Uncle John

Shortly after my grandad’s death in 1969, mum’s bother, Peter – who I knew as Uncle John – suddenly announced that he was emigrating to Canada and left soon afterwards. We then heard nothing from him until one day in early 1975 when he called us. He spoke as if he’d only seen us last week and it was all a bit strange. Anyway, he invited us to go and stay with him and his family in the suburbs of Kitchener, Ontario. Dad’s health was very poor by then, so it was out of the question for him and, therefore, for mum. But it was agreed that I should go…

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Dear Uncle John

July 11, 1975 was both exciting and nervy for me. I’d never been to an airport before, let alone get on a plane but, today, I had to do both and then fly for eight hours alone. I remember my friend, René, ringing me up an hour or so before we left the house to wish me a safe trip and then I took Patch for a walk round the block. Mum and Dad came with me in the taxi to Heathrow, we checked in to flight BA482 and I was handed over to a stewardess – as they were called in those days – who looked after me.

I remember boarding an old bus to take us to the Boeing 747 which was standing in a far corner of the airport complex. Once on board, I was sitting alone on a bank of three seats, so was able to put the armrests up and have a nap. You and your family met me at Toronto Airport and I recall going in the lift to find the car in the multi-storey parking lot.

Your home was at 106 Markwood Drive, Kitchener. It was a good size with a basement given over to a laundry room, bar and play area. It backed on to a railway line where, late every afternoon, the longest goods train in history trundled along, taking a full 16 minutes to pass the house.

We had some great days out (including Niagara Falls), I had my first experience of an exciting new fast-food restaurant called McDonalds, but the real highlight was our trip to Algonquin Provincial Park, a huge expanse of maple-topped hills, rocky ridges and lakes some 200 miles north of Kitchener. You’d hired a camper trailer, we hitched it up to your Oldsmobile Delta 88 and off we went – to what turned out to be the greatest adventure of my life; fantastic treks over spruce bogs, across stony trails and through vast forests. Bear-watching was a daily treat: we’d sit in awe as, every night at sundown, whole families of the creatures would come to the perimeter of the camp site and scavenge food from the bins and, for some unlucky campers, from tents as well.

You taught me to chop wood for the fire with an axe, to cook outdoors and to fish, simple things I’d never experienced before. I remember you explaining – and I can still hear the words – that a sharp knife is a safe knife. The real highlight was the fact that, for the whole week – for breakfast, lunch and dinner – all we consumed was T-bone steaks and beer. This seemed really radical to me and I loved it. And, interestingly, those two ingredients remain the bedrock of my diet today!

Uncle John Algonguin July 1975 001

Uncle John, with one of the famous beers.
Algonquin Provincial Park, July 1975

On the way back to the airport – on August 10 – you drove via the CN Tower. It had just been completed but was not yet open to the public. It burst upwards from little more than a vast building site. I remember you weaving the car round piles of bricks and rubble till we got right to the foot. I stood and craned my neck upwards, fascinated. When I see shots of the tower today, it stands in the midst of a huge metropolis, a far cry from the surroundings on that day in 1975. You took me to the airport, I boarded flight BA483 and, incredibly, that’s the last we spoke for another 22 years.

Niagara Falls 001

Me with Uncle John’s children, Shauna and Richard.
Niagara Falls, July 1975. On January 27, 2016 I made contact
with Shauna again, she is now a 47 year-old woman

You visited England with friends in 1997 and came to look us up. By then Dad had died, mum had moved to London and Carol and I were married and living a few miles away, so we were unknown at the address you remembered. Luckily, you went and knocked on Mrs D’s door across the road and she gave you our number. We met up in the Brighton Hotel, and shared our memories in what turned out to be an emotional few hours.

You and the trip to the wonderful country of Canada had quite an impact on me – I can remember all the details, feelings, views, even smells as if they were yesterday. So, thank you, Uncle John, for my first great adventure – and especially for that wonderful week of steak and beer.

Simon

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