The Fallout Diaries

The Fallout Diaries

by Frederick A. Lepine

Originally written and presented at the Banff Centre, January 2007

Day 13:

On CBC radio and on television and in the local weekly newspaper, they keep using the word “inevitable”.  They are telling us that unless something drastic is done, and very quickly, the Russian satellite will crash somewhere in the northern hemisphere.  They say that big chunk of metal is unable to hold its place in orbit any longer and it’s beginning to fall fast.  And stuck to the back end of the communications part is a nuclear reactor that has failed to disengage.   

Everyone here is making jokes about where it might land.  In Yellowknife, someone has cleared a landing pad in the snow in their backyard and spray painted the words “Cosmos 954” in the snow.  They have added a big red hammer and sickle.

In our grade eleven physics class, Mr. Weskowski has us drifting away from our usual studies to follow the satellite’s descent instead.  He is teaching us how to predict the probable crash location using a formula that includes the earth’s gravity and rotation speed, and the height, weight, speed, and direction of the satellite among other things.   

He says it’s a very simple formula – if we know where we have come from, and we know where we are, then we have a pretty good idea of where we are going to be at some future point in time.  He draws a spiral on the blackboard.

The spiral reminds me of the big staircase that starts on the second floor of our school and winds its way down to the main concourse floor, then once again lower to a private seating area below the staircase called the Conversation Pit.  The pit is carpeted and is pretty sound proof.  It is shaped like a half circle.  It is the lowest point of the whole school and kids and stories and things somehow always end up down there.

Our school is full of circles and curves and spirals.  It was designed a few years ago by a Blackfoot architect from the prairies who is becoming famous for the curves in all of his buildings.

When he officially opened the Alexander Mackenzie Secondary School, Douglas Cardinal would tell us students that our school was designed for us, not for the establishment – not for the teachers, not for the parents and not for the government.   When he makes that pledge to us on the main stage of the concourse that Monday afternoon in 1973, he is dressed in jeans, a deerskin jacket with fringes on the sleeves and he wears beaded moccasins on his feet.   His long, black hair is in braids and he looks like just about anyone from the north.   He has one hand in his jeans pocket and another on the podium.  He is a very proud man.  While he talks, he is backed by a long curve of white faces in light blue and plaid suits.

The slide presentation he gives shows the original sketches of the school – a bunch of circles, curves and spirals – and he tells us how the building follows the natural contours of the banks of the Hay River where it sits.  He talks about harmony and he uses words like freedom and openness and connectedness and joy.   

He says that the curves we follow in our journeys through the building are like the ones you find in nature and in life.   He says that by following curves, we will find no surprises around each corner because, well, there are no corners.  We will always see what is coming around the bend long before we bump into it.

He tells us about how the inside of the building should flow outside and how the outside should flow inside.  His head is full of new and radical ideas and I can see that not many of them make sense to most people in the audience.  Some of them clear their throats and shift in their seats while he talks.

He points to the Conversation Pit he has built for us below the staircase.  He declares this a Free Speech Zone.  He says that as far as he is concerned anything and everything that is said down there should be protected by the Canadian Bill of Rights.  When he says this, many of the people on stage in their light blue suits begin to clear their throats and shift in their seats, too.  I hear he makes all of his clients uneasy.

Mr. Cardinal calls himself an artist and he declares each of his buildings a work of art.  And he says you can’t deface a work of art.  So, to protect his works of art, he says he sometimes ends up fighting with his clients.

We would debate that idea in Miss Edwards’ art class a few days later.  I think he is right.  I think he is a brilliant man.  Most of the other kids don’t see it that way.  They think he is just being stubborn. One stubborn Indian, some say.

When Miss Edwards asks my best friend Whiskeyjack for his opinion, he doesn’t look up from what he is drawing.  He just slouches there in his seat at the back of the room and says quietly, “The guy’s got something there.”

Whiskeyjack keeps his thoughts to himself when he can.  Lately he has been doing a lot more of that.

But when all is said and done, the people who have to study and work in our school seem to be happy in this space.  The way the walls in the hallways curve and the way so much of the short winter daylight comes in from all directions – through the tall windows, the skylights and the glass classroom walls – I think they really do feel like they are connected to the outside world instead of being separated from it.

Now, after a few years of actually being in this school, we all find those places where we feel safest.  For me, it is in one of the small music practice rooms above the main stage area where it is dead quiet.  We don’t have much of a music program left so they are always empty.  I spend every spare moment I have there reading about superheroes and aliens and space ships and time travel.

For my little Metis friend, Whiskeyjack, his safe place is the Conversation Pit.   There he can hide below floor level during physics and math classes.  Sometimes he sneaks down there to sleep when he is hung over.  Sometimes to wait out being stoned on weed.   He has learned how to tell the footsteps of teachers in their high heels and Oxford shoes, so he never gets caught.

None of the other kids rat on him.  None of the cleaning staff really pay attention.  To be honest, few of the teachers really care.

The foot traffic and the space traffic just goes on and on in a big spiral overhead.  Down in the Conversation Pit, Whiskeyjack feels safe at the bottom of it all.


Day 8:

While I am eating my Corn Flakes in Milko powdered milk this morning, the radio program The World at Eight is reporting that Cosmos Nine Five Four is continuing its uncontrolled descent toward the planet.  The American government is accusing the Russians of failing to take the proper measures to prevent such an accident and the Canadian government is saying that if the satellite crashes anywhere in Canada, someone is going to pay, and pay big.  The Swedes are preparing for possible nuclear fallout and have recalled their ambassador to Russia, and countries in Europe are debating whether or not the best way to deal with this crisis is through the U.N.

The Russians have yet to say anything about anything.  They just refuse to admit that they even own any satellite beyond Sputnik.  That one they are still proud of.

My father jokes when he says maybe he will find the wreckage somewhere out in the bush while he is out on his trap line today.  He wonders who will own it if he does.  He and my uncle Walter debate the issue over breakfast.  It’s still dark when they are out the door and heading off to the trap line on their skidoos.

The air is sharp this morning as I get on the bus at our stop not far from our house.  Over the next several stops I watch as other kids get on the bus.  Some of the younger ones get kisses and hugs from their mothers who are there to see them off. I watch and imagine how warm that must feel like at 40 below.

I think back to the time when I  was in grade four and the Indian eye doctor, Mrs. Case, came around for her yearly visit. During my first checkup, as she flicked through lenses and asked if each one was better or worse, she was so close to me that I could feel her breath on my face when she spoke. I wanted to close my eyes because I enjoyed that closeness between us. I wish I’d had that with my mother.

Instead, I looked Dr. Case straight in the eye and lied about which lens was better and which was worse. In the end, it forced her to spend more time trying to figure out what the problem was.  I just sat there and took it all in for as long as I could.

In physics class today, Mr. Weskowski says he has made a few phone calls to some friends at the University of Alberta and he brings in new information about where the satellite was positioned early this morning.  He thinks we will now be able to get a better picture where the satellite will begin to come apart.  Only then we will have a better idea of where the burning wreckage will fall.

Secretly, we all hope the final crash will happen somewhere really close.  And, secretly, I think Mr. Weskowski feels the same way.

He has a way of making things exciting and that’s why I think I like his physics class.  I like playing with numbers because for some reason, I can turn those numbers into something I can see in my head.  It’s just a visual thing for me.  Mr. Weskowski told me once I had a really good way of making things connect.

At some point while drawing a spiral on the blackboard, Mr. Weskowski stops and turns around and asks us if we have ever heard of a guy named Fibonacci.  We all look around and shake our heads, no.  So he starts to tell us the story of this Italian mathematician from the Middle Ages who was able to figure out the math behind the growth of seeds in the spiral of a sunflower and the grown size of compartments in snail shells.  He said you could even use this simple formula to predict the growth of a rabbit family tree.

That little formula he discovered is called the Fibonacci Series.

But by the time the bell rings at the end of class, we don’t get very far at figuring out the descent path of the satellite.  We will need a computer to make some of the calculations go faster.  But we don’t know of anyone who owns one.  So, for now, using only our heads, Mr. Weskowski shows us how to calculate the Fibonacci series just by adding in our heads until everyone in class is completely exhausted. Then he tells us about how lucky we are.  He tells us of kids he taught in Swaziland in South Africa, who had nothing but a small broken piece of slate to write on. When the little piece of slate is full, you have to remember what you have written, wipe it clean and start over again.  Mr.  Weskowski tells us stories like this all the time.  I think he wants us to understand that there is always a bigger picture to think about.

After physics class, I walk along the curved railing on the balcony overlooking the concourse when I see Mr. Harris the Vice Principal leading Whiskeyjack out of the Conversation Pit.  Whiskeyjack’s eyes are as red as the tips of his mohawk haircut.   He is looking thinner by the day.  He looks up at me and I smile and sling him an inverted  peace sign.  He does the same but he doesn’t smile back.  He is putting on his black leather jacket as he walks and he staggers a bit. On the back of his jacket his girlfriend Sarah has embroidered the words Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the name of a supposed upcoming album from The Clash.  I don’t know how he knows all this cool stuff, but he is so far ahead of the rest of us in new music and things.

Out of the smoking lounge, Sarah now runs up behind him and hands him a pair of fingerless woolen winter mitts from one of her friends.  He puts them in his pocket and walks on behind Mr. Harris.

In art class today, Miss Edwards brings in the big, old, dusty scale model of our purple school and puts it on a table in the middle of the room.  She tells us to select a small portion of the school and to explore each and every curve in our drawings.  She wants us to use big, exaggerated gestures.  She wants us to practice large, smooth, unplanned movement.  Some of the kids laugh and really overdo it.  I look at the back of the class and see that Whiskeyjack is not in his usual seat.

I find out later on the bus that he has been suspended for skipping class until he can return with a note from his parents saying they have dealt with him.  I know he will find a way to be back tomorrow.  Whiskeyjack needs a warm place to curl up during these cold January days.  More importantly, he needs to be away from home.  I am hoping Mr. Harris the Vice Principal understands that.  Surely someone has told him what’s going on.

Lying in bed that night, I can hear my parents arguing again, their muffled voices coming through the thin walls of our trailer. This has been going on for a long time.


Day 5

On CBC television, the Americans are saying they have been tracking the falling piece of space junk from its first launch to its present wobbly position.  They are saying they are doing all they can and have offered to help the Russians attempt to separate the nuclear reactor part from the communications part. The Russians have to agree to let them in on their system first.

But the Russians have still not even owned up to the problem yet.  They are saying absolutely nothing.

The Canadian government complains to the U.N. that this is the reason no country in its right mind has ever used a nuclear powered satellite in the past.  It is just way too dangerous.  The Prime Minister uses words like “punishment” and “compensation” to bring attention to the looming disaster.  The opposition party leans heavily on the government forcing it to admit how much of the problem it was aware of long before today.  Everything just congregates into a big ball of accusations that spreads around the world.

