Housekeeper ads illustrated insecurity of pre-Sixties life

A few evenings ago, following a casual discussion at a social event, I went looking for archival newspaper articles about “Rooster Town”, a neighbourhood of shacks on the south side of Winnipeg that was cleared away in the Fifties to make way for Grant Park High School, the adjacent athletic grounds, and eventually Pan Am Pool.

As fascinating as the story was, my eye was soon caught by another story, accompanied by a picture of a young woman in hospital with a bandage around her head. Above the photo, a caption: “Why Was She Shot?” Below it, the headline: “Just Like Dream, Says Gun Victim”.

The gun victim was 23-year-old Analise Zahn, who arrived in Canada in October, 1951 after escaping from East Germany to West Berlin, and then emigrating to Canada where she found work as a housekeeper in the Averbach household on Bredin Drive in East Kildonan.

On the evening of Dec. 17, barely two months after arriving in Canada and knowing few people here, a .22-calibre bullet entered the house through a basement window and struck the side of her head while she was doing the ironing. Not knowing the source of her injury, it wasn’t until she was eventually taken to St. Boniface Hospital that she realized that she had been shot.

The only hints as to how she might have come to be shot: her own recollection of a dark sedan driving slowly past the home about 20 minutes before the incident, and unconfirmed reports that two rifle shells were found in the back lane.

After those initial reports were published, the story went dead. Neither the newspapers nor Google yield any information into Analise’s fate.

A newspaper search for the address, though, yields something a little more interesting. The Averbachs regularly advertised in the Winnipeg Free Press for a domestic: at least twice during 1950, twice more in 1951, regularly every subsequent year through 1955, and for one last time in 1957.

One of those ads was placed on Jan. 21, 1952, just a month after Analise was shot: “Reliable girl for housework in lovely new home, all electric appliances, private room and radio, no cooking, liberal free time. Ph. 501 842, 330 Bredin Dr.”

Clearly, Analise had moved on.

Looking through the same classified ads, there was obviously an active market in 1952 for domestics.

Some advertisers only needed part-time help, such as one River Heights resident who was looking for a “reliable woman to take charge of evening meal, 3 to 7 Mon. through Fri.”

Others wanted someone who would be present around the clock, such as this advertiser: “Young married couple. Both working, living in new modern home, 1 child, need preferably middle aged woman to live in.” Another ad reads, “Reliable girl for light housework, 1 child, small home, must sleep in [employer’s residence].”

To some degree, would-be employers competed with each other to make their homes seem more attractive than others, using terms like “liberal free time”, “no waxing”, “no cooking” or “top wages” to differentiate themselves.

A surprising number of advertisers also added conditions such as “must be plain cook”, which speaks volumes to Canadians’ love for flavourless food in those days. Others promoted themselves as providing “a good home”, suggesting in some cases that the employers intended to take on a semi-parental role.

By the early Fifties, addresses, where given, tended to be in the suburbs. In earlier years, however, housekeepers were common even in what would now be considered as more modest parts of town, illustrating the changes in Winnipeg neighbourhoods over the decades.

“Wanted. General Servant,” read one ad published in June 1917, directing applicants to a neighbourhood that now has a sketchy reputation. “One willing to go to Winnipeg Beach. Apply 228 Spence.”

Another, the same day, directed applicants to a thoroughly middle class St. Boniface neighbourhood: “Girl wanted. Small family. $20 month. 68 Monk [sic] Ave., Norwood.”

Even after a century of inflation, this wage would still only be equivalent to $335 per month in 2018.

Some employers had unique needs. One advertiser in April 1920 sought a “refined woman in small home as companion, and for light housekeeping” for a family of two on Rosedale Ave. in Fort Rouge, promising “Sundays and most evenings free.” A year before, another advertiser claiming to be a widower was specifically looking for a “homely housekeeper, about 34”.

Some advertisements highlighted the city’s social tensions. One blunt advertisement published in March 1917 read, “Wanted, woman to wash every Monday; no foreigners need apply. 34 Middlegate, Armstrong’s Point.”

Yet others perhaps accidentally highlighted the vulnerability of the young women who took these jobs. “Schoolgirl will give services in return for board, room and slight remuneration,” reads one published in August 1929. “Danish housekeeper with baby, wants position, home more than wages,” read another slightly desperate advertisement placed in August 1916. “Elderly widow wishes a situation as housekeeper to widower or bachelor,” reads a third ad placed in April 1922.

These advertisements reveal a truth about the past: many of the women who worked as domestics in Winnipeg did so for lack of better options.

Some were teenagers living apart from their families for the first time, and needed some way — even if a risky way — of avoiding homelessness. Others were single mothers or elderly women with little to nothing in terms of a social safety net to resort to.

Once a stronger social safety net reduced the kind of desperation that pushed women toward domestic service, cheaper household appliances rendered human servants uneconomically expensive, and Canadians became accustomed to low-density suburban living and the additional privacy it offered, the era of keeping a servant around the house came to an end for all but the wealthiest of families.

Below, you can read some of the ads that appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press in Nov. 1920. These offer rich insights into the insecurity that many women faced in the era as well as into the ethnic and religious hierarchies of the time.

Palmerston, Larry and the Acoustic Kitty

A new hire started work this week at Britain’s foreign ministry — and his lunch break lasts all day long.

Palmerston, a black-and-white shorthair cat, is the new Chief Mouser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s headquarters on London’s King Charles Street, kitty-corner (pardon the pun) to Parliament and just around the corner from the prime minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street.

