It was probably 1985. I was working as an associate creative director at DMB&B Canada.
Our agency was growing like a weed because of both the merger between Benton & Bowles and D’Arcy McManus & Masius and the fact that we had some really good new business people.
Back then our clients, even the stodgy packaged goods and industrial ones, didn’t much care how we dressed so we dressed any way we liked.
I was a big fan of army surplus and could often be found hammering away in my office in combat boots, green canvas pants with lots of pockets and camo shirts.
This was sort of my uniform de jour at the time. And since I was about 35 or so, I had the appearance of someone who had actually been to war. I also had what many people consider to be an upstate New York accent, so I would often be mistaken for an ex-pat American.
Anyway, our creative department was growing and morphing into pods. My partner, Danny Floyd and I, were offered our own group but declined because we didn’t like the idea of anybody else working on some of our accounts. We had great clients and had no desire to see them unhappy in any way.
Enter Mr Morkel
So one day, the honcho Creative Director, Pete Langmuir came down and told us he had scored a bit of a coup. How so? we asked. He told us that he was able to get Art Director Andre Morkel, who happened to be floating around and available, and that he would be running one of the three other groups besides our own.
I had heard stories about Andre Morkel. He and a guy named Gary Prouk (pictured here…couldn’t a pic of Mr Morkel), had worked together for a number of years at Doyle Dane Bernbach, basically starting and growing their Canadian operation. He was a bit of a legend.
But I had also heard other stories about Morkel and Prouk as being a bit on the insane side.
I once interviewed with Gary Prouk after he he left DDB to go to Scali McCabe Sloves and do basically the same thing there. I found him kind of scary, more or less in the same way that I’m sure a lot of people in Hollywood found guys like Alfred Hitchcock scary.
I wasn’t offered a job and probably wouldn’t have taken it if I was. I was just kicking tires and looking for an exit job from Foster Advertising. I kind of felt that my exit from Scali would have been in a body bag.
But despite all the craziness, both Prouk and to a slightly lesser extent, Morkel, were legendary Toronto ad guys. And Pete was excited to have him.
Act One – Bait The Hook
At first Andre kept to himself. He was a bit on the remote side. We were friendly enough with him. But one day Danny came in my office and opined that he thought Morkel was one of the spookiest guys he’d ever met. I couldn’t disagree.
One of the things I found out about Morkel was that he was a bit of a war freak and like to collect guns. I’m not exactly sure why that intrigued me but it did. So we decided that maybe I could fuck with guy a bit to see if we could loosen him up.
Although he never really said anything, I could see that he kind of looked at me a bit odd in my army surplus finery. And I thought, what if he thinks, I’m a Vietnam vet. I bet that would freak him out a bit. Brothers with arms and all that good stuff.
I told Danny, who was up for messing with anybody, and we figured out a couple of cues, that we could use every time Andre walked by our adjoining offices.
Things like “Fuckin’ mosquitoes the size of baseballs, and they were everywhere” and “Riding up that river was just like being in Apocalypse Now. It was wall to wall jungle, scary as shit.” Stuff like that.
Act 2 – Reel Him In
Well it took a couple of weeks, but one day, late in the day, Andre came and sat down in my office. He stared at me for a bit and then said “Can I ask you something?” I looked at him a little oddly “Sure”, I said. Then he asked “Were you ever in ‘Nam?”
This was great. I had him by the short and curlies. I furrowed my eyes a bit and leaned forward staring him in the face. “Why do you want to know that?” I asked, bluntly. He replied “Well I was just curious. I hear you can Danny talking about things a lot and just wondered what your background was.”
I took a deep breath, sighed and then spread my arms in a kind of hopeless shrug. “The short answer is….I can’t discuss it.”
He started bouncing a bit in the chair…”I knew it…you must have been special forces…listen I understand completely. Don’t worry, I won’t bug you about it. He shook his head a bit and said “Wow”.
I said. “Maybe in a couple of years, I’ll write something about it. But right now any talking I do will end me up in Leavenworth.” (Leavenworth is a US military prison in Kansas)
He left my office floating on a cloud. We were the best of friends after that, and I felt pretty good that I had loosened him up a bit.