On the road to school, we stop first to drop off the younger kids at the elementary school not far from my own school.  I watch as their teachers hug and pat the smallest ones in the freezing air.  It must feel good to get hugged every day like that. It must feel good to be told someone loves you.

In physics class this morning, Mr. Weskowski brings in a copy of the Edmonton Journal that his mother has sent to him from Sherwood Park in Alberta.  Inside the newspaper, he shows us printouts of the NASA projected orbits of Cosmos Nine Five Four.    But by the time it arrives in town by Greyhound bus, the paper is three days old and the information is useless.   

Mr. Weskowski says he thinks he has a line on a digital computer but it will not be available for days.  Instead, today we are only able to work out the ever-narrowing spiral for a few cycles.  But bit-by-bit some of us are beginning to truly understand the math behind the crisis.  Like everybody else, though, we just don’t see a solution.  When you lose control of something like that, sometimes it is already too late.

After physics class, I walk down the spiral staircase and into the Conversation Pit.  There I find Whiskeyjack dressed in his usual black in the corner in the dark.  He has his knees folded up underneath his chin.  He is shivering.  There are dark circles under his eyes a cut on his lip.  One of his many earrings has been pulled out. A bit of dried blood is left in its place.  He looks he hasn’t eaten in days and smells like he hasn’t showered in weeks.

I ask him how he’s doing and he just says, “I’m okay, Em.”  I open my lunch bag and toss him the caribou, cheese and bannock sandwich my mother has made for him every morning for the last several weeks.   He thanks me and devours it.

Sarah comes down into the Pit.  She’s got a look of sorrow on her face.  She squeezes past me and slips into Whiskeyjack’s arms.  He responds weakly to her sobbing.  A few of the kids on their way to other classes are beginning to stop and stare.  I give them the look of death and they are back on their way.

I tell Whiskeyjack that I am skidooing out to check my father’s trap line on Saturday.  I ask if he wants to come along.   He says sure.  I don’t like to call him at home because his father sometimes answers.  So I just tell him I’ll be heading out about ten in the morning and I leave the two of them alone there in the Conversation Pit.

In art class later that afternoon, it is getting hard to concentrate.  Miss Edwards is going on about the painter Vincent Van Gogh and his descent into madness.  She explores the relationship of brilliance, anger, despair and art.  I excuse myself for the bathroom and head straight for the Conversation Pit, but neither Whiskeyjack nor Sarah are there anymore.

I head over to the music department and lock the door once inside one of the tiny practice rooms.  I just sit there and stare straight ahead.  I stay that way for the rest of the day.  As school ends, I sneak out of one of the smaller exits and catch the bus home.

Tonight after supper, my father is talking about the falling satellite once again, this time while watching All in the Family on television.  During the commercials, he wonders if it will crash in a small or a wide area of the land.  He wonders if it might make a big change in the way the animals behave.  Will they be safe to eat?  Will their fur be too “hot” with that radiation stuff everybody is talking about?  Will he be able to hunt, fish and trap for much longer?

Later that night, I call Sarah’s house.   Her mother says Sarah hasn’t come home since she left for school that morning.  I go out to the garage and help my dad skin the mink and marten he and Uncle Walter have caught on the trap line today.  While I am scraping the small hides on their stretchers, I convince my dad and Uncle Walter to take Saturday off. I say Whiskeyjack and I will check the trap line for them.  That’s a good idea, he says.  He’s got business to take care of in town anyway.

Once again, before I fall asleep that night, the conversation in the next room erupts into an argument.  I wrap my pillow around my ears and roll over on my side.


Day 3

It’s Saturday morning and the radio says the satellite is beyond hope.  Its orbit has become so unstable that it’s just a matter of time now.

The Americans say the Russians have turned down any help they have offered.  The Canadian government says they have a pretty good idea now where the satellite will fall.  They say it will be somewhere north of the sixtieth parallel, but they are not yet sure in which country.   And since a big chunk of the world’s land north of sixty is in Canada, they announce they are putting together a team of radiation search and cleanup specialists.  Surprisingly, the team is composed of mostly Americans.  Many people suspect the CIA is a part of the team.

The Russians finally speak.  They say there is nothing to worry about – the satellite will either burn up in the atmosphere or crash in the Siberian wilderness.  They downplay the seriousness of the whole matter.

I am not much in the mood for breakfast this morning.  I haven’t slept well during the last few nights.  I just sit at the kitchen table and drink coffee.

My mother is baking bannock in the kitchen when Whiskeyjack shows up.  My mother says he always shows up when she’s baking bannock, that’s why she gave him that nickname when he was a kid.  He is just like that little gray bird, she says.  He always swoops in as soon as you start to cook. She really loves this little guy so much.

She pushes back the toque on his head and asks him how he got the cut above his left eye.  He says he was on the back of somebody’s skidoo when he fell off and hit the trail hard.  I know she doesn’t buy it, but she doesn’t let on.  She makes Whiskeyjack put on my father’s snow pants and parka so he doesn’t freeze in his thin leather jacket.  She packs up some fresh bannock and caribou sandwiches and a big thermos of coffee for the road and tells us both to be more careful.   She packs enough food for a few days.

It is after ten in the morning when we are finally on the trail on our Ski-doos.  We head down the Hay River to the Great Slave Lake, then follow the west shore down the lake toward Three Islands.  We spend most the day checking the traps down an old cut line there on the mainland.   The day is cloudy and light is flat and it is hard to see bumps on the trail, so we travel slowly.

When we have finished checking the entire line, we head back toward the shoreline.  The sun is out again, so we unhook the sleds we are pulling at my father’s cabin and have some fun chasing each other through the deep snow, dodging willows and jumping the big snow drifts on our machines.  We do this for a half hour along the lakeshore.  When we go back to pick up the sleds again, we take a break and make a warm fire in the cabin and eat our caribou and bannock sandwiches and drink hot coffee. It’s good.

Whiskeyjack doesn’t say much, as usual, but he forces a weak smile when I mention the fun we had riding through the deep snow.  “Good sandwiches, Em,” is all he says.  We pack up, hook up the sleds again and head back home in the late afternoon darkness.


Day 2

It’s Sunday.  The television has begun to blare announcements that people should not get within a thousand feet of any pieces of the satellite wreckage they might find.  They say the chances have been calculated to just one in ten thousand that debris might hit anyone, but they say that any radiation contamination can be deadly.

The special Canadian and American recovery teams have begun to arrive in Edmonton.  The television shows military men in green parkas and big white Kamik snow boots walking off a Hercules transport plane.

This afternoon, I call Sarah and ask if she has seen Whiskeyjack today.  She says no, but lately she hasn’t seen him as often as she would like.  She says he has been keeping to himself more and more.  She uses words like “withdrawn” and “distant”.  She says she is really worried about his drinking and drug use.  I tell her that he’ll be fine and we’ll see him back in school tomorrow.

I don’t tell her that I am just as worried as she is.


Day 1

This morning before school, nearly all of the television stations are broadcasting news about the impending crash.  They say it looks like the crash will occur somewhere in northern Canada.  Some stations say they have their reporters on standby ready to go to the scene of the debris the moment it all comes down.

The Canadian government says the recovery bill will surely go into the millions if the satellite lands in this country.  The Prime Minister reassures everyone once more that there is no cause for alarm and he says they are doing everything humanly possible.   He promises updates as soon as more information becomes available.

I did not sleep well last night so I am groggy and once again I skip breakfast.  There is a flurry of activity at school this morning.  Some parents want the school to be closed until after the crash, but others doubt the logic in this idea.  Until we know where it’s going to land, there is little anyone can do, they say.

In physics, Mr. Weskowski is really excited.  He is talking about us being a part of the making of history now.  He says this is the first time anyone has experienced such an event in human history and that we should each write a journal recording the details of the last several days and our thoughts on the whole thing.  He says he wants to build a time capsule with these journals and bury it under the big school sign out in front of the school this summer.  Then maybe in 25 or 30 years, we can open it up and read them again for ourselves.

I like the idea.

So, during lunch I walk the short block to downtown and pick up a new red spiral-bound notebook.  And when I discover that there is a new release of The Fantastic Four comic book, I buy that, too.

This afternoon, I find Sarah in the Conversation Pit.  She is quietly sobbing.  She says no one has seen Whiskeyjack since he was with me on Saturday.   She says her mom has called the police, but they say to wait it out for another day.  He has probably stayed at someone’s house after a party or is just hiding out somewhere, they say.  They say they will begin searching tomorrow if he doesn’t turn up, but even they have to admit, right now their priority is Cosmos Nine Five Four.

Sarah and I put together a small search party and go through the school between periods asking if anyone has seen Whiskeyjack.  No luck.

After school, Sarah and I build up the courage to go to Whiskeyjack’s house.   Thankfully, it is his mother who comes to the door.  She is a short, thin woman.  Her eyes are red and her hair is a total mess.   She has her arms crossed and a cigarette burning between her yellow fingers.  She has tried to cover a swollen eye with makeup, but it is done poorly.  Quietly, she tells us she heard Whiskeyjack come home on Saturday night but that he must have left again on Sunday morning because he wasn’t in his room when she went to check on him.  She says she told the police this already.

I am just about to ask something when I hear a loud voice from another room.  Who the fuck is at the goddamn door!?” Whiskeyjack’s father snarls.  We apologize, and then leave quickly.  She closes the door quietly.   We can hear yelling from the house as we scramble down the street.


Day Zero

(I can’t tell if it was a dream or if it was real, but I think I was awakened in the early hours of the morning by an extremely bright light that filled my whole room.  I lay there in bed not knowing if this was real or not.  It lasted a good twenty seconds but by the time I was out of bed had the curtains pulled back, it had faded away.  I still don’t know if I imagined it or not. I went back to sleep.)

Today, on Tuesday, January 24th, 1978, all of us, including Mr. Weskowski, get our wish.

The burning nuclear generator of the Cosmos Nine Five Four satellite finally comes to earth.

As we would find out later, the satellite crashed into the ice on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, just 150 miles northeast of our small town.  Within hours, the radiation recovery teams arrive to begin their work.  The airport is clogged with military aircraft, soldiers, reporters and police.   Fearing radiation fallout over the town, dozens of people in white protective suits begin walking throughout the town with geiger counters.  Speculation is high and rumours fly everywhere.

A wide aerial search begins and small pieces of the satellite are also found spread out over northern Alberta and Saskatchewan.  But it is a caribou hunter on his Skidoo who finds the main part of the debris.  He is smart enough to recognize it for what it was and stays a good distance away.  The wreckage is picked up and sent south several hours later.  But only a small part of the entire satellite is ever recovered.  The rest of it probably melted through the eight feet of January ice and lies somewhere at the bottom of Great Slave Lake, leeching its deadly core for the next several thousand years.

