David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 141: The Tragically Hip (Fifty Mission Cap)

May 3, 2022

As a former teacher, I hate that 20 some years of students become mostly nameless and even faceless. I still joke that I only remember the really good ones and the ones who really pissed me off (note that I will never say the "bad" ones). However, as I reach 60, I am forgetting almost all of them, even when I remember how they responded to an assignment.

A young man in my Composition I class turned me onto The Tragically Hip at some point in the mid 1990's. His assignment was to write a standard descriptive essay about a song the student particularly loved (they had choices that appealed to other senses). When learning expository writing, students, with an assignment such as this, early on focus on their abilities to use illustrative details that can generate certain responses from readers.  I always gave them a model based upon The Blue Aeroplanes' "Your Ages," an excuse to play the song in class so that they could hear it first, perhaps converting another soul to my favorite band at that time (by the way, my conversion rate may have been in the negative numbers).

So, while others were choosing Alanis Morissette, Lil Kim, Toni Braxton, or Green Day, my soft-spoken adult Canadian student whose name I can't remember picked a song by The Tragically Hip, a band I should have known more about, if only because their name seemed clearly chosen from the Elvis Costello lyric in "Town Cryer" ("they're so teddy bear tender and tragically hip").  Turns out they chose their name from a Michael Nesmith skit in 1981's Elephant Parts, which might mean Elvis took his line from a former Monkee.  The most talented Monkee, sure, but still, the revelations one gains through life!

Anyway, I tragically digress. My Canadian student chose "Fifty Mission Cap" as his song, and burned (remember when we did that?) the Hips' Fully Completely CD for me so that I could hear this song, as well as 11 other.  I was touched, and maybe only later would wonder if I should have been accepting gifts from students, especially in the form of, "it was necessary for the assignment" (remind me sometime to figure out how to work in the gift in the form of a bottle of booze while I was a graduate teaching assistant; not sure what song might link to that, perhaps "Oh, Very Young.")

Alas, I pathetically digress again. Before I set out to read his essay, I had to listen to the CD, right?  I quickly enjoyed it, hooked by the chorus of "Courage," the first song, to make me want to know what the song's parenthetical "(For Hugh Maclennan)" meant, especially since the recurring line was that "courage couldn't come at the worst time."  Turns out Maclennan was a Canadian author.  The more and more I got into the album, the more I realized it had dropped me in the middle of our northern neighbor.

(It might help to note that I was teaching at Detroit College of Business, just a wrong turn away from being forced to go into Canada rather than turn around. We had quite a few Canadian students.)

My Canadian friend (MCF from here on) had not copied a lyric sheet (if it even existed) so I anxiously sought to understand references: "Jacques Cartier, right this way" in "Looking For A Place To Happen" led me to discover a explorer I'd never heard of. "At The Hundredth Meridian" had me fully sucked in by Gord Downie's staccato delivery of "meridian" while I looked at my atlas.

To be honest, by the time I got to "Fifty Mission Cap" (the 9th track on the album), I was a little exhausted, pleased but exhausted.  I listened to the song, determined not to read the essay first.  Initially, I was underwhelmed. There was a certain driving momentum to the song, and while Downie had brought the staccato delivery to the chorus again with "miss-ss-ion cap," I couldn't say the song rose above the rest of the album. As a lyric guy, I just didn't gain much from the scant lyrics, basically two verses telling the same story of a hockey player (Bill Barilko) who disappeared on a fishing trip.

However, who was I to judge (I thought, as I went to grade a paper, ironically)?  My Canadian friend tied together for me the link between Fifty Mission Caps (as awarded to allied pilots in World War II) with this lost Maple Leaf (both Toronto's and Canada's) hero.  He made me realize the brilliance of the transitional line between the first verse and the chorus: "I stole this from a hockey card I keep tucked up under my fifty mission cap."

Good songs about famous athletes are fairly rare in my book. I hope in my comments written back to MCF, I told him to check out Warren Zevon's "Bill Lee," his tribute to the Red Sox hero who wasn't willing "to sit on your ass and nod at stupid things."  If I kept touch with MCF, a decade later I might have frantically written him to see what he thought of Zevon's "Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)" co-written with Mitch Albom.  Alas, connections disappear much more easily than hockey players who score Stanley Cup winning goals.

It had been a long time since I have listened to "Fifty Mission Cap." In thinking about it and him in relation to this series, I listened multiple times and plan to add it to my regular rotation. I forget what the essay earned (I remember him as being a good student, so I am sure he got a good grade). I suspect he did a much better job than I have done here.  Still, I tip my fifty-year old baseball cap to you, my nameless Canadian friend.

The Tragically Hip. "Fifty Mission Cap." Fully Completely. MCA. 1992. Link here.

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See unfinished list here.