DURING THE 1994 Commonwealth Games, an Australian athlete became a father.
Pat Scammell wasn’t around for the birth. The middle-distance runner was here in Victoria, competing, while his wife Lea was home in New South Wales.
So that’s what the newspaper did, right at the top of the front page under the headline “He’s great, mate!”
Getting the picture here from Australia within a 24-hour turnaround was a huge technological challenge, though. Digital cameras were in their infancy and smartphones years away, so pulling off this marvel of modern communications had the editors giddily trading high fives in the newsroom.
No one dreamed there would soon be a day when dads would Instagram delivery-room pix before the umbilical cord was cut.
Nor did anyone imagine that one of the unexpected benefits of a global pandemic (admittedly, this is a short list) would be the way in which it drove us to shrink the world through video technology.
Call it COVID’s silver lining. When the coronavirus chased spectators out of arenas and concert halls and forced events online, it made those events available to anyone with a screen, wherever they might be. Video may be a lousy substitute for being somewhere in real life, but it’s way better than not being there at all. It brings people from far-flung places together.
An example: Last Sunday, members of a Comox Valley choir my sister-in-law leads Zoomed in from their homes to join choirs based in Traverse City, Michigan, and Denver, Colorado, in what they called the Big, Big Sing, a fundraiser for a small Victoria-based charity that aids a community in Mozambique. The Comox Valley choir now has regulars from Newfoundland and New Zealand.
The day before that, I Zoomed into an author-reading event, the kind that would normally be limited to those who could make it to the bookstore. This one had people plugging in from as far away as Europe
The day before that, I caught a glimpse of a conference led by students at Glenlyon Norfolk School. It used video technology to include not just participants from other south Island schools, but a delegate from Thailand.
The day before that, I knotted a necktie for the first time in 10 months, stood at a lectern before a sea of empty pews and taped a reading for Christ Church Cathedral’s annual Christmas lessons-and-carols service. The edited-together result will air on CHEK next Sunday and go online after that. Historically, the cathedral hasn’t been big enough to hold everyone who wanted to go to the service. Now it’s open to anyone with a device and a desire to see a bald man stumble over the name Quirinius.
Similar stories abound. The lighthouse keeper at Carmanah Point, cut off from the world, expressed delight when the church she rarely gets to attend began livestreaming. When pandemic rules chased Kamloops parents out of hockey rinks, Facebook Live became the only way to watch their kids’ games — allowing relatives on the other side of the continent to watch and moan about the refs, too. Safe on your couch, you can now nod off in the middle of a grad ceremony (or funeral, for that matter) without earning the stink eye from family members.
In a way, this all harkens back to 1981, when the provincial government launched the Knowledge Network. The idea then was to provide remote education via the miracle of television, reaching people previously isolated by circumstance. “The one-legged housewife from Horsefly” is the example they used.
Old-time communications seem quaint now. Everyone at the Times Colonist was so excited when that front-page photo of Pat Scammell’s new son worked out. Scammell says his Aussie teammates were pumped to see it, too. So was he. “It gave me such a lift,” he wrote from Australia this week.
The Scammells named the boy Benjamin Christopher, the initials B.C. a deliberate nod to the province in which Pat first saw his son’s photo.
Life doesn’t always go the way we imagine, though. In the semi-finals of the 1,500-metre, two runners collided and fell, causing Pat to go down, too, ending his 1994 Games.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, Lea was waiting for Pat to finish competing before imparting some sobering news: their new son had Down syndrome.
Benny, as they call him, is 26 now, having overcome a serious health scare in 2015. “Thank goodness he survived,” Pat says. “He is a brilliant part of the family.” When brother Liam marries in April, Benny will carry the rings.
“He brings such love and happiness to us,” his father says.
As we learned this year, life doesn’t always follow the script, can force us to adapt. It can still be pretty good, though.