In Bridgetown, NS, where politics is the art of the improbable
DAVID E. LEWISMarch11972
THE NIGHT JOHN DIEFENBAKER STOOD ON GUARD
In Bridgetown, NS, where politics is the art of the improbable
DAVID E. LEWIS
It had been difficult, but I had managed to live in Bridgetown for a number of years without getting involved in politics. My naïve conception of a Liberal was someone who argues with a Conservative. At 19 I wasn't too interested in the argument per se. My father was listed as a "mild Conservative," and I was listed as a "probable" at the secret caucuses which everyone knew the Tories held periodically in the back room of Peter Martin's Flour and Feed Warehouse. What was discussed in the clandestine privacy of this caucus (it was rumored they used liquor bottles with candles stuck in them for light, after they had emptied the bottles) was usually discussed publicly the next day in Joe Mullin's barbershop, so it was simply a matter of getting a haircut on the right days to be in the know politically. In such a way I learned that in a small town the son inherits not only the sins of his father but his politics as well.
Although all small towns get excited before an elec tion, it is usually a tempest in the proverbial teapot. At least, it is so in Bridgetown. Time after time the returns have shown the town had split almost exactly 50-50. One year it would be 345-343 for the Liberals (but William Barber and his wife, Helen, both good Tories, had gone on a vacation in Maine, and to this day are blamed for the Tory defeat). Usually it was 346-345
David E. Lewis has lived in the Annapolis Valley for most of his life and teaches Latin at the high school in Bridgetown.
for the Tories. One year it had been 350-342 in what the local press (slightly prejudiced) referred to as the biggest landslide in recent local history. In such a halcyon state of affairs, a vacillating vote was of major importance. The main vacillating vote in Bridgetown belonged to Bruno. By some strange celestial distribu tion, there seems to be one Bruno in every small town. He is well known and well liked, and does odd jobs for people - or, as my father worded it, he did the jobs oddly for people.
Thus before an election Bruno acquired an air of importance. He was literally courted by both parties. Even his pay increased (and the Liberals had a transient victory one year when Gordon Truman discovered that Bruno was considerably more impressed with two dimes and a nickel than with a quarter). Mrs. New combe, who had moved to Bridgetown a short time before and had tried to pay Bruno with paper money, had been subjected to a diatribe about "furriners" and had never been able to get him to work for her again.
Once, when fears ran rampant and hopes ran high, Bruno was kidnapped. Two local businessmen spirited him away to an isolated summer camp where he existed on Oland's beer and tinned beans and was perfectly content, according to his captors. He was kept there incommunicado until the day of the election. It wasn't that Bruno wasn't trustworthy - he was just a little weak in retentive ability,
continued on page 41
DIEFENBAKER from page 39
and was capable of voting for the first person who occurred to him (he was illiterate so his vote was an oral one). In this way my mother, who happened to be standing next to him as he was sworn in, and whose lemon pies were his favorite, received one vote in a recent federal election.
Bruno wasn’t a political necessity as much as he was an omen. It was a town joke, but there was an underlying current of superstition which insisted that whoever got Bruno’s vote won the election. Although Bruno was unaware of all the hectic repressions he caused at election time, his mother was more astute. She also had a daughter and she tried to launch Bernice on the political open market. Bridgetown needed one Bruno to give spice to its election, but two were superfluous. Bernice found herself a pawn little moved on the local political chessboard.
My father had known Lortimer Smith all his life. They had gone fishing together, and each had bought 500 shares in a worthless mining stock and had lost their shirts. This binds two fellows together. Thus when Lortimer Smith became the Conservative nominee for our county, he came to me to help him with his political speeches. I was fresh out of college and had done some writing in the local weekly newspaper. I had no idea of the platform of either party, and refused. Lortimer informed me that this would prove no handicap at all. Indeed, he felt that it would give his speeches a “fresh approach.” I made a conscientious attempt to grasp the basic Conservative tenets, but after listening to several of Lortimer’s speeches I was no wiser. It suddenly occurred to me that although I knew almost nothing about political issues the public knew less. I thus began writing speeches for Lortimer Smith. It took me some time to learn the art of gobbledygook — despite public opinion, it is rather difficult to write a 20-minute speech and say absolutely nothing, but it is possible, and after a month I was very proficient.
