Archive

Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

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

River Dogs

(This short story is based on a true confession.)

*************


“Lies are like sled dogs. Feed and exercise them regularly, as you never know when you might need them. But you keep them on a short chain. Because if one should get loose in the world, it will come back to bite you.”

So began the confession of my grandfather several years before he passed in early 1980.

S.S. Distributor (Photo: Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)

S.S. Distributor

A tall, burly Cree man who spoke remnants of five languages including Cree, English, French, Slavey, and Chipewyan, he was also the captain of the S.S. Distributor, a stern wheeler that plied the thousand miles of the Mackenzie River from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean in the 1930s and 40s. This river, like a main artery, ran through the heart of Denendeh, the land of the Dene people. It was known here as the Dehcho or the Great River.

One day, Mooshum found out that he would be taking the Prince of Wales on a journey down north to the Arctic Ocean and back the following year. The Prince was simply going on a nice relaxing vacation and insisted that no big ceremonies were to be planned. In fact, he wanted his journey to be kept a secret. He wasn’t coming to fix the Dene people’s world this time. He just wanted to get away from the madness in his family.

But when one of the deckhands, a local Dene man, asked my grandfather why the Prince of Whales was coming north, Mooshum jokingly replied that His Royal Highness had heard that the Dene women were rumoured to be the most beautiful women in the world. And they had such beautiful teeth. So the Queen had suggested he come here all the way from England to find himself a wife.

Now, my grandfather assumed everyone else knew what he knew – that Cree women were actually the most beautiful women in the world. With deep, dark eyes, full lips, satiny smooth brownish-red skin and noses of such strength and curve, they were so desirable that they were often taken by other tribes simply for their aesthetic value.

That’s why to this day Cree men like me have a fascination with women’s noses. If you find us staring at your nose, remember that we are simply looking for our long lost sisters. Everybody knows that. It’s just a fact.

Just like it is a fact that in order to keep Cree women happy, the Creator skipped bingo for four nights just so he could make for them the most exquisite men.

And when he had finished, he was so pleased with himself that he named the entire tribe using the first three letters in his own name. Everybody knows that. It’s just a fact.

But that’s another story for another time.

And so it was that a year passed, the Prince of Wales quietly arrived. Introductions were made while the supplies and wood for the steam engine were loaded. The Prince settled into his soft chair along with his entourage on the top deck, just fore of the pilot house and soon the trip down the Great River to the Arctic Ocean was underway.

At first, the cruise “down north” on the big stern wheeler was uneventful. In fact, it became downright magnificent along the turn in the river where the current begins to follow the Mackenzie Mountains. The Prince and his hangers-on spent much of the time drinking tea, pointing, and ooohing and ahhhing at their surroundings. There were lots of By Jove!s and Jolly Good!s and My Word!s all around. Mooshum was glad the passengers were happy.

But, as soon as Fort Wrigley, the first Dene community along The River, came into view, my grandfather slowly began to realize to his great horror that one of his dogs had gotten loose into the world and it was going to be hard to get it back.

It started with the sound of a faint heartbeat far off in the distance. And as they drew closer, the heartbeat began to grow louder and louder. The Prince of Wales stood, as immediately did his entourage, to see where this great heartbeat was coming from.

Fort Wrigley, c. 1922 (Photo: Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)

Fort Wrigley, c. 1922 (Photo: Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)

Then, there high up on the eastern bank of the Great River, they saw a long line of men, women and children from the village. They were drumming, waving, singing and dancing – all keeping rhythm with the chug-chug-chug of the Distributor steam engine and the heartbeat of The River. The music could be heard for miles up and down the Great River Valley.

The Prince turned and looked questioningly at my grandfather in the wheelhouse. What was this all about, then? My father just smiled, but otherwise ignored him, not knowing how to explain his flippant-joke-turned-mistake.

And when the Distributor tied up at the dock that warm fall afternoon, and the Prince walked up the bank to the welcoming committee, mothers pushed their young daughters to the front. The pretty young Dene girls were garbed in the finest moose hide and caribou skin dresses, garnished in traditional floral beadwork, their hair tied back in braids with flowers. They smelled so lovely. And their teeth – oh, their teeth were as white as my Mooshum’s face on that day.

Obviously, hunters the previous fall had gone out and killed moose and caribou and very carefully skinned them. Then, in the spring, the women spent weeks tanning and curing the hides to a beautiful brown, and, in the case of caribou – a sparkling white. Then the beadwork and sewing began. Many, many winter days and nights had been spent meticulously preparing for this important day – the day when the Prince of Whales would choose his Dene bride.

When the stop was over and the ship was underway again, Mooshum was questioned by the Prince an his British entourage about all the hoopla. No one was supposed to know they were coming on this trip. How did word get out?

My grandfather, now having had time to think, simply shrugged and said that Dene people greet all newcomers on The River this way. That is their way. He also added with great confidence that it was impolite to question such a welcome. And that the Prince should make sure to shake the hand of every young woman according to Dene custom and tell each of them that they were very beautiful. In fact, he even taught the Prince of Wales to say, “You are very beautiful.” in Slavey, the main Dene language.

The Prince reluctantly accepted my grandfather’s story. And so, this scene was repeated at every community on the Mackenzie River during that trip. The hands of young Dene girls were shook all along the Valley. They were each told how beautiful they were. Their parents bragged afterwards about what they had heard the Prince say about their daughters. And the Prince was off again on his unwitting search for a Dene bride.

For obvious reasons, this story was not told until many, many years after it happened. I am one of the few who have heard it.

Now you have heard it, too, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

So, it is that today, when you travel through Denendeh, you will still find stunningly beautiful, dark-skinned Dene women, now well into their eighties and nineties, sitting quietly on the banks of a that same Great River. Their moose hide dresses are decorated in the most intricate floral bead patterns, their hair tied back in caribou antler clips.

Some sit and bead moose and caribou hide moccasins. Others make fires and cut fish or hang meat for drying. Every now and then each of them will cast an eye up river and smile, longing for the sight of a rich, handsome Prince who, rumour has it, will someday come down the river riding on the backs of Whales.

He will come to claim his Dene bride.

