1,235 Days

Way back on June 24, 2015, I came across Scotty Davidson’s Wikipedia entry. I know the exact date because I emailed myself the link as a future story idea.

Last weekend, almost three and a half years later, The Athletic published that story.

I didn’t spend all, or even most, of those 1,235 days working on the story of the man who captained Toronto’s first Stanley Cup-winning team, but I was at least thinking about it all the time.

After some initial research demonstrated that almost everything written about Davidson, and particularly the circumstances of his death, was incorrect, I pitched the story about a month before Remembrance Day last year when The Athletic’s new Toronto editor, Sean Fitz-Gerald, put out a call for story ideas.

(At this point a quick pause to say that if you like sports and sports writing and you’re not subscribed to The Athletic, you’re missing out. I’ve been a subscriber for over a year—ever since Stewart Mandel moved in with his College Football Mailbag—and there is just a ton of really interesting writing.)

Because they were swamped with responses, I didn’t hear back from Sean until the week before November 11. He was interested in the story, but when I said I wasn’t sure I could have it ready by Remembrance Day, he told me to take as long as I needed.

Davidson had two brothers and two sisters and I knew I needed to track down a family member to make the story complete and differentiate it from the numerous superficial (and often erroneous) retellings of his life that had already been published.

Scotty-Davidson

Allan “Scotty” Davidson

While poking around on some local Kingston history forums, I kept coming across the same name contributing to different discussions: Peter Gower. Eventually I emailed him and explained what I was looking for. He connected me with Edward Grenda, one of the founders of the Society for International Hockey Research, who in turn passed me to his colleague, Bill Fitsell.

Bill gave me two names, including Shirley Stevenson, the daughter of Davidson’s younger brother, Arthur. She passed away in 2013, but her obituary mentioned her children, Ian, Christine and Alastair. I found a couple phone numbers and started making calls, but had no luck there. I continued poking around the web on and off, while continuing my other research for the story, until finally, one night in August, I couldn’t sleep. I knew that if I wanted the story to be ready for Remembrance Day, I needed to make some real progress soon.

Lying awake, for some reason I had a feeling that I should try one more Facebook search. It took me five minutes—after nearly a year of searching—to find Alastair’s wife. The next day, I sent her a message and she responded quickly saying she would check with her husband.

I ended up speaking with him, as well as his brother and sister—Davidson’s grandnephews and grandniece. They didn’t know much about their great-uncle (Al asked me if the story of him being shot as he carried a wounded soldier back to their lines was true), but they told me a lot about their grandfather, Davidson’s brother Arthur, and their memories helped form the final section of my story.

The last piece to fall into place was the reporting on the circumstances of Davidson’s death. It seemed at first like a not-unusual case of a friend and officer, George Taylor Richardson, creating a final heroic tale to console grieving friends and family back home. That story was then repeated over and over until it became canon.

I didn’t put this in the story, but I think one of the reasons the incorrect story of Davidson’s death has been repeated so often, at least in recent articles, is that it is easily accessible online. It took a few trips to the archives to uncover the truth.

And reading through the century-old newspapers, it became clear there was another twist. People, including Richardson and Davidson’s family, knew how he actually died. The true story was published in papers across the country.

So what happened?

Maybe we’ll never know for sure, but it’s something I try to untangle in the story. I hope you check it out.

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Story Ideas From Wikipedia

As a freelance writer, it’s rare that an editor will approach you with a story idea and ask you to execute it. Usually, you need to come up with an idea, do some advance research and reporting, and then pitch it to an editor and hope they commission it.

Of all the skills necessary for a freelancer, the one I struggle the most with is finding those the story ideas. Once I have a good idea, I don’t have a problem pitching it, I love the reporting and researching, and I can struggle through the writing process. But coming up with an idea that I’m interested in, that hasn’t been done before (at least from the angle that I want to take) and that an editor will actually pay for? Not so easy.

Perhaps ironically, given its questionable reliability, several of my story ideas have been inspired by Wikipedia.