This morning, while we are in physics class watching television coverage of the entire event live via Anik satellite,  Mr. Harris the Vice Principal walks in.  He gives the come here sign and whispers something to Mr. Weskowski.  Mr. Weskowski then nods and thanks him and slowly walks over to the front of the class and turns off the television.  He stares at the floor for a moment and, trying not to look directly at me, he quietly tells us what Mr. Harris has just told him and says we are all excused for the rest of the day.

I grab my books and scramble down the main staircase to the Conversation Pit before Mr. Weskowski can intercept me.  I find Sarah’s friends there, all holding each other and crying.   I ask for Sarah and they say the police had come to school to give her the news and have given her a ride home.  They say she was so overcome that the cops had to practically carry her out of the school.  Then they tell me everything they have heard so far.

Today, the police are really too busy managing the satellite recovery effort to begin a search for Whiskeyjack.  In fact, they have all but forgotten about him when they get a call from his mother early this morning.  She is screaming into the receiver that she has found her baby.  That’s all she can say – over and over.  I have found my baby.  I have found my baby.

When the police arrive, they find her curled up on the floor in Whiskeyjack’s bedroom.  They find Whiskeyjack in the far back of his closet.  He has an electric extension cord around his neck and he is half sitting, half dangling from the wooden hanger bar.  He is wearing his black leather jacket, the one with the words “Give ’em Enough Rope” embroidered on the back.  He had been there since Saturday night.

Whiskeyjack’s mother says she tried to lift him up to loosen the pull of the cord when she found him, still believing it was not too late. But as thin as he is, he is still too heavy for her.

I stand there in the Conversation Pit long after Sarah’s friends have left, completely stunned.  There are announcements about the crash of the satellite and now the school has been officially closed for the rest of the day.

Kids pour out of their classrooms everywhere.  The entire school is in a frenzy around me.  Overhead the foot traffic spirals down from the second floor.  The click of heels, the slam of lockers, the excited sounds of kids with an unexpected day off school seems to settle and build on my shoulders.  The entire concourse begins to spin around me.  I feel a great weight coming down.

Without thinking, I spring out from the Conversation Pit, run across the concourse, head straight for the music department and slip into one of the practice rooms, locking the door behind me.  The silence inside is deafening.  All I can hear is my breathing and my heart racing, ready to jump out of my chest.  I sit there for a while just trying to calm both.

But suddenly I begin to bawl like a baby.  I cry like I have never cried before.  I just want so much to be held for once like those little white kids at the bus stop.  I want to be told that this was all just some big mistake.  That everything is going to be all right again. But it’s just me there alone in that small sound-proof room. Me and this crashed world.

Through tears, I look up, out the big full-length window at the snow beginning to fall outside. I sit back in my chair, close my eyes and inhale deeply through my nose and exhale slowly through my mouth.  I do feel like I am outside when I am inside in this building.  I feel the snow flakes landing cool on my skin, the cold January air burning in my nostrils and bursting in my lungs.

After a few minutes, my breathing and my heart rate begin to slow.  I slowly look around through the glass wall  behind me at the blur of kids floating through the concourse, their paths crossing in circles and curves following the lines that have been drawn throughout the school.

I think about how Mr. Cardinal the architect uses those circles and curves and spirals in our school as symbols of life and growth and movement and freedom and openness and joy.  I agree with Whiskeyjack – I think the guy’s got something there.

I look down at the stack of books on the table in front of me.  I pick up the top two: the Spiral notebook and the Fantastic Four comic book. Then I notice the cover of my physics textbook for the first time. It has a photograph of atoms being smashed together in an accelerator. The sub-atomic particles spin off into hundreds of little inward spirals.

I look at them for a long time and think about all that has happened over the last two weeks.  I wonder why this is all happening and whether or not this is all supposed to mean something. So much of this stuff together has become so much bigger than me.  I will have to take a step back to see the larger picture. Mr. Weskowski always wants us to do that.

And then, when I do, it is as if the the sun had just come out and poured itself through that tall window onto me. I begin to think about things in a new and completely different way. I can see all of these spirals and curves and circles begin to connect and intersect.  The numbers and the meaning begin to flow and the big picture starts to develop in my mind.

I open my Spiral notebook and, feverishly, I begin to make notes. I will try to put them all together in a story later. Right now, I just need to remember all of these events.

I write about Mr. Fibonacci and how he was able to figure out the hidden math and physics behind life.  I think I finally really understand the meaning of his magic numbers, “Zero, One, One, Two, Three, Five, Eight, Thirteen…”, and so on.

Sure, it’s a simple formula.  You start with the first two numbers and just add them up, and it will give you the next number in the series.  Add these last two again and it will give you the next one.  And so on.

That’s what builds the beautiful spiral patterns in sunflowers seeds  and the shapes of snail shells and DNA strands and the curves of stairways. It shows how the spiral of life grows outward in a beautiful and often predictable pattern. It even gives you a way to plot your path through the stars.  And through life. A simple idea, but a really powerful one.

But in telling my story, I realize what can happen when those numbers are reversed – you get the opposite result.  The reality that things can come crashing down to earth.

I hope that now when you are reading this story some thirty years from now, in the year Twenty-O-Eight, maybe while sitting in your flying car and squeezing food into your mouth from a tube (how cool!), you will understand why I have written about the final days of both Whiskeyjack and Cosmos Nine Five Four – and about days thirteen, eight, five, three, one, one and zero in particular.

Mr. Weskowski is right when he says that if we know where we have come from, and we know where we are, then we have a good idea of where we are going.  It’s a simple formula for knowing what’s coming up around the curve.  Once again, I think the guy’s got something there.  It’s a rhythm for life: this is where you’ve been (1), this is where you are (2), so this is where you’re going (3). And now this is where you’ve been (2), and this is where you are (3), so this is where you’re going (5).  And so on.

But my father has always taught me that things come in fours for Cree people: the four dimensions of the human being (emotional, physical, mental and spiritual), the four directions, the four seasons, the four colours of the human race (red, white, black and yellow), the four stages of human life (infant, youth, adult, and elder), the four sacred plants, (Cedar, Sage(s), Sweetgrass, and Tobacco), and, of course, the four natural elements of air, fire, water and earth.

And over the years being in Mr. Weskowski’s class, I have learned a lot about the number four in science, too: the four dimensions that make up the universe, the four fundamental forces (weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force, electro-magnetism and gravity), the four kinds of matter (solid, liquid, gas and plasma), and the four chemicals in our DNA (Adenine, Guanine, Thymine and Cytosine) that are the basis of all life as we know it.


And as I look down at my Spiral notebook and my Fantastic Four comic book, it occurs to me that there is a fourth part to Mr. Weskowski’s formula.  It is the reason these four Superheroes all fight evil.

It is for something called Hope.

Like the science fiction stories I read, it’s somewhere way out there beyond what we are able to see at the moment. To be able to dream not just about where you are going, but to dream about where you want to be someday.  That is something I think Whiskeyjack was missing.  It is something I think we – his friends, his family, his fellow students, his teachers – could have all given him.

But we have all failed Whiskeyjack.  We have all failed him miserably. And now it’s all come crashing down.

In the end, this story is just as much about my friend Whiskeyjack as it is about a falling piece of space junk.  They both have so much in common.  I hope Mr. Weskowski is still around to read it in the year Twenty-O-Eight. I know I won’t be.

Since we were younger, Mr. Weskowski has taught us how to ask the right questions so that we can find what we are looking for.  And I do have a lot of questions.  Like, whose business is it to stand up and ask the really hard questions?  Is it yours?  Is it mine?  Is it anybody’s business?  Or isn’t it everybody’s?

And, if we stand there and watch it all start to fall and we don’t lift a finger to stop it, do we have the right to point that same finger at anybody else but ourselves?   

I am only sixteen right now and I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  I don’t even know how to begin talking about these kinds of things.  And I don’t know anyone I can talk to.  But I hope that when you read this in the next millennium, I will be old enough to have figured them out by then.  And I hope by then I might have already made a difference in someone’s life.

I hope.

I hope.


For a while I have forgotten where I am and what I am doing.  I am lost in that world of Mr. Cardinal’s and Mr. Fibonacci’s and Mr. Weskowski’s simple yet fantastic ideas. Not wanting to leave the comfort and safety of that small music practice room where things are finally beginning to make sense.

None of the cleaning staff pay any attention to me there writing by the fading afternoon light of the big window in the music practice room.  I pack up my books and leave long after the school has closed and the lights have been turned off.

I walk the three long miles home along the river.  I follow a hard-packed skidoo trail in the late afternoon snowfall.  Kids fresh out of school chase each other on their snow machines through the deep powder along the riverbank.  Ravens chase each other overhead, too.  Airplanes and helicopters land at the airport putting Operation Morning Light into motion.  They all leave curves and circles and spirals behind them.

Finally, when I reach the last turn in the river before home, I stop for a minute. The curve reminds me what Mr. Weskowski said about all of nature finding the path of least resistance between two points.  Wind, lightning, rivers, clouds, animals and pretty much everything else will do this. It’s just built into the nature of all things.  We do it, too, even though we have a choice. Rather than take the difficult road through life, we choose that which has the least resistance. It avoids us having to confront many things.  Like the truth about who we are.

When I get home, I find my mother in the kitchen, crying.  She is rolling out bannock dough on the table, pausing now and then to wipe the tears from her eyes.  She has white flour on her cheeks.  She is alone.

She does not look up.  I take off my winter boots.  I go over and I put my arms around her.  It takes her a full minute before she realizes that I am really there. Slowly, ever so slowly, she raises her arms and limply, puts them around me.  Then, when she really begins to cry, her fingers claw at the back of my parka and she pulls me even closer to her. I can’t remember ever being hugged by her before and it is more than I imagined how it would feel to be held by someone who really loves you.

My mother is holding me.

My mother is holding me.

Over her shoulder, I see she has been baking all day.  She has freshly baked bannock everywhere.  They are stacked on the table, on the counter, on chairs, on the stove and even on the window sill.

We just stand there holding each other. Me covered in snow and her covered in flour.

Eventually, she slowly pulls away from me, picks up a paper towel and blows her nose. She plugs in the kettle on the stove, still sniffling.  I take off my big coat and sit down at the kitchen table.  She comes and sits down to my right and pushes the pile of bannock dough to make room for tea.  While she is doing that, she begins to tell me a story.

She tells me about the time she met my father in the mission school. And she says how handsome and smart and funny he was back then. She says that Uncle Walter and Whiskeyjack’s father, Raymond, were his best friends at the school. They were inseparable. They played jokes on everybody there. And on each other.