Like his counterpart Larry, the brown and white tabby inhabiting 10 Downing Street, Palmerston’s duty will be to help the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) deal with its persistent rodent problem. To welcome Palmerston to the team, the FCO issued a tongue-in-cheek news release, quoted in The Telegraph:

Palmerston is HM Diplomatic Service’s newest arrival and in the role of FCO Chief Mouser will assist our pest controllers in keeping down the number of mice in our King Charles Street building.

Palmerston’s domestic posting will have zero cost to the public purrse as a staff kitty will be used to pay for him and all aspects of his welfur.

But has anyone thought to check Palmerston — or Larry — for any smuggled goods? To make sure he isn’t a secret agent for the Americans, the Russians, the Israelis or the Chinese?

Believe it or not, there actually was once an attempt to use a cat to commit international espionage.

In the mid-Sixties, the ever-imaginative CIA explored the possibility of enlisting a cat, with a microphone and transmitting antenna implanted in its body, to eavesdrop on conversations. It became known as the Acoustic Kitty Project.

But, as former CIA officer Victor Marchetti told The Telegraph in 2001, after the Acoustic Kitty documents were finally declassified, the idea of using a cat to perform espionage quickly ran into problems.

“They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity. They tested him and tested him. They found he would walk off the job when he got hungry, so they put another wire in to override that.”

But finally, the CIA had the Acoustic Kitty ready for his (or her?) first public test. According to Emily Anthes in her 2013 book Frankenstein’s Cat, “CIA staffers drove Acoustic Kitty to the park and tasked it with capturing the conversation of two men sitting on a bench.”

Cats tend to have a mind of their own, however. Instead of making his way to the park bench, Anthes wrote, “the cat wandered into the street, where it was promptly squashed by a taxi.”

“There they were, sitting in the van with all those dials, and the cat was dead,” Marchetti recalled decades later to The Telegraph.

Estimates of the cost of the Acoustic Kitty project range from $10 million to $20 million.

Despite the cat-astrophic flop, one of the released (but still partially censored) documents praises the researchers who worked on it.

“The work done on this problem over the years reflects a great credit on the personnel who guided it . . . [and their] energy and imagination could be models for scientific pioneers.”

But, “our final examination of trained cats for [censored] use in the [censored] convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.”


* — See also the World War II Bat Bombs experiment, which tested the possibility of releasing bats over Japan with tiny bombs strapped to their bodies, and having them fly into the country’s many wooden structures to start fires. The tests took a disastrous turn when some of the bats were accidentally released, setting both a hangar and a general’s car on fire.

The worst economy since World War II? Well, no…

An ad that has been recently airing on Canadian radio stations and paid for by Unifor, a major private-sector union, claims that Canada’s economy has done worse under the current federal government than under any other federal government since World War II. This is a rather bold claim to make. But is it true?

One rough measure that economists use to measure a society’s economic distress is the Misery Index, which is rather simply the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate. It attracts its share of criticism for giving inflation too much weight and unemployment too little weight: fair enough.

Yet even if one accepts that the weighting could use a little fine-tuning, it appears that recent years have been far from the worst since World War II. That dubious honour goes to a decade-long bout of economic ill health from about 1976 to 1985 (at its worst around 1982) when either high inflation was eating away at people’s savings, or unemployment was wreaking havoc with peoples’ cash flow.

A second difficult period came in the early ’90s, when the misery index briefly spiked and unemployment was persistently greater than 10 percent for a two-and-a-half year period from late 1991 to mid-1994.

Unemployment rates, inflation and the "misery index", Canada, 1976-2014. (Click to enlarge.)

Unemployment rates, inflation and the “misery index”, Canada, 1976-2014. Source: Statistics Canada Consumer Price Index and Labour Force Survey data on CANSIM. (Click to enlarge.)


Recent times, by comparison, have been not so bad. Even during the 2008-09 global economic crisis, unemployment rates — which suddenly rose here, as in other countries — were no worse than they were during the mid-to-late ’80s economic boom, and they have been gradually declining since then. Inflation rates have also remained low, much unlike the 1976-82 period when they were trending steeply upward. The only way these could be described as being the worst economic times since World War II is by pretending the tough times of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s never happened.

Last flight from Da Nang illustrated madness of war

When the Paris Peace Accords were signed in early 1973, it brought a sense of relief to the United States, which had been polarized for eight years by the Vietnam War — a war over matters which never threatened U.S. domestic security, but for which many young American men were conscripted anyway. (Since evading U.S. conscription was not an extraditable offence under Canadian law, many would-be conscripts lived here in temporary exile, or became naturalized Canadian citizens.)

Yet the threat of war remained constant along the border between communist-ruled North Vietnam and the nominally democratic, but poorly governed, South Vietnam.

In late 1974, realizing that both the U.S. Congress and the American public had become demoralized about Vietnam, North Vietnam and supportive Viet Cong rebels in the South launched a military campaign to take over South Vietnam and reunify it with the North, on the North’s terms.

By mid-March 1975, the offensive had reached Da Nang, a South Vietnamese city on the central coast. Surrounded on all sides, the South Vietnamese soldiers forced into the city were cut off from the rest of their country. The North Vietnamese moved in.

