The Alternative Tour

The Alternative Tour 2007

It was a beautiful late-afternoon and I hardly noticed the long drive from Cork to Belfast. As I passed that lonely spot between Newry and Banbridge, where, in a matter of minutes, my life had been changed forever, I thought how different the world was now to that of 1975.

I reflected, as I always do when passing Buskhill, on the senseless loss of five young lives in the small hours of a July morning beneath those, now muted, shell-shocked trees that today stare stunned into that field of nightmares.

It was almost inconceivable that I was on my way to a reception at Stormont Castle; so long the imposing icon of prejudiced rule in the province.

Tonight Ian Paisley would launch the autobiography of Eurovision Song Contest winner and former Member of The European Parliament, Dana Rosemary Scallon; a Catholic from The Bogside in Derry.

I looked forward to meeting old friends and colleagues as well as the inevitable celebrated associates of a lady whose career is as diverse as it is amazing. The mix of showbiz, politics and religion would surely make this event unique. Martin McGuinness would be there too and I was intrigued and impatient to observe, at first hand, if the two men, having been diametrically opposed, sworn enemies for most of their lives really deserved to be called “the chuckle brothers”. That Paisley and McGuinness were now leader and deputy-leader of a power-sharing government was almost too good to be true.

As I zipped up the motorway towards Belfast I expected to hear the theme music from The Twilight Zone but it was the punchy brass-section of a Tamla Motown ring-tone that abruptly returned me to a more familiar world. My friend, the respected journalist Ken Murray, asked me not to go directly to the reception at Stormont Castle but to meet him at the nearby Stormont Hotel instead. He wanted to take me on “the alternative tour” before, as he put it, “we get caught up in the back-slapping champagne event and lose the run of ourselves”.

We hardly spoke as Ken drove up the Falls Road, down the Shankill, along Sandy Row, across East Belfast and past housing estates with names forever burned into the memory of anyone that listened to or watched news bulletins during the Troubles.

In stark contrast to the phoenix-like rejuvenation of Belfast city-centre, privation and restlessness were evident in the appearance and demeanour of young people, half-sitting against windows of closed-down shops and congregated outside late-night mini-markets. Perplexity and suspicion were manifest on the not-so-subtly inquisitive faces of their temporarily barred, cigarette-smoking elders when our Southern-registered car threw a fleeting shadow across the local pub. Murals commemorating “fallen idols of the conflict” stood guard over public thoroughfares and huge signs put us on notice that we were “now entering” the realm of some Republican or Loyalist faction. It could have been 1975 but… it was thirty two years on!
We arrived back at Stormont to be greeted by the usual razzmatazz that accompanies such events and before long I was, as Ken predicted, shaking hands with dignitaries, hugging old friends, posing for pictures and enthusiastically swapping implausible compliments. Yes… it was all too easy to lose the run of ourselves.

Moving slowly like a colossus, Ian Paisley entered through a door at the side of the great hall to a deafening hush. All eyes were on him yet the gathering opened like the Red Sea before Moses as he effortlessly carved a preordained route towards the foot of the grand staircase.

I had mixed emotions; I couldn’t but be impressed by his charisma but now, more than ever, I wished he had employed that God-given talent, all those years ago, to unite the people rather than sow hatred, suspicion and division. But, “better late than never… ” I vainly persuaded myself! Some of the guests moved gingerly forward to shake his hand but, not wishing to confront a personal dilemma, I stepped back. Why? After all I had no problem shaking hands with the leader of the terrorist organisation that murdered my friends and left me for dead on that July morning! But, before I could resolve my quandary, the unexpected happened; his wife Eileen left the procession and walked straight over to me. She took my hand and said “I’m delighted to see you here”. I had never met the lady before and I’m still puzzled why she did that but, through her, in that moment, I made my peace with her family!

As the night wore on I was bemused, if not astounded, at the pop-star reception given to Martin McGuinness. Everyone wanted to be photographed with him and I still have a picture on my iPhone of former Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, Martin McGuinness and me doing exactly what Ken Murray had predicted earlier that afternoon.

