Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Canada's Black Friday and the Arrow Aftermath!

IT REALLY wasn't a subject to be brought up at the breakfast table. But I did and later didn't regret it.
"Do you remember Black Friday?" I asked The Missus.
Suddenly, her beautiful face became a mask of contempt. It was if the lights had been shut off. It was a topic she had never expounded on; at least in my presence, and we will have been married 40 years next month.
And what would have caused the look of consternation and taken the pleasure out of her morning?
"Yes, I remember Black Friday," she said and then proceeded to explain the utter despair which surrounded Feb. 20, 1959, the day former Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker changed the lives of thousands -- forever.
Dief The Chief, Mr. Bluster to some, had driven a stake into the very heart of cutting-edge aviation technology and grounded the highly-advanced Avro Arrow. And it had definitely affected The Missus and her then young family.
The reason for the subject ever coming up was a CBC report about some unidentified Canadian paying $32,000 for a collection of Avro Arrow memorabilia. It included company papers, employee notices, models and photos. There was also a copy of Dief's infamous speech about the plane's demise.
"Ron (her late husband Ron Webster) came home around noon," she recalled with sadness. He had been an expediter within the massive company while his father, Alex Webster, had been a tool-and-die man, who hated to fly. Other kin also worked at various "dream jobs" within the company and Dief ripped them all away.
It was a case of high hopes vanishing in a cloud of dreams gone gray.
Where would people live? Where would one get another job?
Damn that Dief was the hue and cry throughout various communities within Ontario.
For The Missus, her main concern was how would she and her husband pay the mortgage, which happened to be $89-a-month. A very low figure today, but in 1959 a steep amount, considering she and her husband were trying to raise a family in a company conclave in Georgetown, Ontario.
"I remember the engineers just packing up and moving to California and Cape Canaveral (in Florida) and telling the bank manager to just take their houses," she said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
For her husband, he would take on other jobs before becoming a Toronto-area policeman. He was tragically killed in a traffic accident in 1966.
For The Missus, who I'd marry on Jan. 18, 1968, she found life extremely difficult, not financially, but emotionally, and during the interim between 1966 and 1968, she worked as a file clerk for McDonnell Douglas, the successor to A.V. Roe, the maker of the great Avro Arrow.
So after all these years -- 48 and counting -- the bitter memory of Dief's terrible decision remains constant in the minds of those who were there when he slammed the doors on their "dreams."
While I've related a personal story, it didn't tell the political one.
It encompassed not only millions upon millions of dollars, but high-profile people such as Dief along with his minister of national defence, George Pearkes. And then there were suspected Russian spies and Sputnik and the "spectre of attack from space."
When Dief and his Conservatives took over in June 1957, the major pre-election promise had been to slice into "rampant Liberal spending." Of course, the Arrow project had been one of the most costly with figures such as $216 million being bandied around.
By August 1957, Dief had signed the NORAD agreement with the U.S., which meant Canada would be subordinate to their SAGE (Semi Automatic Ground Environment) project.
Then the question arose, time and time again, whether the Arrow MK 1, with its Mach 2 (1,307 mph) speeds, were needed since the Americans had the less costly and, supposedly, more dangerous Bomarc missiles.
It was a time of apprehension throughout the world and, suddenly, the Russians revealed Sputnik and its potential of attacks from space. So ballistic missiles seemed to be the wave of the future, and not the slick Arrow, in combatting the Russian threat.
Would Canada be able to afford the Arrow and also the Bomarc/SAGE?
Pearkes believed the Arrow had to go and he proposed its cancellation. Finally, Dief made the devastating announcement concerning the Arrow and Iroquois programs.
It affected some 14,000 workers at Avro and the Orenda plants and spread to some 60,000 through layoffs among the project's subcontractors.
So with the demise of the Arrow, what happened to the so-called "brain drain"?
While some just drifted, CF-105 Chief Aerodynamicist Jim Chamberlin and a team of 25 engineers joined the U.S. space projects such as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Others would be part of the designing team of the Concorde.
However, for others such as The Missus that Black Friday -- Feb. 20, 1959 -- would a bitter memory, which hasn't faded with time.

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