathedral.(5) Local hooligan ootside his prefab in Moredun, Edinburgh. 1950s. (6) 1950s. Princes Street, Edinburgh, Scotland.