How so?

When I need to look up a person or event, Wikipedia is often the first place I turn, not because it is a definitive source (although it often does provide a decent summary), but because articles there generally link to more respected sources and provide a decent starting point for further research.

But sometimes a Wikipedia entry doesn’t provide much detail for a given subject, or mentions something about them in passing that isn’t further explained. If it interests me, sometimes I start digging and discover that the reason there isn’t more detail on Wikipedia is because not much has been written on that particular topic.

An example: When I was working as a Formula One columnist for Bleacher Report, I would frequently use drivers’ Wikipedia pages to quickly check statistics or records of past seasons, as these were generally reliable. Any time I looked at Jim Clark’s entry, I was always fascinated by the fact that he won his last three grands prix. Only one other driver in F1 history had won their last race—usually, even top drivers retire after their skills have faded or after a few seasons in uncompetitive cars…or they are killed the grand prix that becomes their last (at least back in Clark’s era).

But Clark was killed in a Formula Two race at the age of just 32 and at the peak of his career. Plenty has been written about that fateful F2 race, but not much about his last F1 race, the 1968 South African Grand Prix. At the time, it was just another race. True, he had broken the record for most career victories, but everyone assumed there were plenty more to come. And then he was gone. Naturally, the focus went to his final race and the mystery surrounding his death (there were no cameras at the part of the circuit where he crashed and the car was destroyed, so piecing the accident together was not easy). Even later biographies of Clark did not cover his last F1 race in great detail. But I wanted to know more, so I pitched the story to my editor and he bought it, my first long-form feature. Another time, I was reading about the Hubble Space Telescope and Wikipedia had a sentence or two about a program that allowed amateur astronomers to use the massive scope for their own, pre-approved research projects. That brief mention became this story for Vice. (Later, in an amusing twist, someone even footnoted my story as a reference on the Wikipedia page.)

And that brings us to a new story I have coming out for The Athletic in the next few days.

Ever heard of Scotty Davidson? I hadn’t either until I was clicking around on Wikipedia one day reading articles about athletes who were killed in the First World War.

Davidson was one of the best hockey players of his era and led the Toronto Blueshirts to the city’s first Stanley Cup championship, then enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was killed in France. There wasn’t much about him on Wikipedia and as I dug around more, I realized that much of what had been written about his death was wrong (and not just the stuff on Wikipedia).

If you want to read the true story of Toronto’s first Stanley Cup hero, well, I’ll link to it here as soon as it’s out. (Edit: Here it is!)

Until then, you can check out his Wikipedia page.

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In South Florida with Volkan Oezdemir

Who is Volkan Oezdemir?

That is a question a lot of people will asking as he fights Daniel Cormier for the UFC light heavyweight championship on Saturday night. Oezdemir seemed to appear out of nowhere last year—he only made his UFC debut on February 4, 2017 and now he is already fighting for a belt.

The reality, though, is that it was a long journey and a lot of hard work for Oezdemir to get that title shot. That odyssey is the subject of my new feature for VICE Sports.

After Oezdemir’s first UFC fight, my brother Adam told me excitedly that there was finally a Swiss in the UFC (our grandparents immigrated from Switzerland to Canada and we are dual citizens, so we are always on the lookout for Swiss athletes). As we watched him destroy his next two opponents in a combined 70 seconds, I was anxious to learn more about his story, but there just wasn’t very much to read.

As it became apparent that Oezdemir would get a title fight, I knew that someone would write a profile sooner or later and I decided that someone should be me. The problem was, I didn’t have any contact information for Oezdemir or anyone in the mixed martial arts world. I didn’t really have a firm plan, but in June I reached out to him on Twitter and emailed his former gym. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t hear anything back.

The story idea was still in the back of my mind and in September, on a whim, I sent a message to Oezdemir’s Facebook page. That evening, he responded. Not his manager, not his agent, not his social media branding expert. Volkan Oezdemir.