About a week later, over lunch in the canteen at Leinster House, Ken asked for my thoughts on the day. I admitted I was concerned that the politicians appeared to have moved into a different world leaving their constituents bewildered and behind. I worried that their people would find it difficult to comprehend how the gulf between them had widened so much and so quickly but still aware that so little had changed in their own lives. I was fearful that all the components and conditions still existed for a violent expression of disappointment, disillusionment and frustration. I speculated that the much proclaimed and celebrated “peace” might be little more than a veneer to gloss over the deep cracks that still exist within Northern Ireland society. However, I believed the Great and the Good we met later that evening would provide the leadership to eventually “bring the people with them”. After all, the intelligentsia and middle-classes were usually the first to recognise the necessity for compromise and change. Business and pragmatism would dictate and establish an expedient new order. The working-class and even the hopelessly-unemployed would surely follow in due course. Yes, it fell to the Great and the Good to lead by example and I was convinced that they were eager for the opportunity.

One year later, The Miami Showband, while engaged on a nationwide tour, became embroiled in a dispute with the tour promoter. Both parties agreed that it could only be resolved through the law courts and my colleague and fellow Miami survivor, Des Lee, saw to it that we had the best legal representation available. However, before the case was heard, the promoter conceded and the band was free to resume its commitments. We hoped the promoter would graciously accept the outcome and allow the band to fulfil its contract peacefully and without rancour but we were to be sadly disappointed. Throughout the remainder of the tour, this overtly Christian, middle-class pillar of society used an all-too-familiar, local, age-old weapon of choice to punish The Miami Showband for asserting its legal rights by openly subjecting us to demeaning segregation. On the night of our first performance in Belfast, we noticed that our dressing rooms were on an entirely different floor to all of the other performers. We shrugged it off by joking that we were given a floor all to ourselves but, as the tour progressed, we became more disconcerted, with our embarrassment climaxing in Dublin at the start of a four-night run of concerts: On arrival we found that The Miami Showband was booked into a different hotel to all of the other bands and crew. I called the promoter to ask the reason for this, by now, very obvious apartheid but was told that the other hotel was full. I called that hotel and was assured there was plenty of room for us.

It was only then that I finally appreciated how such disappointment, disillusionment and frustration could so quickly spark the tinderbox that was patently evident when Ken Murray and I drove up the Falls Road, down the Shankill, along Sandy Row, across East Belfast and past housing estates with names forever burned into the memory of anyone that listened to or watched news bulletins during the Troubles.

While I could never condone violence, I now understand the gut-wrenching humiliation of segregation that triggered forty years of death and destruction in a province whose illuminati should know better than to re-employ this evil instrument.

There’s much work to be done at every level before the veneer wears off and exposes many actualities hitherto concealed and reopens wounds not properly attended to. If we fall asleep on the job, the nightmare will return. The men of violence are just waiting for the nod!

Merry Christmas to All! (I Ain’t Afraid of No Grinch!)

At this this time of year, I miss Christmas’s past, those of years ago when I was a kid–and continued to miss those throughout most of my life. The excitement was greater by far then, the anticipation grew more intense by the day as Christmas drew near. There were parties to attend, presents to look forward to, and holiday spirit filled the air. Christmas carols were heard and sung everywhere I went. I even sang a few myself. The songs, and the music that went with them, seemed to cheer everyone up, seemed to trigger the transition into the holiday season beginning the day after Thanksgiving.

I especially miss the old days of Christmas in a rural area–days of my youth. Christmas meant Christmas trees each year. In the country, one does not go to a tree lot to buy a dried-out and sometimes-scraggly, exorbitantly priced Christmas tree. Instead, in rural areas one packs their recently sharpened ax, heads to the nearest wooded area, scouts out the best fir tree there, and harvests it.

Tree-cutting day is an exciting time for kids. I remember vividly, with sentimental pining, my brother Fred’s and my adventures into the woods to find the perfect tree to take home. Most times we had scouted that tree for a year or two prior to actually cutting it for Christmas–found and located it precisely during the warm summer months on the farm in Belfast, Maine.