And today, when your cruise ship the Norweta anchors at the point where the Great River crosses the Arctic Circle, and you settle into a hot tub under dance of the late August northern lights, you might suddenly catch a glimpse of a lone sled dog running along the shore. You might see him gasping for air, his long tongue hanging almost to the ground and he is pulling a short piece of broken chain. You might also hear a the beat of drums behind you in the distance. You turn to look behind you and realize that the husky is actually following an old stern wheeler churning its way up south through the current. The chugging of its engine keeps the same rhythm as the heartbeat of The Great River.

And if you quickly grab your binoculars and look very carefully, for a split second you might see a tall, very handsome young man at the wheel of that ship, shifting uneasily in his captain’s chair, his flat Cree ass still smarting from an old bite wound that goes back many, many years.

And you might lower your binoculars and wonder to yourself, “How well did I tie up my dogs before I left home?”

Mahsi.

*************

Fearless Frederick Lepine
Originally written and presented at
The Banff Centre
Storytelling Residency
February 2006

Mabel’s Story

(This week’s short story is loosely based on the character and experience of my mother, Alvina Lepine (1918-2009), who at 64, decided it was time to learn to read and write. She won a Peter Gzowski Literacy Award for her efforts. She appeared on CBC North television and as a result, she inspired a 43-year-old Inuit woman in the eastern Arctic to do the same.

To celebrate her story, I wrote this. It ended up the Grand Prize Winner in the 1996 Northwest Territories Writing Contest sponsored by NWT Literacy. As a result of that, both my mother and I were interviewed by the Bravo Channel for a documentary on literacy – a documentary that I have never seen. BTW, the references in this story to the National Enquirer are there because as soon as she was able to read at that level, my mother began to believe all the stories she read in the NI. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. Leave me a comment.

PS: Not to be outdone, my brother Frank won the same contest the following year. Don’t worry – I have a story coming soon about him, too… 😉 )

* * * * * *     * * * * * *

“Not all true histories have been written; not all written histories have been true.” – FFL, Talking in Circles (Gallery Show, 1992)

My mother and I, 1963ish.  Hay River, NT.

My mother and I, 1963ish. Hay River, NT.

Her foot had slipped out like a shot from under her short, plump body and she ended up sitting there like a rag doll on the sidewalk. White and green plastic Northern Store bags flailing, cans of Klik Luncheon Meat, the ones with the neat little lead skeleton keys welded on the top, and Libbyʹs brown beans with the tiny useless portions of pork rattle across the icy concrete and into the snow. Now, as I run to help, her National Enquirer flies up in my face and I catch a glimpse of Navajo Medicine Man Meets E.T. in Desert.

ʺNisit…,ʺ she cries when she realizes what has happened. She is consoling her ankle through worn woolen mittens. I have to get her off the concrete or sheʹll freeze there. Colin, the store manager, a tall balding white man in his fifties, rushes out through the litter of Pilot biscuits, Kraft Dinner boxes and cans of Coke. His foot catches a bottle of HP sauce and punts it off the sidewalk and into the parking lot.

I am trying to pick her up by the shoulders of her thin spring parka, but sheʹs not helping. She just rocks back and forth and holds her ankle crying, ʺNisit, nisit…ʺ

ʺAre ye okay Mabel?ʺ Colin asks in his thick Scottish accent. Heʹs down on one knee now, and begins rubbing her foot as well. Iʹm still trying to get her off the concrete, because for some reason, I think sheʹs going to freeze there. The raspy voice of my mother floods in from somewhere in the sharp November wind like a scratchy LP, ʺWhiss, you sit on the ice like that, youʹll get piles…!ʺ

ʺDo ye want me to call an ambulance?ʺ asks Colin. Then, before she can reply, he turns his head and yells, ʺAaron, get me a blanket! Unʹ be quick!ʺ At first I donʹt see young Einstein, the clerk who had come out of the store behind Colin. He is there more out of curiosity than concern. At Colinʹs bark, the pock-faced kid scatters like he just discovered he has wiped the hard drive clean on his old manʹs computer. Iʹm still trying to get old Mabel to her feet, and I finally manage to pull one cheek off the concrete, Colin says to me, ʺLet her rest a wee bit. Sheʹll be okay in a minute.ʺ

Okay with me, I think. I place her gently back down on the sidewalk, and begin to chase puffed bags of Cheezies and Lipton Noodle Soup boxes across the parking lot, because thatʹs the only thing I can think of doing right now.

By the time I have collected the last pages of the National Enquirer from under an old Volvo across the street, Colin seems to have things well in hand. I trudge back to the store entrance with most of the paper under my arm, the rest I try to read in the light of the parking lot. Bigfoot Spotted in Las Vegas Motel.

Colin already has her and her bags stuffed into the back seat of Philʹs taxi. He has placed a brand new grey woolen blanket around her and I hear him saying, ʺ Donʹt ye worry now, Mabel. Iʹll have Rita Williams the home nurse drop in on ye tomorrow morninʹ. Aaronʹll bring the rest of yer groceries around tonight on ʹis way home. Iʹll get someone tʹmake sure ye get home in one piece. You just stay off that ankle until Rita gets there, yʹhear?ʺ

Something like ʺEhhhh…,ʺ comes from the back seat. Man. Old people! I think.

ʺMake sure she gets home okay, will ye, Tommy?ʺ Colin turns to me holding the cab door open.

ʺNow wait a goddamn min…ʺ I blurt. Colin glares at me. ʺDonʹ fret, heʹll carry yer groceries up fer ye, as well, Mabel. Heʹs a good lad.

“Oh and Phil, make sure you get Tommy back to where heʹs going to and charge it to the store.ʺ He fakes a smile as I slide numbly into the back of the cab.

A ride in Philʹs taxi with an old woman – probably the first free thing Colin has given away since he came North. Probably just trying to avoid a lawsuit. Damn, I was just going for a beer with Kicker and Big Man. Looks like theyʹll have to start without me. Great- theyʹre slappin back cold ones, and I get to take care of Granny, I think.