“How can we do this?” he asked.

I explained that I wanted to spend some time with him to report the story and he was immediately receptive. I was already planning to be in Miami in November, so the next step was to find an editor to commission the story. I pitched it to Bleacher Report first because I love their B/R Mag longform site and because I already had some relationships there after covering Formula One for them for three years. After a lot of back and forth, though, they turned it down.

Next, I pitched it to Chris Toman at VICE Sports, for whom I’d written a couple F1 pieces earlier in the year. He was immediately interested, so I headed off Florida with a rough plan to spend as much time with Oezdemir as he would allow. As it turned out, he was quite accommodating, from bringing me to his new house to letting me sit beside him for a two-hour therapy session for his injured hand. And over two days, nearly everything he did or said was on the record.

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I found Oezdemir extremely laid-back, unpretentious and mischievous, but a very hard worker. He is also quite intelligent and thoughtful—qualities you may not expect from someone whose job it is to punch people in the face.

In addition to the punctuality, which I describe in the story, he also personifies another Swiss stereotype: cleanliness. His kitchen was basically spotless, but not clean enough for him and at the therapist, he spent time wiping down to entire counter around the sink after washing his hands, despite the fact that it must be sanitized daily. I think it was torture for him when he first moved to the U.S. and lived in a house with 11 other fighters.

There were a few people, including Oezdemir’s mother and UFC president Dana White, who I thought I was going to get interviews with, but it didn’t work out. And perhaps that’s for the best. The story was originally assigned at “around 2,500 words,” but I turned in 3,500. Sorry, Chris. His edits really helped tighten it up, though, and it ran at about 3,000 words.

I hope you enjoy it:

Volkan Oezdemir Has No Time to Waste in Pursuit of UFC Glory

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Bye, Bye, Bleacher Report

Back in 2013, I started my own Formula One blog as a way to keep my writing skills sharp and as an outlet for my opinions on the sport (my wife humours me, but I really don’t think she wants another conversation about prize money inequality or how the point-scoring system could be improved).

After six months or so of getting five or 10 hits for each blog post, I decided to look for a bigger outlet. At the time, Bleacher Report had been getting a lot of publicity for their big-name hires and the quality of the site had improved markedly since its acquisition by Turner.

I applied, was accepted and wrote my first B/R article from a hotel room in Montreal, where I was on vacation with my wife. After it was published, we both sat there, incredulous, refreshing the hit counter—that one story got more page views than my blog had in six months!

After a couple more articles, Will Tidey and Mark Patterson, two editors from B/R’s recently launched UK satellite office, got in touch to say they were looking to hire new F1 columnists and asked if I would be interested.

I worked with Mark for the next year and it was an incredibly rewarding experience. He is a supportive and patient editor, always giving his writers the freedom to try new ideas. When I asked him about applying for a press pass to cover the Canadian Grand Prix, he was immediately onboard, even though the application process took up a ridiculous amount of his time over the next few months, from sorting through the FIA’s Byzantine and archaic accreditation portal through a last-minute flurry of emails between London, Paris and Ottawa to ensure my application was, in fact, approved.

Mark eventually moved on to a new position as a social media editor and was replaced by Alex Livie, who commissioned my first longform feature—on Jim Clark’s last race—something I was dying to try and for which I will always be grateful.

Anyway, last week, just before the final race of 2016, I got news that B/R was ceasing their F1 coverage at the end of the season. The site is based in the U.S. and, in fact, they are stopping all international sports coverage, except for soccer. From a pure numbers perspective, it probably makes sense, but F1 is still one of the most popular sports in the world and there are regulation changes coming next year that should shake things up and perhaps pique the interest of new or former fans.

In the end, I am very thankful for all the opportunities B/R gave me—it was a fun, exciting and challenging three years. I had a ton of interesting experiences and made lots of contacts within the sport that I probably wouldn’t have without B/R’s influence behind me.