Other than sharing it with Danny and having a good laugh. I didn’t think about it after that…until the boat party.
Act 3 – The Boat Party
Everybody worked hard at DMB&B and the management of the agency was always very grateful. One of the ways they expressed their gratitude in June was to have a day at the Toronto Islands.
It was kind of like a family day, without the family. Everybody brought food and management brought beer and wine.
We played softball and tennis. We ate barbecued hot dogs and burgers Some of us brought our bikes over on the ferry and rode around. The stoners, if which I was one at the time, went to the secluded south beach and got buzzed. The budding office romances bloomed and basically everybody had a good time.
At 5:00 pm we all got on a chartered cruise boat. Drank more booze, ate more barbecue and other good catered stuff and basically just sailed around the island until the sun went down.
By about 8:00 everybody was fairly wrecked, because that’s the way these things went back then. The conversations got pretty silly and theoretical. The nerd in everybody will eventually emerge when encouraged with enough mind altering substance.
I was leaning on the rail talking to some chick in accounting about horses. Apparently she was rich and rode show horses for a hobby.
At this point Mr. Morkel, who had been almost invisible up to this point clapped me on the shoulder. “How’s it going, Marine?, he said. He had started calling me Marine after our conversation. Man, he was hooked.
“Not too shabby, Andre, how about you?”
“This is a hell of a shindig, isn’t It?”
“Yeah, they do it every year.”
“Come on up to the front deck. I brought something to show you.”
“Umm, OK.”. It sounded kind of sinister, but he had a way of making everything sound like that.
We walked up to the front deck and when he was sure that nobody was around, he reached into his jacket and pulled out this fucking pistol.
I stared at it wondering just what the hell was going on. “What the hell is that?” I asked.
“Don’t you recognize it?” he asked.
Then I started putting it together. “It looks familiar, but it’s been a few years, and I’ve been working really hard to forget a lot of stuff about my past.” I said, hoping that would cool him out.
But he was a bit pumped. “This is the Remington Rand M9911A1, 45 Automatic. This is the pistol you would have been issued, anytime up to 1985, when they switched over to the Colt.”
He handed the gun to me. There were a couple seconds there when I considered taking it an whacking him on the head with it. But the goddam thing terrified me.
But I took it. Fondled it like I had seen so many crazed soldiers doing in every war movie I had ever made. I sighted it out over the lake, then nodded and muttered something as I handed the gun back to him.
At that point I was prepared to spill the beans and tell him it was all just a joke. But the guy was holding a 45 Automatic and he’d obviously had a few pops, so I wasn’t about to mess with his head.
“Where did you get that piece?”, I said, trying to sound Marine like.
“At a gun show in upstate New York..there aren’t many of these around. Almost everybody kept them after the war.”
“Well thanks for showing it to me. It really brought back some memories. Then I got a little tough. “Now do yourself a favour and put it the fuck away before anybody sees it and you get your ass fired, soldier.”
“Yes, sir”, he said as he slipped the gun into his shoulder holster and pulled his jacket back over it.
“And one more thing, Andre. Don’t show me any more of your war toys. I did my time. I’m an advertising guy now. I don’t want to remember anything about that hellhole. You got it?”
“Yes sir, loud and clear”. With that he turned and slunk away.
I leaned over the railing and worked really hard to stifle the urge to barf up all my beer and barbecue. Not a success.
Andre ran his group for another three months and then left. When he said goodbye and reposted he had been offered a consulting position in New York, we wished him luck. I saluted him and he saluted back and that was the last I saw of him.
I heard about a year later that he had passed away. Congestive heart failure or something. At least it wasn’t Russian Roulette. But who knows.
Guess it’s not only the good who die young. It’s also the very strange.
Hope you enjoyed this story. A longish career in advertising will actually generate a fair number of them for everyone. be sure to look for my next installment: The Arm & Hammer Story: 4 Years On Mike Elliott Roller Coaster.
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