At the end of his Hercules tour Ron retired from the Airforce and joined Aircraft Accident Division of Transport Canada. As part of his training to become an aircraft accident investigator, Ron studied at USC in Los Angeles, the University of Arizona in Tempe, Az and the University of Alberta in Edmonton. As an aircraft accident investigator, Ron participated in over 200 investigations, ranging from ultralight sport airplanes to large jet transport aircraft as well as many helicopter accidents. He didn’t stop flying here either, but kept up his pilot skills on the fleet of Transport Canada aircraft. He also learned to fly helicopters during this time. In the final two years of his Transport Canada career, Ron became the Regional Aviation Safety Officer for Western Canada. In this capacity, Ron became responsible for flight safety promotion for the region – basically all of Alberta, the Yukon and the Western half of the North West Territories. This job entailed promoting flight safety through presentations, flight safety seminars, meetings, inspections and safety analyses. It was here he became comfortable in front of an audience. In 1979 Ron joined Great Lakes Airlines and flew for the many iterations of that airline until retiring in 2007 when the airline was known as Jazz. Presently, Ron is enjoying life in Kilworth with his best friend, his wife for 50 years Janet, their dog Calliope and cat Penelope. He volunteers at Country Terrace nursing home and Hospice London with his dog as part of the St John Ambulance Therapy Dog program. He spent the last 2 years writing grant proposals and fundraising for an addition at his church. This half million dollar project was completed this past summer.
Ron Stewart’s workshop led directly to the creation of London Open Mic Poetry by providing shy poet Stan Burfield with a first step out into the social world. The next step was to read his poems in public, which necessitated the creation of an open mic.
Ron Stewart graduated from Royal Military College with a Bachelor of Applied Science degree in 1966 specializing in Aeronautical Engineering (aircraft engines). He underwent pilot training in Manitoba and received his RCAF wings in 1967. His first flying job in the Airforce was as an instructor on the DeHavilland Chipmunk. During that tour he alternated between flight and ground school instructor positions. It was here that he authored his first book (a flight training manual). Next was the C130 Hercules squadron based in Namao (Edmonton, Alberta). Here he flew worldwide transport and tactical missions in probably the best and most versatile aircraft ever built. On Herc missions, Ron got to see the world as very few others ever will. Some of the places his job took him to were Canadian Forces Base Alert, Thule and Sondresom Greenland, Reykjavik and Keflavik Iceland, Norway, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Cypress, Hawaii, Wake Is, Guam, Philippines, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Egypt, Japan, Alaska and the Yukon and Northwest Territories. He also accompanied The Queen, Prince Phillip and Prince Charles on three separate Royal tours.
On Rippling Water
I watch the water rippling
in the stream
in the woods
my dog and I visit every day.
The water is clean
hugging tight to rounded rocks,
pulled tight as if by
some giant magnet.
Every now and then
a small leaf boat
bounces and bubbles along,
skirting boulders, dipping over stones
slipping between rocks.
always upright, secure, stable.
As if guided by a small insect crew.
Ants on the tiller,
Spiders on the sail.
The Hercules aircraft,
Military designation C-130
has a wide, spacious cockpit,
often described as
a comfortable place
to make war.
But there's a lot of glass
like a greenhouse.
Too hot in the summer.
Glass can't block the sun's
Too cold in the winter.
Glass can't keep out
the skies' minus forty chill.
a Vietnam vet once told me
to bank towards the sniper.
The glass will stop a
fifty caliber bullet,
but the aluminum surrounding
and holding it in place
Le Pendu encore
I thought of great steaks,
fine music and poetry,
the company of beautiful women.
None of these would I ever see again.
Are these the musings
of a condemned man
just before that last drop?
Sitting in a bar
The Last Drop, I pondered
the last of a long line of hangings
in the courtyard
of the old courthouse
in London Ontario,
where a man could be hanged
for stealing turnips
Where Walter George Rowe
dropped to his death
through the gallows floor
after one o’clock
in the morning
June 5, 1951.
“I slipped on the grease
and my gun went off”
fell on deaf ears.
I finished my beer
and thought of
Joan Clayton: How did you make the transition from pilot to poet, Ron? Were there any defining moments?
Ron: Early in 1989 I agreed to become the Flight Safety Officer for the airline. Before I could get my feet wet at this new job Flight 363 crashed shortly after takeoff in Dryden - killing 3 crew and 21 passengers. I arrived on the accident site in the middle of the night. The crash had a major affect on me. I had attended over 200 aircraft accidents in my time as an aircraft accident investigator, some of them were terrible bloody messes, but this one was personal. I knew all three deceased crewmembers and was friends with two of them. Seeing the burned out remains of the aircraft, the passengers and my friends changed me. For years I carried this around not knowing what to do, then for some reason unknown to me I started to write, and what came out was poetry. Pretty crude in the beginning, but poetry none the less.
