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My (Brief) Adventure in Treasure Hunting

Though he's passed away, the writer Ron Lawrence was responsible for one of the more exotic incidents in my career in journalism. After the war he'd acquired a large amount of British pounds that he'd wrapped in tinfoil and hidden under the floorboards of a room where he was lodged in Gibraltar. Years later, he asked me to go back and get it for him.

It was only while browsing the Internet that I learned Ron Lawrence was dead -- had died in 2003 at the age of 82.

It was something of a shock.

Lawrence and I had been fellow reporters on the old Toronto Telegram, and even before the paper folded in 1971, Ron had gone on to another career as one of Canada's great do-it-yourself naturalists --- arguably one of the country's great expert on wolves, and the author of some 30 nature books.

I never knew him in this role, and his connections with the 15-acre Wolf Centre (the only one in Canada) in the Haliburton Hills. Lawrence's knowledge and passion came not from books, but from experience. His documented adventures with animals -- especially wolves -- are genuine to the core.

I share Lawrence's reverence for wolves -- arguably the most "civilized" of the pack animals -- and I envy his knowledge, understanding, and empathy with the species.

I also admire his shift in careers, from competitive street journalism to the more enduring legacy of books that inform, enlighten, and entertain. (Among his books are Trail of the Wolf, The North Runner, Cry Wild, In Praise of Wolves.)

Ron Lawrence was also responsible for one of the more exotic incidents in my journalism career. Throughout the 1960s, the Tely sent me to cover a lot of the big international stories of that decade -- marines in Lebanon, revolution in Baghdad, paratroopers in Jordan, agitation in Egypt, bloodshed in Algeria, Jews escaping Morocco, War in Congo, Angola, Vietnam, South Africa, etc.

Lawrence had been in the British army during the war, survived Dunkirk, served in North Africa with the famed Eighth Army, wounded in Normandy, etc. At the Tely, we'd have coffee in the morning and swap stories.

One day, when I was about to head back to the Middle East, he wondered if I could detour on the way home and visit Gibraltar, where he'd been stationed.

Gibraltar in those days was a sort of free port where expensive things like cameras could be purchased cheap. It was a Mediterranean haven of old Britain, where tea and crumpets and cricket blended with the famous rock apes and Spanish culture.

Lawrence said near that the end of WWII he was ordered to go to Cairo on temporary duty, then to return to Gibraltar. However as the army is wont to do, he never returned to Gibraltar, but was sent back to Britain.

He said before leaving Gibraltar for Cairo, he'd acquired a large amount of British pounds (from questionable dealings?), that he'd wrapped in tinfoil and hidden under the floorboards of the room where he was lodged.

It was now nearly 20 years after the war, and Ron wanted me to somehow check the room and recover the money. If I did, he said we'd split it. I was intrigued at the prospects, but said I didn't want any of the money. If the room was occupied, I might have to give some to the occupier. The bills would have been in old British currency -- George VI, not Elizabeth II.

Anyway, on the way home from the Morocco assignment I detoured through Gibraltar. Sure enough, Ron's directions to the residence were precise. On a sunny afternoon I approached the building and found it had been converted to a hostel for women -- mostly Spanish dancers who performed in clubs.

There was a double staircase with a large woman in a booth checking those who entered. I was inclined to give up, but when a woman entered I managed to dart up the other stairs to the second floor without being noticed.

I went to the end on the hall, past a communal washroom, to the door Ron had said was his. I knocked, intending to explain myself to whoever answered. There was no answer. As I walked away, a youngish woman was walking towards the room. I ducked into the stairwell and watched as she unlocked and entered what had been Ron's room.

I figured if she'd been out, she'd want to use the bathroom and wouldn't lock the room. It's what I'd do if it were me. Sure enough, she headed down the hall to the bathroom.

I raced to her room, went inside, and locked the door. I figured she'd think it had locked by accident and would go and to the receptionist for a key. I hastily examined the floor under the sink where Lawrence said the loose floor board was. Alas, it was all concrete. The floors had been redone since the war.

There was no hiding place for money.

I waited and heard the woman come back, try the door, and utter a Spanish oath as she left to fetch the door-keeper.

After a few seconds I left, nipped along the corridor and went down the secondary stairs, unseen by the two Spanish women returning with the key. I was out in the street again, no money found, but was undetected. Adrenaline was flowing.

Back in Toronto, I explained what happened to Lawrence. I'm not sure he didn't half-believe I'd absconded with his wartime loot. Still, it made a good story despite an unsatisfactory ending. I still occasionally marvel at the nerve of the adventure.

Anyway, Ron Lawrence is gone, but his love, concern, and dedication to animals live on. And somewhere, there may be a Spanish workman who can recount how he was repairing floors in Gibraltar nearly 50 years ago and hit a mother lode of British pounds sterling. For him, fate was smiling.

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