BUT I DIGRESS
August 01,2014
THE LUCKY THUMB - Part 1

TALES FROM OUTSIDE THE UNDERBRUSH

"Tales From Outside The Underbrush" is meant to succeed the monthly series of predecessor essays that were in effect, largely if not exclusively set inside "The Underbrush" of geological exploration and forestry, to a universe outside that specialized environment. This "outside world" is one where life is also lived and experienced, and though most often reflecting a different level of circumstance, is not necessarily suggestive of a higher level of civilized behaviour and experience nor a more intelligent reaction to such by the author; just different and outside the conventional underbrush. Hyperbole will continue to be employed for emphasis or effect, or just to avoid the boredom of straight fact or opinion. Reader reaction and comment is invited and welcomed if delivered in a civilized fashion.

This month's entry continues the tale.

THE LUCKY THUMB

"Dreams, if they're any good, are always a little bit crazy."

Ray Charles

"Dreams come true; without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have them."

John Updike

"Remember there's no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end."

Scott Adams

"The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose."

Heda Bejar

It is the late 1950's and I am a freshman student at Montreal's McGill University. Stripped of anything resembling affluence, I am still living at home with my parents in Notre Dame de Grace, a neighbourhood of modest means in the western part of the city and a couple of bus rides away from downtown where is located the university.

A car? You must be joking. Barely able to afford the tuition, I am devoid of any transportation other than foot power, a bicycle or public transportation. Strangely enough, given my intimate history with my bike, I don't recall ever using it to travel between home and university. Not so much the distance to be travelled was the logistics of managing the bike in different parts of the campus where I attended classes, and the attendant facilities, or lack of, that permitted secure parking of the bicycle. Or perhaps I just thought that bicycles were just for kids and not for a grown up (ha! ha!) boy-man like me. As for public transportation, while that was a term that was used to describe the formality of transportation employing buses and street cars, in my case it also could be more loosely applied to acquiring free automobile rides by way of the thumb, and otherwise known as hitch-hiking.

So it was that one morning I found myself standing a few blocks from my home at a busy intersection on the corner of Somerled Avenue and Cote St. Luc Road, my right thumb stuck out in the universal gesture of begging for a ride.

"Where are you going son?" a pleasant voice inquired from inside a car that had stopped in response to my gesturing.

"McGill University, sir" I replied.

"Hop in" said the voice, and so I did through the opened door and onto the passenger seat beside the driver.

"Thank you, sir" I said and then gawked in wide-eyed dumbstruck fashion as my eyes lit on the driver's features.

"M-m-m-r-r. Harvey, sir!" Are, are y-y-you Doug Harvey, sir?" I stammered out in wide-eyed shock.

"Why yes, son, I am Doug Harvey and you can call me Doug."

"Yes, sir" I replied, still in shock at with whom I was seated.

You perhaps have to be a native Montrealer, or at least a Canadian hockey fan of my vintage to fully appreciate the circumstance I found myself on that day. Le Club de Hockey Canadien, otherwise known as Les Habs, a contraction for Les Habitants, and even more proudly referred to as Les Glorieux, the glorious ones, was the professional hockey team that represented Montreal in the National Hockey League. In addition to being one of the most successful teams in the history of all professional sport, no matter what the game, the Habs perhaps represented the soul of not only just Montreal in those pre-expansion days, but the very essence of the entire province of Quebec. Simply put, Les Canadiens were Quebec and all that was in it. One of the most precious of all legacies that might be left in someone`s will would be season tickets to the Habs`games. Acquiring season tickets was an exercise in years of waiting for the opportunity to acquire a set, no matter where they might be located in the arena. Just getting in the arena was the principal goal. To this day, and despite a long absence from winning the Stanley Cup, the championship trophy of the National Hockey League, the Canadiens hockey team remains one of the most successful franchises in the history of professional sport., and as revered as always, despite its more recent lack of ultimate success.

At the time in which I speak however, the team was merely worshiped in the manner of a religion. And here I was, sitting in the presence of one of the high priests of the team, and a man who not only was a perennial all-star at his position, but who was instrumental in revolutionizing the way that position had been traditionally played from the way it was to be played in future. Coming from a background of modest means, my attendance at a Montreal Canadiens hockey game had been a distinct rarity. On very uncommon occasions, my father had accessed a pair of tickets from his boss at work, and together we had attended a game at the Montreal Forum, then one of the most revered rinks in the game of hockey. There I had seen my heroes in action, from Doug Harvey to the famous, later to be infamous "Rocket Richard", to the Hall of Fame goalie Bill Durnan, whose principal claim to fame was………..ha! ha!........... that he had had his daily newspaper delivered to him personally by yours truly!

Another way of viewing one's hockey heroes in action, if not on the ice, was on the diamond, the baseball diamond that is. Back in the days that underlie this tale, professional athletes, unlike the zillionaires of today were not particularly well paid. Neither, at least of the hockey variety, were they generally the physically honed specimens that most often define today's professionals, even those that engage in such non-contact sports as golf. Think of the somewhat rotund form of Babe Ruth, that baseball-hitting genius who more or less looked like the doughnuts he apparently loved to eat, washed down by a beer…….or two or three or…………?! Off-season semi-pro sports therefore had the result of helping to bolster a professional athlete's bank account, while perhaps at the same time help managing some of his summer gastronomic excesses so that physical conditioning would not be entirely lost.

Doug Harvey did not have much a v-shaped physical profile either but one off-season athletic endeavour in which he engaged and that helped at least keep him active between hockey seasons, was baseball. Baseball was a popular off-season sport with a lot of hockey players given that, not being a full contact sport like hockey or football, it could be undertaken with some degree of safety from injury that might negatively impact one's future in the main livelihood of hockey. Secondly, the eye-hand coordination demanded of baseball players was familiar to hockey players, and by and large they were adept at this aspect of the game. This may also help explain why hockey players, toying with a slippery puck on the end of their hockey sticks, are often better golfers that their football, soccer and basketball counterparts.

In the late 1950's, there were two levels of professional/semi-professional baseball practiced in Montreal. One was of the so-called minor league variety, in this case represented by the Montreal Royals, a triple-A franchise just one level below the major leagues that would by 1969 include the Montreal Expos. Until its demise in 1960 however, the Montreal Royals represented professional baseball in Montreal and were the farm team of the major league Brooklyn Dodgers, acting for the latter as a training ground for up and coming players, some of whom would eventually make the "big leagues." Perhaps the most famous of these rising stars was a player who by the very virtue of his being a roster player with the Montreal Royals, made the latter a famous club no matter what was its success at the gate and in the game. This player became not only famous for his incredible abilities in the game of baseball, but also for the fact that he was even there, playing the game at a professional level. The player's name was Jackie Robinson, and as the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era, he got his start with the Montreal Royals. During my youth, my father and I would hop on some three or four different streetcars to take us on a lengthy journey to the east end of Montreal to watch the Royals play at the old Delorimier Stadium. With the innocence of youth, it was not until I had later encountered the disease of racial prejudice was I to understand how significant was the role that my home town had played in breaking down certain social barriers in sport that in turn were to pioneer changes to come in other segments of society during the 1960's and 70's.

TO BE CONTINUED

Copyright © 2014 Ian de W. Semple. All rights reserved.


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