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A farewell to Bowen storyteller
My father, Sonny Johnson, died last week at 80. He’d been ill but was expected to live longer and it was a bit of a shock. A thoroughbred racehorse trainer, he was in some ways a reflection of his times and I think writing about him might prove to have meaning, and, hopefully, not just for me.
He was a renowned storyteller, regaling anyone who’d listen with tales of the itinerant humans and horses he spent his life with all over North America. Some of these stories, frankly, were hard to believe, but in the best tradition of storytelling each had a high entertainment quotient. Having spent his final years on Bowen he told hundreds of these stories to dozens of islanders.When he went into the pub a curious thing would happen –those who hadn’t had their fill gravitated toward my father, just as those who had would flee to the lower area of the establishment. A third group, the uninitiated, remained blithely at the bar, unaware of the fusillade of talk settling in nearby.
He spoke with passion, my father did, and nothing got in the way of a story. Once he and the Boy were home together and he was so animatedly telling his grandson a tale it didn’t register when Keelan said he needed to step outside a moment. When my son returned some five minutes later, he found the story had, uninterrupted, continued in his absence.
There was possibility in his stories. Perhaps Sirhan Sirhan, to be convicted of killing Robert Kennedy, did work for my dad at a San Francisco racetrack. A look at Sirhan’s Wiki biography notes he worked with horses. And my dad really kept a wolf in the mountains of Arizona near the town of Heber and in California hung around with Lee Hazelwood, who wrote ‘These Boots are Made for Walking.’
But did he once steal Jack Nicholson’s girlfriend? Did he save quarterback Joe Kapp from being capped by a jealous girlfriend? And did he play three exhibition games for the B.C. Lions and tour Japan with an all-star rugby team? No one in my family can confirm these stories; indeed, my mother – they divorced long ago - recalls only his playing a few games for the Victoria Vampires in a local football league. She does recall him catching a touchdown pass.
No one recalls him ever playing rugby.
The first photo I have of him and the Boy was taken in 2005 an hour or so after he arrived from Winnipeg, where late in his career he’d gone to train. He had a cast on a broken ankle when he showed up and I have a photo of him cutting it off with a hacksaw because he said it was impossible to drive with it (so how did he get here from Winnipeg then?) A four-year-old Keelan stands nearby, looking awestruck.
Shortly thereafter, he told Keelan his first story, of how he got rid of rats at the track. He’d capture a bunch in one trap then lower it into a barrel of water and leave it awhile. It took time for the penny to drop for Keelan but he eventually got how they died. I doubted it was the best story for a toddler’s ears and thereafter took to cutting off any stories I suspected the Boy would not gain from.
I didn’t tell Keelan that one of my first memories in life is of standing in his barn at Sandown Racetrack in Sidney with my brother, Randy, and having our dad yell out “Hey, look at this you two.” There he was with a dying rat squiggling at the end of a pitchfork. Perhaps that’s why I never took to the racetrack.
He could convince almost anyone to buy a horse and was comfortable with wealthy people and poor. Neither impressed him more than the other and stories of the lumber magnate he trained for in the ‘60s saw him speak with no greater respect than stories of the hobo who rode boxcars from racetrack to racetrack, hot-walking horses a few months at each before hopping another train, only to return down the road.
This may resonate: unable to operate technology, he called a computer a “machine thingy” and proved incapable of learning to operate anything but a rotary phone. We’d routinely get messages from him and at the end hear him talking to whoever’s cell phone he’d borrowed, unaware he’d failed to negotiate the nuances of hanging up.
When he called someone and he or she did not answer he would endlessly speculate as to why. Let’s say he phoned my sister Cindy and husband Hideaki in Toronto and got their “message machine.” That simple event could lead to a monologue of David Mamet-like proportions.
“They’re probably shopping,” he’d begin. “Cindy likes shopping on a weeknight. Or sometimes they go out for entertainment. Toronto’s got lots of entertainers. Mind you, it’s cold out there right now but they know how to dress in the east. You know the cold is better for thoroughbreds than rain, horses will get sick in the rain but grow coats in cold weather. Say, maybe they went...”
“Dad, they’re not home,” I’d interrupt. “Either that or they looked at the call display.”