I must admit that if Lortimer said nothing he did it impressively. He was a born orator. The first time I heard him give one of my speeches in his smooth euphonic voice I was considerably impressed. I would have voted for him. And he did pay good money. He was like a large sleek Buick, ready to go places, and I was the gas pump. But I realized that gas stations are commonplace and dispensable. I tried to service him the best I could. I tried to relax in my role of the only ghost-writer in Bridgetown, but Lortimer wouldn’t allow me the balm of anonymity. “Writes all my speeches,” he’d say and slap me on the back. “Smart boy! He can sure shoot the bull!”
In a way I think he was using me. In the eyes of the shrewd farmer constituency in our area there seemed to be a difference between merely reading the stuff and writing it. His connection with the bull was slighter than mine. The farmers would grin at Lortimer and then look at me warily. I knew I had the ability to “shoot the bull” — I had just made excellent marks in English literature classes at college — but I resented it being public information.
I had always pictured politicians as large, expensive expansive men. Lortimer was the antithesis of this image. He was small-framed, thin and meticulously dressed in extremely bad taste. My mother said he looked natty. He always wore a carnation in his lapel. He had a strange hypnotic power — not that he was a Svengali, but when he spoke people listened. Sixty years ago he would have been selling an elixir out west.
I always felt ill at ease and superfluous on his tours. His aggressive camaraderie embarrassed me. He knew everybody by his first name. He would shake the man’s hand first, almost reverently, and then look coquettishly at the wife, in an almost absurd takeoff of W. C. Fields’ elaborate humor. He left the children until last. In a rare moment of exuberance, I have watched him seduce a family of seven simultaneously.
The prospect of Lortimer’s first big rally in Bridgetown left me disturbed. In the rural areas no one knew me, but in my hometown it would be different. At Lortimer’s insistence, I was to sit on the platform, and my mother beamed with a rarely inspired pride and insisted my hair be trimmed, although I had just had a haircut the week before. John Diefenbaker, a Western leader not then too well known, was to be guest speaker, and George Nowlan Sr. was to be there. Getting the haircut to please my mother proved an insurmountable feat. Every man in the county was getting his hair cut. I am not sure what allegoric meaning could be deduced from this, unless there was a connection with the sermon given the Sunday before by the United Church minister about. Samson’s tonsorial tragedy.
When the evening arrived, the hall was so jammed that there were many people standing outside the small community hall. Lortimer decided that a loudspeaker should be installed and that I should see it was. I was ordered to call Sandy McGregor to rush down
continued on page 42
and install the outside loudspeaker. Sandy, a notorious Liberal, took the suggestion coolly. We were friends, but it was a bit like asking Betsy Ross to sew a flag for the British.
“Sandy,” I said over the phone in desperation, “you were a McGregor before you were a Liberal. Name your price.”
At last everything was ready.
The president of the Tory party of the county stood up.
“The meeting will begin with O Canada,” he said.
I stood at attention, like everyone else, waiting.
“The piano! The piano!” the president hissed, and I realized he was hissing at me. I stood there dumbfounded.
Finally he gesticulated at me so wildly that I nearly fled from the stage. I shook my head desperately. 1 must explain that I am one of the very few in Bridgetown who can play the piano. The president turned to the audience, held his hands high in a Billy Graham pose, and announced that I was a bit shy but if the audience would give “our local boy a hand” he was sure I would oblige.