On March 24, USAID, the U.S. international aid agency, contracted charter operator World Airways to fly Boeing 727s into Da Nang to evacuate women and children from the war-torn city. The Boeing 727 had the advantage of a back door, and a staircase that could be dropped from below the tail to allow refugees to scramble aboard quickly before taking off again.

More flights ferried refugees out of Da Nang in the days that followed. But the crowds at the airport became increasingly unruly as the city came closer to falling to the North Vietnamese.

Despite being warned not to attempt it, World Airways’ mercurial founder and president, Ed Daly, decided to make one last series of flights to evacuate refugees from Da Nang on Saturday, March 29. The plan was to quickly fly three Boeing 727s in at 20-minute intervals, quickly load them up with refugees, and fly each jet back to Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City).

Daly, planning to be aboard the first flight, invited CBS News Saigon correspondent Bruce Dunning to come along for the ride. Dunning brought along a cameraman and a sound man to record the event.

The airfield seemed deserted when the aircraft landed at Da Nang. This was a deception: thousands of people had been taking shelter, fearing the shelling taking place in the vicinity.

The thousands began making a run for the World Airways jet as soon as it slowed down — and the CBS crew began recording the scene from the windows of the aircraft.

Even before the aircraft had stopped moving, people were trying to get aboard.

“One guy got on. Jesus!”, an unidentified woman can be heard saying. A man, possibly Daly, replied with an astonished, “Huh?!”

But those reaching the plane weren’t the women and children that Daly intended to pick up. Instead, they were South Vietnamese soldiers who, in the chaos of war, had been abandoned by their superiors and left to fend for themselves.

The CBS News video, which has lost none of its shock value after 40 years, tells the rest of the story as 268 people — double the Boeing 727’s normal capacity — stormed the jet. Almost all of them, save for fewer than a dozen women and children, were fleeing soldiers. At one stage Daly, a former boxer, can be seen brandishing a gun and trying in vain to block the rear stairs, even punching South Vietnamese soldiers as they tried to board.

Yet the video only just begins to illustrate the madness that humans can descend to in a war zone. For example, the video did not capture the scenes described later by flight attendant Jan Wollett, who can be seen wearing a red uniform in the video:

Mr. Daly was at the very bottom of the air stair, waving a pistol in the air, trying to restore some kind of order. [Flight attendant Val Witherspoon] was helping people climb over the side of the stair onto the steps. I went to the bottom of the stair next to Mr. Daly. A family of five was running a few feet from me, reaching out for help to get on board. It was a mother and a father and two little children and a baby in the mother’s arms. I could see the fear in all of their faces as they ran and reached out for me. I reached back to grab the mother’s hand, but before I could get it, a man running behind them shot all five of them, and they fell and were trampled by the crowd. The last I saw of them, they were disappearing under people’s feet. There were just several loud shots, and they were gone—all five of them. And the man who shot them stepped on them to get closer to the air stair. He ran them down and jumped onto the air stair and ran up into the aircraft. And everything was so chaotic and insane, I remember registering in my mind at that mad moment: “I’ll deal with that later.” And I just kept pulling people onto the stair.

I felt a woman pulling on me from the side of the stair. She was trying to get over the rail, and she grabbed my arm. I wanted to help her on, but I also had to worry about getting pulled off the stair. I turned and grabbed her arms and tried to pull her over the rail, but a man behind her grabbed her and jerked her out of my arms, and as she fell away, he stepped on her back and on her head to get up and over the railing. He used her as a steppingstone. Mr. Daly saw that happen, and as the man swung his leg over the railing, Mr. Daly smashed him in the head with his pistol. I remember suddenly seeing a sheet of blood splash across everything and I saw the man fall off and people trample him, and I remember thinking, “Good.” That was just my reaction at that moment. The man disappeared under the feet of the mob.

The rest of Wollett’s story of that wild flight out of Da Nang 40 years ago, which makes an interesting-if-grim read, can be found here.

New flag was hated by some — but life went on

Top: The Canadian Red Ensign, which was the unofficial Canadian flag until the current flag was adopted on Feb. 15, 1965. Middle: The design initially favoured by Prime Minister Lester Pearson, dubbed the "Pearson Pennant". Bottom: The Canadian flag recommended by a parliamentary committee tasked with finding a new, distinctive Canadian design, and later approved by Parliament as the official flag of Canada.

Top: The Canadian Red Ensign, which was the unofficial Canadian flag until the current flag was adopted on Feb. 15, 1965.
Middle: The design initially favoured by Prime Minister Lester Pearson, dubbed the “Pearson Pennant”.
Bottom: The Canadian flag recommended by a parliamentary committee tasked with finding a new, distinctive Canadian design, and later approved by Parliament as the official flag of Canada.

Almost fifty years after it flew over Parliament Hill in Ottawa for the first time on Feb. 15, 1965, the Canadian flag is one that the vast majority of us cannot imagine being replaced by any other design.

But the months leading up to its creation, from Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s announcement in Winnipeg in May 1964 that a new Canadian flag was on its way to the final parliamentary vote on the new design that December, were some of the most politically divisive months in Canadian history.

For nearly a full century after Confederation in 1867, Canada had no official flag of its own aside from the British Union Jack. The federal government improvised, however, by treating various versions of the British Red Ensign over the years (the final version of which is shown above) as the unofficial Canadian flag.

This was a comfortable arrangement for many Canadians, who even into the ’60s continued to view Canada as a culturally British country within North America, and particularly for many of those who had fought under the Red Ensign as the de facto Canadian flag during World War II. For others, however, the Red Ensign was seen as a colonial holdover that ought to be replaced with an unambiguously Canadian flag.