Carl Lapp: What influence does the experience of piloting have on your poetry?
Ron: I guess the phrase that comes to mind that sums it all up is “I’ve seen clouds from both sides now” (with apologies to Joanie Mitchell). This may not seem much, however there is more to it than just that. I have seen many such wondrous sights that even now stretch my imagination. St Elmo’s fire on my windscreen and propellors, ball lightning floating down the middle aisle of the airplane (this one I didn’t see, my navigator told me about it), shafts of Aurora Borealis seemingly darting below the level of my aircraft on a night flight down from Cambridge Bay and many many more.
Carl Lapp: I always felt that your wife Jan added a wonderful bright spark and spirit to the workshop. How did she start writing and contributing?
Jan: I have always been the one saying “Let’s go...let’s do this.” Ron mentioned that he could live nicely in a cabin in the Yukon, and that is very true. In Nov 2005, I saw a notice In the Free Press for Poetry London, and, knowing that Ron had started writing Poetry (and he would not go by himself), decided that we should attend and check it out. This became a regular event for us – workshops and readings whenever the opportunity presented itself. I was solely an observer, but did participate in the discussions. One night, I found myself thinking “I wouldn’t have phrased it that way...I might have tried XXX.” Funny, but I don’t even remember if it was a published poem or a workshop presentation. But that was my first inkling that I too could do this, as I don’t have any paper credentials in English Lit or Poetry or anything. I have often said that I started writing in self-defense – if I was going to attend the meetings, I might as well contribute. So I guess I sort of backed into writing poetry, which may partly explain my (mainly) light-hearted attempts. Ron is the serious poet – both in subject matter and dedication. I just write when something hits me over the head!
Stan Burfield: Your workshop was a testament to your interest in poetry for the common person. Most of us who attended regularly had no education in English, except what we provided for each other during the course of critiquing each other’s work. Although definitely some very highly-educated creative geniuses were known to attend as well. I'm curious how you managed to attract and/or find the wide variety of people who attended.
Ron: Jan and I started attending Poetry London workshops the second year of its existence. It was readily apparent from the disappointment of the number of people (poets) that came wanting their poems to be workshopped that something else was needed. As you know, only two poems from local poets are workshopped each time. I’ve always been the type of person that when a job needs to be done, I do it. So with support from Carolyn Doyle I started the workshop hoping to attract those disappointed poets who wanted to be heard, seen, discussed, and encouraged. The way I enticed them to stay was by managing a very gentle approach to the workshop. Many of those attending for the first time were quite uneasy about opening up and allowing others to view/listen to their work. It’s hard to present your own original work (as opposed to a prepared presentation or a reading of someone else’s work). By having the poem read 3 times, twice by the workshop group and once by the poet, and then by allowing only positive comment on the first go around the table I was able to set a great number of fears to rest.
Joan Clayton: You have clearly been committed to bringing poetry to the community in an accessible and friendly way. Can you comment on that please?
Ron: As I said earlier, when I see a job that needs to be done, and no one else is doing it or volunteering to do it, I jump in and take it on. This probably is what was going on in the airline when I took on the safety job. This is probably my best and my worst characteristic. I saw poets coming in to the Poetry London workshop crying out to be heard and going away disappointed. I saw a need for a safe, comfortable place for them to be heard. Hopefully that is what I created.
Stan Burfield: Ron, at your workshops I always greatly admired the smooth and comfortable way you facilitated. You managed to make everyone feel relaxed and at home, even on their first visit. And yet you moved us through the poems efficiently, but without a feeling of heavy-handedness. In other words, the way you ran it seemed quite natural. How did you come by this ability?
Ron: I think I gained that ability over many years and through many different experiences. As a Captain of a multi person crew in the RCAF it was important to listen to the input of all crew members whether they were of lower rank (NCOs - non commissioned officers) same rank, or superior officers (Air Commodores Group Captains, Generals) acting as my co pilots. In my next job as an aircraft accident investigator I was required to interview witnesses, survivors, family and friends of deceased crash victims. It was necessary to extract information without turning off the person I was interviewing. In my last flying job I was again depending on information from my crew. Anyone with a know it all attitude would have a great deal of difficulty in that situation. For instance if a Flight Attendant heard a strange noise in the cabin, it would be foolish to ignore that. If that same Flight Attendant was fearful of the captain she or he may be unwilling to share, and that could have disastrous consequences. I have also chaired meetings, given flight safety presentations, and given many speeches and intros for various groups and organizations and therefore have no fear in front of an audience.
Ola Nowosad: Could you comment on the importance and appeal of rhyme in poetry. Is there still a place for rhyme in modern poetry?
