It took a king, a pope and a former prime minister to make me rethink my scepticism about extrasensory perception.
Let me set the scene.
August 16, 1977 was a stinking hot Tuesday in southern British Columbia. I was on Highway 3, mid-way between Hope and Princeton, when CBC Radio announced that the King, Elvis Presley, was dead.
A year later, on the same stretch of road, CBC informed me about the death of Pope Paul VI. For reasons I’ll never know, I turned to my then-wife and blurted out, “There’s going to be another one this time next year. A Canadian.”
“Who?” she asked.
Two-second pause and I replied, “John Diefenbaker.”
The subject didn’t arise again until five months later, when the Current Affairs unit at CBC Calgary was looking at the major stories we anticipated in 1979. The biggest was a federal election, which Pierre Trudeau had to call before July 8.
The conversation quickly turned to the 83-year-old Diefenbaker, Canada’s 13th prime minister, who had signalled his intention to run again, but was in poor health.
Speculation was rife that the man they called “Dief the Chief” wouldn’t actually run, or would die before the campaign began.
As if from another dimension, I heard my voice declare flatly, “He’ll run again, and he’ll win. He’s not going to die. Not until August 14.”
A conversation-stopper, to say the least.
Once again, I had no clue where the idea had come from. Once again, I forgot about it for several months. Meanwhile, Diefenbaker recovered and was elected to the House of Commons for a 13th time that May.
On Monday, August 13 (there’s that number again), I was conducting the regular story meeting for staff of all three local programs to discuss their plans for the week.
Before anyone else spoke, I wrote two words in Tuesday’s column on the whiteboard: Diefenbaker Dies.
For the third time, the premonition came straight out of the blue.
An hour later, I got a call from a producer at As It Happens, complaining that things were pretty quiet and asking if there was anything worth chasing in our part of the country.
“Don’t worry, George,” I told him. “Diefenbaker’s going to die tomorrow. You’ll have lots of stories.”
As it happened, the prairie legend didn’t die on Tuesday, and my staff ribbed me mercilessly. When he didn’t die on Wednesday, either, the subject quickly disappeared from my radar.
On Thursday, August 16, I slipped into the producer’s chair at exactly 6 a.m., just as John Cranston intoned the words, “Here is the CBC News. John Diefenbaker is dead.”
In the chilling moment it took to comprehend what I was hearing, Cranston looked straight at me and nodded grimly, as if to say it was all my fault.
I had never believed in precognition, or any other paranormal phenomena. I certainly never claimed any psychic powers. Didn’t want them, don’t want them, don’t believe I have them.
But the King, the Pope and the Chief certainly made me think about it.
Now, the prequel…
I had encountered John George Diefenbaker in person a few times over the years, beginning in 1961, when he spoke at our high school about his government’s Bill of Rights.
In the early 1970s, whenever I attended Question Period in the House of Commons, like most people in the public gallery, I secretly hoped the old warrior from Prince Albert would be on deck that day.
If he was, everyone would lean forward, eagerly anticipating one of his trademark jowl-shaking, finger-wagging broadsides at some hapless cabinet minister.
The last time I met Diefenbaker was in early summer, 1974, when I interviewed him for CBC-TV on the lawn of the Charlottetown Hotel in PEI.
To be honest, I’d never cared much for the man, or his politics, and wasn’t thrilled about the assignment. But for some reason, once the camera was rolling, he and I locked eyes, got down and dirty, and had a blast for the next half hour.
At the end of our conversation, he leaned in, wagged his finger at me and uttered a sentence I will never forget.
“You have something nobody else has.”
To this day, I have no idea what he meant. Was it a tidbit of information he’d never shared before? A unique gift as an interviewer? The world’s worst case of halitosis?
Or… might he have meant the ability to foresee his death a full year (plus two days) before it actually happened?
I’m not certain I want to know the answer.