I was going back through some of my old stories and decided to share a few of my favourites:

Going Out on Top: The Story of Jim Clark’s Final Formula 1 Race

I always found it fascinating that Jim Clark won not only his final F1 race, but his last three. However, for obvious reasons, that final race, the 1968 South African Grand Prix, was always overshadowed by the F2 race at Hockenheim, where Clark was killed—there wasn’t much written about the Kyalami race.

I wrote this story for a general reader who might not know how Clark’s story ended, so I tried to build in a bit of suspense, while also adding in some detail that F1 enthusiasts would enjoy. To that end, I interviewed most of the surviving drivers from that New Year’s Day in Johannesburg, including John Surtees, the 1964 world champion, and Chris Amon (as well as one of my writing heroes, Robert Daley). The moment Brian Redman told me how he found out about Clark’s death, I knew that was how I would end my story.

Formula 1 Track Walk: Exploring Circuit Gilles Villeneuve with Manor Racing

The teams always post photos from their track walks on the Thursday of a grand prix weekend and I always wondered how important it was for the drivers. The answer is: Not very.

Still, this was an interesting feature to report. I asked Tracy Novak, Manor’s wonderful PR director, with the idea a month or so before the race, worried that she might brush me off, but she agreed almost immediately. At the time, of course, she didn’t expect that it would be rainy and freezing cold on the appointed day, but she still spent more than an hour walking around the track with me, the drivers and their engineers, giving me a fly-on-the-wall view of a lesser-known part of the race weekend.

Ferrari Fans Welcome Sebastian Vettel to the Team During Fiorano Test Session

On the day of Sebastian Vettel’s first Ferrari test, I saw a few photos pop up on Twitter from people at Fiorano who had climbed the fence to watch him take the car for a spin. This was obviously a big deal—a four-time world champion and Michael Schumacher’s heir apparent joining the most successful team in F1 history, the team inextricably linked with Schumacher.

I tracked down a few of the amateur Twitter photographers and got their stories.

Daniel Ricciardo a World Champion-in-Waiting After Maiden Win at Canadian GP

This was the first race I covered live from the paddock and it was also the first race Mercedes lost in 2014 and the first win of Daniel Ricciardo’s career. I had just happened to be at his media session the night before, after qualifying, with a handful of other journalists, listening to him complain about the mistakes he made on his qualifying lap. Things got better on Sunday.

After the post-race press conference, I shook his hand and congratulated him and then spent the next hour following him around as he conducted endless TV interviews and got mobbed for his autograph in the paddock.

Home Advantage Does Not Exist in Formula 1

No matter what Nigel Mansell or a variety of television analysts say, there is no such thing as “home-field advantage” in F1 (even though it does exist in most other sports). I crunched the numbers to prove it.

The Top 10 Formula 1 Pit Radio Messages of 2013

At the end of the 2013 season, I put together this round-up of the best team radio messages of the year. As far as I know, it was the first time anyone had compiled a list like that. Now every outlet—including the official F1 website—does a “best radio messages” round-up after each race. You’re welcome.

Ferrari and Mercedes Will Benefit Most from F1’s New Engine Regulations in 2014

This is the third article I wrote for B/R and probably the one that got me hired as a columnist. I looked back at all the previous times in F1 history that there had been significant changes to the engine regulations and showed that it was usually teams that built their own engines (or were exclusive customers) that benefitted the most. That held true in 2014, as well.

Early-Morning Formula 1 Watch Party in New York Shows Passion of American Fans

When I knew I was going to be in New York for the Malaysian Grand Prix this year, I figured there must be a group of some sort that meets to watch the races. A quick search turned up the Formula 1 in NYC group and I got in touch with one of the organisers, Jae Chung, to say I was planning to come and write about the experience.

The group meets at an Irish pub in Midtown, down the street from Madison Square Garden, and it was pretty busy when I arrived just before 3 a.m. It’s not often you get to report stories while sitting in a bar, drinking Guinness, but to quote Jimmy Shive-Overly, “It’s all writing. … Every mimosa is a chore.”


