OPINION: I called my survivalist dad for some fatherly advice during the pandemic

Hunter-gatherer, 75, recalls polio scares of 1950s and his mother’s memories of Spanish flu

There have been a few times in my life that I’ve sought my dad’s advice and reassurance when faced with a crisis. When I was 12, I broke my nose playing 500 Up at night against his wishes, and he ordered me to “bleed out” on the front stairs so I wouldn’t wreck the carpet.

When I turned 40 several years ago, I asked him how he dealt with such a milestone. “Turning 40 was no biggie,” he told me at the time. “It was 41 when my life really fell apart.”

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He didn’t elaborate.

So, it was with a mix of morbid curiosity and trepidation that I decided to interview my dad last week and pick his brain about the current state of the world and ask if he had experienced anything remotely like this in his 75 years on Earth.

To paint a fuller picture, I should mention that as an aspiring survivalist my dad is really living his best life during the current pandemic. His house is stocked to the rafters with canned and smoked salmon he killed, jams and jellies from berries he picked, dried and frozen mushrooms he foraged, and eggs galore from his “girls” in the backyard chicken coop. I also don’t think he’s purchased any new clothing this millennium.

Courier editor Michael Kissinger's dad moments before slaughtering some fish. Photo courtesy of Bob
Courier editor Michael Kissinger's dad moments before slaughtering some fish. Photo courtesy of Bob Kissinger

Born in Victoria in 1945, my dad remembers the polio scares of the early to mid-1950s, before a vaccine had been developed and widely distributed.

“The Salk vaccine made me a staunch supporter of vaccinations so when I hear some of the anti-vaccination rhetoric, I go a little ballistic,” he said.  

In elementary school, he and his classmates would go on “penny drives” to raise money to purchase iron lungs for those afflicted with the virus.

As a pre-teen, he says polio was an abstract concept to him since he didn’t know anyone who had caught it. It wasn’t until high school that he met someone who had been stricken with the disease and walked with a pronounced limp.

“The major effect upon me as a child was that we couldn’t go swimming when we wanted,” he told me. “There’d be a big scare going around Victoria and it was associated with, god only knows why, going swimming at the lake.”

Rather than feeling worried, he says he was “pissed off” that these polio scares had deprived him and his brothers of swimming during the summer.

“When the polio vaccine came out, I remember thinking, thank god, now we can go swimming whenever we want. That was my immediate perception — self-gratification.”

He says his mother was particularly prone to worry — understandably so. He remembers her stories of growing up in a small Ukrainian community in rural Saskatchewan during the Spanish flu epidemic. 

“She said it seemed to be indiscriminate,” my dad said. “In one family, it took both parents and left the children. And, in another family, it took all the children and left the parents. No rhyme, no reason. Her family didn’t lose anybody. And she recalled, naturally, some of those children had to be adopted by other families in the community.”

He said, not surprisingly, his mother was far more cautious and protective.

“In her days, infections were a lot more serious than when I was a kid because of penicillin. So she was always saying be careful of yourself because you could get blood poisoning yada yada yada.”

As for the current health crisis, my dad says the biggest impact on his life has been the cancellation of his weekly pub lunch with his fly fishing group and his tai chi club has gone on hiatus.

I ask him if he’s been social distancing himself from his wife, who lives in a separate house than him, and almost immediately regret it. “No,” he replied slyly. “We still swap spit from time to time.”


Quickly switching topics, I asked him how he thinks all this will turn out. He’s not exactly reassuring.  

“I think, personally, it’s quite scary. I think it’s just the beginning…. I don’t think we have the intelligence or the discipline of the Chinese and, as a consequence, I think we’ll pay a higher price… And the only thing you can do is hunker down.”

That said, my dad doesn’t exactly heed his own advice when it comes to “hunkering down.” He’s already planning for when the oyster mushrooms come out in late April or early May. He hopes to pick 25 to 30 pounds — enough to fulfill his mushroomy needs until chanterelle season in the fall. And when I talked to him, he was moments from going fishing at a nearby lake — but he’s playing it safe, he assured me.

“I was the only one on the lake yesterday — some good social distancing,” he said. “And it just proves if those fish had stayed a metre away from me, they wouldn’t have had the fatal results that they had.”



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