My Fifty Mission Cap

By Cam Mather

I started a new trend for tourists in Kingston! Pretty soon everyone will be lining up to get their picture taken under “The Tragically Hip Way” sign. The Tragically Hip is a rock band from Kingston and I think you could say that they are one of Canada’s biggest, if not the biggest rock band.

I grew up in Kingston and I like music and I’ve always been a “Hip” fan, so I was impressed when Kingston City Council made a bold decision to change part of “Barrack Street” (a name which honors its military history) to “The Tragically Hip Way” which honors something that many Canadians associate with Kingston today.

“The Hip” has made no bones about their Canadian heritage and celebrates it in their music. The members of the band are all about my age and went to school in Kingston like me, so a lot of what Gord Downie writes about in his songs has a personal connection.

Their song “38 Years Old” is about a prison break from Millhaven Maximum Security Penitentiary that occurred in 1973. My neighbor Ken worked at Millhaven but always emphasizes that this occurred before his time. Actually Millhaven wasn’t really ready for prisoners but because of a riot at “KP” (Kingston Penitentiary) some were moved there prematurely and of course, figured out a way to get out before all the security systems were functioning. I still remember this from when I was a kid. Once, more recently, I toured Millhaven with my friend Ken. I still wake up in a cold sweat thinking about that tour!

In the song “Fireworks” they talk about “the Summit” hockey series in 1972 between Russia and Canada, which was won by the iconic goal by Paul Henderson. I remember sitting on the floor of the J.E.Horton Public School gymnasium, watching one of the games as it was being played in Russia (with a 12 hour time difference I’m assuming) on a grainy black and white TV where you couldn’t really see much. The song talks about the National Fitness Program (which sounds like something out of Maoist China) that was a test that all Canadian school children undertook. Part of this ‘test’ involved the flexed arm hang, where you tried to see how long you could stay in the upper pose of a chin-up, hanging from a basket ball net cross piece (we didn’t have fancy chin-up bars in those days). I couldn’t last 5 seconds in that position but guys like my friend Teddy King could hang there all day. Today I have a chin-up bar made of an old wagon axle in the horse bar and I can still do a fair number of chin-ups, but alas, I don’t know any of those guys who kicked my ass in the challenge when I was 11 years old, to show them that I didn’t end up as a 98-pound weakling. There’s no justice in the world. I got a “Bronze” badge in the program. This is when I learned that sometimes you get a reward just for showing up, even if it isn’t an option.

The song “Three Pistols” talks about Tom Thomson, one of the Group of Seven artists, who died mysteriously on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. My cousin Dave and I used to canoe on this lake on our Algonquin trips.

“Bobcaygeon” is about a small town that is popular with cottagers. I used to sell advertising for a radio station from Peterborough in the area.

“Wheat Kings” is about David Milgaard who was wrongly convicted for a murder in 1970 and spent 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. This was big news in Canada for many years and like many of the Hip’s songs it resonates with me.

The Hip has a song called “50 Mission Cap” which is one of my favorites. It’s about Bill Barilko who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and disappeared during fishing the trip after scoring the goal that won the Leafs the Stanley Cup in 1951. I think the title might be a reference to air force bombing crews, which I think had to fly 25 missions before they were done. As I recall from the movie “Memphis Belle” the mortality rate was staggering for 25 missions, so the thought of anyone making it to 50 missions is hard to imagine. But hey, it’s a song, a great song, so who needs to understand the lyrics?

In the photo I’m actually wearing a “50 Mission Cap.” It’s not an officially sanctioned anything, just a baseball cap some guy was selling at a Tragically Hip concert my sister went to. Pretty awesome! Entrepreneurs are so great.

For years The Tragically Hip would not play concerts in Kingston because the only venue was “The Memorial Center,” a war-era arena that doesn’t hold many people and has bad acoustics. When I went to high school I played trumpet in the band. The Kingston Military Base had the “ATC Band” (Air Traffic Control?) and the government was threatening to disband it. All the high school bands in Kingston got together and held a huge fundraiser at the Memorial Center. It was pretty great being part of the assembled bands, including the ATC, when we all played the same song in that arena. To someone in the audience it probably sounded like a train going off the rails, but it was the big leagues for me!

Once I went to see “The Hip” at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. I went with my cousin Dave. My sister and brother went too and I somehow managed to find my sister on the opposite side of the Gardens before the lights went out and the concert started. Some families go on golfing vacations, apparently ours goes to “Hip” concerts.

Eventually Kingston built “The K-Rock Center” in downtown Kingston which now hosts major acts… Elton John, Heart, Sarah McLachlan, The Moody Blues, bands that otherwise might not have come to Kingston. Not surprisingly it cost way more than it was supposed to and has not made the revenue projections that were predicted, but again, the City showed great insight to place it downtown. Most cities stick them out in the middle of nowhere. Downtown Kingston is where the restaurants and bars are and Kingston still has a thriving downtown partially because it has made some good choices over the years.

I love living in the middle of nowhere, but if I have to be in a city, I love going to Kingston. I love Kingston. And Kingston had the insight to honor its best-known product, The Tragically Hip, by naming the street in front of the arena after them. And now The Hip can perform in Kingston. Soon tourists to Kingston will want to get their picture taken under the sign. And when they do, I am officially taking credit for the trend! Oh yea, I started that trend.

Recently we were in Kingston for Michelle’s birthday dinner at Curry Original. We had the most unbelievably awesome Indian food on the planet. I bought a new shovel from Canadian Tire, regularly $25.99 for $9.99, 70% off! How great is that? I loaded up my Honda Civic up about 150 pounds of coffee grounds for my blueberry bushes after hitting every Starbucks near downtown Kingston. The car smelled fantastic and made us crave coffee our whole way home! I got my picture taken on “The Tragically Hip Way.” Life for a misanthropic, angry environmentalist can be pretty awesome sometimes!

5 Responses to “My Fifty Mission Cap”

  • Sue Clinton:

    Your posting is fun to read as always! I tell my kids that as long as we are thrilled about the simple things in life we will never be bored . Thanks Cam for reinforcing this! Happy Birthday Michelle!
    P.S. Lee Valley isn’t as great a deal as Canadian Tire, but the stuff is awesome and lasts forever!

  • william:

    Have seen the Hip over 20 times and will be seeing them on Canada day this year.I think they are honoring our victory in the war of 1812.One of our greatest bands and all Canadian, but loved around the world.

  • Jeff:

    Great music – you’re obviously an old 80’s rocker like myself (although their stuff has a small touch of Grunge from the early 90’s). This totally reminds me of the music we listened to back then. I wished you had put a link to their website in your post.

    Here it is:

    http://www.thehip.com/

  • Great to be able to live off grid and still have that close enough to visit.

  • Gerrit Botha:

    We lived in Kingston for three years and Cam is right; it is a pretty awesome city, just big enough to have all the amenities and just small enough to have real community.

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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