20th Anniversary of the CBC TV VIA Rail Train

This is the 70th year that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has delivered TV service. I know this because 20 years ago, I helped run a celebration of CBC TV across Canada. And today is the 20th anniversary of that last day, the moment when we all painfully realized that the journey was over.

You’ve read those books, you’ve seen those TV shows and movies, where two unlikely individuals are thrust together into a (often completely silly and overly-dramatic) situation and despite being confrontational – even enemies – at the start, they end up close allies, even lovers by the end? For most people, I imagine that this is usually viewed as utter tripe, people don’t work that way, there’s no way that it’s real, right?

But, it is.

Look, if you really want to hear some of the stories, read through the archive (start with Day 1), and you might get an idea of what it was like. What you won’t get are the little moments, the sudden stresses and arguments, being confined in a tin can with 30+ people for a month and a half, the moments of sheer exhaustion and near-breakdowns from trying to do so much with so little time, of being ignored, or being the centre of attention, of trying to get people’s interest for more than a few seconds a time to tell a story. And then sharing those experiences with the same people at a local pub before tripping through darkened railyards trying find our way back to a bed. The term “strange bedfellows” did not arise by chance.

I still remember the first day on the job, climbing onto the shuttle going to Vancouver’s Central Station, sitting alone, because I knew no-one. Everyone else had already met, some were already old colleagues (I had a colleague that I had not yet met). We arrived and fell into chaos, each of us trying to understand our roles, our responsibilities, understand each other’s behaviours, trying to be a helpful (and sometimes over-helpful) member of a team that had not a single clue how to work together. Not yet.

We found those moments, learned our rhythms, shared our pains, and gained strength from each other in ways none of us could have predicted. And on those last moments in Halifax, when the harsh lights came on and we were forced to meet reality on its terms – our team, our small family was about to break up – there was a collective, silent “no, please, just a bit longer”. More time with my friends, that’s all I ask.

But life is demanding and uncaring, exacting its toll from all of us over time. What it offers in compensation is memory, the feeling of what was, the ability to tell the stories (however embellished they might become), to revisit those moments and relive a time that’s not today’s stress or panic. Sometimes it’s a glimpse of a laugh, the hiccup of a blurred image, the tranquil stream of thoughts that came from sitting amidst all the madness and realizing how lucky we were to be doing something so fantastic.

And it really does seem like fantasy after 20 years. So much has changed from then that some places I don’t even recognize. Some places, like the National Science Centre in Ottawa, you can’t even get to by rail, anymore. The roundhouse-cum-turkey farm in Biggar was torn down, only the concrete scars remain. The station house in Melville looks abandoned, likely soon to be a memory, itself. Don’t even get me started on what they did to Union Station in Toronto.

We’ve also lost some of our compatriots. Like I said, life is uncaring, eventually taking those whom we hold dear. They might not be able to be with us, hand in hand, but we hold their memories just as tightly.

It might even seem superfluous, the need for that trip. The original intent had been to go down the deep, dark rail lines and visit remote communities – the cities didn’t really need the parade, it’s the little places that have survived on CBC TV and radio – which would have been easily twice as a long a journey. That’s actually the one I signed up for, too, and I was disappointed that the trip ended up being so much shorter, but it was still every bit as worth it.

Happy anniverary, folks. You truly did make my life more wonderful.