Now I am also one of those rare sad souls who can play nothing without the music. There persists a universal misconception that if you can play the piano you can play anything at anytime. This is simply not true. The audience applauded perfunctorily, and the president came over with a grin on his face. It was a fixed grin. He took my arm in a viselike grip and propelled me across the stage to the piano. I could hear much laughter and applause from people who had often tried in vain to get me to play for a singsong at a party. I sat there staring dumbly at the keyboard. I had never played O Canada in my life. Two thousand people were standing at attention. In one desperate motion I struck the major chord of C with both hands. I never discovered what unsuspecting soul started off, but my heart is still warm toward the poor wretch. Poor, because I left him on
his own. I just held the chord down and the soloist fluttered around with the melody in a forlorn fluctuating recitative. A few others joined in, in a paroxysmal madrigal. I heard the unmistakable voice of John Diefenbaker, in patriotic despair, adding to the cacophony. The bulk of the audience, with typical Maritime placidity, did nothing. When it was over, and we could all sit down, there was a moment of stunned silence. The president got up painfully, hesitated, and then looked over at me and thanked me. Lortimer Smith whispered something in Diefenbaker’s ear, and he, too, looked at me with large mournful eyes.
After the meeting concluded (there was no request for my version of God Save The Queen), I stood backstage. My saner instincts told me to flee inconspicuously into the night. I was about to, when Lortimer Smith bore down on me.
“Bad show, boy. That wasn’t funny!”
I explained that it was hardly my idea of humor. It had been the most embarrassing moment — hour — of my life. I explained that I just didn’t know how to play O Canada.
“Nonsense!” he said harshly. “Any full-blooded Canadian boy who can play the piano can play O Canada]'’ He made it sound as. if my version had decidedly treason-like overtones. He might even conclude I was in the secret pay of the Liberals.
I still had to brave a reception for John Diefenbaker which a local hostess was giving in her home. I decided to be as innocuous as I could. My embarrassment had made me ravenous and I found myself at the buffet table. I also found myself literally rubbing elbows with Diefenbaker.
“I’m sorry, sir, about the piano business tonight.”
His eyes burned into mine.
“You seem like a good clean-cut young man.” He accented the “seem” as though I were a stowaway Bolshevik. “I thought all clean-cut young Canadians knew our national anthem!”
“If I had only been notified before, and had the music,” I said weakly.
But John Diefenbaker was not one to dwell on irrevocable fiascoes.
“You’re young to be interested in politics,” he said.
I was about to answer that I wasn’t interested in politics at all, but I realized that would really make me sound like a saboteur.
“I’m interested in young people who are concerned about their country’s future. It’s where the greatness of our wonderful country lies. Now, tell me, why are you so interested in our great Conservative party?”
I was caught securely. To make matters worse, Lortimer Smith had sidled up behind us and was eavesdropping.
“I guess because of my father,” I said lamely.
“Yes. He’s a Conservative.”
A cloud of disapproval frowned down at me. 1 had boobed again. Lortimer Smith moved in for the kill. He was smiling. “And your grandfather, was he a Conservative too?”
I nodded miserably.
“And what,” asked Lortimer with the vicious sweetness of someone who knows that his prey is securely cornered, “would you have been if your father and your grandfather had been damn fools?”
I had read that copy of Reader’s Digest too. “I suppose a Liberal.” Obviously Diefenbaker hadn’t read the Reader’s Digest, for he put his arm around my shoulder and led me over to the chesterfield. To the noticeable chagrin of my hostess and others present, he devoted most of his time to me, explaining that I should not inherit my politics but arrive at them through my intelligence. I was extremely embarrassed at all this attention, but pleased. I ate only seven sandwiches, instead of my usual 15. For one wild panic-stricken moment I thought he was going to ask me to write his speeches, but as I listened to him I concluded he wrote his own.
Lortimer Smith’s love affair with politics did not end in marriage, and I soon found my services no longer required. On one occasion a Liberal friend of mine suggested that the speeches I had written for Lortimer were still serviceable, and that by the simple expedient of changing “Conservative” to “Liberal” they would be salable to the Liberal party. I found this suggestion slightly offensive, although I knew it was true. Since then I have been unavailable as a political writer to any party. Like Bruno, I feel the best thing to do is to remain a political maverick. ■
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.