She tells me that many bad things went on at the school but she does not give me any details. But being kids and being so far from home, there was nothing they could do about it. They just endured it. They found ways to survive and even be happy at times.

One day, she says, when my father and his friends were just young teens, the priest came into the class, pointed to all three of them and told them he had a job for them.  He gave them shovels and told them they were to dig a grave for one of the young girls he said had died the night before of Tuberculosis. He told them to dig in the bushes behind the vegetable garden.

She said my father, Uncle Walter and Raymond were really bothered by the request since they knew this was not the way we are supposed to do things. Shouldn’t there have been a doctor or a cop there to witness someone’s death?  Shouldn’t there have been a funeral?  Shouldn’t she be buried in a cemetery?  This was just all wrong.

And when they carried the body out of the infirmary wrapped in an old gray blanket, they noticed something strange in the way her head was turned.  So, while the priest stood and watched from a distance, Raymond peeled back the blanket to find her neck had been broken and her head horribly twisted.

As they would later find out, someone had witnessed as one of the older nuns, in a fit of rage, strike the young girl and knock her to the floor.  Then she kicked her in the neck, snapping it right there on the spot. The girl  died later that night in her bed. They tried to blame it on Tuberculosis.  She was seven years old.  She was just a little girl.

She was just a little girl.

My mother tells me she can still see her little face.  She was so beautiful.  Her name was Celine. Celine Cuthand. She said she would never forget that name or that face as long as she lived.

She tells me that the priest at the school did not even tell the parents their little girl was dead until the end of the school year.

I am stunned as I listen to her story. And on one level, it hurts so deeply to have to listen to this, and I want to get up and go somewhere where I cannot hear.  I want to scream and cover my ears with my hands. But some bigger force makes me stay in my seat.   

My mother tells me how everything changed that day.  My father was never the same again.  Nor were the other two.

Through her tears, she tells me how my father began to close down more and more after the experience.  She tells me how he went through a bout of drinking for many years before they were married and before I was born.  And how now he escapes to his cabin on trap line every chance he gets just to get away from dealing with the memory of these things.  And these days it seems he is doing that more and more.  That’s why they argue.

She says everyone has their way of dealing with things.  My Uncle Walter, she says, needs to not feel the pain of those days, so he drinks.  And Raymond, who she tells me was one of the nicest young men in school, has been suppressing all of this pain for so long.

“Raymond has had no way of dealing with things other than to pass them on.  To continue the cycle.  And that’s what he did to Whiskeyjack”, she says. That poor little guy…”, she begins to cry again.

“And me”, she says, “I don’t even know how to touch my own kid. I treat you like I am your housekeeper more than I am your mother.  It’s like I was never given any instructions in that school how to be a girl, or how to prepare to be a woman or to be a wife or to have kids.  We just worked and prayed”, she says, “Every day.  All day long. That’s all we did.

“But we were just kids wanting to be kids. And those three boys were just young boys.  They should not have been forced to do what they did. To witness things like that at such a young age…”

The kettle begins to whistle.  She gets up and unplugs it on the stove top and pours hot water into the teapot.  Then she stops and takes off her apron. She tosses it angrily on to the counter behind her.

Her face changes from sorrow to anger.  “We all sit here and watch things go wrong. And we do nothing because we are afraid. Afraid of what it might mean.  Afraid that we might be called crazy.  Afraid that we might offend God.  Afraid that…that we might hurt the ones we love with the truth of our experience. And worst of all, afraid that the truth might hurt us beyond repair.

“But, no more”, she says.  “No more. We are not going to do things this way anymore. This has gone way too far. It all ends here. Now.

“Tomorrow morning, you are going to drive me out to your father’s cabin and leave me there.  Just drive away.  And he and I are going to talk.  God dammit, I don’t care how long it takes, or how bad it gets, we are going to talk. And we are going to come home when I am god damn good and ready.”

There is a long silence as she begins to pour tea into cups.  I now know the next while is going to be very difficult.  We have gone beyond a certain point and we can never go back again. But I also have to believe it will begin to get better at some point.  And I do. Because today, I have discovered that fourth place in my life for hope.  And it is what my mother is now offering to me.  I must take it and go with it.

She dries her eyes once more, and picks up the two cups of tea, crosses the kitchen and places them on the table. As she turns to get the teapot, she suddenly stops and slowly turns her head to look out the window. And she raises her hands to cover her mouth and starts to cry again.  I can see her shoulders shaking from behind. I get up and go to her. Before I can embrace her, she puts a hand on my chest and slowly points to the window behind me.

She whispers excitedly, “He’s here, Em! Look! He’s here!”  I turn slowly.

And there he is.  One small, lone Whiskeyjack sits on the outside windowsill. The little gray bird just huddles there in the cold, his eyes wide, mesmerized by the fresh bannock inside the window. Now and then he pecks at the glass and looks up at us.  And when he does, the feathers on the back of his tiny head stand up – just like a Mohawk.

Big, fat snowflakes spiral in all around him.



Emile Catches Lightning

Written January 30th, 1978

Sealed on June 21st, 1978

at Alexander Mackenzie Secondary School

Hay River, Northwest Territories

Categories: Uncategorized


This is typical of life in northern Canada. I was filming a documentary in 2005 in Taloyoak, Nunavut. It was November, cold and windy. I went to the local Northern Store to pick up a couple of extra pairs of warm socks.

I walked the short distance back to my hotel, recording scenes with my video camera as I went – dogs sitting on their houses, ravens trying to steal dog food. I got to the hotel and while I was going to my room, I heard the radio in the kitchen blaring local announcements. I stopped and listened.

The announcer was trying to get ahold of the parents of two kids who were playing on a frozen pond. He could see the kids from the radio studio and was concerned the ice might still be a little thin. I thought this was so typical of northern life and perhaps a recording of this program might add to the the documentary I was working on.

So, I took my video camera from around my neck, pointed the mic at the radio and began to record the announcements. The announcer continued on about dogs on the loose and the RCMP’s safety concerns about small kids driving quads and snowmobiles. Then he said, “And finally, a pair of men’s woolen socks has been found in front of the Northern Store. You can pick them up here at the station CBIQ-FM.”

I looked in my shopping bag and sure enough, a pair of my socks were missing.

Ah, the North. ♥

Categories: Uncategorized

How the Universe was Told into Existence

Before the First Beginning, 
Before Beginning itself, 
They could be found

One, Two, Three Dimensions
Each a Single Point
Frozen in Space 

The Third sitting to the right of the Second
Who sat to the right of the First

With no idea of From Where it was They had Come
Or Where They were Now
Where They were Going
Or Where They wanted to Be

The Three Dimensions just sat and waited 
In that cold Cubed Space

In that three-quarter Circle

And They did not know why
They were There 
Or for Whom or What it was They were waiting
If indeed They were

They Waited
And Waited
And Waited

And while They Waited 
They tried to Tell their Stories 
to Each Other

First One 
Then Two 
Then Three

But no Matter how hard They tried
The Sounds would not come 
The Stories just could not be Told
So not a —- was Spoken 

They sat there, gawking at Each Other 
Like simple fools, caught with Their Mouths open, 
Tongueless, Wordless, Storyless

And there They would Stay 
These Three Tongueless Tellers of Tales
Perched upon this – the First Ever Point Before Tipping
Unable to Understand why Their Stories 
Would not
Could not 
Be Told

And there They would Stay
Until the Arrival of 
The One Who would Complete the Circle

The One called Time
The Fourth Dimension 
The One Who had Come to Listen
The Audience

And at that tiny Point in Time
At the Very Beginning of Beginning Itself
The GREAT CIRCLE was Complete

And All the Things that Were Part of that GREAT CIRCLE:

All Things Unique, Equal, Connected and One
All Forces Strong Nuclear, Weak Nuclear, Electromagnetic and Gravitational
All Directions East, South, West and North
All Elements Air, Fire, Water and Earth
All Life Cytosine, Guanine, Adenine, Thymine
All Human Emotion, Body, Mind and Spirit
All Cultures White, Black, Yellow and Red
All Stories Heard, Understood, Remembered, and reTold

And All Things That We Know… 
Were Told Into Existence!

And O, how 
That First Warm Breath 
That First Spoken Word
That First Coyote Howl 
That First Story…

…would come with a BANG!”

-FFL, 2003

Categories: Uncategorized


Merlyn Carter, Northern Bush Pilot. Photo, Dean Carter.

Born and raised in northern Canada, I felt a great deal of excitement last week upon reading that the Hay River (Northwest Territories) Airport has been renamed Merlyn Carter Airport. It was Merlyn (1934-2005), of Carter Air Services, a small float plane company in my hometown. who inspired my love of flying as well as an almost two-decade aviation career in the north.  This is our story.


I come from a commercial fishing family on Great Slave Lake and grew up watching Merlyn fly his float planes into the Moraine Point fishing station to drop off mail, groceries and people. Then he was off again with another passenger or a load of fish.  I always wondered at the freedom one must feel when they are up there away from everything down here. I was a quiet, shy kid and always longed for something like that.

My first time flying was with Merlyn when I was a young boy in the late sixties. Early one summer, a few members of my family and I flew out to Moraine Point for the summer.  I felt butterflies in my stomach sitting in the co-pilot seat during that flight and inhaling all the freedom, joy and wonder of flight. It was unforgettable seeing my beloved Great Slave Lake from way up high for the first time. But I had no idea how small my world at that time would become later.

It was on one of those flights home from Moraine Point in a Cessna 185 float plane when I was probably 9 or 10 years old that I fell in love with flying.  With Merlyn in control, and the back seat filled with boxes of fish, and me once again with butterflies in my stomach, we had just taken off from Moraine Point and leveled off at a couple thousand feet. When he had trimmed the controls so it required no hands, he took one of his headphones off, looked at me, smiled and shouted, “You wanna fly?”

Fire Tower Construction, 1980, north of Fort Providence, NT

Hooking a lanyard from the cupola to the belly of a helicopter before slinging it to the top of the fire tower.

When I turned 18, I became a helitack firefighter with forestry, based in Hay River. I learned how to fight fire with helicopters and airplanes. I remember getting those butterflies in my stomach again on my first helicopter flight. I was quite young and the older pilots took me under their wing, so to speak, and when no one was looking, they taught me how to fly helicopters. Four years later, I became an Air Attack Officer – the person in charge of directing air attack (water bombers and helicopters) on forest fires. Again, the pilots there taught me how to fly airplanes.  At 22, I was supervising pilots who were sometimes two and three times my age. But they knew I was eager to learn everything about flying so they were easy on me.

