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BOB WAKEHAM: It happened in September

“Try to remember the kind of September.
When life was slow, and oh so mellow.”

Whenever I hear that wonderful and evocative song, especially the moving version sung by the legendary Harry Belafonte, I’m invariably prompted to recall many of my own diverse memories of Septembers past, personal and professional, some melancholic, others uplifting, and a few that just simply defy a label. (These endless and increased recollections from all months, in fact, seem to coincide with the speedy and disconcerting pace of the senior years).

So, there you go, ample warning if you wish to turn to the obits at this point in your weekend reading and avoid a scattered sample of the “kinds of Septembers” in the memory bank of an old fart.

It’s that occasion of the year when parents rejoice, youngsters bawl and many teachers endure profound sadness: the re-opening of schools for reading, writing and arithmetic (or whatever the all-too-often counterproductive versions of those three fundamentals of teaching happen to be these days). My very first day in kindergarten, as it turned out, was well-publicized, a picture of the “first day” winding up in the pages of The Evening Telegram — thanks to my father, at the time Gander’s freelance reporter and photographer for “The People’s Paper.”

I can’t recall the caption underneath the photograph (although a copy still exists somewhere in our disorganized family archives), but it was something along the lines of “waiting to bolt,” and it showed myself and Rick Stamp (Ganderites knew him as “Ricky” back then, circa 1955, and I was “Bobby”), sitting side by side in a tiny classroom in a makeshift school transformed from an army building. Each of us still had our bookbags slung over our shoulders and each of us had a leg extended into the aisle, looking very much like mini versions of Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen prepared to make “The Great Escape” an event of our early lives. You’d be hard-pressed to spot even a hint of a smile; there’s mostly total disgust. But I like to think our teacher, a “Miss Lynch,” as I recall, managed to get us to warm up to our new surroundings.

The nasty Smallwood, after losing to Roberts at a leadership convention a couple of years previous, decided to screw his former protégé by creating the Liberal Reform Party, thus splitting the Liberal vote. Smallwood got his revenge.

Many ”first days” later, and finally out of the educational realm, it was in another September — 1972, in fact — when I lost my journalistic virginity, rewriting a government press release (or perhaps it was a caption for a Frank Boland or a Dick Greene photograph), during my first day at The Evening Telegram, nervous as you’d expect a rookie reporter to be. I was trying to figure out how I could possibly think straight while confronted with a cacophony of sounds: typewriters, phones, teletype machines, editors barking orders, reporters cursing their inability to create a decent lead on their stories, a radio on the news editor’s desk blasting VOCM news, all of it taking place beneath a heavy cloud of nicotine smoke.

A few years later, in September of 1975, I was covering my first provincial election, several weeks on the campaign trail in the company of three politicians with dramatically different personalities: the hard-drinking bon vivant Frank Moores, the cerebral but publicly awkward Ed Roberts, and the intimidating bully Joey Smallwood, the political leaders engaged in a tussle I still regard as one of most fascinating elections, if not the most fascinating election to which I had a front row seat.

Off-the-cuff conversations I had in helicopters, hotel lobbies and Legions with Moores, Roberts and Smallwood were dissimilar in tone and content, but rarely dull.

The nasty Smallwood, after losing to Roberts at a leadership convention a couple of years previous, decided to screw his former protégé by creating the Liberal Reform Party, thus splitting the Liberal vote. Smallwood got his revenge.

Jump ahead to September of 1989, and I’m into my first month as head of CBC television journalism in the province, a position — and believe me when I say I’m not engaging in false modesty here — I neither needed at that point my life nor wanted. But the CBC brass decided I was their man — a mere six years, ironically, after having fired me (with total justification) for being a drunk. But by September of 1989 I had a few years of sobriety under my belt. As it turned out, things at the CBC did work out just fine (at least as far as I was concerned).

Still another September, this time in 2003, turned into a life-altering month, a devastating occasion when I was diagnosed with colon cancer that quickly spread to my liver, necessitating multiple surgeries and heavy bouts of chemotherapy, and ultimately brought my day-to-day career to a premature conclusion, a decision prompted by the fact that longevity did not appear to be in my life’s program. But 16 years later, the prognosis looks to have been delightfully off-base.

Perhaps the saddest of my September memories occurred six years ago this month when my father passed away, creating a void that even time seems reluctant to fill.

“Try to remember the kind of September.
When no one wept except the willow.”

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com


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