Within minutes we are clipping down the highway out to the reserve with this old lady, two bags of snow covered groceries and a National Enquirer. Phil is thumping his fingers to Alabamaʹs Mountain Music on the radio. We have to take the long way to the reserve because the ice bridge across the Hay River hasnʹt frozen over yet. Itʹll be last call by the time I get back, I think.

ʺTansi,ʺ she says quietly after a while. I just smile and nod. I begin to pretend reading the National Enquirer with the help of passing streetlights. I can feel her staring at me from behind the thin blue paisley scarf.

ʺWhatʹs your name, Tommy?ʺ she asks a little while later.

ʺTommy,ʺ I say. Geez. Some old peopleʹs kids.

ʺWaal! I mean your last name.ʺ A chuckle wheezes out from deep in her chest.

ʺSquirrel.ʺ I give up the information as though she might stalk me some day.

ʺSquirrel…Your parents from around Norman, eh?ʺ

ʺDonʹt know, never been there. Iʹm from here.ʺ I keep my gaze planted on the Enquirer. Lose 40 Pounds in 40 Days!

ʺUsed to know some Squirrels from up around Norman one time. Good hunters, them. Whatʹs your Mooshumʹs name?ʺ

ʺMy grandfather? Squirrel.ʺ Iʹm not going to make it any easier for her.

ʺWaal!ʺ I mean ees first name.ʺ That throaty wheeze again.

ʺJames, I think. I donʹt know. I think they just used to call him Old Man. Donʹt know anything about him. Never met the guy. I think heʹs dead.ʺ My eyes are still glued to the paper. Make $10,000 – This Month Alone!

ʺI think I know who see is.ʺ she says.

ʺWho is?ʺ I ask, puzzled.

ʺYour Mooshum.ʺ

ʺOh him – my grandfather. You mean who he is,ʺ I correct her and go back to the Enquirer.

ʺEh-hehn. Him – I think I know who see is. One time – looong time ago – one winter, it was hard to find food. Lots of snow, eh? That time my family just starving. My husband Alphonse, seeʹs real sick with the flu. We live in Wrigley that time. Your Mooshum, see come down from Norman, that time with ees kids. Maybe your Dad too. They kill a caribou on the trail, there. Wah-whay, they feed us good until Alphonse gets well again. Good hunters, those Squirrels,ʺ she trails off in the dark.

Then after a long silence, she says, quietly, ʺMe, I never forget that…ʺ

ʺHmph,ʺ I say without looking up. Loniʹs Big Night Out – and Sheʹs Not Alone!

Nothing is said for several minutes and soon the streetlights have all passed. We are bathed only in the light of Philʹs dashboard with the hum of the car and Buck Owens singing Loveʹs Gonna Live Here Again in the background. Phil is banging away on the steering wheel, but now heʹs singing the guitar parts too. I push the newspaper into one of Mabelʹs Northern Store bags and play with my leather gloves.

ʺHow come you donʹt know your Mooshumʹs name?ʺ she suddenly asks out of the dark. She sounds bothered.

ʺHuh..?ʺ I look up. ʺWhat do you mean?ʺ

ʺHow come you donʹt know your own Mooshumʹs name? How come you donʹt know nothing about him?ʺ

ʺNot important, I guess. No need.ʺ I shrug.

ʺEschia! What you mean not important?ʺ I can feel her glaring at me in the dark. Kind of like being watched when you go outside to get an armful of wood at night.

ʺI got better things to do than live in the past.ʺ Iʹm about to add that stuff like that is for old people, but I catch myself. That sets off my motherʹs voice again – this time sheʹs coming through the whine in the back tire. ʺBe nice to old people – some day you, youʹre gonna be…ʺ

ʺWhiss, you kids these days donʹt know nothing ʹbout where you come from. How you gonna know where you go from here?ʺ Mabel sighs and looks out at the night. I go back to playing with my leather gloves again. Old people. God if I ever make it past twenty-five…

Then she leans back in the seat, closes her eyes and begins to hum quietly to herself. It is not long before I find myself humming along with her in my head. My mother used to sing that song, but it has been so long, I have forgotten the words.

ʺI live across now, eh?ʺ she says softly pointing in the direction of the reserve with her lips. ʺBut Iʹm not from here, eh? My name is Mabel Vera Cardinal. Iʹm a Cree from Fond-du-Lac, Saskatchewan. I grew up on a trapline near Waterways in Alberta. When I was a smaaall little girl, maybe nikotwasik, six, my mother see take me to the…kiskinwahamatowikamik… the mission school in Chipewyan, eh? See says you stay here now – you learn English. I come back and get you when itʹs finished. They say you learn to read and write in Cree and English too, when itʹs finished. Wah-whay, I wait by the gate every day, every night. I wait by the river. But my mother, see never comes back. See never come back.ʺ Then she quietly adds, ʺMe, I think, taniwa? Where see is?

ʺAnd those priests and nuns in the mission – some of them were not very good people. They say God, see save your soul. I say from what? They say, from the Devil. Me, I never heard about the Devil till that time, eh? They tell me bad things about being Indian. Crees, especially. The Devil see lives in Crees, they say. They donʹt let me speak Cree no more. Only English and Francais. But we fool them, eh? We sneak at recess time. Talk Cree all the time.ʺ She wheezes a dry laugh once again. ʺFinally, my aunt, see come one day. See sees whats been going on there. See take me away after two years. See take me back to the trapline with my uncle. Ay-hay, I speak my Cree again.ʺ

ʺOne boy I meet at mission school, Alphonse. I marry him in 1946 in Fort Smith. Yeah, 1946, Ay-hay, we move all over the place. See work for the Hudson Bay Company, that time. Him, see buy a camera to take pictures, eh? See sure like ees camera, Alphonse. Him, see speak Slavey. All the time me, I speak Cree. I learn some Slavey, some Chip and maybe some Dogrib. Sometimes English, but all the time Cree. Me too, I force Alphonse to learn Cree. Ay-hay, see say why? Nobody here speak Cree. I say, thatʹs why. Nobody here to talk to. So, see learn Cree. Alphonse, see was a good man, eh?ʺ

ʺMe, I never forget. I teach my kids Cree when theyʹre small. I say someday you meet your grandmother, you talk Cree to her. But they forget. Soon as they go to school, they forget. After a while they forget everything I teach them. Now, I donʹt know where they are. They forget.ʺ Her voice trails off again. ʺMy mother. Maybe see forget, too.ʺ

With a clunk we are off the highway and onto the reserve road. The smooth pavement has given way to frozen gravel and Philʹs taxi is riding like a big lake fish boat rolling on the water. For some reason I am becoming not just interested, but quietly fascinated in how her story comes out.
ʺWhat happened to Alphonse?ʺ I find myself asking.