As part of the national air attack fleet, we would work from Ontario to Vancouver Island to the Arctic coast and from the US to Mexico. We fought fires high in the Rockies in British Columbia, on the tundra north of Inuvik, near the pyramids on the Yucatan Peninsula and even protected a radio tower from burning near downtown Acapulco. We fought to protect communities from fire all over this country. We fought to contain the spread of lightning-caused fires, tractor trailer fires, sawmill fires, house and cabin fires and campfires. We participated in air search and rescue and downed aircraft operations. And in all of my career, through the hundreds of flight operations we performed, I am happy to say that no one under my supervision has ever lost a life. At the end of the day, I can take that home with me.

And although I never became an actual pilot (I was always proud to be a forest firefighter who specialized in air attack), I have always loved flying in all of its various forms, challenges, environments and theaters. It was and is an exciting job for a younger person who wants to push the envelope of their physical, psychological and mental capabilities. It can build character at an amazing rate. But as I got older and the learning curve began  to drop off, I left the job and went into the fledgling computer multimedia design business. I am now involved in writing and filmmaking.

I still have a great deal of respect and admiration for those men and women who continue to fight fire from the air. Everyone should – no matter where you come

Supervising the 450th Squadron, Inuvik, NT, 1987

from. It can be very difficult and quite dangerous at times, probably a lot like bush flying in Merlyn’s day. But flying has also been such a big part of my personal growth. It has done wonders for my character, self-esteem and -confidence and has taught me how to assert myself and how to calculate risk when I am about to do something significant. It has taught me how to overcome loss and fear in their many forms. And it has provided me a sense of freedom, friendship and camaraderie that cannot be found anywhere else on earth. In fact, it is because flight is only accomplished in defiance of anything earthly that these relationships are forged in a special way. After many years, I think I finally know about what it is like to be up there away from everything down here. Few people in life get to be so fortunate and for that, I am thankful.

When I think about it now, I could have shook my head and said, “No, thanks!” to Merlyn back then. As I said, I was a small, shy, introverted kid at the time. But I think he may have sensed something else in me. Maybe he recognized that awe and wonder in those young eyes as his own. Or maybe a long time ago, someone else, someone much older had said to him, “You wanna fly?”

Directing Air Attack Operations from the bird dog airplane.

At any rate, sometime in the early 90s, in the waning years of my forestry career, we were on a long flight back to Hay River from Inuvik in the bird dog airplane. There was a shy, young aircraft dispatcher in the back seat who was along for the ride. No one said anything for the first half of the flight. Then, for some inexplicable reason, I turned her and said, “You wanna fly?”

After a fair bit of apprehension on her part, my pilot and I were finally able to convince her to switch seats with me.  Now, I can’t say we had anything to do with it, but shortly thereafter, I’d heard she became a commercial pilot in the north. These days, she is a First Officer on Air Canada’s Airbus 320 series. I am very proud of this brilliant young woman as I hope Merlyn would be of me. I would be honoured to know that she was in the Captain’s seat of any airplane I was on board.

So, thank you, Merlyn, for trusting a very young aboriginal kid to take control of something so much larger than himself and at a time when kids feel they have control of nothing in their lives. I can promise you that it has made all the difference these many years later. Because every now and then, I will turn to the smallest, youngest, shyest of my high school film students on the set and say, “You wanna direct?”

I hope they get butterflies in their stomach when they hear those words.


“Fearless” Frederick Lepine
(formerly Birddog 117, 450th Squadron)
Flying Colors Design
Vancouver Island

Last Flight

Ted Smith Aerostar bird dog. (Photo by BC AAO Ben Moerkoert)

Through the control column, I could almost feel the chill in the September boreal air as it whipped through the wings and over the fuselage of our small, twin-engined bird dog airplane. We had just crossed high over the Athabasca River in northeastern Alberta en route to Hay River in the Northwest Territories. It was 1991 and we had just finished a stint in northern Ontario. With two of our water bombers far behind in tow, we were finally going home after a long and difficult forest fire fighting season. All of my crew of seven were mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted.

I knew this was going to be the last flight of the season and began to recall the events of this past summer – the places we had been, the people we had met and worked with and the fires we had all fought together. It would all be put together in a final year end report when I was back in my office. Until then, I was going to enjoy this last flight.

I was not a licensed pilot but I did know how to fly. I was an Air Attack Officer – the forestry supervisor of contract helicopter and water bomber pilots.  I did receive flight training from the pilots I worked with and had flown many types of helicopters and airplanes over the years when I was given the opportunity. My actual training was in directing aircraft in forest fire attack and over the last fifteen years, that was what I had done.  I was fully-trained in forest fire behavior and firefighting attack strategy as well as aircraft flight characteristics, capabilities and limitations. This was all done from the right seat of my bird dog airplane. In the left seat was my bird dog pilot.

Keeping aircraft from bumping into one another over a forest fire while trying to drop water and fire retardant and not hurting any ground firefighters in the process can be extremely mentally and physically challenging even at the best of times. It can takes years and hundreds of thousands of training dollars before your trainer would allow you to solo as an Air Attack Officer. It is just that complex and difficult a job.

There are inherent dangers and risks in fighting forest fires and those increase exponentially when you add aircraft to the mix. But it all comes down to taking calculated risks. Since 1971, when several firefighting staff had been killed in various aircraft accidents in the north, the rules of engagement began to be defined in a way that saw the casualty rate begin to diminish to the point where it was now rare to experience an aircraft accident. But they did happen. Over the years, I have lost a number of friends and co-workers to these risks. You were always fighting the odds of something going wrong.

The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for fighting fire were refined in the late 70s and 80s and were becoming standardized not only in Canada but in the United States as well. As a result, we could now easily share aircraft and personnel between the provinces and states as needed. So, although we were based in the north and worked for the territorial government, we could expect to work in other provinces, like Ontario, where we had been for the past two weeks.

I looked over at my pilot who was sleeping in the left seat. Al and I had worked together as a good team this summer. We had had each other’s backs and he was a good bird dog pilot. He could maneuver the airplane into position over the fire so that I could have the best view of any part of the operation. At times, we could get into trouble facing challenges such as flying near high flames and through heavy smoke, near power lines, in descending air, over steep terrain, around other aircraft and obstacles like birds and tall tree snags that seem to pop up out of nowhere. But Al was always a step ahead of the game with a backup plan. And a backup plan for his backup plan. He was a good pilot who reduced the odds of something going wrong.

This trip from Dryden, Ontario, to Hay River was long, dreary and monotonous . Along the way, through Manitoba and Saskatchewan, I had slept off part of my exhaustion. So, Al was now taking his turn. He had only asked me to take over flying while he had a ten minute snooze. But it was already past a half hour since he folded his arms and turned his lights out. I knew he needed the sleep so I didn’t wake him.

We were now crossing the south shore of Lake Athabasca at two hundred knots and at an altitude of four thousand feet above ground.  I could see numerous flocks of Canada Geese, Mallards, Black Ducks and Trumpeter Swans pass far below us, all heading south for the winter. They would stop to rest and feed at Lake Athabasca after passing through Great Slave Lake. Most of these birds flew at lower levels so there was little danger in hitting a bird with the airplane. But we did have to keep a watch for Grey and Snow Geese which flew at much higher altitudes and sometimes in flocks of hundreds and even thousands. They were the last to come out of the north because they summered in the high Arctic islands. The odds of running into a flock of geese at this altitude at this time of the year was extremely high so I was very wary.

This was also the flight path of the extremely rare and endangered Whooping Crane which nests in marshes on the Alberta/Northwest Territories border and winters in Texas. There were less than 15 of these birds left on the planet in the 1940s and now, through careful protection, preservation and nurturing, that number had slowly grown to almost 140. So rare are these birds, in fact, that very few human beings have ever seen them in their nesting grounds.  “Whoopers” are the tallest of all birds in North America. An adult male stands at 1.5 meters and weighs as much as 7.5 kilograms. It has a wingspan up to 2.5 meters. These cranes fly at about 45 kilometers per hour.

Their habitat in the north is so well-protected that I’d never even met anyone who has seen a Whooping Crane. I had only heard stories. So, seeing one in my regular work day was obviously impossible.

We had had a “bird strike” earlier that summer while fighting a fire south of Hay River. As  the airplane was in a sharp turn and I was describing our run on the radio to the water bomber pilot overhead, a Peregrine Falcon had strayed into our path and we took it on the windshield. It was such a loud bang for such a small bird but we were doing around a hundred and twenty knots just above the trees and the entire airplane shook wildly. The bird left its entrails and we now had the problem of not being able to see where we were going. We had to request a replacement bird dog team while we went back home to scrub down the airplane. But I will never forget the huge impact of that little bird on my airplane.

Bird strikes account for a number of aircraft crashes and deaths every year when aircraft are flying close to the ground, especially during take offs and landings. The closer you are to the ground the higher the risk of an accident.  When you are higher up, you have more time to react to an inflight emergency. That’s one of the reasons why, on long trips like this, we fly at a higher altitude.

Crossing over Lake Athabasca, I leaned forward and changed the radio frequencies to hear if anyone else was flying in the area. All was quiet on the Athabasca front. I had just turned to check up on my sleeping pilot when something caught my eye on the horizon ahead. It was difficult to see because it was directly on the horizon and it was not moving. My flight training immediately told me that if you see an unmoving object anywhere in your field of vision, you are likely on a collision course with that object. I kept my eye on that object until I could determine that it  not another aircraft.

It was a bird. It was a huge bird and it was heading directly at us!  I immediately pulled the airplane up and to the right slowly and steadily so as not to wake up my pilot.

The bird, too, rolled sharply to its right and swerved down at the last moment it saw us. It was a close call. Then, as it passed under the left wing, I saw the red crown on its forehead and the black wing tips. It was a Whooping Crane! My heart began to dance wildly because I was now one of that small group of humans who has ever seen one of these magnificent birds in its nesting ground.

I looked down again at my pilot who was now snoring heavily into his microphone. A cold wave of reality washed over me as I began to wonder: After all that we had gone through this past summer, what are the odds of getting killed in your sleep by a Whooping Crane during the last flight of the season?

November 2011, Cairnsmore.

Morning Star

Consolidated PBY-5 Canso Catalina

William Star Blanket felt the engines rumble to life through the throttle levers in his hands. First engine number one. Then number two. He could almost tell what the RPMs were by those vibrations. Looking back and up over his left shoulder, he could see blue smoke billowing from number one. But that was expected on startup. After all, these engines were over 60 years old. Quite a bit older than Willie himself.

The twin Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engines growled in the churning water. He leaned out the mixture and the blue smoke turned a light grey and then disappeared altogether. He tapped the glass on the RPM gauge but the needle kept twitching. I thought we replaced that one already, he thought. It’s probably just a vibration from the engines running at this speed. But I will have to keep an eye on it, he told himself. He pushed forward on the throttles and the old bird started moving forward in the water.

