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Damage Report

AN-2016-Sackville1Let’s be honest: fiction writing can be a pretty antisocial business. From the research that goes into crafting a story, to the time spent at the keyboard tapping it out, to the hours of editing, authors are obliged to spend a great deal of time locked inside their own minds.

This is why some people get into the writing game to begin with –– they prefer the company of their own thoughts to the noise from other people. I’ve always styled myself as such a person. Without endeavoring to be rude, I’m prone to avoiding social occasions, often on account of writing obligations. I wear my ‘aloof antisocial writer’ idiom like armor –– armor that makes sure deadlines are met, but also means I’m a rare sight at gatherings, even among good friends.

If you wear armor long enough it becomes so familiar that you forget it’s even there. You might just start to believe it’s part of you, and act accordingly. But no armor is immune to damage, and during my travels just over a week ago, mine was thoroughly hammered.

Unsurprisingly, the navy hit first –– and hit hardest. That’s their job, after all.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t the Royal Canadian Navy that pummeled my antisocial armor, but the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust –– the patrons of HMCS Sackville. As I’ve previously explained, I had to stop in Halifax to visit the ship last Thursday and Friday, because she’s soon due in the yard. It seemed appropriate to see the old lady before she went in for surgery.

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Sackville herself is always a treat to see. Amidst intermittently-heavy rains, I got to visit her in the navy dockyard twice in two days, and to climb around above and below decks as much as I pleased. She’s still bundled up after the winter –– tarps and shelters protecting some of her vitals –– but that really doesn’t matter to me. She remains the lady who fed Swiss Chalet to a black-tie dinner, and who probably escorted my grandfather across the Atlantic when uboats sought to sink him. But communing with a 75-year-old ship isn’t any danger to antisocial armor –– if anything it’s eccentric, which is an entirely separate layer of a writer’s armor.

No, the damage done to my aloof idiom came not from Sackville, but her current crew of trustees (of whom I am one). It was these people who, in a surprise attack, forced me to acknowledge that I belonged to something –– something that I want to belong to… am proud to belong to… that’s fun to belong to.

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Commander Jim Reddy, explaining how repairs will commence when Sackville is hoisted out of the water… by a whale-sized dragon with a caustic sense of humor?

On Friday, I was invited to the weekly mess lunch aboard Sackville, and in agreeing to attend I imagined a quiet affair where I’d get some free food and then sneak away to crawl through the ship again. I brought along some baubles –– aluminum prints of the covers on which Sackville (or her fictional descendant) appear, as well as the Champions novels in which she features.

I got more than free food in return.

Being nefariously gracious, Commander Jim Reddy –– who in real life won’t admit to sailing with dragons, though I bet he’s done it –– introduced me to the mess as a special guest. After hearing about the ship’s latest plans for fundraising and events, I ended up addressing the men and women who’d come down to Sackville that day. There was a casual photo op. I was presented with a sweater emblazoned with the ship’s crest and reading “Canada’s Naval Memorial.”

Such sweaters were worn by many of the trustees in attendance –– they are the gang colors for this band of rogues. Most who wear them are naval veterans; all who wear them are people like my grandfather –– my chief. These are the sort of people I most admire, and aspire to be like. When set a difficult challenge, they find an answer, then work until it is done. They confront the impossible with good humor and class.

And on Friday they kindly accepted me –– a purveyor of fictions –– as a color-wearing member of their ranks.

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Such a heavy broadside inevitably buckled my antisocial armor. That it landed with such precision is probably down to the aim of Sackville’s head of public affairs, Pat Jessup. Jim is her husband, and over her years with the Royal Canadian Navy, she seems to have managed to guide just about every aspect of the fleet, in one way or another. Like most formidable characters, she skillfully avoids photography –– I have no photo of her to share.

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Bill Gard is one of Sackville’s real champions.

Perhaps I could consult Bill Gard for a picture –– which is a weak segue to point out that I got to see Bill (one of Sackville’s past commanding officers and most able advocates) again during this visit. He and many others –– too many to name –– were the best lunch company I could have asked for… or not asked for, as one determined to maintain an antisocial idiom.

The coup de grace was delivered after lunch by fellow trustee Steve Rowland. He and I worked together to repair a model of Sackville, which is probably older than I am and had a collapsed davit. During this process I learned that Steve had been in HMCS Kootenay during the gearbox disaster, and then had gone on to head EMS in Durham Region, Ontario. Upon retiring last year, he and his wife moved to Halifax (they’re not originally from the city), and Steve threw himself at Sackville with the same sort of enthusiasm I tend to show towards her. The ship is fortunate to have him.

The cumulative effect of all these sociable salvos was devastating. How exactly can a writer continue to present an aloof façade when the kind of people he most admires draw him into their ranks? Up until Friday, I could (and did) dismiss myself as the eccentric scribbler who talked often of Sackville, but was still just a source of amusement to the company of ex-sailors dedicated to her preservation.

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Now I have gang colors. Now the biggest challenge is reminding myself that I can’t wear them all the time.

My antisocial armor is in rough shape. Yard time is probably in order… or perhaps it’s simply time for new armor –– maybe armor of a different design, built on sociability instead of isolation. Or even no armor at all.

Or perhaps the armor metaphor is just a waste of words –– a silly way for me to avoid saying what I really mean: that I’m so very fortunate to have found friends who, in such brief moments together, can affirm my view of what good men and women are capable of… and who have granted me the most astonishing gift, by suggesting that I belong in their company.

Antisocial or not, I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to write. Now I must add that I’m truly privileged to do so in the company of Sackville, and her fine crew.

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The lady herself in the Halifax Naval Dockyard — bundled up for winter, with a crane inconveniently placed in the background.