Now that my B/R career is finished, I am going to relaunch my F1 blog, The Parade Lap, until I find a new outlet for my F1 writing. Hope to see you there!

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Road Trip 2016

A couple weeks ago, we returned from our annual family road trip and this year was our biggest yet. In 13 days, we drove more than 5,000 kilometres across nine states—New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, regular Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio—and one province.

Luke was about 10 weeks old when we left and the older kids are six and four. That might sound like a nightmare to some people, but it was truly awesome! It was fun to spend two weeks together, just the family, while experiencing lots of new things and learning a ton. We weren’t sure he’d remember our house, but he got very excited as soon as we walked in the door at the end of the trip, so I guess he did.

In no particular order, here are the 10 best things we saw and did while we were away:

1) American Pharoah

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-8-24-56-amVisiting American Pharoah at his new home, Ashford Stud, was one of the few things we booked in advance. I covered Pharoah’s race at Saratoga last year and the kids loved watching him in the Triple Crown races and beyond. Tours of his farm, outside Lexington, Kentucky, are selling out as soon as they go on sale, as they only let 25 people in every day. They knew why everyone was there and brought Pharoah out right away and some people cried when they saw him. After everyone got a photo (or six) with the champ, we saw the rest of the stallions and visited the breeding shed. Our guide was not actually a guide—his job was taking care of the stallions, including Pharoah—but he was extremely knowledgeable and patient.

2) West Virginia

Not anything specific, just everything about the state. I’ve been fascinated with West Virginia for a long time, especially its founding during the Civil War, but had never visited. My wife, Caitlin, was excited to see it, too, and we loved everything: from the mountains to pepperoni rolls to Morgantown to the State Fair to a Single-A ballgame in Charleston… We actually drove a slightly longer route on the way home so we could pass through West Virginia again, rather than Ohio, and we’re already making plans to return for some hiking, likely sans kids.

3) Cincinnati Reds game

My brother and I went to a Blue Jays game in Toronto a couple months ago and we each paid about $30 to sit in the nosebleeds in right field. In Cincinnati, after a long lunch at Lachey’s (very family-friendly, considering it’s a sports bar), we headed over to Great American Ball Park and bought four tickets for $48 (about $60 Canadian). Of course, Cincy didn’t go to the NLCS last year and they aren’t leading their division this year, but the seats were comparable to where we sat in Toronto and they came with four free hats and t-shirts. Not a bad deal.

The stadium is beautiful, on the banks of the Ohio River and, since it wasn’t close to being full, we could move around and explore. There was a play structure for the kids, lots of craft beers and plenty of the quirky design features that I love about baseball stadiums. For example, there is a small viewing area on the outfield concourse where anyone can stand and look down into the bullpen, watching the pitchers warm up. A huge thunderstorm caused a rain delay in the 7th inning, so we left a bit early, but I think Luke had fun at his first MLB game.

4) National Battlefields

We visited Gettysburg two years ago and Queenston Heights last year, but we weren’t really planning to visit any battlefields on this trip. However, on our way to Spartanburg, SC one afternoon, we saw signs for Kings Mountain (no apostrophe), a pivotal battle in the Revolutionary War. We decided to stop and were very glad we did. While I hiked around the battlefield, the kids completed a junior park ranger program that one of the rangers offered. They filled out an activity book, learning about the battle, and then received a badge with the name of the park on it—and they loved it! We found out that they offer the program at all national parks and that there are 25 National Battlefields administered by the NPS. One of the criteria for the battlefields is that they look similar to how they did at the time of the battle, allowing visitors to get a real feel for how the fighting unfolded—and the museums and guide pamphlets developed by the NPS are fantastic (and usually free).

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-11-32-16-amWe immediately changed our plans for the following day to visit nearby Cowpens, another key American victory a couple months later, and the site of the only double envelopment in the Revolutionary War. The field itself was not as impressive, but we learned a lot and Ava walked most of the battlefield with me. The kids earned their second park ranger badges and Mike even recited the junior park ranger pledge this time, after refusing to do so at Kings Mountain.