Prime Minister Pearson, a World War I veteran who came to office in 1963 vowing to pursue a new flag, was one of those Canadians who felt the time was right for such a change. Speaking at the Royal Canadian Legion’s national convention in Winnipeg on May 17, 1964, Pearson announced that he intended to push ahead to legislate “a flag designed around the maple leaf [that] will symbolize, will be a true reflection of, the new Canada.”

As Rick Archbold described in A Flag for Canada: The illustrated biography of the Maple Leaf, Pearson faced a hostile reception from his audience:

Pearson tried valiantly to stay with his text and on his message. “Would such a change mean disrespect for the Union Jack?” “Yes!” the crowd roared back, drowning the prime minister’s answer. He plowed forward, vowing not to abandon the Union Jack but arguing that it should become “a symbol of our membership in the Commonwealth of Nations and of our loyalty to the crown.”

The audience had now reached a pitch of rowdiness that made it difficult for the prime minister to be heard. “You’re selling us out to the pea-soupers,” someone shouted. Came another: “God save Diefenbaker.” And another: “Keep the Red Ensign.” And yet another: “Go home!”

It was a taste of what was to come in the following months. Though it might be difficult to believe today, both Pearson’s proposed design of three red maple leafs and two blue bars at the side (see above), and the red-and-white design adopted later in 1964 by a parliamentary committee, were greeted with a torrent of hateful comments.

“The new flag looks like a fancy dish rag,” one North End resident wrote to the Winnipeg Free Press. “I suggest that [the prime minister] have the Houses of Parliament moved from Ottawa to Montreal to complete the picture of ‘surrender’ as the flag indicates,” wrote a reader from Winnipeg’s West End.

The heated comments that appeared in newspapers around the country were, at least, fit enough to print by the standards of the time. Many other letters containing more crude comments flooded the prime minister’s office, as well as those of every Member of Parliament.

In 1986, John Ross Matheson, an Ontario Liberal MP who led the 1964 parliamentary committee charged with finding a new Canadian flag design from among the many serious and not-so-serious public submissions, included in his memoirs* a selection of letters the public sent to Parliament Hill, illustrating how controversial the idea of a new flag was.

From Victoria, B.C.: “Please discard the new flag and do it quickly. When the flag is in a drooping position it (especially in the large sizes) will look like a bed sheet with menstruation stains on it, and our Canadian flag will be laughed at all over the world.”

A June, 1964 letter: “Your ‘pushing’ of that three maple leaf abortion is, I feel, just another of your efforts to play up in any way you can to that narrow-minded, ignorant, impossible bunch of crazy Quebec extremists . . . The more those ignorant, priest-ridden Quebec extremists get, the more they want and will want.”

From a Presbyterian minister in Montreal: “. . . I earnestly deplore design of projected new flag as pagan and a flat rejection of Canada’s Christian heritage. The glory of the Union Jack is the union of three Christian Crosses. How unworthy, how unfeeling to replace so inspiring a symbol with one reminiscent of a hockey team or an Indian tribe.”

From Val Caron, Ont.: “I will never salute a flag forced upon me. I am not a worm but a teacher.”

From Orillia, Ont.: “You have turned us in on ourselves like an onion growing in a paper bag, puny and smelly. You have yielded our heritage to a rabid minority. The dreadful indictment I lay on you as a mother of Canada. You are a Judas and, like Judas, the sooner you retire the better.”

From Toronto: “Your new Canadian Flag is just a disgusting, disgraceful disguise. It is a disgrace to the country. As you, Pearson, are known as a communist sympathizer — so is your new flag — it stinks from communismus — Moskow [sic] is the place for you and your flag.”

Yet despite the rancour of the time, the flag quickly grew on Canadians, rendering the passionate feelings of 1964-65 little more than a faded memory. Whether they preferred a new design in 1964-65 or wanted to retain the Red Ensign, life just calmly went on for Canadians once the decision was made — as it so often does after the conclusion of a brutal political battle, no matter how loud the cries of impending doom by partisans on both sides.

Fifty years on, it is safe to say that the flag that some vowed never to salute turned out to be a flag that has served us well — and will continue to do so for many years to come.

* – John Ross Matheson, Canada’s Flag: A Search for a Country (Belleville, Ont.: Mika Publishing, 1986)

The fall of the Berlin Wall: An official’s blunder, or a calculated move?

Gunter Schabowski on Nov. 9, 1989: A bumbling apparatchik who accidentally opened the Berlin Wall, or a shrewd malcontent who knew exactly what he was doing? (Click for source.)

Gunter Schabowski on Nov. 9, 1989: A bumbling apparatchik who accidentally opened the Berlin Wall, or a shrewd malcontent who knew exactly what he was doing? (Click for source.)

It is not a particularly long walk from the German Bundestag, or parliament, to the former site of the now-demolished Palace of the Republic, as the former East German seat of power was called: a little over 20 minutes on foot. In Winnipeg terms, it would be akin to walking from the University of Winnipeg to the Concert Hall, or from the Manitoba Legislature to the bars and restaurants on the Corydon Strip.

But from Aug. 13, 1961 to Nov. 9, 1989, to walk that short distance in Berlin was to cross the boundary between two completely different societies: a free and democratic West Berlin, representing the areas of the German capital captured by the U.S., British and French militaries at the end of World War II, and Communist-ruled East Berlin in the areas captured by the Soviet military.