ʺAlphonse, see die from pneumonia in 1973. Twelve years after we meet your Mooshum. Your Mooshum, he was a good man, too. A good hunter, that one. Ohhh, see really know how to play the fiddle. Alphonse, see play the guitar. All night long.ʺ That wheezing laugh again. ʺI remember one time. Alphonse and him, they make a bet who can stay up the longest playing all night, eh? Your Mooshum, him see bets ees fiddle. And Alphonse him he bet ees camera. Wah-Whay! They still awake the next morning when I go for water! Both of them still playing!ʺ Her rasping laugh soon turns into a hacking cough. I am caught up in her story and find myself laughing with her.

For the next several minutes she tells me about the time Alphonse and Old Man Squirrel were playing a jig when the fiddle suddenly broke off at the neck. She supposed that Old Man Squirrel might have been playing a little too hard. She breaks up with another low cackle, this time the coughing has her wheezing for air.

Then, suddenly she is telling me about going to night school. She has decided to learn to read and write at the age of sixty-six. ʺAy-hay, maybe I have some great grandchildren someday. I write to them. Teach them Cree,ʺ she says.

Once again everything returns to the soft hum of the car and this time Pasty Cline is crooning Sweet Dreams of You. Phil is whistling the piano parts now.

ʺMe, I have a history, eh?ʺ she suddenly blurts out in the dark.

ʺWhat do you mean?ʺ I ask.

ʺThatʹs what they tell me at night school. I have a language and I have a history. Even when I was married, the Catholic Church, they take my name. They even take me away from my family. They try to teach me that where I come from is wrong. They say, ‘You, youʹre just a woman. You, your familyʹs not important.’ But me, I keep the truth alive, eh? Because me, I know where I come from, eh? I am Mabel Vera Cardinal and I come from Fond-du-Lac, Saskatchewan. I am a Cree.ʺ

Proud anger. Defiance. From behind the thin blue paisley scarf. From the dark back seat of Philʹs taxi.

As we approach the streetlights on the reserve, she softly repeats, ʺI have a language, and I have a history,ʺ then adds, ʺbut me, I have no one to pass it on to. Everybody here speak Slavey.ʺ

We finally pull into her driveway and I help her out of the cab. Arm in arm, we slowly climb the steps of her tiny house. She seems much smaller, lighter and frailer than she appeared in the parking lot at the Northern Store. I help Phil carry her groceries in. He is still singing, this time he is giggling along with Chuck Berryʹs My Dingaling. The house is warm and welcoming. The dry kitchen air tells me she has cooked bannock here today. Maybe even earlier tonight. I help her get seated and take off her boots. She asks me to get her cane from behind the couch in the living room.

As I enter the tiny, dimly lit room, I am overcome with that same feeling of being watched. But this time it is different. This time it is comforting. I slide my hand along the wall and flick the light on. To my surprise I find myself surrounded by people. Hundreds and hundreds of photographs fill every bit of available space on the walls, the furniture, even the floor! People are everywhere. Old people, young people, families, couples. People smiling, singing, working, playing. Women, men, children, dogs, horses, farms, tents, trading posts. People on boats in the river, in the bush, fishing, hunting, trapping. Each photograph has been painstakingly framed in hand-carved birch or intricate floral beadwork, and there in almost every picture is the same, small, thin beautiful face of a woman at different times in her life – Mabel.

ʺYou got time for tea and bannock, Tommy? I got some hot raisin bannock,ʺ she calls from the kitchen. I can hear her removing her coat and scarf.

ʺUh, not really, Iʹm supposed to meet somebody.ʺ I answer from the living room. I find her cane and bring it to her. She has already put the kettle on when I get there.

ʺYou sure you gonna be okay with your foot and everything? I could drop in later this week and…ʺ I am shocked at what I am saying. Hey, Iʹm the guy who doesnʹt like old people.

ʺYou wait here. I get something for you.ʺ She hobbles with her cane into the bedroom. A few moments later she comes out with a cardboard box under her arm. It is about the size of a case of beer, wrapped in a brown faded copy of The World News and tied with cotton string, worn, knotted, and in a bow.

ʺHere. You get home, you open this. Fresh bannock,ʺ she says.

Phil has fallen asleep on the horn now, so I say goodbye as quickly as I can. I want to protest her giving me the bannock, but she smiles, gently touches my forearm and says, ʺMahsi, nikosis.ʺ

Once again, we are back on the paved highway leading into town. I have the grey woolen blanket wrapped around my legs now, surprised at the fact that I am not worried about catching something from old peopleʹs blankets. As I reach behind to adjust the blanket, my hand brushes against the National Enquirer. Has she left it for me? I wonder. I open it once more.

Stradivarius Found in Mayan Ruins

What follows can only be described as a thin slice of deafening silence. Then in a frenzy, I begin to tear at the box. The old newspaper disintegrates like brittle tissue, itʹs all over the back seat and on the floor of the cab. Only after several tries am I able to break the thick cotton string. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, I lift the top off the box.

It is truly beautiful. Inlaid with pearl and finished in a deep golden brown varnish, I wonder how it has kept its finish after all those years on the trapline. As I look closely, I can see where the neck had been cracked once and was carefully repaired again. The strings are still taut. There is still a splash of resin left on the body. Whether the fiddle is in or out of tune, I cannot say. But that doesnʹt matter. What does matter is on the back of the scroll near the tip: the tiny hand-carved letters J. Squirrel 1958.

ʺHey Phil? You wanna turn around? I think I forgot something back there.ʺ I yell over Hank Williamʹs Honky Tonk Man.

ʺWhat? All the way back? Why – what did you forget?ʺ he asks in the rear view mirror.

