Losing a limb as a child must change a person.
At the very least, it must be a wake up call to get moving.
Let’s face it: you never know when you might lose the other one.
My father-in-law, Warner Troyer lost his leg due to illness back in the 1930s, but having a disability never defined him. It seemed to make him more of himself: a workaholic, smoke-a-holic, drink-a-holic, marry-a-holic. He was, by all accounts, a gentle and loving father; he was also a man of demons and extremes.
As a journalist and broadcaster, Warner quickly moved up the ladder — from overnight deejay in Winnipeg to legislative reporter, to famous broadcaster and television host, to writer of books and early defender of the environment. Lithe of body, he was fearless of soul, and possessed the same passion his father Gordon put into his sermons as a travelling preacher. Difference was, Warnie as his father called him, took the devil’s side of things.
Think Robert Johnson at the Crossroads.
It wasn’t his fault. It was the way of journalism in the 50s, 60s and 70s, a time when there was a Speakeasy in the hot room on Parliament Hill. Back then, days were spent in an alcohol and smoke fueled frenzy, punctuated by fist fights, pass outs and fornicating in the stairwells. Warner chose the CBC, now a politically correct snoozefest, then a hotbed of round heeled women and egos so big there was barely room in the studio for chairs.
There was temptation everywhere.
How Warner could sire seven children with two different women while marrying thrice, all the time working, drinking and smoking like a demon makes me wonder: where did he find the time?
In actual fact, Warner Troyer was a great dad to his kids — when he was present. My husband Scott remembers summers in Algonquin Park building canoes and outbuildings, swimming and fishing with his dad. He also remembers learning to drink Scotch when he was barely out of short pants.
Warner also used to take Scott to the CBC as a youngster. While Warner was doing his broadcasts, Scott would sit underneath the clumsy studio camera transfixed by the technology, as basic as it was back then. It was at the feet of the studio cameraman that Scott found his passion for putting his eye to a viewfinder, an obsession that drives his art today and vocation that gave him a 30-year career as a cameraman and national news producer.
Hanging out at CBC, Scott became a child star on the side, with appearances on Miss Helen and Razzle Dazzle.
I remember watching those shows on my grandfather’s knee and envying those kids.
What a magical time that must have been.
After Warner’s star began to rise, his interest in his family waned. He left his first wife Margaret for his assistant and then left that assistant for another. It was during that time that Scott remembers long trips on the bus from Ottawa to Toronto, dragging his sisters along, in hopes of spending snatches of time with the great man. While his mother struggled to raise her kids on brown sugar sandwiches on her nurse’s salary, Warner was living loud and proud in mansions.
It’s a schizophrenic way to grow up, mom with no money, dad throwing it around.
Like losing a leg, it changes who you are.
Makes a person stronger or weaker.
Mostly, it makes a body resentful.
My own kids know this first hand.
Anyone who loves a drinker and smoker knows all that fun takes a toll, and Warner contracted lung cancer in his late 50s, when he was not much older than Scott is now. Before Warner died, Scott took him out on a boat at his cottage and chided him for being an absent father, for never coming to a football game or watching a son’s play, for all the times that Warner would try to one-up his son in conversations about their careers.
Warner just shrugged. He said he had no regrets.
When I heard this story, I thought of a song Scott could play on Father’s Day, to remember his Dad.
Papa was a rolling stone, and where he laid his hat was his home.
And when he died, all he left us was alone.
Scott has another memory, a snapshot in his head of his grandfather, Gordon, at Warner’s funeral, the big man looking uncharacteristically frail, the father burying his son.
What a sad exit for a man with such an illustrious life.
Still, Scott has Warner’s books to keep him company. He also has some great memories to hold on to, memories from endless days at the cottage, when Warner was not Mr. CBC, he was just dad.
That’s something, I guess.
The great man died in September, 1991, twenty years ago. This fall, he would have celebrated his 79th birthday.
Gone too soon.
I wish I had met him.
He may have had his faults but he did one thing right.
He raised a wonderful son.
And for that, I will always be grateful to Warner Troyer.