In fact, it was impossible without passing through East German border controls — which included detailed questioning, careful examination of travel documents and thorough searches — or climbing over the Berlin Wall and risking being shot by border guards.

In 1949, when it became clear that a jointly U.S., British, French and Soviet-ruled occupied Germany was not going to be practical, the two sides each set up rival German states based on their own occupational zones: the western-backed Federal Republic of Germany was the first to emerge from the U.S., British and French-occupied zones on May 23, followed by the German Democratic Republic in the Soviet-occupied zone on Oct. 7.

They respectively came to be known by the monikers “West Germany” and “East Germany”.

Berlin remained an unresolved matter: by mutual agreement, Berlin had been carved up into occupational zones much like the rest of Germany. But while it was relatively easy to turn an arbitrary line across the German countryside into a heavily patrolled international boundary between West Germany and East Germany, enforcing an international boundary running right through the middle of a city was a more difficult matter after a Soviet blockade of Berlin failed to dislodge the western powers in 1948-49.

The austerity and constant surveillance that came with life in East Germany didn’t prove itself popular. As the gap in quality of life between East and West continued to widen in the late ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s, thousands of East Germans fled across the relatively open urban border to West Berlin, and from there to West Germany, where they were entitled to automatic citizenship.

East German leaders were becoming desperate to do something — anything — to prevent either their own loss of power or East Germany becoming an economic basket case as its own citizens voted with their feet for a better life in the west.

On Aug. 13, 1961, in a carefully planned move, the Soviets and East Germans began sealing this urban border in the middle of the night, first with armed guards and barbed wire — and then with a wall and a “death strip” straight through the city.

The East Germans would spend much of the rest of the next 28 years defending the Berlin Wall as an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”, protecting the Workers’ Paradise from the corrupting, fascist influences of the West — but even few East Germans were fooled. The wall, and the rest of the heavily militarized border, was there to prevent East Germans from leaving.

Things began to change in October 1989.

Days after presiding over East Germany’s 40th anniversary celebrations, and threatening to use force against East Germans who were now protesting for the same kinds of democratic reforms they saw happening in the Soviet Union and other communist countries, the 77-year-old Erich Honecker was deposed by the East German Politburo as the country’s leader after 18 years in office. Fifty-two year old Egon Krenz, Honecker’s long-time heir apparent, was installed in his place.

Attempting to convey a softer image in contrast to Honecker’s hardline reputation, Krenz instructed Gunter Schabowski, a member of the ruling Politburo, to start holding regular media conferences to tell the world’s media about all the changes that were going on in post-Honecker East Germany.

On Nov. 9, three weeks after Krenz came to power, the Politburo approved a new policy that would provide East Germans with a limited right to travel to the west, subject to government approval on a case-by-case basis.

As legend long had it, nobody had bothered to tell Schabowski that the policy wasn’t supposed to come into effect until the next day, and he had carelessly gone into the press conference without reading or fully understanding the changes. The result was summed up by Michael Meyer in his book 1989, The Year that Changed the World:

Schabowski scanned the memo while being driven from party headquarters. It seemed innocuous enough — just a short press release. At the news conference, he read it out as item four or five from a list of the various announcements. It had to do with passports. Every East German would now, for the first time, have a right to one.

For a nation locked so long behind the Iron Curtain, it was tremendous news. At the press conference, there was a sudden hush, followed by a ripple of whispers. Schabowski droned on. Then, from the back of the room, as the cameras rolled, broadcasting live to the nation, a reporter shouted out a fateful question: “When does it take effect?”

Schabowski paused, looked up, suddenly confused. “What?”

The reporter repeated the question, his voice almost lost in a cacophony of shouts from others seeking similar clarification. 

Schabowski scratched his head, mumbled to aides on either side. “Um, that’s a technical question. I’m not sure.” He perched his glasses on the end of his nose, shuffled through his papers, then looked up again . . . and shrugged. 

“Ab Sofort,” he read aloud from what he saw written on the press release. Immediately. Without delay.

At this, the room erupted. Schabowski, we now know, didn’t appreciate the full significance of his announcement.

In the hours that followed, both West and East Berliners descended on the border crossing, demanding that the confused border guards — informed of nothing and unable to confirm what they heard from the crowd to be true — let the Easterners cross freely into the West.

At about 11:30 p.m. local time, about four and a half hours after Schabowski’s surprise announcement, an East German border guard named Harald Jäger at Berlin’s Bornholmerstrasse crossing made the decision to open the border.

It was effectively the end of East Germany, which no longer had the will — and without Soviet support, the means — to secure its own borders. With its citizens still entitled to automatic West German citizenship after fleeing through the once again open Berlin border, from that night East Germany had little choice but to seek reunification on the west’s terms.

That duly followed on Oct. 3, 1990, officially known as The Day of German Unity, when East Germany officially ceased to exist and the divided country became a single polity again for the first time in more than 40 years.

For the past 25 years, the legend has held that it was all the result of a bumbling Schabowski who accidentally inflicted the fatal wound to a corrupt and ailing regime in a final fit of incompetence.

Schabowski did little over the years to dispel that story, though he has long since renounced the former East German regime (his role in which briefly landed him in prison) and embraced reunification.

Now elderly, in poor health and living in a Berlin care home, his wife Irina has taken to speaking for him. In her own bombshell announcement this past week, she told a reporter that her husband’s “bumbling” was, in fact, no accident; that he was “very aware” of what he was doing.

