This writer’s life began with a giant whopper told in grade three at Millbrook Elementary School in Aiken, South Carolina. My father had taken me to an air show over the weekend and while we gazed into the yawning gut of a large military transport plane, I daydreamt we went flying. The story just wrote itself.
I imagined we were invited on board this silver winged behemoth for a demonstration flight. Suddenly two of the four engines caught fire. My dad and I were given parachutes and told to bail out. We landed safely in a meadow and walked away without a scratch. At show-and-tell on Monday morning, I spun this yarn to my spellbound classmates in an apparently convincing manner.
My teacher, Mrs. Wood, was so impressed she immediately contacted my mother to convey (with a wink and a nudge?) her astonishment. What a miracle it was that my dad and I had survived. My mother, of course, told my father and you can just imagine his reaction…
Suffice to say the response to my fiction debut was not what I’d expected. Actually, I’m not sure what I thought would happen—the yarn tumbled out of my head and made a crash landing, so to speak. I learned a valuable lesson about the consequences of making things up. Justly ridiculed, I tucked my story ideas into a shoebox, put my writing career on hold and decided to become a hermit instead.
For the next several years I would sit at the back of various classrooms drawing elaborate plans for the perfect log cabin I wanted to build in the wilds of Alaska or the great north woods of Canada where I would live off the land in splendid isolation on my own little Walden Pond. In or about grade seven I spotted an ad in Field and Stream magazine and wrote away for a brochure from the Rusty Myers Flying Service of Fort Frances, Ontario. Weeks later when I carefully slit a manila envelope and opened Mr. Myers’ three-panel, full-colour brochure, I beheld a bright red DeHavilland Beaver on floats soaring across a green wilderness studded with thousands of crystal blue lakes. From that moment I knew my destiny.
Spoiler alert: it never happened. As my eighteenth birthday and high school graduation approached, the United States got deeply bogged down in Vietnam, and like all American males of my age group, I had to decide how best to cope with the looming obligation of military service. I figured I would join the Coast Guard, earn my wings, fly search-and-rescue and feel good about what I was doing. I would shuffle off to the north woods after I’d served my six years. As luck would have it I wound up in the Navy and never left the ground.
How then did an aspiring hermit become a journalist? Good question. It might have been the genetically pre-ordained evolution of an inveterate storyteller. Or perhaps it was a fluke. I never intended for any of this (my life as a reporter, documentary filmmaker, and author) to happen. Along the winding road from then to now, I drove delivery trucks and school buses, I became a Top-40 disc jockey (hoping to escape a life of manual labour), I worked as a 911 dispatcher, went to university to study psychology (I’m sure my father, a physicist, would have been pleased if I’d chosen a “real” science, but I wanted to know why people have to dream… why they go nuts if they can’t…), and at one point I even applied for a job as a firefighter—thinking that would be an excellent way to serve my fellow citizens. Obviously I lost focus here and there. But through it all I never forgot that Beaver on floats or those great north woods.
By the time I graduated from the University of Delaware and simultaneously received my discharge from the Navy, I had married my high-school sweetheart. With a three-year-old daughter and all our worldly possessions crammed into an aging Opel Kadett, we three set off to see the world. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, I assumed I might find work driving buses again. Still clinging to that old bush plane dream, I figured I would learn to fly if and when I could afford the lessons. Alas, it was not to be.
On the off chance that a foreigner with a strange accent might be allowed to work “on air” in Canada, I impulsively applied for a DJ gig at CKY Radio—“The Big 58.” It was a longshot, but what the heck—I thought maybe they’d give me the all-night shift while I learned the local dialect. Again—no such luck.
Instead, CKY hired me as a TV news reporter—a job for which I had zero training and little inclination. As a guy steeped in the culture of Top-40 radio—“And the hits just keep on comin’…”—I’d always thought of news as a real drag. An audience-killing interruption to the song flow.
Not wanting to sound ungrateful, and in desperate need of a job, I mumbled to the CKY news director that I had never set foot in a TV station before. He waved his hand dismissively and replied that they would teach me everything I needed to know in two weeks. Clearly there was an element of serendipity at play.