ʺThe rest of my history lesson.ʺ I smile. Heck, a free cab ride from someone like Colin comes around once every 30 years or so. Might as well make good use of it.

*************

Fearless Frederick Lepine
Hay River, NT

NEWO

(I wrote this short story earlier this year when it occurred to me that I was born into a fishing family (water), then at 18, I began to fight (fire), and took up flying (air) for a living. At 50, I now realize I must come down to earth for the rest of my life. This fiction piece was entered in the 2009 Vancouver Review Magazine Sustainable Fiction Contest. Wish me luck.)

( 09/08/27 Update: Congratulations to Jane Webster, whose short fiction “Look What You Done with the Lemons” won VR‘s Sustainable Fiction Contest.)


ONE

By AirThe flight had been smooth the entire trip from town and my father, mother and I kept our silence throughout. From the front passenger seat, I followed the reflection of the sun as it danced across the water beneath us. The sweet stench of aviation fuel and burning oil floated throughout the cabin.

Now and then I would look down at the small black leather-bound notebook in my hands. Sometimes I would glance into the back seat, searching for an expression on my father’s face, but there was none. It was the same with my mother. They both had a hand resting on Mooshum’s coffin, staring out opposite windows. My father had insisted on not wasting airplane fuel, so the remainder of the cabin was filled with cardboard boxes of food, mail and other parcels from orders he had taken on the phone in town. So there the two of them sat, surrounded by boxes.

After we landed, we slid Mooshum’s small wooden coffin from the back of the Beaver and placed it gently on the dock. People from everywhere on the reserve were already waiting for us. My aunts arrived and quickly surrounded my mother with warm hugs and tears as she stepped on shore. My uncles shook my father’s hand. Quiet words were passed between them.

I helped the pilot push his plane away from the dock and watched as the he started it up again and taxied away from shore. We waved and he was off. For a long time I just stood there watching the airplane leave.

I picked a box of groceries and headed up the bank. I saw that they had already gotten ready for the feast tonight. Picnic tables were placed in a wide circle higher up in a clearing on the bank. Food was heaped on the biggest table near in the middle. There was moose and caribou meat and potatoes, salads, roasted goose, and bannock. So much bannock. I felt Mooshum standing beside me, smiling at the spread like he always does at supper. His eyes lit up like tiny sparklers.

TWO

fireBefore the feast began, all of the young men and women began to gather and carry in fire wood from all directions. We tore up some of the left over cardboard boxes and other paper garbage and with that we built a big fire in the center of the circle. Soon, sparks flew into the late afternoon sky and people began to gather around the fire, quietly talking and laughing.

Then the Chief came forward and began to speak about my grandfather. He talked about his enormous contribution to the people of our reserve. Over the crackle of the big fire, he told stories about Mooshum and many of them were even funny. While he spoke, I looked down once again at the small black book in my hand. I lifted the cover and read the title on the first page. NEWO – four, in the Cree language. The letters N-E-W are surrounded by the letter O.

Grandfather had always taught us about the central value of four to our people – the four directions; the first four cultures who came to this continent, the four dimensions of the human being – emotional, physical, mental and spiritual; and the four basic elements of air, fire, water and earth.

I remember he told me once that he was worried about the way things were going. He said that one time long, long ago, people here used to believe in this idea of four, that the whole world was connected in one big circle. Everything was in harmony. Then one time, not too long ago, these people came over the waters from the east and brought with them the power of three, the Holy Trinity. He said it was like taking a limb from us. For a long time we lived in that triangle out of balance. Now, in the midst of that loss, he says, we suddenly find ourselves living in a world of two, where everything is given a number, using just ones and zeros. Everything has become black and white in this new world.

What’s next?, he asked. What happens when things become one-dimensional, standing on just one leg? Will they mean anything anymore? I think about this a lot sometimes. My thoughts turned to my girlfriend, who couldn’t be here because she is too pregnant to travel. I wonder about the world into which our daughter will soon be born. I miss the both of them.

I looked up and the drummers had already begun. At once, everyone began to dance around the fire circle. I turned back to the open book in my hands. I began to read it as I have many times before. I noticed how Mooshum layered each newer idea on another one from an earlier time.

First he drew a circle in the book. He wrote that this represented the sum of all things in the universe. Then, with an X, he divided that circle into four quadrants. And he gave each quadrant a direction – east, south, west and north. And he wrote that from the east you go clockwise around the circle to the north. That is the Great Circle of Time. With that, he added spring, summer, fall and winter to show the progression of the seasons. And he showed a drawing about how the four peoples came to this continent – the red from the north, the white from the east, the black from the south, and the yellow from the west.

He talked about each and every one of these people as complete human beings, no one greater than another. He said that each of us has a strength that evolves and comes to the forefront as we go through life. When we are young, he said, our great strength is our emotional being. That’s how we get attention and thrive as children. Then, when we hit adolescence, we are physically at our peak. That’s why we celebrate our young people as our warriors, he writes.

When we hit middle age, he wrote, we have accumulated a lot of knowledge and it is our greatest strength. It is during this stage, when we are at our most intellectual, that we are most valuable to everyone. Finally, during the last quadrant of your life, when you have become an elder, he wrote, your great strength is your Spirituality. This is when you can offer the greatest direction over the long term for your family and your community as a whole.

He gave each one of these great strengths a direction – east for Emotionality, south for Physicality, west for Intellectuality and finally, north for Spirituality. The book is filled with notes and drawings and layers of drawings. But it is simple, this idea of Newo. And powerful.

THREE

By WaterThe next morning, we began to prepare for the trip across the lake to the old cemetery. We loaded up my father’s boat with Mooshum’s coffin first, being careful to balance the load evenly. Then we piled in everything else we would need for a day on the land. People, young and old, got in the boats last. My father started the outboard and soon we were gliding across the glassy lake. The water was crystal clear. The cool autumn wind whipped through my hair. I looked back at my father and mother. They both gaze far off at different shore, maybe farther. Maybe somewhere into another, earlier time.

I take Newo out of my pocket and continue reading from where I left off last night. Mooshum has made many things clear in his writing. He points out that the Earth is made of four sacred elements – air, fire, water and earth. And that it is our responsibility to make sure that these four things are monitored, protected, cared for and celebrated.