“As he read the note, he wanted the wall opened immediately,” Irina Schabowski apparently told a reporter from Germany’s Bild newspaper. “You can not say, in a few hours, the border is open,” she continued, suggesting her husband feared that the delayed relaxation of border controls envisaged by the Politburo would lead to chaos and violence.

“The border had to be opened immediately.”

Gunter Schabowski is, as noted, no longer able to speak for himself. But if his wife’s comments are true, the long-standing image of the bumbling communist apparatchik might actually have been a mask for a more shrewd and calculating politician who spotted an opportunity to make history and seized upon it — but who left himself room to backtrack as having misspoken in case he found himself in trouble with his superiors.

The man who might have become President on Nov. 22, 1963

Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as U.S. president on Nov. 22, 1963. A shocked Jackie Kennedy, still wearing a blood-stained suit, is on the right; Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson looks on on the left.

Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as U.S. president on Nov. 22, 1963. A clearly stunned Jackie Kennedy, still wearing a blood-stained suit, is on the right; Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson looks on on the left.

Pop quiz! Who was former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s vice-president?

Can’t recall? You’re probably not alone.

If it weren’t for his being the Democratic candidate for the presidency nearly 30 years ago — unfortunately for him at the height of President Ronald Reagan’s popularity in 1984 — 85-year-old Walter Mondale, now living in Minneapolis’s western suburbs, would now be nearly forgotten to everyone except for history and political buffs.

The same could be said of Spiro Agnew and Nelson Rockefeller, both now deceased, but who were both “a heartbeat away from the presidency” during the Nixon (1969-74) and Ford (1974-77) presidencies, respectively.

As irrelevant as the vice-presidency might look sometimes, there is always the possibility that the vice-president might be called upon unexpectedly to become the chief executive of our large, southern neighbour.

That happened 50 years ago, when a bullet from Lee Oswald’s rifle blasted a hole in President John F. Kennedy’s head at exactly 12:30 p.m. Central time, Nov. 22, 1963, as the presidential motorcade made its way through downtown Dallas, Tex. When Kennedy was officially pronounced dead half an hour later, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas senator who had run against Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, officially became president.

Had it — perhaps — not been for Johnson’s talent for getting what he wanted through ruthless means if necessary, the U.S. would have been governed for most of the rest of the Sixties by President Stuart Symington, a now barely remembered Missouri senator who died in 1988.

Symington, who had also run against Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960, was considered the favourite to be nominated for the vice-presidency at that July’s Democratic convention.

As a July 14, 1960 newspaper article shows, Lyndon Johnson wasn’t even considered to be on the vice-presidential shortlist at the time of the convention.

Kennedy’s decision to pass over Symington in favour of Johnson was considered a political upset — but was presented to the public as a choice made with noble intentions:

Early in the morning, Kennedy went to Johnson’s hotel suite and told him two things: that he considered him the best fitted to be his team mate, and that he was eager and ready to announce that the instant Johnson gave the word.

For a few moments, the tall Texas leader was silent. Then extending his hand, he said quietly:

“All right, Jack. For the good of our country and our party, I’ll go along with you. You can count me in on the ticket.”

Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary during his 1961-63 presidency, would later relate a different, more sinister tale about how Johnson secured the vice-presidency:

During their day of decision over the vice presidency, the brothers [John and Robert Kennedy] did their worrying alone in a bedroom, away from their aides. As John paced up and down and Robert slumped on a bed, [Evelyn] Lincoln moved in and out of the room with messages. She heard enough, she says, to understand that [FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s] smear information on Kennedy was at the heart of their dilemma. “It was the information J. Edgar Hoover passed to Johnson — about womanizing, and things in [presidential father] Joe Kennedy’s background, and anything he could dig up. Johnson was using that as clout. Kennedy was angry, because they had boxed him into a corner. He was absolutely boxed in. He and Bobby tried everything they could think of, anything to get Johnson out of the way. But in that situation, they couldn’t do it.”

Once he had decided on Johnson, John Kennedy tried to make little of it. “I’m forty-three years old,” he told his aide Kenneth O’Donnell. “I’m not going to die in office. So the vice presidency doesn’t mean anything…”

Lyndon Johnson saw it differently. “I looked it up,” he would tell Clare Boothe Luce later. “One out of every four presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”

More archival material from the web:

Plus, how a jumpy Secret Service agent nearly shot Lyndon Johnson in the early morning hours of Nov. 23, 1963.

A short history of the Moral Menace

Normally one thinks of coffee shops as places where mild-mannered people, male and female alike, gather to chat or to stare at their Macs over coffee and perhaps a pastry; not as hotbeds of sex and immorality.

That, at least, tends to be the reality in Canada, which is why a recent article in the Kuwait Times might strike many of us here in North America as being inadvertently hilarious:

Three Kuwaiti ministers could be interrogated by parliament if mixed coffee shops are not closed within one month, a lawmaker has warned. Reports in Kuwait City pointed to the presence of young women and men in these coffee shops to smoke shisha.

“We will not hesitate to grill the competent ministers if these immoral coffee shops are not shut down within one month,” MP Askar Al- Enezi said, quoted by local media.

“We urge the ministers of interior, commerce and municipality to take action against these cafes all over Kuwait, but particularly in the Jahra area,” he said, referring to his constituency north east of the capital Kuwait City.