Ron: I think we all start off with rhyming poetry. Let’s face it, that’s how stories were passed down. Songs or rhyming poems carried our history from one generation to the next. My first book had many rhyming poems. For instance, here’s an excerpt from a poem called Red Serge which was a tribute to the 4 Mounties shot in Mayerthorpe Alberta:
The scarlet lines were long and straight
Black britches striped in gold
Marched in solemn dignity
as the drum beat softly rolled
I think this poem would be very easy for someone (perhaps a student or family member) to memorize and thus the story could be passed down to the next generation.
One of my first poems came from a line of poetry from an English Poet named Sarah Williams who died way back in 1868. My friend Lynne quoted this line to be “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night”. When I asked her where that came from she didn’t know, only that it had always been in her family. After a bit of research on the internet, I found that the line comes from Sarah Williams poem The Old Astronomer to his Pupil.
I took this, the last line of Sarah’s poem, and turned it into this:
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night
I have watched the heavens sparkle and felt good earth pull tight. (another excerpt)
Rhyming poetry will always be popular with the average reader, but, as I said earlier, I think the in-crowd views it with disdain. As long as the rhymes are not forced I believe rhyming poetry can be very good. I still do write rhyming poetry – sometimes, it just “feels right”. A few years ago a poet named Tim Bowling was featured at Poetry London. Among his many accomplishments was the Griffen poetry prize. At the time of our meeting, I was starting to write a poem to commemorate my niece's wedding. I knew what I was going to say but unsure what poetic form I should use. Tim advised to go with what the audience would like. He said he had just written a rhyming poem for an anniversary, so I wrote a rhyming poem, and it was greatly loved and appreciated.
Karen Schindler: Since you (and Jan) have been such faithful attendees at Poetry London, I’d love to know who your top 3 featured poets have been over the years
Ron: It’s difficult for me to narrow the field down to only three. Off the top of my head I will give you the poets who have had a strong effect on me and my writing, Cornelia Hoogland, George Amabile, George McWhirter. That being said, Michael Crummy, Marty Gervais, Patrick Lane, Barry Dempster, and Phil Hall would be right up there close to the top. I really appreciate the poets who take the time to tell the background story behind the poem, or the reason why he/she wrote it.
Joan Clayton: Do you have a favorite poem or poet? And why?
Ron: As you well know I love Robert Service. His tales of the Yukon are wonderful majestic masterpieces. In another life I can see myself, and my dog, in a cabin in Dawson City YT. Ola asked me earlier about the future of rhyming poetry. One only has to look at Sam Magee or Dan McGrew for that answer. I also love Leonard Cohen and was greatly saddened by his recent death.
Carl Lapp: Comment on the different events you have contributed to and judged.
Ron: One of my favourite events is the high school student Poetry in Voice competitions. I’ve been judging that for a number of years now. Watching the bright young faces reciting poetry does the heart good. I also enjoyed very much judging the Western University Alfred Poynt poetry contest. I was paired with Laurie Graham and Ola Nowasad who figured they could gang up on me until they realized I loved the same poems that they did.
Debbie Okun Hill: Your life as a pilot gave you a unique perspective on the complexities of the world. A) In your opinion, how can poets and/or poetry make a positive contribution to society? B) Can an individual’s or a country’s pain be healed? Please elaborate.
Ron: Poetry is already a part of everyone’s life. The problem is that only a few of us recognize that. Some only come to hold poetry to their bosoms when reading the poem on the life card printed by the funeral home at the passing of a loved one. There is poetry in everything we do, every step that we take, every breath we breathe. I was forced to examine heartbeats as for many years I was saddled with an irregular beating heart (arrythmia). Think about your heart rhythm, thump Thump, thump Thump, thump Thump, thump Thump, thump Thump, (Iambic Pentameter). This real live cadence is copied in so very many poems, and songs too (which I believe are only poems set to music).
I know for certain that writing poetry healed my pain. I can only extrapolate this to a nation. You see this every time a National Hero, Political or Religious leader passes away. There was a great emphasis on poetry in the recent funeral of Mohammed Ali (Cassius Clay). I watched the memorial service for the four Mounties gunned down in Mayerthorpe. Same thing. Ian Tyson even changed the lyrics to his Four Strong Winds (a poem set to music) which he sang at the service.
When I watched the funeral of Rocket Richard on TV many years ago I was struck by the sheer number of ordinary people who came out to say a last goodbye to their fallen hero.
“The service was over. They spilled in the street.
They carried him to his last ride.
The sun was still shinning. I felt great relief.
They carried our hero with pride.
The fans still were there and with one last great Hurrah!
The hearse took his body away. and I said
"Rocket Richard scored his final goal today.
And Canada wept as they carried him away."
So Yes, Poetry can heal a nation.