During our summertime tree-scouting explorations we unfailingly, on our way, stopped by a bubbling, crystal-clear artesian spring–known only to us hidden in a clearing close to the edge of the woods–for a cold drink on a hot summer afternoon. Refreshed, we continued on to our future Christmas tree, or perhaps several trees of differing heights, where we cleaned anything growing nearby so it would have some sunlight and not be crowded out by the underbrush. We monitored its growth until it had reached just the right height for our living room–slightly over six feet tall.

A few weeks before Christmas, and once we deemed it the best we could find, we journeyed from our warm farmhouse, usually on a cold Sunday afternoon, across the ordinarily snowy fields (there always seemed to be snow at that time of year) to the distant woods where we axed it down, tied it to our Flexible Flyer sled, and slid it all the way home to the back porch. There we trimmed it as needed, and ceremoniously moved it to our living room. We had already stationed the Christmas decorations retrieved from the upstairs bedroom closet–placed there with sadness the prior January when we grudgingly took down our previous year’s tree, most often on New Year’s Day.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon decorating our prize tree-looping our bright blue, green, and red lighting, wrapping sequences of garland around it, and hanging fragile glass ornaments of all colors and shapes–sometimes popping and stringing popcorn for an additional homey effect. The tree, only hours before growing in thick woods, gradually morphed from its wild, natural form to a very Christmassy and fragrant addition to our cozy living room.

The final touch–the pièce de résistance–was a diminutive, white-clothed angel, wings of silk with silver glitter, which we placed on the very top spur of the tree. Our mother had died when I was four-years-old, and I always envisioned that angel as her coming to spend Christmas with her boys, perched atop the tree, smiling down, with her focused eyes keeping watch over us. I sustained that visualization from the age of about five until my last Christmas in Maine–1962, when I was seventeen.

Her presence atop our tree every Christmas never failed to give me a boundless feeling of comfort, sentience, and wellbeing. I always glanced upward on Christmas morning before opening any presents–and there she was, always, smiling down at me and assuring me I was not alone in life after all. Christmas was so much more heartening seeing that angel above my head, knowing with confidence she would be with me and guide me at all times.

A tree freshly cut from the woods always seems to smell so much better, look more Christmassy, and provide infinitely more satisfaction than one bought at an urban tree lot. Always did for me anyway. I always felt sorry for city kids who never got to experience this firsthand.

And as for Christmas, 2015, and all seventy-one Christmas’s I have lived to see, it is still the most joyful time of year for me. Always was! Oh, I have to work at it more now than ever to get even a modicum of that Christmas spirit sentiment, and buying that Christmas tree, putting it up, decorating it, and ensuring it has water every day is more of a chore now. I have gone from always having a six-to-seven footer to now a four-to-five foot tree has to do–and does.

I do have one gimmick that always seems to work if I haven’t achieved a satisfactory level of Christmas spirit–if I have not the full measure of joy in my heart I know should be there. My morale booster, if needed: I have saved every Christmas card I have ever been mailed, or acquired some other way, since the late 1960s. I have them in a box, sorted to some degree–the Hallmark’s take precedence. Those who sent me a Hallmark Christmas card, a card that had printed on the back “When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best,” the slogan of Hallmark since about 1928, are people who distinguished themselves to me. I always appreciated that special card immensely with those special words. I just felt that that was exactly what those senders were saying to me personally, a Christmas message that they cared.

After nearly fifty years, since the 1960s, I have saved each and every card. I now have over five hundred and that was the last count several years ago. Each year, some December evening when the day is coming to an end, I retrieve that special box from the closet, perhaps with some Christmas carols playing in the background, an icey martini close at hand, and I open it and begin to look at all those cards. Each evokes a memory, especially if the person dated it and wrote a Christmas message in it. Those are separated from those just having a signature. Most dear to me are the ones from friends and family members who are no longer with me in person, but their cards reassure me they are present in spirit. The cards from the dead I place around my home as decorations–and memory aides of each, out of love and respect.