The lawmaker issued his warning as he took part in a rally on Saturday alongside other MPs, religious figures and residents in Jahra to push for action against the coffee shops accused of promoting vice and depravation.

“Such coffee shops have no room in our society as they violate our very traditions and customs as well as the spirit of the Constitution which stipulates the state’s responsibility in maintaining the values of the family considered as the core of the community and in protecting the youth,” the lawmaker said.

MP Sultan Al Laghisem and Mohammad Tana said that they would use all parliamentary means to ensure the end to the “moral menace” to Jahra by the coffee shops. “There is a deep corruption of morals at these suspicious places and we will do our utmost, including quizzing, to fight it,” Mohammad Tana said, quoted by Al-Jareeda daily on Sunday.

On my next visit to a local Starbucks after reading this article, I scanned the scene carefully for any sign of vice, depravation or corruption of morals.

Other than a woman in a blue coat who looked suspiciously like a cheating dieter by becoming suddenly shifty-eyed when ordering her pumpkin scone, there were no signs that that particular Starbucks was in any way a “suspicious place”.

But that’s not to say that North America has always been free of relatively innocuous behaviours being treated as moral menaces. Some of these menaces include:

  • Children’s stories and nursery rhymes. The Mar. 14, 1925 Reading Eagle reported on public comments made in New York by Dr. Winifred Sackville Stoner, the president of the National Education Forum, accusing Mother Goose of promoting “cruelty, rudeness, selfishness, murder, immorality, cowardice, bad grammar” and a variety of other evils “with the possible exception of arson”. Stoner also criticized Little Jack Horner for promoting bad manners, Rock-a-By-Baby for terrifying children, and Old King Cole for promoting an anti-Prohibition message.
  • Tinky Winky the Teletubby. Televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell raised a few eyebrows in 1999 when he accused Tinky Winky, a character on Teletubbies, a U.K.-produced children’s program syndicated to the U.S., of promoting homosexuality. ”He is purple — the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay-pride symbol,” Falwell wrote in his organization’s National Liberty Journal magazine. The company distributing the show to American audiences denied the accusations.
  • Watching movies on a Sunday. The audience at a showing of Cranes are Flying at Winnipeg’s Uptown Theatre received an unwelcome surprise one Sunday in November, 1959 as the Winnipeg Police morality squad raided the premises to investigate “possible violations of the Lord’s Day Act”, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix reported on Nov. 23, 1959. The newspaper reported that Winnipeg Police chief Robert Taft was considering whether a report should be sent to provincial attorney-general Sterling Lyon for further action; and noted that several other sports teams in Winnipeg had been given warnings by police for playing sports on a Sunday. Movies could at that time be shown for a voluntary contribution on a Sunday, but not for a set admission price.
  • Dancing. In 1917, Toronto police cracked down on the perceived problem of — wait for it — young people going to dances to look for a partner. Thus, as the Jan. 31, 1917 edition of the Toronto World reported, “In future, the young women of Toronto who wish to go to a dance hall will have to be escorted there by a young man. Vice versa, the young man will not be admitted without a fair partner.” The crackdown by the Toronto Police morality division came after “complaints of indecorous conduct”, and came with a promise to station police officers at the front doors of Toronto’s dance halls, with orders to arrest “any woman who accosts a man with a view to entering the place.”

Cabinet ministers have long had lavish tastes

Waiter! Bring me an orange juice!

Many Canadians try to pinch pennies when they travel abroad, looking for bargains on airfare and accommodations. Not federal International Cooperation minister Bev Oda, who found herself in trouble this week for having a grand old time at taxpayers’ expense during a trip to London, England last year.

It was bad enough that the Minister decided that the five-star Grange St. Paul’s Hotel wasn’t up to her standards and canceled her $287 Cdn./night reservation — quite reasonable for a London five-star hotel — in favour of a $665/night reservation at The Savoy, a favourite with visiting heads of state, and stuck the taxpayer with the Grange’s $287 cancellation penalty.

But did she really need a $16 glass of orange juice?

As outrageous as these prices might be, Oda wasn’t the first minister to get busted living the high life before her ministerial years come to an end and the perks and privileges disappear.

Those with long memories might recall Suzanne Blais-Grenier’s love of travel. Now largely a forgotten figure, the then-Environment Minister was blasted in 1985-86 for spending $65,000 ($127,000 in 2012 dollars) on two trips to Europe that seemed to involve more fun than government business.

She was soon demoted by then prime minister Brian Mulroney, and later kicked out of the Progressive Conservative party.

It’s not just Canada that has had problems with ministers who didn’t always appreciate value-for-money.

Ireland’s former Arts, Sports and Tourism minister John O’Donoghue caused howls of outrage in 2009 when it was discovered that he spent over $600 Cdn. on a three-minute limousine ride between two terminals at London’s Heathrow Airport.

An airport shuttle bus could have taken him between terminals at no charge.

The same year, Irish environment minister John Gormley made a point of taking the ferry across to the U.K to reduce his carbon footprint — where he was promptly met by a chauffeured car that had been driven five hours from London to whisk him away. In total, the car and chauffeur cost taxpayers about $3,500 Cdn.

It was the embassy’s fault, he said.

On the continent, France has had numerous problems with ministers’ free-spending ways. Herve Gaymard, the finance minister, handed in his resignation in 2005 after it was discovered that his luxurious 6,500 sq. ft. (!) home near the Champs-Elysee — shared by his wife and eight children — was costing French taxpayers the equivalent of $23,000 Cdn. every month.

