Old photos, old memories

I recently decided to sort out my old photographs. There are lots, stored in several old boxes and Rubbermaid containers in the basement. There are at least a dozen photo albums, all about half full of pictures. A lot of those little albums you used to get when you brought film into Black’s for processing and printing. To make a long story short, there’s literally thousands of them. The plan is to scan them and store digital versions on the computer.

If every picture is worth a thousand words, there are millions in those basement boxes. If every picture tells a story, there are thousands lying untold in loose piles. And I haven’t even started on the slides yet. There’s probably a couple of hundred of them. Worth another several thousand words, telling another box load of old stories.

The trouble with telling these stories is that some are fifty years old and it becomes hard to match names to faces. That’s because most of us, especially me, don’t think to write names and locations on the back of the photos. Why would we? Who could ever forget what’s his name? Was that us at a cottage on Rice Lake, Thanksgiving weekend in 1982 or Bracebridge in 1988? Do the details even matter anymore, as long as the story is credible and the characters are believable?

 Then there are pictures you find while sorting through the big piles and you know right away who you are looking at and what you were doing at the time and even why you were doing it. When you find a picture like that it can send you off on a memory tangent that takes hours to come back from.

Paul and Wayne
Wayne Zettler (left) and Paul Pugh at the demonstration against NAFTA in Ottawa, May 15 1993.

One of these pictures was of two old friends who found each other again on May 15 1993 at a demonstration on Parliament Hill. I knew it was on Parliament Hill because the Centre Block is in the background. I knew it was a demonstration because that was the only reason we ever went to Ottawa in those days. That and the fact that lots of people wore a red CAW jacket embroidered with the date, the  place, and a slogan: Fighting for our future.

It was a rally against the North American Free Trade Agreement, and more than 100,000 showed up.

A bus load of us went from Waterloo Region and Guelph. One of the men on board was Wayne Zettler, a man I worked with at MTD Products in Kitchener for almost 15 years. Another bus brought another bunch from Thunder Bay. One of them was Paul Pugh, a man I knew from Kitchener. He lived there before he and his wife moved north.  He knew Wayne before I knew either of them, from the days when Wayne worked at Dare Cookies. Wayne’s career as a biscuit maker ended when the workers went out on strike in 1972. It was long and bitter, lasting over a year. The company hired a strike-breaking company, Canadian Driver Pool, that provided Billy clubs, Doberman pinschers and scabs.

The union was eventually decertified, and most strikers found jobs in other factories around Kitchener. Wayne was hired by MTD Products as a punch press operator in the metal stamping plant. The workers there had recently signed on with the United Auto Workers and within a few years he was elected Plant Chairperson.

In 1977, Wayne told me they were hiring a maintenance mechanic. I applied and was hired, also in the press shop. All through the three-month probation period, we did not speak to each other at work. Another friend of his who had also been on the strike committee at Dare Foods had been let go during his probation period at MTD. Wayne didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.

When Wayne stepped down from the Plant Chair position in the early 80s, I was elected to replace him. I worked there for almost 15 years. We had a lot of fun, and many adventures through our involvement in politics, unions and co-op housing. There will be a few good tales to tell if I ever get around to remembering them.

Wayne was still there when I left on a union leave to go to the Workers Health and Safety Centre in Toronto. By that time, Wayne was working as a stripper, or so he liked to say. His job was to dump old metal parts into a chemical cauldron that stripped the paint off. Rubber boots, apron, gloves and a face mask made him look a bit like a visiting alien, but was designed to keep him protected. His interests had narrowed considerably. Now he almost exclusively concentrated on helping workers suffering the effects of substance abuse. And he was good at it. It didn’t matter what time it was, he would always answer a call for help.

There was an epidemic of manufacturing plant closures in Kitchener in the late 90s and early 2000s. MTD offered early retirement buy outs to their higher seniority workers, and Wayne grabbed at the chance to get out. By 2008 the company was all but done. A workforce of 400 dropped to 30 in a parts and distribution centre. Even after his early retirement, Wayne stayed active with the union local as chair of the social services and substance abuse committee.

During my 10-year commute up and down the 401 in and out of Toronto, my connections to Kitchener became scarcer until they all but disappeared. When I found the photograph, I sent a copy to Paul in Thunder Bay and told him I had lost contact with Wayne. Our last Christmas card to him and Joy was returned by Canada Post. Did Paul have any news?

Word quickly came back that Wayne had died of cancer on October 29 2012. He was 68 years old. He had kept up his mission rescuing workers from addictions until the  cancer forced him to stop. As Paul said, “Wayne was one of the best human beings I ever knew. A truly decent man right up to the end.”

Paul always speaks the truth.