The Consolidated Canso Catalina water bomber had been floating silently in that big lake for over an hour while Willie lay there in the back bunk wide awake. His thumb rubbed the small white cardboard box resting on his chest.  It rose and fell with his every breath. Small waves lapped at the aluminum under belly of the flying boat. He stared at the the rivets in ceiling of the fuselage. He could still hear the hammer of the riveting gun back when he had repaired that gaping hole in the roof. He was intimately familiar with ever rivet, nut and bolt that held the airplane together. In fact, he had rebuilt half of it himself.

He thought about all that had happened in the six years since Ellie’s death. He thought about the way company owner had played him along for years before finally laying his cards down. He thought about what he was about to do. And he thought about where he was going from here. But mostly Willie thought about Ellie. He missed her laugh, her smile, her smell. He missed the soft, white skin of her shoulder that always felt cool to his lips. He missed holding her most of all. He wished he could be holding her right now. He closed his eyes and dreamed she was here in the plane with him, his head on her shoulder.

A change in wind direction caught his attention.  The breeze hit the vertical stabilizer and swung the airplane ten degrees to port and whistled through the antennas.  It made the fuselage twist and creak on itself and it made the skin of the airplane hum. He raised his head just a bit to peer out the starboard gun blister, one of two large glass bubbles located behind the wing the plane. Still miles from land, he thought. In a boat, he added. He put his head back down and returned to his thoughts.


Waskasoo Aviation in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, was owned and run hands-on by a rough-hewn, old red neck named Harold Badger who lived up to his last name with particular ferocity. He micro-managed the entire company. He got into everyone’s business. He was a tough, mean bastard whose heyday was back in the fifties when the modern day idea of water bombing began to seriously take root in North America.

Willie Star Blanket had started working for Harold Badger as a young aircraft engineer in the mid-seventies. At some point early on in his career, however, he began to get a thirst for flying and went back to aviation school during the winter months. Harold could see the two-fold advantage of having a certified pilot/engineer on staff, so he helped Willie pay for his flight training and even paid him a living allowance. As part of the agreement, Willie would continue to work for the company for three more years.  Little did he know he was going to be there much longer.

Willie continued his flight training with Waskasoo and spent a summer back seating on a twin-engined Douglas A-26 Invader water bomber before he was certified Captain.  He was the youngest in the crew.  Soon, he was flying solo and working fires just like the others.  In a short time, he had become a very good pilot.

Willie had heard her voice on the radio before he had met Ellie.  He was inbound to the Prince Albert air base in the A-26 Invader after tackling a tricky fire west of Shellbrook on that hot July afternoon.  She calmly gave him his flight instructions and directions for home.  He found her voice warm and lilting but concise and in control.  Just the way he liked his radio dispatchers.

Willie landed in Prince Albert and taxied to the air base.  While the fuelers refilled his airplane, he calmly caught up on his paperwork sitting in the cockpit.  Then he descended the ladder, signed the fuel receipt and walked crossed the base, stopping to chat with other pilots here and there.  And when he finally got to the office with his flight report and saw the new dispatcher for the first time, standing there in that purple dress talking on the radio, it was as if Willie had been struck by lightning!

Only years later, would Ellie admit to feeling the same thing upon meeting this young, handsome Blackfoot pilot.  But she only told it to Willie.  She would not let on how she really fell for him to anyone else.  No one would have believed it anyway. Certainly no one on the small town farm to the southwest where she was born and raised.

Ellen Beris Armstrong was a young, tall, stunningly beautiful brunette with happy, sparkling brown eyes and a larger than life smile. At six feet, she was nearly four inches taller than Willie. Willie thought it made her look much more elegant than most other women. He loved to watch her float across the air base, delivering messages, taking lunch orders and making sure everyone was always informed of the current fire situation.

Owner Harold Badger was especially protective of Ellie. He would not let any of the young pilots near her. And if they had to be in the same room as her, he made sure they only discussed business matters – and were very brief about it. He was not quite like this with any of the other girls in the office – just Ellie. In fact, he moved his office down the hallway across from the dispatch room so he could keep an eye on her.  He claimed he wanted to be be able to hear the radio chatter.

So, it was with a great deal of caution and secrecy that Willie Star Blanket began to have a secret after work relationship with Ellie Armstrong.

Things heated up very quickly.  They were on their first date when Ellie leaned across the table in the restaurant and boldly asked Willie if he would mind it so much if she called him by his middle name, Star. He laughed and pointed out that Star was a part of his last name. She asked what his second name was.  He said he didn’t have one.  She said, “Well, now, you do.”

Later that night, they could be found walking through an empty field on some back country road, talking and laughing.

The next day when Willie arrived at work, Ellie chimed in a cheery voice, “Morning, Star!”

And so it went after that.  They would exchange quick glances and silly smirks during meetings and at lunch hour, but they rarely spoke to each other.  Off base, they would meet in diners and movie theaters on the edge of the city where co-workers would not likely hang out.  They talked in code on the radio.  She gave him a purple scarf to wear when he was flying.  But they kept their relationship as quiet as possible.

Ellie carried herself with an air of procedure and purpose at work. She was a fast learner.  On the radio, she dispatched airplanes with meticulous precision, clarity and timing, enunciating each and every aviation and firefighting term and expression as though they were lines that had been written and practiced by her. There was never a blank pause or the misstep in pronouncing a word in her speech. She was always in complete control.

As a pilot, Willie liked that.  It was good to hear her tell him his next instructions or give him directions for home.  It was comforting.  She was his rhythm in the madness.

When she was away from work, however, Ellie’s long, beautiful hair would come down. In the bar, she could drink and laugh and shoot pool and tell stories with the best of them. And on the dance floor, she was the presence of grace and refinement. And she and Willie loved to dance.  Whenever an old country love song would come on the juke box, he would turn in his seat and find her there with an outstretched hand and a sparkling smile.

Willie liked the idea that her shoulder was at lip level when they danced. Ellie liked the idea that his ear lined up perfectly with her lips. While they waltzed, Willie would sneak tiny kisses on  her shoulder and Ellie would giggle in his ear.

It didn’t take long for co-workers to see the sparks between them.  When Harold was finally clued in by Ellie, he grumbled, “Why doesn’t anybody ever tell me what’s going on around here?” He reluctantly cut the young pilot some slack on the base.  Still, Ellie couldn’t help but notice Harold wasn’t taking the news easily.

On cloudy or rainy days, when the fire hazard was low, Willie and Ellie would put together a picnic basket and drive northeast toward Meath Park, then turn north down an old dusty road a few miles until they came to a small wooden span stretched wide across an as yet unnamed creek. There, under the bridge and away from the rain and passing motorists, they would spread out a blanket and eat quartered sandwiches and cheese and drink wine. Sometimes they brought bannock and tea and fresh strawberries.

Most of the time when they had finished eating, they were content to just lie in each other’s arms, legs crossed like scissors, and let the slow, murky Saskatchewan water drift by.  Sometimes, they would talk the day away about dreams they had. Then they would make love there under that bridge surrounded by the thrum of the rain around them and the rumble of a pickup overhead every now and then.  They happily discovered that the difference in their height was not an issue when lying down.

Willie would often play his guitar and sing for Ellie and the sound of his voice would reverberate between the concrete abutments on opposite sides of the creek and across the water below.  Ellie loved the sound of his voice when he sang there, so she called the place Echo Bridge. Together, they brought so much light and warmth into that dark spot that Echo Bridge became Willie and Ellie’s secret place.  They never told anyone about it.

Ellie sometimes flew with Willie when they were moved to be based in the north of the province when lightning storms were forecasted there.  The times when they could fly together were the most exciting of their young lives. Often, Willie would turn the controls over to Ellie in the back seat. She would giggle wildly as he showed her how to make sharp turns and how to climb and descend. Sometimes they would find a river gorge and follow its twists and turns, flying well just above the water. Ellie would watch the trees whip by and scream like a banshee from the back seat, but she loved every second of it.

Their love caught on like wildfire out of control and within a year of meeting, they were happily married.


Over the years that Willie Star Blanket worked for Harold Badger, their relationship had also formed into a marriage of sorts in the sense that they got on each other’s nerves more and more as time went on.  They were both hot heads.  Harold fired Willie about the same number of times as Willie quit the company.

But it was always Ellie who fixed things.  She would inevitably get one of them to make that phone call the next morning that put things right again. After all, Willie had become Harold’s best pilot and firing him meant Ellie would go, too. He couldn’t let that happen and Willie knew it. And Willie knew that Ellie loved her work at Waskasoo Aviation.

The three of them worked together like this for many, many years; Willie being married to both Ellie and Harold; Harold being very protective of Ellie while being very hard on Willie; and Ellie loving both men.


The company grew over the years and Harold now had more and newer and bigger airplanes and more staff to manage.  He retired some of the older planes to the “back forty” as he called it.  They were now to be used for parts.  Willie was moving up in the company in seniority but chose to remain an operational pilot because he loved fighting forest fires.  With the larger staff, Ellie had also worked her way up into up human resources, but she remained in the pool with the new dispatchers because she liked the work, too.

Time passed, and Ellie lost her father, who, by now had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for many years.  Soon after, her mother was gone, too, with cancer.  Both events were devastating for Ellie but Willie and Harold were always there for her.  Harold flew Willie and Ellie out to her hometown for both funerals.

At her father’s funeral, Willie played his guitar and sang  Where’ve You Been by Kathy Mattea.  At her mother’s, he sang 26 Cents by the Wilkinsons.  Looking around the tiny church, Willie would see how each death could a devastating impact a small prairie town.  It was sad because every person who dies is a just another reminder that rural life is on the way out.

Aside from an only sister, Willie and Harold were now all the family Ellie had.  And the wide and often wild river that divided Willie Star Blanket and Harold Badger was bridged only by her love for each man.


Things took a turn for the worse for all three, however, about 8 years ago when Ellie got sick. Within days, they received news that, like her mother, Ellie also had cancer. Harold let Willie take all the time off work he needed so that he could take care of Ellie. He even kept paying Ellie her regular wage, even though she spent so much time in the hospital going through all the tests and treatments. Willie quit flying and went back to being a mechanic for the company so he could be close to Ellie.

From there, it was a long, slow, drawn out spiral that took every bit of strength they had.  The disease made it’s way through their lives like a fire creeping through the forest underbrush. Bit by bit, it ate away at them both.  Ellie became weaker and weaker with every month she was in the hospital.  Some days, the fire seared painfully deep at Ellie’s insides.  It licked at Willie’s thoughts every minute of the day.  But it could not destroy the love they had for each other.