To make matters worse, he was simultaneously renting out his other apartment for $3,700 Cdn. per month.

“I have always lived humbly. I don’t have money,” he told a reporter in his own defence.

Five years later, junior minister Christian Blanc resigned after getting caught passing his $18,000 Cdn. bill for Cuban cigars off to the taxpayer.

Though French president Nicolas Sarkozy vowed a crackdown on such lavish spending, he himself was roundly criticized one year later after his son Pierre Sarkozy — better known in rap circles as DJ Mosey — called home from Ukraine complaining of an upset stomach.

The president promptly dispatched a government jet to Ukraine to airlift his son to a French hospital, covering 30 percent of the bill himself and leaving taxpayers on the hook for the balance.

As comical or outrageous as these abuses are, one can only imagine how much worse things would be without Freedom of Information laws.

On the subject of travel, if you ever wanted to visit Europe at a reasonable price, this is the year to do it.  While gateway cities like London, Paris and Amsterdam will always be expensive, high-quality accommodations in Europe’s secondary cities are so ridiculously cheap right now due to the recession that it can cost about as much to travel to Europe as it would to travel to a major U.S. city if you can catch a seat sale. Consider the following, based on a July 7-14 stay:

Berlin — Park Plaza Prenzlauer Berg (4*): $55 Cdn./night

Copenhagen — First Hotel Copenhagen (4*): $105 Cdn./night

Lisbon — Hotel Lutecia (4*): $63 Cdn./night

Vienna — Rainers Hotel Vienna (4*): $65 Cdn./night

Get the deals while they last.

When “across the border” is “just down the street”

This weekend will be a busy one at the Canada-U.S. border as thousands of Manitobans gather up their passports and head down to Grand Forks, Fargo or Minneapolis/St. Paul for a weekend getaway.

What if going to another country were as easy as locking the front door and stepping just down the street?


A relatively low fence separates these homes in Surrey, B.C. from a small playground across the street in Blaine, Wash.


…While this fence separating Tecate, Mexico from Tecate, Calif. sends a more firm message

Even in this age of increasingly intensive border security, it’s still possible to do that in parts of the world.

I’m not talking here about  the many border cities that face each other across rivers and straits, such as Detroit, Mich. and Windsor, Ont., Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden or El Paso, Tex. and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. I’m talking about cities and towns where an international boundary cuts right through the middle of neighbourhoods, creating such an invisible line that, if you were in a helicopter looking down, it would be difficult to tell where one country begins and the other ends.

That’s the reality in several communities around the world which through some quirk of history ended up being split in two by a line on a map.


Is it “Chuy” or “Chui”? Depends on what side of the street you’re on.

One community that is almost perfectly split in two is Chui, Brazil/Chuy, Uruguay. The border between the two countries runs down the town’s main street, curiously known as Av. Uruguai (Uruguay Ave.) on the Brazilian side of the street and Av. Brasil (Brazil Ave.) on the Uruguayan side. The split resulted from a long-running dispute between the two countries, with the fate of Chui/Chuy becoming the focal point.

The 10,000 locals and the tourists who drop in to visit the town’s many Duty Free shops are reportedly free to wander back and forth between the two parts of town at will, with customs and immigration posts being located on the roads to and from town.

Putte, Belgium/Netherlands

The Town of Putte: Where Belgium and the Netherlands are just across the street from each other.

A similar situation can be found in Putte, Belgium/Netherlands, where homes on the opposite sides of Canadalaan (Canada Ave.) face each other across the international border.  The abolition of border controls between the Netherlands and Belgium have made life easier for the residents of Putte, whose town was once best known as a smuggler’s haven — and a headache for both Dutch and Belgian border guards.

In fact, people smuggling remains a problem along the Dutch-Belgian border. Several times a day, this blog gets visits from people in poorer countries, particularly India and Pakistan, looking for information on getting across the Dutch-Belgian border — and somehow I doubt that they’re planning to cross as tourists. (Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, take note.)

Putte has been divided since the Peace of Munster agreement between Spain and the Netherlands in 1648, which identified the town as the dividing point between the Dutch-ruled Northern Netherlands (now simply The Netherlands) and the Spanish-ruled Southern Netherlands (now Belgium).


There’s no longer a border guard stationed at the striped pole and hut in Valga/Valka — but keep your passport handy anyway.

The twin towns of Valga, Estonia and Valka, Latvia were actually a single town founded under the German name Walk  in 1286. When Estonia and Latvia declared independence from the Russian Empire amid the chaos of the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I, both tried to claim Valga/Valka as their own. A British civil servant named Stephen Tallents was dispatched to help resolve the dispute, which dragged on for six months until the two countries agreed to split the town in the summer of 1920.

The Soviet years brought some freedom to wander back and forth between the Estonian and Latvian parts of town, with the two being little more than Soviet provinces. When Estonia and Latvia regained their independence 20 years ago, life became more difficult for Valka/Valga’s residents, who had to pass through border checkpoints to visit friends or to go to work.

It wasn’t until 2007 that residents were once again allowed to wander around town without clearing customs,  though prominent gold-coloured signs posted along the border still warn locals to ensure that they are carrying passports when crossing frontiers.

The Estonian Valga is the more populous end of town, with a population of about 14,000, compared to Latvian Valka‘s 6,000 residents.