On the way home, we made another detour to visit Fort Necessity and Jumonville Glen, southeast of Pittsburgh, the site of the opening battles of the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War, if you’re American). Ava is interested in George Washington, so it was cool for her to stand in a place that he fought. The fort itsescreen-shot-2016-09-08-at-11-38-51-amlf was surprisingly tiny, but the highlight was Jumonville Glen, where Washington, as a young lieutenant colonel in the British Army, ambushed a group of French soldiers and touched off what became a global war. I hiked in to the glen by myself and it was completely silent. From the rocky outcropping overlooking the French encampment, you could imagine the terror of the French soldiers when they discovered they were surrounded.

5) Carolina Panthers training camp

The original reason for our visit to Spartanburg was to take in a Carolina Panthers training camp practice. I’d never been to an NFL training camp and we werescreen-shot-2016-09-08-at-12-11-16-pm driving by anyway, so why not? Caitlin has a few answers to that question, but she indulged me for the morning. The Panthers hold their training camp in South Carolina (“Two states, one team,” is their slogan) at Wofford College and the set up is very fan friendly…they have concessions and port-a-potties and you can walk right up to the edge of the field and get autographs afterward. Ava impressed the players with her pink feather pen, but my favourite part was when one of the back-up QBs completed a 50- or 60-yard pass in 11-on-11 drills and Cam Newton ran down the field jumping and screaming to congratulate the receiver. You’d have thought it was the Super Bowl, rather than training camp.

6) Bourbon distillery tour

On the morning of our Ashford Stud tour, we stopped at the nearby Buffalo Trace Distillery, part of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. The tour was free and the guide and workers made the kids feel very welcome. We actually got to visit one of the bottling rooms, where employees were filling and packing bottles of bourbon by hand. Mike was fascinated by the assembly line and especially the machine that pumped the bourbon into the bottles.

When we arrived, we noticed a huge, old warehouse, filled floor to ceiling with bourbon barrels. The windows were open, despite the 30-degree-Celsius heat, but we learned the changing temperatures are actually a key part of the aging process, with the less-aged, cheaper bottles coming from barrels at the top and the longer-aged bottles coming from the lower floors.

The distillery, which hasn’t always been called Buffalo Trace, was originally built in the 1700s and has been operating continuously since before the American Revolution. They didn’t even stop for Prohibition, when they had a licence to produce whiskey for “medicinal purposes.” Our guide was very friendly and he even included the kids in the post-tour tasting session, pouring them glasses of root beer.

7) Great Smokey Mountains

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-12-36-51-pmWe rented a cabin in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains near Pigeon Forge, Tennessee as a base for a couple days to explore the area (it was the only place we stayed for more than one night on the trip). Since we were there during the week and waited until the last minute to book, we got a great deal on a beautiful place with a bit more space than the hotel/motel rooms we had been staying at…not to mention a hot tub and a few TVs to watch the Olympics in the evenings.

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Our first morning there, Caitlin went outside to grab something from the car. Five minutes later, I looked out the front window to see a family of black bears wandering down the road. After that excitement, we drove up Clingmans Dome (the Americans don’t seem to like apostrophes) and hiked to the observation tower at the top. The mountain is the tallest point in Tennessee and gave us a great view of the Smokies. We watched as thunderstorms passed through ridges and valleys to the south and we tried to find our cabin down in the hills. Then we hiked a bit on the highest part of the Appalachian Trail—Caitlin’s dream is to hike the whole thing, possibly with me in tow—which passes just below the summit.

8) Titanic museum

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-12-55-32-pmPigeon Forge is a tacky tourist trap capitalising on its proximity to a natural attraction, like Niagara Falls. We didn’t really intend to do much in the town, but, while eating breakfast there one morning, we noticed a massive replica of the Titanic, which appeared to be plowing into the street. I’ve loved the Titanic story since I was little and when I read all the positive reviews of the museum online, I decided we had to go.

