86 Years

Today is my grandfather, “Poppa”, aka Barry Johnston’s 86th birthday, so I want to take the opportunity to commemorate those many exciting years of life through the eyes of his fourth to youngest grandchild (of 12), yours truly.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to interview him about his photography career for a school assignment: a selection of quotes from that interview are now directly paraphrased in this post.

As I soon hope to be, my grandfather was a graduate of Ryerson University. In 1955, he walked through the old halls of campus looking for the architectural program department, but the teachers were all on lunch break. The only faculty that were immediately present were the photography instructors. In his words, “the program looked interesting, so I went in and applied for it. And got accepted.” Three years later, he graduated. Just like that, an aspiring architect, turned photographer.

It would be an understatement to say he did well for himself after that. He got his first job soon after and married my incredible grandmother the same year. In his home life, he has been no less impressive. He is now a dad of four, grandfather of twelve, and great-grandfather of five. To all of us, he has been a teacher, a jokester, a handyman, and a loving caretaker. He’s both someone you can sit in comfortable silence with and someone who can bring you to tears laughing. Fortunately for me, he is also a willing story teller, and I’ve come to familiarize myself with a handful of his most exciting adventures over the years.

As a child hearing these stories, it felt like my grandfather was the Indiana Jones of photography. Before the time of digital technology and advanced editing software, if a Toronto advertising company wanted a photo taken in Halifax, they had to send a photographer to personally drive across the country to take it, and that photographer was often my grandfather. He always got the shot, whether it meant putting his life in danger, or breaking the rules. He ignored police orders, took photos from helicopters, from moving cars, and from underwater. He shot wild animals and celebrities. On more than one occasion he narrowly escaped a shoot with his life.

I’ll share an example of such an occasion now, in as close to his own words as possible. The following is my favourite of his outlandish stories (and one of them includes stealing a skeleton bone from Casa Loma). It’s about playing hooky on a weekend, but I always remembered it as “the bull story”:

The advertising company that he worked for at the time wanted a picture of a car by a wheat field, preferably with a big house in the background. The date was July, 10, 1972, a Monday. They had asked him to do a location hunt that weekend but he didn’t want to do a location hunt, he wanted to go to the cottage. So he did just that. He went to the cottage for the weekend, and drove back at 4 am Monday morning, to Shelter Valley, Ontario.

The task was simple, the company only wanted polaroids to provide the client with proofs, and he knew that there was a big wheat field with a nice hill in it in Shelter Valley. But when he got to where he believed his field to be, it was still dark, not even a moon in the sky, so he parked on the side of the road to wait for the sun to come up. What he didn’t know at the time, was that about an hour’s drive away, fourteen convicts had just escaped from the Milhaven Institution maximum security prison. This was to be the largest prison break in Canadian history. He woke up to sharp knock and two policemen peering through his window. There was a police car parked behind him and another one in front, so that he couldn’t pull out. Unbeknown to him, his car matched the description of a potential escape vehicle and the policemen presumed him to be a getaway driver for the escaped prisoners. They asked him to step out of the car and put his hands on the hood so they could frisk him. Dawn was breaking when he started to explain that he was just there to photograph the wheat field, gesturing to it over his shoulder, but as he turned to look there was no wheat field to be seen. It was corn. The officer looked at him strangely and went back to his car to run his information. Fortunately then, it only took about ten minutes for them to realize his occupation and send him on his way.

He drove a couple of miles up the road, with the sun now well up. Amazingly, he found a wheat field with a little farmer’s house behind it. Regaining any lost confidence in the job at hand, he went up to the door to ask the farmer’s permission to enter their field. Well, they had been listening to the radio and had just heard that fourteen convicts had escaped from Millhaven Institution, when they saw this guy coming up to the door with worn jeans and a big beard. The door opened and out stepped a white haired old lady in a pink nightgown, shakily pointing a shot gun at his chest.

He was trying to give her the same explanation that he’d given the officers when finally the woman’s husband came downstairs. “Calm down Ellie, its’ ok, let’s just see what this man wants,” the old man said, easing the gun off her arm. Once again, he explained that he was simply here to take a picture of a wheat field. Well, said the old man, there’s a great field out there if you want to take your pictures, you can even drive your car onto it, but watch out for the bull, (he’s a little skittish). Tired and ready to be done with this particular shoot, he headed out to the middle of the wheat field. He had just taken the photo, when he heard stomping behind him.

As he turned around to investigate, the bull was already running at him full force, head down. He didn’t have time to think, he grabbed his equipment and made a desperate dart for the nearby fence. With no other choice but to make the jump with polaroid camera in hand, he launched himself over in one movement and came down hard on the other side.

He was astonished to find himself uninjured, but the camera wasn’t as lucky, now smashed into pieces on the ground. When he turned around to examine the scene he’d narrowly escaped, the bull was still there, glaring at him through the fence with flaring nostrils. He returned to the agency at 10 am that morning, without the shot for the first time in his career, only to find out the whole photoshoot had been cancelled.

Here’s to this story and the many others embedded in 86 momentous years of life. I hope to keep hearing and sharing them. Happy Birthday Poppa, and thank you for all that you’ve done for me, most notably, crafting my build-a-bear a wooden bed in the fifth grade, reminding me how to parallel park, and suggesting that we cut all the zippers off my ex-boyfriend’s pants when you found out that he had cheated on me.

Love always,




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