But, he writes, sometimes that responsibility can be overwhelming if it is taken as a whole. So, a long time ago, Mooshum devised a way to divide the work up between the generations to make it easier. He said that the four elements would be divided into the four different quadrants of your life.

Life begins with the first tiny breath of Air. So he decided that East would be the direction where the cycle would begin. That means it is the responsibility of children, with their fresh, new lungs, to monitor the health of the air in our environment. Should they detect any change in the air, they were supposed to tell someone older and an action group would be formed to take the necessary steps to respond to the situation. This included everything from detecting smoke from forest fires to new chemicals in the environment. This was how the role of children became an even more important part of the life of the community – as Air Keepers.

Next, Mooshum wrote, at the southern quadrant of the circle, where boys and girls became young men and women, was the element of Fire. It was here that fire came to symbolize everything from heat to energy. It was the responsibility of all young people, like me, from the time we become adolescents to the time we are middle-aged, to be Fire Keepers and to ensure that fire is handled in a safe and efficient way, so that no one is hurt, especially the environment. In the present day, it has come to mean using our brightest and sharpest minds to look for newer, cleaner and safer forms of energy. Mooshum says we younger ones are the people’s warriors. The Fire Keepers.

I looked up from the notebook and not too far behind, the other boats followed. My parents shouted to each other over the roar of the engine, pointing out to things that have changed on the lake since the last time we were here. There are more water birds and fish this year, and the lake level seems to be a bit lower but the water seems as clean as ever.

I felt my grandfather sitting beside me now in the front of the boat, looking back over at my parents and smiling. It was his idea that people their age would be suited to the task of water keeping. He says in his notebook that people in their middle ages have a great deal of knowledge and understanding about the way things are connected. And since water is the one thing that connects all life on the planet, it seems natural only for them to manage such a complex task. So, since my parents came into their early forties, they have been Water Keepers. Now they watch the natural cycles of water and all that water is connected to, making sure the environment is not threatened in any way. It is a great responsibility.

Far off in the distance the shoreline came into view. Ducks and geese scattered in our wake. The slower, fatter ones simply dove for cover. My dad stood up in the boat to get a better view as there were shoals along parts of the lake. But he knew where most of them were. The engine slowed as we came closer to the graveyard on the point.

FOUR

By EarthThe soil here is soft and deep, unlike other places along the shore. There are ripe cranberries and blueberries on the point. As we unload the coffin, the other boats begin to arrive and soon there is some small chatter and quiet laughter, but for the most part, everyone speaks in hushed tones. Everyone is respectful of this place. This is where our most sacred old ones have been coming for a long, long time. There are small, white wooden crosses, grave markers and head stones everywhere. It is a beautiful site here among the spruce and the rocky moss. I look over and I can see my grandfather standing at the foot of my grandmother’s grave. He is talking with her.

While several of the men began the task of digging a deep hole in the ground for Grandfather, the women begin to clean up the other graves, straightening and repairing faltering crosses, pulling weeds and laying fresh dandelions and blue bells.

Finally, the work was done and we circled my grandparents’ final resting place. Overhead, the sky, a light autumn blue. The cackle of geese and diving ducks far off echoed on the surface the water. My father said a few words, my mother cried softly, her sisters close to her. Over near my grandmother’s grave I can still see him, quietly smiling, not saying anything, now just listening to my grandmother.

I put my hand in my pocket and rubbed the leather cover of Newo. In the last chapter, Mooshum described his own role. But I can tell it to you from what I have seen of it in my life.

For as long as I can remember, my grandfather has been an Earth Keeper. Since he became an elder, he has made sure that this earth he has walked upon all of his life was taken care of. And whenever he witnessed changes in the soil, the trees, the plants, the animals, the rocks or the birds, he would call us all together at supper and ask if we had noticed any changes in our worlds. And we would talk about it.

Most of the time, things were fine, but every now and then our responsibilities would overlap and we would speculate on what was happening to the land. We would talk about things that we saw that day, the things that happened to us. We talked about the changes in the cycles of the seasons. From those conversations, we were able to take action. But the important thing is that we talked. And we told stories and laughed. And so it was that because of Newo, the Planet Keeper’s Handbook, that we were able to stay strong as a family and as a people. It is because of these responsibilities we have that we are each able to feel unique, equal, connected to and one with everyone and everything else.

I watched as they lowered my grandfather into the ground. Everyone picked up a handful of that rich, brown dirt and tossed it onto his coffin. As I did the same, I looked over and realized he was no longer standing at the foot of my grandmother’s grave. He was gone. It will now be my father’s role to fill in for him as Earth Keeper as it will be my girlfriend’s role to hold my daughter’s hand until she gets old enough to become an Air Keeper.

That afternoon, while the young kids swam in the cool, clear, clean water and the women picked plump, ripe cranberries and blueberries from the dark, rich soil, the men sat around the fire drinking tea and telling stories. I went off by myself and sat on the point under the spruce trees. I pulled the cool autumn breeze deep into my lungs. I can’t wait to see my daughter take her first breath of this world. And I can’t wait to tell her stories about my grandfather at the supper table.

I looked back toward the east, the direction from which we had come and thought about the journey we had taken since picking up Mooshum in the hospital yesterday – the flight through air, the celebration around the fire last night, the ride on the glassy water today to where I watched as they lowered his body into the earth. Grandfather has led this journey through a lifetime in the last two days.

And it is all a part of Newo.

****************
Fearless Frederick Lepine
Yellow Point Road
Ladysmith, BC

Categories: Stories Tags: , , , ,

Muscle Memories

(Last week, I had already decided I would post post this story today. Coincidentally, today also marks the death of Les Paul, inventor of the electric guitar and maker of the Gibson Les Paul guitar. I guess some things just happen that way. This story is based on a true events. Enjoy. 😉

Montana Slim
Montana Slim

When I was growing up, some of the homes in my neighborhood were small, simple one-room cabins on wooden skids. They were originally built to be towed behind a double-tracked Bombardier snow vehicle during the long winter commercial fishing season on Great Slave Lake. But many eventually ended up as permanent homes. Not far from our house, one such cabin became the home of my Uncle Frank. A fisherman himself between long bouts of drinking, Frank worked for my father to support his lifestyle, a lifestyle that could only be described as a conundrum because somehow it worked in practice, but not in theory. Like most of his drinking buddies, he should have been dead long ago. But he was a master at adaptation, and in terms of survival, he was among the fittest.