Within a year, Ellie knew she had lost the war and she was now ready to come home.  She was glad to be away from the hospital – the smells, the sounds, the food, the indignity.  And she knew she and Willie would be in the same bed together every night from now on.  And Willie was happy she was home, too. Now he could cook for her and clean and keep her comfortable.  Most of all, though, he was just happy that she was home.

Willie was always there beside her, bringing her tea, rubbing her back, her legs and her feet whenever she became bed sore.   When she couldn’t sleep, she would rest her head on his shoulder while he read to her.  He read her all the classics she had never gotten the chance to read like Little Women and Pride and Prejudice. He even read her Charlotte’s Webb.  She wrote letters when she was strong enough. When she was not, she dictated letters to Willie.  She would cry sometimes when Willie was in the kitchen. Sometimes she could hear him crying in the kitchen.

Some nights, he would take out his guitar and sing her to sleep.  Sometimes, he would rewrite old country love songs and put in new words that rhymed with “Ellie” – like “smelly” and “belly” and “jelly”.  Sometimes he would just sing without the guitar.

But her favourite song was now 26 Cents by the Wilkinsons because, with the loss of her mother, it had become the story of her life. She loved it when Willie would sing it for her.  He could never finish it because as soon as she started to cry, so did he.

Each and every morning when she awoke, Ellie would whisper to Willie – just like she had said all these many years since that first date – “Morning, Star.” And he would repeat those same words back to her – just like he had all these many years since she had taken both his middle and last names –  “Morning, Star.”


There is an insidious kind of smoldering fire that firefighters have trouble dealing with and are many times never able to fully control.  It’s the kind that burrows deep underground through squirrel caches, under big stumps, cracks in the rocks and big tree roots, fighting to stay alive even through the coldest of winters.  This was Willie and Ellie’s love for each other at the hardest of times.

On long, difficult nights, it was never far away, always simmering somewhere just below ground level.  Then on some days, flames would leap to the surface and they would feel a sudden great passion for each other.  They would laugh, cry, sing or make love. Then, when it hurt too much to laugh or cry or sing or make love, the fire would burrow itself back down into the cracks again.  But it would not, could not, be extinguished.


Ellen Beris Star Blanket had just turned 38 and was bone-thin when she passed away in the arms of William Star Blanket in the small hours of that April morning.  All Willie heard Ellie whisper in the end was, “It’s your echo…”  Then she smiled and was gone.  Their bedroom window was open and a light breeze moved the curtains around.  The first rain of the spring began to fall on the roof and Willie could feel the last of Ellie’s young life being extinguished in his arms.

Like smoke, he would remember later. Just like smoke.

Willie cried and pulled her closer to him. He held the back of her head with one hand and the other he wrapped tightly around her waist. He whispered her name over and over as if she might hear him and return.  But if she could hear, she didn’t return.  He kissed the cool, white skin on her shoulder. He kissed her forehead. He kissed her eyes. His tears rained down on to her cheeks.

When Willie looked up again a while later, the rain had stopped and he could see stars flickering again in early the morning sky. He rocked Ellie gently in his arms and he sang to her until the sun came up. Then he whispered in her ear, “Morning, Star”.

He made a call to Harold Badger a while later, saying he wouldn’t be in that day. Harold didn’t say much, either. He just whispered, “Yuh.” That was all. Willie could hear the big, noisy lumbering bear of an airplane called Harold Badger starting to break apart in mid-flight as he hung up the phone.


Willie doesn’t remember much about the memorial. It was all a blur of dark people moving around in dark clothing. The sounds were muffled as if you were listening from inside a dark closet full of dark coats and dark hats. There were soft dark voices mumbling nice words. There were quiet whispers and sobbing tears. Lots of warm hugs and hands on shoulders. But Willie doesn’t remember much else.

He doesn’t even remember cutting off all of his hair in mourning. Mostly, he just remembers how beautiful Ellie looked when they wrapped her in that purple star blanket that his aunt in Calgary had made for her. And he remembers kissing Ellie’s shoulder that one last time.  He tried to tell her something, anything while she lie there, but he couldn’t speak.  Not a word.

Finally, he remembers there was just no longer any voice on the radio giving him flying directions home.  Because there was no such thing as home anymore.

Harold Badger was a rock – for everyone. He wasn’t one for words at times like these and he said very little. But his presence was felt everywhere. He took care of everything. All of the funeral and travel expenses were covered by the company. People were flown in from other fire bases in the province to say goodbye.  Harold supplied the airplanes and the vehicles.  He paid hotel bills and gave people money for their personal expenses.  He took one of the airplanes and personally flew Ellie’s only sister, Rose, up to Prince Albert. He made sure Ellie had the freshest flowers on her grave.  He didn’t care what it cost.  This was family.  His family.

And although he refused to show it, everyone knew Ellie’s death had also broken him in two.


For days afterward, both Willie and Harold shuffled about the base in a cloudy brine of stupor. They bumped into desks and walls. They dropped tools and files.  They weren’t listening when people tried to hold conversations with them. They could often be seen just standing there alone in the parking lot or on the the front lawn trying to remember where it was they were going. Or they would sit in the cockpit of one of the junkers under tarps in the back forty staring at the instrument panel for hours.

In the weeks that following Ellie’s death, however, Harold decided to make another deal with Willie and he called Willie outside to the tarmac.  When Willie got out there, Harold told Willie to walk with him.  And he did.  All over the base, sparrows circled the airplanes on the tarmac, looking for a permanent place to build nests in engine cowlings and wheel wells.  Hawks and falcons hovered in the early summer breeze searching for small movements of rodents on the ground. Harold and Willie walked side by side in the tall, swaying buffalo grass along the runway for a little while.  Then  Harold began to talk.

“Willie”, he said, “I got a call from some rich American airplane nut looking for a PBY-5 Canso Catalina. I told him I had one here in the back forty, but it needs a lot of work.  He offered me a pretty good price if I could completely rebuild to the point where it is air worthy and sellable.  I think we can do it, so I gave him an estimate.  I told him it might take a few years to clean it up, get all the parts and put it back together and he was fine with that.

“So, here’s the deal: we can’t work on it during the day because of our contract with forestry.  But if you are willing to put in a couple of hours every night with me, maybe more on the weekends, I could pay you a regular hourly wage.  No overtime, mind you.  You can think of this as something to keep your mind constructively occupied, if you know what I mean.  Whadda ya think? Just you and me.”

Willie thought about it for a day or so and let Harold know he would take the deal.  In his mind, he really had nowhere else to go.  This was as good as home was ever going to get.


So it was, over the next several years he and Harold spent a couple of hours every day after work rebuilding the old 1940s amphibian. They stripped much of the old skin off and replaced it. They tore the old engines down and saved what they could, replacing what could not be fixed. They removed the entire front cockpit instrument panel assembly, stripping gauges, old wires and dried up hydraulic lines. At least the glass was still good and they managed to salvage both rear gun blisters and front mounted gun turret that had been a mainstay of this airplane during the Second World War.

The repairs went on like this for a long time.  In the process, Willie discovered that Harold had a deep and intimate knowledge of old planes and Willie learned a lot from him.  And, as Harold promised, Willie’s mind was kept constructively busy.

On many nights, when Willie felt no reason to go home, he would sleep in a makeshift bed in the back of the Canso. Sometimes he wouldn’t go home for days.  But Harold didn’t care if Willie lived out at the airport. In fact, he thought it was good to have someone on the base during the night keeping an eye on all that equipment.

When he couldn’t sleep –  which was often – Willie would take out his guitar and a folding deck chair and climb out on the top of the Catalina wing and place the chair down between the two big, round engines.  There he would sit and play his guitar as the bats whizzed by his head and between the propellors in the failing light.  He knew the chords and the melody and he tried to remember those words – the ones from 26 Cents.  But they wouldn’t come.

So, he never sang that song again.

Willie and Harold continued to work on the Catalina together like they were on fire.  But without Ellie there, they also continued to get into more and more arguments and soon the marriage between Willie Star Blanket and Harold Badger began to unravel.

It all came to a grinding halt the day they were replacing missing rivets on the fuselage. Willie was inside the fuselage with the riveting gun while Harold was on a stepladder holding pressure on the the rivet from the outside. For some reason, the rivet would break every time it was tightened and quickly both began to lose their composure. Within seconds, they were at it once again, arguing, nose to nose, chest bumping, each blaming the other.

Then, just when Willie was in the middle of calling Harold a “fucking red neck”, Harold suddenly shouted, “You think you are the only one hurt here in this whole shitty mess, Willie? Well, goddamn it, I miss her, too! Every fucking day! She was like a daughter to me.” They both stopped.

Harold caught his breath, backed away and lowered his voice.  His eyes were red, as were Willie’s.  Harold continued, “For Christ sakes, Willie, I never had time for a wife…kids. Family.  Always too busy.  Flying this or fixing that.  But Ellie knew what was missing in my life and she was like a daughter to me. No, she was my daughter. And you were…no, you are…no, you know what? Fuck it!” And with that, Harold walked away.

They never fought again.


When the Catalina was finally ready for testing, Harold taught Willie how to fly the airplane as they put it through trial run after trial run on the ground, in the water and in the air. There were plenty of bugs to be worked out, but by the time it was ready to be inspected for certification, Willie had grown to know and love the old war plane. He knew the creaks and groans in her skin.  He could tell you which instrument would start to act up and when.  And he could tell exactly which cylinder was misfiring in the bunch.  It was going to be sad to see the old Cat heading south soon.  But Willie tried to prepare himself for the loss.


The Catalina was finally certified as air worthy a year ago. The two Transport Canada inspectors were pretty impressed with the way it flew for a machine built in the nineteen-forties. One of them quietly made a joke about the airplane, saying, “She may be ugly, but she sure is slow!”  They both laughed.  Harold did not.

After the Certificate of Airworthiness was signed and presented to Harold, the inspectors left.  Harold sat there in the cockpit of the Catalina for several minutes looking at the certificate.  He threw it on the co-pilot’s seat and climbed down from the airplane. He found Willie there in the hangar poring over a busted magneto. He hollered at Willie to come outside. Willie came out wiping his hands on a white rag, squinting in the afternoon sun. Harold had his hands in his pockets and was looking at his feet when Willie approached him. Calmly, Harold began to speak without looking up.

“Look, Willie. There ain’t no rich Big Daddy Warbucks American buyer for this airplane. Never was. But I thought that after Ellie, well, you know, after she…passed on, there would be nothing left to hold you to this place. There was really nothing to hold you to any place. So, I needed something to keep you here. You’ve given pretty much most of your life to this company. You’ve pretty much fixed and flown everything I have to offer. So, I know now, I realize that there isn’t much of anything to keep you here anymore.

“I know that one of these days I’ll show up at work, and you’ll be gone. Off into the blue. And for good, this time. So, I figured…well, I figured you might need a ride to get you to where you’re going, whenever it is you decide to go.