This comes to mind: when I was young and he had stopped living with us, he’d visit from wherever he was training and bring us something grand, to make up for not having been to Victoria for a long while. Once he brought both me and my brother each a baby alligator. Yes, alligators.
To get them over the border, which was illegal, he hid them in a box in the front seat of his car. During his talk to the border agent, one peeked its head out and my dad discreetly placed a cowboy hat over it. They arrived safely but unhappily – it was not a wise idea. The climate was too cold and despite our efforts, they died. But for a while, they were fun, and scary, to play with and made an impression at my Grade 3 Show and Tell class.
My grandfather was from Greece, my grandmother was First Nations, so he had an ethnic mixture going for him but his views were not always tolerant of other backgrounds and lifestyles. But in the world of his day, men easily acquired unwelcoming opinions and found comfort in mistrust and judgement and it wasn’t entirely their doing.
In any case, he made laudable efforts to deal with his shortcomings as the world changed around him. For example, on the one hand he’d say women ruined the racetrack and were bad trainers because they were too sentimental, while on the other, whenever a new female jockey showed up he’d be the first to give her a mount (that would be racetrack parlance for having her ride one of his horses in a race).
Another example of his efforts to be accepting came when a lesbian on island told him of her orientation and he said “Oh, that’s all right, that sort of thing is accepted nowadays.” That was a good try, no?
He was the type of man who made it easy to believe the grizzled fellow who leaned into my ear at Hastings Park once and said, “Your dad saved my life in a knife-fight 40 years ago.” I told the guy: “How nice for you.”
Three years ago, he came home to announce he had a fight at the Bowen pub with a man 51 years his junior. And won. This I was unsure of but a few days later the bartender, Jen, assured me he had indeed grabbed a young buck in a headlock and did what he needed to convince the trouble-maker he should exit stage front door.
My dad was pleased with himself, chuffed, and the incident opened up a flood of stories from his pugilist days, days that seemingly hadn’t ended. He boxed as a young man and said it served him well at the racetrack and the string of bars along Hastings St. he frequented. I do not care to repeat his fight stories, I never much liked them.
Before I make him sound too much the roughneck, I hasten to note my dad was kind, always helping locals who owned horses with advice or by taking them to get hay cheaply from his friends or by providing medicine for their animals. He moved people with his truck, arranged bus trips to the races and even got someone from here a job at Hastings.
In other ways he was helpful, like if you needed a rabbit hutch he’d put one together in a jiffy. He often babysat Keelan, sometimes with Keelan’s friend, Ben. Ben’s mom, Mary-Ann, once told me that it was nice to have my dad around. “It’s great to have a neighbour,” she said. “Who tells you that if you need a pet put down, he can take care of it, and at no charge.”
My dad did not understand health issues and he’d will them away by finding some excuse, some logic that worked only for him. When he was diagnosed with diabetes – he still called it sugar diabetes - he went into preventative mode, instantly dropping from five bottles of coke each week to four and changing to jersey milk chocolate bars from the ones he’d bought before.“A jersey milk bar is a purer type of chocolate,” he told me.
“It’s got better sugar.”
Few get to write about the death of a parent in a newspaper and I feel privileged to get a cathartic experience such as this and hope others will find something in it. I feel that our parents are at least partly a reflection of the time they grew up in, just as we are in part a reflection of the times from which we come. I believe we can learn from that, from them.
Finally then, it’s hard to sit with a family member, a loved one, and watch them die, as Tracey and I and Keelan did, but it is part of the whole schmozzle of whatever it is we’re engaged in together. It’s over, he’s gone, and I will end with this - he loved Bowen and her quirky populace and became a part of it and judging from the messages I received, he fit in well.
So my thanks to Lynda, to Jewel, Mike, Penny, Chris W, Chris S, Debbie, Chelsea, Iona, Peter, Rebecca, Maureen, Joanne, John, Jill, Daphne, Nancy, Richard, Summerly, Suzanne, Haley, Roger, Paul, Basia, Carmen and Joy and the many others who were good to him and who spoke well of my father.
The man and the stories are gone, yes, but his spirit of togetherness remains.