I thank my lucky stars that the camera guys (and they were all guys in those days), the film editors, and one senior reporter in particular (a prince of a guy named Frank Fry) knew what they were doing and were willing to help me learn on the job. It was a wild ride, but I adapted and survived. For six months.
Once I understood all the weaknesses and flaws in the daily news operation, I cheerfully offered my criticism and expert advice to the TV news director and explained how to fix everything. He politely invited me to leave. After half of a turbulent year in a strange new country, I decided to put what I saw as the chaos of TV news behind me and get a “real” job. I decided to become a brakeman for Canadian Pacific.
The CPR had placed an ad in the Tribune and I was out the door in a flash headed for the train yard. I had already locked the front door when I heard the phone ring in the kitchen. There was no one (and no machine) to answer the phone. It was minus 30 outside and I had to decide whether it was worth pulling off my mitts and digging for the key.
It turned out to be a fellow named Bill Terry, a kind-hearted executive producer at CBC Radio. He’d heard about my abrupt departure from CKY and was inviting me downtown for coffee. Another bolt of serendipity struck and my career trajectory changed again. This time in a good way.
For the next twenty-plus years, from the CBC in Winnipeg to CBC Calgary and then CBC Vancouver, with hundreds of stops in between, I “covered Canada like a rash,” as the saying goes. From city halls and the courts to commercial fishing, forestry and First Nations. The intense and kinetic life of a general assignment reporter provided a fabulous education for this relatively new Canadian. I became a citizen as soon as it was legal to do so.
When I migrated from local news to the network (as West Coast correspondent for CBC National News) I wrote stories about earthquakes, the recurring drought in California (and massive river diversion schemes to send Canadian water south), toxic trash, Cold Fusion, the ozone hole in Australia, the struggling Sandinista government in Nicaragua, ethnic civil war in Sri Lanka, and the chemical disaster in Bhopal. To top it all, on November 9th, 1989, I climbed the Berlin Wall to witness the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. “Woo hoo, what a ride!” as Hunter S. Thompson (no relation) may or may not have said.
In January 1994, I left the network to begin writing and directing documentaries in partnership with my wife through our own production company, Raincoast Storylines Ltd. For another twenty years or so we made films for CBC, CTV, Global, and The Discovery Channel about everything from the birth of Greenpeace in Vancouver to the enigma of Parkinson’s disease. From the war against the war on drugs, to the Mohawk and Newfoundland ironworkers who rebuilt the World Trade Center after 911. There was one about geo-engineering, the controversial and possibly dangerous efforts to reverse the effects of global warming.
I wrote articles for Reader’s Digest, Equinox, Vancouver Magazine, and The Globe and Mail. We made two historical docs for The Canadian Experience on CBC. We made two feature-length “specials” about impending doom: the first was about asteroid impacts (the only natural disaster that is actually preventable) and another called “Shock/Wave,” which was about tsunamis and the evolving mystery of plate tectonics off the Pacific Northwest coast. This was the last in a series of earthquake films I’d made (six over a period of two decades at CBC) which led to my first book: Cascadia’s Fault (HarperCollins Canada/Counterpoint Press in the U.S.). I so enjoyed the experience of book-length journalism that I began to wean myself off television.
To be more precise, television was shifting away from “old school” documentaries like the ones I’d always made and enjoyed in favour of “reality” programs which just weren’t interesting to me. I’d had a great run in television, had been there for the best of times, travelled the world, got an education, and therefore had no right to complain—but I knew it was time to move on. To learn something new. Writing books was like starting over in a different trade. Suddenly I was a rookie again and faced a steep learning curve. The experience has been bracing. And more satisfying than anything I’ve done in years.
After the publication of Cascadia’s Fault, I circled back to where I’d started. I unshackled myself from “just the facts,” strapped on my old parachute, and jumped again. I wrote my first work of fiction—City of Tribes—a turn-of-the-century spy novel set against a backdrop of racism, class warfare, and the decline of British rule in India at the outbreak of World War I. The story is loosely based on the ugly Komagata Maru incident in Vancouver harbour in 1914. A second novel and another non-fiction science mystery are already in the works. For this would-be hermit, it’s a whole new world.
And to think it all began in grade three with an imaginary jump from a burning airplane. Jerry Thompson lives on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.