It was amazing! When you enter the half-scale replica ship, you feel like you are actually on the Titanic. All the employees are dressed as White Star Line offiscreen-shot-2016-09-08-at-12-57-36-pmcers or cabin maids and speak to you as though you are on the ship in 1912. There are full-scale replicas of first- and third-class quarters and even the grand staircase, as well as a ton of artifacts from, or relating to, the ship. There were also loads of hands-on activities the kids could enjoy, including decks slanted at different angles to climb, representing different stages of the sinking, and a pool to stick your hand in with water as cold as the ocean was the night of the sinking. Caitlin suggested a contest to see who could keep their hand in the longest. We bailed after about 10 seconds, but Ava kept hers in for 45 seconds and then complained that it hurt for the next hour or two.

9) World’s largest knife store

Smoky Mountain Knife Works bills itself as the world’s largest knife store and, after Caitlin and I spent half an hour walking around with the kids trying to find each other (twice), I’m not about to argue. I bought a case for my Swiss soldier’s knife, but the best part was their section of military and historical items, where Ava and I spent an hour. They have more artifacts than most museums, but you can actually touch them. They also sell just about any gun you can imagine, which is scary, but still interestinscreen-shot-2016-09-08-at-1-09-21-pmg to see.

10) Hot air balloon ride

Ava has always loved hot air balloons and every time we see one, she says she wants to go for a flight. In Pigeon Forge, we noticed a tethered balloon flying above the town, just another touristy gimmick—but also a chance to fulfill another of Ava’s dreams. We checked online and learned that it wasn’t actually a “hot air” balloon (it was filled with helium), but the price was reasonable and Ava didn’t care.

When we left the Titanic museum, the sky was clear and we stopped to see if there was a wait for a ride. The girl at the desk said we could go screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-1-00-06-pmright up, so I asked Ava if she wanted to go. From that point until we got back to the ground, she didn’t go more than 15 seconds without squealing. I had never heard the sound she was making..not some put-on noises, but genuine delight. The balloon went about 500 feet in the air, giving us great views of the town and the Smokies, and Ava loved every second of it. She was so excited and I loved watching her.

Time to start planning next year’s trip…maybe in the fall, so it’s a bit cooler.

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Marie Antoinette in Ottawa

I’ve written before about my daughter Ava’s love for Marie Antoinette and her description of the French queen’s execution to her kindergarten teachers.

She has loved Marie Antoinette since she got a book about real (as opposed to Disney) princesses when she was four, so when we saw the National Gallery in Ottawa had an exhibition featuring her portraits, painted by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, we knew we had our next daddy-daughter date.

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It was awesome!

The Marie Antoinette portraits were obviously the highlight of the exhibition and the catalyst for Vigée Le Brun’s fame, but she had a long career a

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Festival in the Bernese Oberland.

s a portraitist after she was forced into exile during the French Revolution. She painted members of the monarchy and aristocracy across Europe—and we even found one landscape (supposedly her best) that she painted of a festival in Switzerland.

As a historian, I felt the same thrill standing so close to these paintings as I did examining Sir Arthur Currie’s personal diaries and I love it that Ava shares my interest in history (as Homer Simpson said, “Kids are great, Apu. You can teach them to hate the things you hate…). We both learned lots about the queen, Vigée Le Brun and the role her paintings played in the French public’s views of Marie Antoinette and the monarchy in the years leading up to the revolution.

Plus, Ava got to dress up like Marie Antoinette, fulfilling her No. 1 goal for the trip!

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She notices the smallest details and she was studying some paintings of Marie Antoinette in one of her books before we left. On the way, she told me she hoped they had a fancy hat at the dress-up centre with feathers and ribbons on it. It turned out they had one just like that and she couldn’t have been more pleased. She spent a minute or two just holding it in her hands, examining it.IMG_20160806_133704

Ava was less pleased when I took a photo of her in the pannier (French for basket) that French ladies wore under their dresses at court to make them billow out. We learned that girls as young as four or five years old wore them.