Now, that all may seem eccentric, it may seem peculiar, or it may seem to you as downright ridiculous. However, not to me. I began the tradition nearly fifty years ago with no intent to continue for anything other than not throwing such nice, decorative items into the trash. Each had a memory with it, each meant someone had taken their time to communicate with me no matter how distant. As time went by, each year I actually got to eagerly anticipate taking that box down and opening it. Not always, but many times there is a card in the collection from someone who no longer able to send one–the departed.

That happened the first year of having saved the cards, about twenty-five of them. As I looked at each, I came upon one which shook me to my core. Tears welled in my eyes as I read the message written so neatly, so positively, so thoughtfully almost exactly a year prior. Then he was full of life, brimming over with Christmas spirit, and never for one minute thinking, I am certain, that this would be the last card he would send me, nor I even remotely thinking that the Christmas card I grasped in my hand–trembling slightly now from the reality that is life–would earn a place of honor henceforth at Christmastime in my home.

In that moment I realized I had begun what would be a life-long tradition–for me. I knew immediately I had done the right thing and would continue to do so. It happened just that simply and just that suddenly. It is probably not for everyone; I celebrate the living who send cards, too, but I am especially devoted to those I once knew here on earth. Those I called “friend” without reservation, and those whose blood also courses my veins. At least for that very brief period every year.

I have several cards that are very special in that regard. The one I mention above, the first of the tradition, and therefore longest to be so honored. My brother, Fred, who died of cancer, my sainted Aunt Alice and, nearly sainted himself, Uncle Don, both deceased for some years now, are all family.

Although all who have died at some point over the years have their own spot, the cards of these have a place of honor in my home separate from all others. It is not a shrine of any sort, nor has their place any religious connotation. It is just something I do out of respect and in remembrance. If you came to visit me, you would see a number of Christmas cards as decorations and think nothing of it.

The process–appropriately placing each card (I do not have an overwhelming number of them.)–is no big production, requires no expense, and expends a minimal amount of time and energy. As a result, I gain touch with the past, and as I handle and place each card, separately, a glimpse of each person flashes past my eyes from the deepest recesses of my mind. In the vision, as quickly as it comes, then goes, they are all smiling, all happy, all content. By doing so each is then clearer in my mind, each renewed in my memory and thoughts that the past year may have diminished.

Think about it and, especially if you are young, begin the same tradition yourself. You will be rewarded as you get older at the wealth of memories you may have discarded as trash that such a simple habit will preserve.

My only fear is the scourge of e-cards. Have we really become so busy? Have we really become so much in need of efficiency? Have we really become so insensitive? But most excruciating, have we really become so crass?

As for Christmas, 2015, rest assured, I still “deck the halls with boughs of holly,” and never does a Christmas go by that I do not see “Mommy kissing Santa Clause underneath the mistletoe.” Those “Jingle bells, jingle bells” still “Jingle all the way!” and “Oh! What fun it is… !” Oh, I still look to the sky every Christmas eve to see if I can spot any signs of that famous reindeer I recollect singing about when I was five years old–sixty-six years ago. Gene Autry was spot-on in 1949 when he sang the words, “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, you’ll go down in history!”

Each December at this time, I am always “dreaming of a white Christmas, Just like the ones I used to know,” almost every year at my home as a kid in Belfast, Maine. Then we dreamed for snow every day until Christmas Day, and usually our dream was fulfilled. Something about snow on Christmas makes the day perfect.

The song “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin and sung by Bing Crosby in 1942, the lyrics of which struck a chord with the soldiers fighting in the Second World War, and has continued to be especially popular with all military men and women away from home to this day. I vividly recall being in Vietnam as a United States Marine for Christmas 1968. “White Christmas,” broadcast on Armed Forces Radio, could often be heard on those little hand-held portable radios–someone always had one–and the words tugged at our heartstrings, as well as, more importantly, gave us a feeling of hope that next Christmas we would all be at home with our families in peace, not at war.

So to all of you, where ever you may be, I wish you a very Merry Christmas! And please know that:

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

With every Christmas card I write.

May your days be merry and bright.

And may all your Christmases be white