“The Cat’s yours, son.” he said.  “Always was.”

With that, Harold Badger threw Willie Star Blanket the keys to the Catalina and walked away.


Last week, William Star Blanket found two envelopes in the front pocket of his old flight suit, a suit he hadn’t touched in years.  Both were addressed in Ellie’s handwriting.  He opened the envelope that said “William” and found a quarter and a penny taped to a letter inside.  He began to read the letter:

My Darling William:

It is said that the fire that burns the brightest also burns the shortest.  And although we have not spent a lifetime together, it feels as though the fire we have shared has now become brighter than the sun itself.  And I know this means that very soon it will burn itself out.

To  some, it would seem we have lived such a simple yet joyous life.  In reality, however, I think it has been pretty exciting.  I am afraid, as I write, that my mind is starting to not work properly and I do not have the strength to remember any of the big things we have shared.

All the little things, on the other hand – Oh, boy, do I do remember those!

Like the night you chased and caught me in that field near the airport on our first date.  I knew I was yours from then on.

Your smile every morning when we would see each other for the first time.

Those playful gazes we exchanged at work early on.

Your cool lips upon my shoulder when we would dance to “26 Cents”.

That beautiful day under the bridge when you asked me to take your middle and last names.

Chasing wild rivers and deep valleys and holes in clouds with you in your airplane.

The times when you would try to make bannock and always forget the baking powder.  ha ha

The passion in your eyes when we made love.  I can only imagine it is the same look you have when you are fighting fire. I swear I could actually see flames in your eyes.

And the way your long flowing hair lay across my breast while you slept.

I thank you for showing a little girl from a small prairie town the true, true meaning of Love in all its power and passion.

I thank you for being an amazing Captain and keeping me safe during our fantastic flight together.

I will always be there beside or behind you, whenever you fly, wherever you go, whatever you do.

And finally, my darling, I hope you will find your way home again to someone else. It will be okay.  Just please don’t fight the fire in your heart when it starts up again.  On the contrary, let it go wild!

I hope those last four lines echo forever in your heart.

And I hope these echos always remain a bridge to mine.

I hope you soar again.  Soon. And often.  The good Lord certainly did not give eagles big, beautiful wings just so they could walk.

And most of all, fly safely, my darling. Make sure you get home.  Always.

Forever yours, Ellie.


And so it was, in the dark hours of this morning when Willie arrived at the base. His hair was trimmed short and combed neatly. He wore his brown leather aviator’s jacket and his flight suit was clean and ironed. He wore Ellie’s purple scarf around his neck.  His shoes were polished.  He clutched a small white cardboard box tightly in his arms.

He unlocked the front door of the main office and went directly to Harold’s office. He placed the box on Harold’s desk along with a sealed envelope.  It was addressed to Harold and it was in Ellie’s handwriting.  It just said, “Dad”.

As he was leaving, Willy paused at the doorway of the dispatch office.  The radio lights flashed red and green in the dark.  He listened closely, but all he could hear was a bit of static on the radio. No voices telling pilots where they should be going. No voices telling pilots how to get home.  No voices with his call sign. No voices at all.

He locked up behind himself and headed back to the truck. He fetched his duffle bags and a second small white cardboard box identical to the first one.  And he climbed up the short stairs into the Cat.


The stars were still out when William Star Blanket taxied that yellow Catalina off the tarmac of the air base.  Her engines were warm and the heat was billowing throughout the cabin. The new control panel dial lit up Willie’s face in the cabin like it was Christmas. He took the small, beaded deerhide pouch hanging around his neck, kissed it and slung it around the alcohol-filled compass on top of the instrument panel.

Willie called the Prince Albert air tower on the radio and filed a flight plan with them. He pulled the Cat onto the taxiway flanked by tall buffalo grass.He reported two souls on board. He looked at the small white box strapped into the co-pilot’s seat next to his.

When the Catalina lifted off the pavement that morning for the last time, Willie thought to himself, the Cat is no longer a car.


He called Prince Albert air radio again before settling the Cat gently into the middle of Candle Lake some forty miles away to the northeast. He shut the engines down and took the box to the back. For an hour, he lay there on the bunk with Ellie resting on his chest. Together they watched the sun rise. And when the sun was fully up, Willie whispered to her, “Morning, Star.”

It was time.  Willie got up and found the toolbox strapped in the aft of the plane along with all the spare parts Harold had left for him. With a screwdriver, he carefully removed the top inspection covers from each of the two water bomb tanks. Then he carefully opened the white box and poured a bit  of its contents into one tank and a bit more into the second tank. Making sure there was still a bit of Ellie left in the box, he folded the flaps back up. After resealing the inspection covers, he returned to the cockpit, strapped himself into the pilot’s seat and began to go throught the Engine Startup Procedure Checklist.

Soon the Catalina was heading into the wind, picking up speed. At 60 knots, Willie lowered the probes and a great gush of water came flowing from the lake through short system of pipes and into the water bomb tanks in the back. Willie thought he could hear the sound of his wife’s giggle churning in the water as the tanks filled. Within half a minute, both tanks were full and at 80 knots the lumbering water bomber began to pull herself off the water. 

The Cat is no longer a boat, Willie thought to himself.

It didn’t take long to find his target. Willie circled low and slow a couple of times to make sure no one was on or near it. Then he climbed a bit and began to follow the meandering line of the creek. He swore he could hear Ellie screaming and laughing hysterically behind him over the engine noise but he knew it was probably just his imagination. He armed the bomb button and just when he was on the threshold of his target, he hit the button.

The load of water came forward with full velocity from the belly of the airplane, then it slowed and began to rain down on Echo Bridge.  From under the bridge, however, he imagined it would sound like a heavy rain. He knew what that sounded like. So did Ellie.

Willie closed the bombay doors again. He brought down the flaps up a few degrees, wiped the tears from his eyes and began a slow climb. Then he banked the old flying boat and leveled off, heading east, directly into the sun at a hundred knots.

Slowly, Willie looked around him and watched as, like a forest fully regenerated after fire, the old boat that had come out of the ashes was now being transformed into a big, beautiful flying yellow bird. The Cat is not just any bird, thought Willie.  She’s a Pheonix.

Willie pulled the flaps up and eased the throttles back to cruising speed. The RPM gauge needle no longer danced. He smiled and looked up at the compass.  It swung wildly back and forth with the close proximity of the two coins in the deerskin pouch hanging from it.  Willie didn’t mind.  That’s exactly the direction he was going.  And there was no looking back.

A brilliant flash of purple bounced off the nose.  William Star Blanket put on his sunglasses and looked down at the spot where he had hand-lettered in purple, the name of his airplane.  Her name was Morning Star.


Back in Prince Albert, Harold Badger was just arriving at work.


Fearless Frederick Lepine
Yellow Point Road
Ladysmith, BC

Frank’s Last Boogie

(True story. And even better when my brother tells it. So, ask him.)


I'm your Boogie Van, that's what I am.

I'm your Boogie Van, that's what I am.

Back in the eighties, my brother Sammy bought an old Chevy van from one of his biker friends. At the time, I thought it was pretty cool because it had a short cab, a stick shift and because it was a four-wheel-drive, it sat fairly high on its wheels. The insides were plush with orange carpet – floor, ceiling and dashboard. And it had a hand-painted mural with flames on both sides. Back in the seventies, this would have been the ultimate “Boogie Van”.

When he wasn’t driving his Harley, this was Sammy’s main wheels.

As I told you near the end of a previous story, Muscle Memories, our Uncle Frank died in the late fall of 1988. While my family was making arrangements for the funeral, they discovered that the local community hearse was unavailable as it was in the shop for repairs.

In an attempt to find an alternative vehicle to carry the casket, they realized that almost everyone attending the funeral service had either cars or pickup trucks. And they didn’t want Uncle Frank to have to ride in the cold open air, so they finally settled on asking Sammy if they could use his van in the funeral procession.

Honoured, Sammy said yes. Uncle Frank had ridden in that van with him on many occasions and liked the ride, so it would only be fitting. And he added that with all the ice and snow that fall, it probably would be better because it had four-wheel-drive.

I was not able to attend because I was attending college in Victoria at the time. However, I was told that the funeral service was beautiful. Many people had so many good things to say about Uncle Frank. His friends, his drinking buddies – at least, those still living – were also there to salute and celebrate his colorful life.

Now, I can’t say whether Frank did or did not believe in god, but the Catholic Church was much more interested in the fact that he was baptized, not in how he had led his life or the fact that he hadn’t attended church in decades. For all anyone knew, he could have been an atheist.

When the service came to an end, my four brothers and two cousins carried the casket down the aisle and down the steps where Sammy’s van waited with open back doors. Sammy had taken the back seat out of the van in order to make more cargo room. They slid the casket into the back onto the orange carpeted floor and everyone got into their cars and trucks and began to follow Sammy on the two-mile ride north to the cemetery on Vale Island.

With everyone’s blinkers flashing, it was a typically slow procession. And in typically small northern town custom, cars that meet a funeral motorcade from the opposite direction will often stop and pull over in respect for the one that has passed on. This, they did, and traffic heading south on the main road through town came to a standstill as my brother’s van led the long line of cars to my uncle’s final resting place.

But as Sammy passed by these cars, he noticed some of them had odd looks on their faces. Some were in absolute horror, others were laughing. A few had their hands over their mouths. Sammy had no idea what was going on, so he kept on driving.

Finally, they arrived at the cemetery and the casket was unloaded, carried to the grave and placed gently on the support straps. People gathered around Uncle Frank.

Again, I was told it was a lovely graveside ceremony. Some people cried, and as Frank would have wanted it, some even made polite laughter. Then, it was all over and Uncle Frank was in the ground. Everyone turned to leave. So did Sammy. And when he looked back at the parking lot, his jaw dropped and out came a silent, “Oh. My. God. No.”

In the rush of making the funeral arrangements, he and everyone in my family had failed to notice one important thing. On the side of that old seventies Boogie Van that had led the procession through town that day was that beautiful mural of flames that I had mentioned earlier. Brightly burning flames that wrapped themselves around the back of the van. But there was more.

Rising out of those beautifully-painted flames was a devil. A gigantic, menacing, red devil with gigantic horns and pointy ears. He had a wild grin and an evil scowl on his face and he was holding a pitchfork in his hand. With a crooked finger, he was beckoning you to follow him.

And along the top of the mural ran the title of that mural in huge, hot, flaming letters…HELLBOUND!

We know Uncle Frank is somewhere still slapping back cheap rye whiskey, picking his guitar, and laughing his head off.

At least, we hope so.


Fearless Frederick Lepine
Yellow Point Road
Ladysmith, BC