Frank knew he was an alcoholic, but he didn’t see it that way. Once while staggering in downtown Hay River, he was stopped by a local policeman and asked if he had been drinking that night. With a friendly wrinkle of his nose, he replied in a whispered voice, “Nope. Not tonight, Officer. But I have been known to imbibe on occasion.”

Then he paused when he realized the young cop might be carrying money. It was almost as though Frank could smell it on the people he met. Immediately, something came over him. From far down inside came a personality that managed his life, the one who made sure he had enough to drink, smoke and eat for another day. His body stopped swaying, his stance relaxed and his eyes twinkled.

It was such a subtle and automatic shift that even Frank probably didn’t notice it happening at all. He had done this hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before, so his body could run on muscle memory alone. Frank the Drunk could just sit back and watch as Frank the Manager took over.

He lowered his head and asked quietly, “Hey, you think I can borrow a couple bucks for some tobacco, there, Constable?” As always, Frank the Manager actually believed he would put the money toward tobacco or food. Frank the Drunk, however, knew better.

Uncle Frank was a quiet, soft spoken man, who slipped through the neighborhood like wood smoke. He took no sides in family disputes, always had time for the neighborhood kids and made lifelong friends with those who shared his love for the bottle. He did this because these people were his support network, his means for survival.

And while his voice and manner were restrained, his big hands spoke volumes. His fingers were scarred from decades of pulling fish nets from the icy waters of Great Slave Lake, calloused from sawing, chopping and hauling firewood at forty below, and hardened by twisting countless screw caps and pulling bottle corks.

But deep within the cracks of those thick hands also lay the secrets of a brilliant five-finger guitar picker. With his right hand, he could pluck base with the thumb, strum rhythm with the three middle fingers and play lead with the pinky – all at the same time. His left hand played a loose choke style that allowed him vast space to move easily, to shift, to stretch, to improvise. With four fingers slung around the bottom of the neck, the thumb hung over the top like a hook, ready to carry the bass line. There was far more freedom to move about on that slim guitar neck than all the floor space in his little shack.

On those days when I could hear his beat up Fender Stratocaster electric guitar belting out Chet Atkins’ Wheels or Les Paul’s Blue Skies through a tiny one-speaker amplifier, I would drop in for a visit. Sometimes I would find my cousins already there sitting in front of this thin, chinless, greying man, guitar in hand, shakily gurgling back cheap 5-Star rye or rolling his own cigarettes. Sometimes, when the shakes got too bad, he would get one of us to roll his cigarettes.

In one corner of his tiny home sat a small airtight wood stove. In another, an old wooden table. In a third corner was a narrow steel-framed spring bed with a heavily-stained mattress and an eider down blanket. Behind the door, a stack of Wrestling magazines from the mid-60s, the top issue of which featured wrestler Haystacks Calhoun. He was warning fans not to come into the ring again after one fan did in an effort to stop his bleeding from a razor blade cut.

Up high near the ceiling on the back wall, hung a small portrait of Jesus Christ, his hands held over his chest in the shape of a heart, a bright white light emanating from within. And as if projected from that light, on the opposite wall was a photo of a young Wilf Carter in his white cowboy hat and powder blue suit, leaning on his guitar. The singer/songwriter had a wide grin on his bright white face.

Most times Frank’s hands shook so violently when he was sober that he rarely played a tune until he had first put away a few hard swigs. Within minutes, however, he would pick up the guitar and you could see his whole body begin to mellow, the range of control extending throughout his wrists and hands as he flexed and rolled each finger through a series of exercises. He was waking up.

Then he would warm up by finding his place on the Strat, a guitar he had won in a poker game with a fisherman on the lake. He would pluck a few random chords just to get the feel of the strings, the steel frets and the pearl inlaid maple fret-board.

If you have ever had the pleasure of playing a Fender Stratocaster you will understand the ease with which it allows players to maneuver about the instrument. The slim neck, the low set strings and the sharp, clean twang attracted pickers from all music genres – from Blues to Jazz, from Rock to Country, and from Reggae to Metal. And from all walks of life – from cowboys to Indians, and from hobos to fishermen.

When sober, my Uncle Frank was a man of very few words. But as his fingers loosened, so did his tongue. And the stories that followed were always about musicians or politicians or movie stars or wrestlers – all stories from magazines he’d found somewhere or heard on CBC radio. One time he told us the story about one of his favorite musicians.

“Montana Slim – now there was a great singer/songwriter”, he would say after shooting back consecutive gulps of Five Star rye whiskey right from the bottle. He winced as it burned his throat, his bottom lip extending out, wet, quivering. He continued, “The Father of Canadian Country Music. Heart of gold in every song. A guy who understood kids, hobos and cowboys like nobody else. I guess he was all three at some time in his life. And man, could he yodel! The called him the Yodeling Fool.”

I find that most guitar players can either talk or play but have trouble doing both simultaneously. One task or the other usually suffers from a lack of focus. Uncle Frank didn’t have that problem. While he spoke, the muscles in his fingers moved about locked in some deep sense of their own memory. Frank the Storyteller and Frank the Guitar Player operated independently of each other.

“I don’t know why,” Frank would continue, “but the best damn Country and Western singers and songwriters come from back East. Look at the great Hank Snow, and now this new guy, Stompin’ Tom Conners from Skinners Pond. All masters.”

With that, he began to pick the melody of Bluebird on your Windowsill way up high up on the neck in the harmonics section, gently touching and rubbing each string with such dexterity that beneath those calluses, each note rang out like a tiny hand bell.

“Montana Slim liked to visit the kids in the hospital on Sundays in Calgary and play for them,” he said. “What a guy. Heart as big as the prairie sky.”

By now everyone had heard the story of how Montana Slim’s real name was Wilf Carter and how a woman at his recording label just picked the name out of thin air and put it on his records and how he became a star in the United States under that name and how we only ever knew him up here as Wilf Carter. But to Uncle Frank, he was always Montana Slim.

