Thoughts at 90

(Canscene) “How does it feel to be 90?” everyone asks me. I’ll let you into a secret….. no different from being 89.

But it has become a time of evocation when often, unbidden, thoughts of other times, places and people come to mind. Like:

*** My first visit to Italy at four which, through change in surroundings, completely wipes out all earlier infanthood recollections. The sights, first Paris and the Eiffel Tower then the long overnight train ride to Rome and its marvels. Then on to Saints Cosma and Damiano for my one and only stay with paternal grandparents, the formidable Don Silvestro and Nonna Concetta.

*** My first exposure to film and the beginning of a lifelong passion. At the annual saints’ day in San Cosma watching a film projected onto a huge sheet outdoors. On screen, there’s a man in white tie and tails wearing a pig’s head mask. Years later, as I watch Cinema Paradiso, my eyes moisten.

***While enrolled at a Jesuit college, making an agonizing decision of conscience to skip religious instruction because I can’t believe in the infallibility of popes. How do I, at thirteen, get the courage when on other occasions, I’ve caved in to pressure?

***Standing my ground leads to my parents being asked to withdraw me and remove me to another private school which one year, organizes a memorable hiking trip to Denmark.

There, bathing nude close to Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue, meeting teenage Danish peers at youth hostels for sing songs and hiking through a wooded countryside. The outdoor cafe just outside the Tivoli gates where I surreptitiously enjoy my first glass of beer. The taste of the Danish porridge and snacks purchased from windowed smorgasbord machines in train stations and other public places.

*** And always, the affection of parents and maternal grandparents. No less, the thoughts of those in Italy. In my father’s papers I discover a letter from Nonno Silvestro written in an old man’s shaky hand and expressing deep concern over the fact I’d been hospitalized with scarlet fever.

***After the Dunkirk evacuation, on the run in France with the hastily put together E Field Battery. After a few days it becomes obvious we’re part of a risky feint — to convince the enemy the remaining forces are holding the line until troops refit and return to France.

Lieutenant Lawrie and I, as driver, are reconnoitering the Normandy countryside when coming straight toward us is a German armoured car. Lawrie cocks my rifle as we spot to our immediate left a side road and for the first time I experience cornering on two wheels. Our light truck lands back on all four and we bump through what is no more than an unmapped cart track for miles. The armoured car can’t follow us through such a narrow passage.

We find suitable sites, dig gun pits and retreat, often by night. And dig and retreat. Mercifully, food is plentiful from abandoned village stores and those humans we do encounter treat us well. One terrible day we are dug in by a main highway when we watch the hours long retreat of French forces; that same evening we learn that Paris has fallen.

Eventually, we have fallen back to the sea and are awaiting evacuation at Cherbourg. I am one of ten drivers ordered back north to Caen to pick up some stranded Cameron Highlanders. We’re under command of second Lieutenant Oakes, a seedy recent arrival who, short of our rendezvous, takes fright and commands his reluctant driver to return to Cherbourg. The kilted ones are no longer at the rendezvous having obviously seized other opportunities of transportation. We pick up other uniformed stragglers and head back to Cherbourg. Machined gunned from the air twice on our return trip, but make it safely to learn that the entire Battery is embarking without a single loss. In Southampton, we’re treated like royalty, but saddened to learn that the Battery is to be disbanded. Today, nearly seventy years later I can find no mention of it in British Army records. In retrospect one understands why we were expendable, but we gave no cause for shame to the Allies and wonder why here’s no trace of E Field Battery in military records.

*** In Italy, as war ends, I’m eventually posted to something mysterious called MMIA where deeper lifelong ties to Italy are to begin. After three weeks of hitchhiking from Cattolica up to the Yugoslavian border then back to Naples I find the MMIA is in Rome and I’m a now staff sergeant and interpreter translator. We call it the “Mamma Mia” but it’s the Military Mission to the Italian Army a branch of the Allied Commission. Here I pass the last year of my six and a half in uniform — very often in civilian dress enjoying the company of Roman friends.

*** I’m free again and employed by the Rank Organization as a story analyst and an earmarked trainee for better things, but fate intervenes in a government-initiated slump in the British Film industry. Canada calls.

*** Two weeks after arrival in Toronto, a young RCAF vet (friend of friends in England but whom I’ve never met) invites me by telegram to his home in Woodstock for a New Year’s Eve party, even finding me a tux. Bill McVean then takes me with him to the radio station in Wingham through roads flanked by piles of snow higher than our car. He’s DJ, newscaster and host of an interview show there and puts me on the air a few times. Bill is still broadcasting today on Oakville’s CHWO.

