Back in 1986, when my husband was involved on a variety of boards and community associations, we were invited to a State dinner for Vice President, George H. W. Bush, which was hosted by the Honorable Pat Carney, then Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, and the Honourable Don Mazankowski, who was Minister of Transport at the time. That sounds very grand, but of course, we were not invited because we were in any way important—simply because we were considered ‘safe’. Basically, when any VIPs come to town and are the featured guests at a banquet, the place has to be filled with appropriate attendees who can be guaranteed to behave themselves, and the local community and political associations are raided for bodies.
Naturally, we were very chuffed to receive the invitation, for the event promised to be something to remember. The thick, cream-coloured card specified black tie, along with an addendum on the RSVP card that ballerina-length gowns were also acceptable for women. Since I was young and glamorous and loved dressing up, I was even more excited than my husband, who gloomily agreed that he would have to rent a tuxedo. As Hugh and I had been married in our home and I had worn an evening gown as my wedding dress, this dinner was the perfect opportunity to get my gown out again.
On the night of the event, we made our way downtown to the Hyatt Regency, and elegant in our finery, entered the foyer by the ballroom. I was stunned. In spite of the specific directions for the dress code, the majority of the men were in business suits and a significant number of women were underdressed as well. Many were not even in cocktail dresses, but simply wore suits or day dresses, and those of us who wore the specified gowns felt over-dressed, even though we were not. West Coast laid-back ethos with a vengeance!
Once we got over our amazement at the way people had ignored the dress code, we settled down to enjoy the hors d’oevres and the fascinating social scene. As Hugh quipped, seeing another keen-eyed, ear-plugged, sombre-suited gentleman glide by, “All the deaf men are security.” We soon found several people that we knew and remained in the lobby chatting until the final call, since within the ballroom, we were to be seated at assigned tables. Hugh, having fully appreciated the open bar, had to make a last-minute bathroom break, which meant leaving the foyer and passing security yet again on the way out of the men’s washroom. On his emergence, he looked across to the ladies where a female RCMP officer stood on duty and informed the policeman by the men’s that, if he had to be frisked, he wanted that one to do it. This caused great hilarity among the uniformed police, but not a smile was cracked by the plain-clothes team, all intent on making sure there were no threats to the guest of honour.
The rest of the evening was greatly enjoyable. Our table companions were interesting and the meal was definitely not the rubber chicken that one often gets at group events. When the President and his Lady appeared, we felt vindicated to see him in his tuxedo and Barbara Bush glittering from neck to toe in red sequins. The speeches were short and to the point, and when the guests of honour left, their route took them right by our table, where they paused to shake hands in the homey, friendly way that we tend to expect from our U.S. neighbours. The evening had been fun—a buzz, as my Australian cousins would say—an experience to remember. My wedding dress went back into the closet, where it has hung ever since, but the memories were taken out recently, because I realized that this was a great setting that I could use for one of my mystery stories. So when Bertram and Edwina Beary embark on “A Tale of Vice and Villainy” in an upcoming book, you’ll know where all the background detail came from. Not that we had any corpses dropping into the soup at the real event, but mystery writers are entitled to a little dramatic licence.
Looking back on that evening from so many years later, I feel a little sad as I realize that there are several differences today that are a sad reflection on our society. We are now so bound by political correctness that almost any remark can be construed to be offensive. When my husband made his quip outside the men’s washroom, the officers on duty laughed and sent him on his way, but I can’t help wondering what the reaction would have been today. Leaving aside the issues of ‘speech’ crime, the police have so many additional stresses to deal with that they seem to have lost their sense of humour. One can’t stop and chat with a policeman these days without being surveyed with suspicion. The old community feeling of easy interaction between honest citizens and the Force seems to have disappeared into the ether. Everyone was much less edgy in the pre-911 days.
The other major difference that struck me was our own attitude towards the host of security men. We, along with our other friends who were present, thought it was vastly entertaining to see a raft of plain-clothes policemen on duty to protect the Vice-President. Today, our reaction would have been quite different, for the sight of all the security personnel would have simply reminded us of our own vulnerability in a world where terrorism has become a common term in daily news. Instead of being relaxed, we would have been surveying the crowd with the same suspicious eye as the men and women on duty. Hey ho! Writing my ‘cozy’ mystery simply reminded me that our corner of the world is not as cozy a place as it was thirty years ago.