And so the guitar picking, the drinking and stories of Montana Slim, at fourteen, hitching a ride on a freight train heading west, just like so many other hobos, would go long into the cold, winter dark.

* * *

Having been young at the time and raised nowhere near farmland, it was difficult for my cousins and I to relate to the music of our parents. Our first choice was Rock. So, in the early seventies, it came as a bit of a surprise when we discovered that our small northern fishing town on the south shores of Great Slave Lake of perhaps two thousand would be hosting the first ever, real cowboy rodeo north of the sixtieth parallel. Everyone on my block was excited. This was the Northwest Territories and most of us had not so much as ever seen a cow, let alone ridden a horse.

But if you happened to be in the neighborhood on that day of the announcement, you may have heard a muffled “Eee-hah!” coming from Uncle Frank’s cabin when they also announced the headline act – none other than the Father of Canadian Country Music himself, Wilf Carter.

* * *

After a long dry summer, the rodeo weekend arrived in mid-August. Pickup trucks and cattle and horse trailers filled parking lots. They plugged driveways and campgrounds and spilled into the streets of Hay River. Northerners, some wearing cowboy hats and boots for the first time, greeted each other with funny things like, “Howdie”, or “Good Day, Ma’am”, or “Nice day, ain’t it?”. For weeks, the stench of cow and horse shit drying in the late summer sun would hang over this small town. For the uninitiated, even for those of us weaned on the smell of rotting fish, this was simply unbearable.

But we tried to pay little notice, because today was Friday, and tonight, Wilf Carter would be the opening act for the rodeo with an 8 o’clock concert in the arena. My cousins and I, realizing we didn’t have enough money for concert tickets, wandered around downtown eagerly watching the activities and hoping to catch a glimpse of the Father of Canadian Country Music.

The rodeo itself was to begin Saturday morning in the hockey arena where the ice surface had been swapped for a thick layer of brown dirt. Metal gates and fences were installed inside and out to help manage the animals. The concert stage was set at center ice, facing the bleachers. Young men in cowboy hats and jeans moved equipment, checked sound levels and set up lights. Electrical cords ran everywhere like spaghetti. But there was no sign of the Father anywhere.

After dinner that night, we bicycled the three miles back to the arena. When we arrived, the lobby was roped off and the entrance was full to capacity. It was rumoured that Mr. Carter would pass through the lobby en route to the stage so we might get to see him after all. As we strained our necks to look above the crowd, I spotted Uncle Frank. I squeezed through to the front of the mass and found a place along the rope a few feet from him. He was emaciated and shifted uneasily, nervous at being in such a large crowd. His trembling hands tightly clutched a pen and his picture of Wilf Carter. He looked like he’d had neither food nor drink in days.

Suddenly, the crowd began to hum with anticipation and before I knew it, there He was strutting through the lobby. Looking much, much older, thinner and shorter than in the picture I had seen for so many years, Wilf Carter smiled and waved to the people around me who began to cheer and call his name. I could see my Uncle trying to call out but his feeble voice could not be heard above the din. Frustrated, he shook his head and held up the photograph.

Then it happened. Wilf Carter saw the photo Frank was holding and turned and came over and stood in front of him, smiling and shaking my uncle’s hand. Through the noise of the crowd, I could just barely make out the conversation. Frank stammered something and Wilf Carter leaned in closer to hear him.

Frank said, “Mr. Slim, uh Montana, I have listened to your music for as long as I can remember. I think you are the best damn singer/songwriter in this country and I was wondering…?” Then he stopped and looked down at the old photo in his hands. The smiling Mr. Carter leaned in a bit closer to hear my uncle’s faint voice. The crowd grew louder.

“Could you…?, Frank’s voice cracked.

Wilf Carter leaned in even closer. So close, Frank could now smell him. That’s when I saw Frank’s eyes shift from the photograph to his trembling hands and a sudden transformation took place. With a smile and a twinkle in his eye, Uncle Frank the Manager looked up, wrinkled his nose and quietly asked, “Montana, ya think I can borrow a few bucks to get some tobacco and a hot meal?”

A cold pallor descended on Wilf Carter. He slowly pulled back and straightened up. The smile was gone.

And that’s when Montana Slim, the Father of Canadian Country Music, the Yodeling Fool, this Champion of Hardworking Cowboys, Sick Children and Wayward Hobos became Wilf Carter the Old Man.

He pursed his lips and to this thin leaf of a Cree man, trembling in the wind before him, he said, – as he had probably said a thousand times before – “Fuck right off, you goddamn bum!”

Then he turned and walked away, much to the dismay of the cheering crowd.

Frank stood there, his bottom lip quivering, his lifeless eyes on the prize in his hands, his back broken. Then he, too, turned and, like smoke, faded into the fray.

* * *

Wilf Carter’s image no longer hung projected from the chest of Jesus Christ the next time I went to see Frank. He never spoke of Montana Slim again. He still played his guitar and told stories, but was careful not to speak too highly of anyone thereafter.

Finally, in 1988, a full eight years before Montana Slim, Uncle Frank died. On that cold winter night his heart gave way while he slept, and with the last tendrils of smoke from his chimney, Uncle Frank slipped quietly through the neighborhood past the homes of friends and family for the last time.

He left not knowing that I had overheard the conversation in the arena lobby that day. He slipped away probably believing that he had made no difference in this world, that he had left neither pain nor hope behind.

He was wrong, of course, because in the years that followed when my brothers, nieces, nephews, cousins and I would pick up our guitars to play for our kids or in bands or in concerts or recording studios or just play for the sheer joy of playing, we would be reminded every day what a true gift he had.

And even today, when I listen to five-finger masters like Randy Bachman, Mark Knopfler, or Lindsay Buckingham, I can still hear my Uncle Frank’s fingers, hardened and cut from a lifetime of fishing and drinking, scraping across those steel-wound strings with each chord change and I take comfort in the thought that a good story is not very far away.

*

Frederick A. Lepine
Originally written at
The Banff Centre for the Arts
North Residency
January/February 2007