Bill McVean (with golf club) and Ben Viccari

***At the groundbreaking for The Toronto International Film Festival’s new headquarters, I’m handed a glass jar of rich black earth from the excavation site. It stays with me today as a reminder of my first job, on Toronto’s John Street at whose corner (with King) the building is rising.

At 126 John, literally my first try at a job from a long list Bill McVean has helped me get, I’ve just been hired by W.Gordon Turnbull, president of the now defunct and all-Canadian Turnbull Elevator Company. Knowing already that there’s prejudice in the land, I volunteer heritage information. “W.G.” tells me Canada is in for big changes and diversity will be a good thing for the nation. Surprise! I’m hired to start a company magazine at $35.00 a week. This, after only three weeks in the country!

Long gone, the Turnbull company as been replaced by an Indigo/Chapters store, but the original facade at and above the entrance has been preserved and each time I pass, I look up to the second floor at a window behind which my office was located.

*** Above all, I remember witnessing the first chuckles of my infant children and grandchildren.


4 Responses to “Thoughts at 90”

  1. Ace Alvarez Says:

    HA! Ha! ha!

    Ben writes in this piece: “How does it feel to be 90? I’ll let you into a secret….. no different from being 89.” I like this line, Ben.

    But this, aside, it gives me continuous utmost inspiration to be reading your thoughts at 90, especially the part of how you started in Canada–which you narrated to me, personally, while we were on board a streetcar after our talk before the staff of a PR company in downtown Toronto; oh yes, you were 89 at the time. I must tell you that it was one finest moment I had with you.

    Yours is an inspiration to all immigrants in this country!

    Very high regards and respect,

    Ace Alvarez

  2. Bill Andersen Says:

    Ben, you are a good writer and I am very glad when you choose to chronicle your personal history on these pages. The vision of those French troops streaming out of a fallen Paris is poignant. Your adventures in E Field Battery may turn up in someone’s Google search, and lead to an exchange of more information. I hope so!

    Enjoy your first video chat with your grandchildren, when you get connected. You certainly keep up with the latest technology.

  3. Susan Gould Says:

    Stay healthy and enjoy every day!
    You and Anne look terrific. You need to eat a little more pasta, however!
    Continue to enjoy Anne’s wonderful company and smiling face.
    Thanks for sharing all those special memories. You are truly an inspiration to young journalists and its great that you remember all that history. I agree with the previous person that you will inspire others to look up information. It’s great to hear about the new technology you are discovering to connect with your grandchildren via video and computer.
    I am lucky to have a grandmother who is 100. (Mama Rose)
    She wakes up each day appreciating all that she has and we enjoy being with her. Like you she keeps busy every day with many activities.

  4. Peter Sever Says:

    Bill Anderson told me about your fine web site; it as great to see on two counts: (A) A fine writer/thinker at a sprightly 90 expressing and encouraging dialogue; (B) Canada’s exemplary multiculturalism has another fine forum/journal.

    Writing this from Amman Jordan, eight months into a couple years of driving around the globe on motorcycle. A propos your theme, we’re an age-race bracketing couple (me 62, Czech-Canuck; she 28, Vietnamese-Canuck.)

    Cultural pluralism is obviously contentious in many of the twenty countries we have driven so far (six of them various shades of Islam), and in many of the 20-30 ahead. We turn heads, some looks askance in a few ‘cultural-purity-minded’ places – not because of our chosen wheels which especially men often admire/envy; rather due our mixed ages/races and assumed ‘wrong’ faith, of which I think few are jealous. Even in the Christian countries, being a white visitor is one thing, a yellow one another, it surprises me, Thao is used to it.

    At home we are just another (yawn) mixed race couple, no one cares less – vive la difference. The observation is unavoidable when culture-hopping like this: Canada is so rich and fortunate in this regard, among numerous other respects.

    We love occasionally bragging how Toronto is half not-white – with no palpable race/religion/cultural tensions, astonishing many who have quite another image; I point out it’s also a key to our small population’s relative economic success.

    Our web site is called “” with the obvious pun, to make the additional point that age is no barrier – as you folks, Ben as main creator, also so lucidly prove.

    Love your site and will read more when we have web access – another thing we take for granted at home but far from everywhere! BRAVO!

    -Peter & Thao