The scale of some of the paintings was incredible. I think the two biggest portraits (below) were each about 12 feet high! The one on the left was commissioned by Marie Antoinette’s mother, as she hadn’t seen her daughter in years, and was the first time she was painted by Vigée Le Brun. The one on the right was painted to accentuate the queen’s qualities as a mother and help rehabilitate her public image. It has a sad backstory, though, as Marie Antoinette’s infant daughter died while it was being painted, which is why there is an empty bassinet on the right.

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My favourite part of the exhibition, though, was learning that when the portrait below was first displayed publicly, it caused a scandal because Marie Antoinette was not wearing the courtly clothes expected of her and, more importantly, the dress she was wearing was imported from England and made of British cotton. Because Marie Antoinette’s fashions were so influential, she was blamed for the decline of the French silk industry.

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Living in Ottawa, we sometimes take for granted the number of world-class museums 20 minutes from our house, but I’m glad we didn’t miss this exhibition—nor the Beavertails afterwards.

It’s fun to do things with all the kids together, but sometimes you just need some one-on-one time with each of them. When we got home, Michael said, “I’m feeling jealous of Ava.” He’s only four, but quite good at describing his feelings when he wants to. Anyway, he would have been bored out of his mind in five minutes at the gallery, but I told him we’ll plan a guys’ trip to a college football game in the fall.

 

 

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A Moment with Chris Amon

I woke up this morning to the sad news that former F1 driver Chris Amon had died.

I never met him. His final F1 race took place eight years before I was born. Still, I had a heavy heart reading the various obituaries.

Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing Chris—a brief, wonderful shared moment.

In the course of researching a story on Jim Clark’s final F1 race, the 1968 South African Grand Prix, I was trying to track down the eight surviving drivers from the race to hear their memories. Somewhere in the bowels of the internet, I found a phone number for a C. Amon in the town I heard Chris was living in back in New Zealand. I had no idea if the number was his, if it was current or if he would want to speak with a writer he’d never heard of.

One afternoon, I called and the C. Amon answered. Obviously, he had no idea who the hell I was, but I explained what I was doing and he could not have been more gracious. He said he was waiting for a plumber, but was happy to chat about his memories of Clark and that race (where he finished fourth, two laps behind Clark, Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt).

He could have easily brushed me off, but he never rushed me and tried to answer all my questions, digging through his memory for details about a single weekend from half-a-century ago. At the end of our conversation, he offered his email address for any follow-ups and we wrote back and forth a few times. In one of those emails, he mentioned he was sick and undergoing treatment, but I didn’t know how bad it was.

There was nothing too spectacular about that 1968 race itself. Just another in a long line of wins for Clark—although he did break Juan Manuel Fangio’s record for career victories. At the time, no one knew it would be Clark’s grand prix.

Chris laughed about the long flight to New Zealand (shared with Clark and some other drivers) immediately following the race for the start of the Tasman Series. He was uncomfortable sitting on the plane because he had burnt his back and butt as his Ferrari struggled to cope with the South African heat.

He also talked about the time he spent with Clark that year in New Zealand and Australia, where Clark nipped him for the title. The two farm boys went fishing in the Tasman Sea and spoke about their agricultural pursuits, reminiscing about a simpler time in their lives.

“I sensed that [Clark] felt an inner peace when he talked about his farming and his life on the farm and, had he survived, I feel he would have probably gone back to farming,” Chris told me.

It is often said that Amon was unlucky because he never won a world championship grand prix, despite coming close so many times, but he did outlive 20 of the 23 other drivers originally entered in his first F1 race, the 1963 Belgian Grand Prix (eight of whom would die behind the wheel, though not all in F1). Unlike Clark and so many others, Chris got to return home and enjoy some peace and quiet after the years of speed and noise.

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