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Butterflies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supervising the 450th Squadron, Inuvik, NT, 1987

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

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

Directing Air Attack Operations from the bird dog airplane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire in the Mountains

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    Our view from the cockpit of a Ted Smith Aerostar.

    Our view from the cockpit of a Piper (Ted Smith) Aerostar forestry Bird Dog airplane.

    This week I am posting a previously-published short story written in 1996. It was selected to be part of an anthology of new Canadian native writers called Steal My Rage. Edited by Joel Maki, profits from the book went to the establishment of a Native Mens Residence in Toronto. It is still available for purchase from Amazon.ca Books.

    Unfortunately, I do not have the story in text format, but it is available in Adobe PDF format. You will need the Reader which, if not already installed on your computer, you can download here: http://get.adobe.com/reader/

    When you are ready, you can download the story here: http://www.flyingcolorsdesign.ca/fire_in_the_mountains.pdf

    Anyway, I hope you enjoy it! Let me know what you think by posting a comment here or in Facebook.

    Cheers, everyone. Mahsi.

    ————–
    Fearless Frederick Lepine
    Bird Dog 117

    Ten Little Indian Boys

    There is a circle to storytelling:

    First you listen to a story.
    Then you understand it.
    You remember it.
    And, finally, you tell it again.

    That’s how a story takes on a life of its own. This is one story that has come full circle for me.

    Frederick Lepine, circa 1963, Hay River, NT

    Frederick Lepine, circa 1963, Hay River, NT

    In 1967, when I was 9, I attended St. Paul’s School, a Catholic elementary school of about a hundred or so students. This was in the older, poorer part of my hometown, so nearly all of the students there were Aboriginal – a mixture of Dene and Cree. Most of the white kids attended a new elementary school in the New Town.

    This was a time in history before Canada began to explore what it really meant to be Canadian. That would not happen – at least in the north – until the seventies.

    In the sixties, we would learn about ourselves as Northerners from a Social Studies textbook titled Our Canadian Neighbors. (Think about that for a minute.) We discovered that we northerners preferred to be called Eskimos, that we huddled in iglus to keep out the year-long dark, bleak cold, eating raw seal meat and that we greeted each other by rubbing noses. Don’t forget – this was a time when we were still learning to count by singing Ten Little Indian Boys.

    Being Catholic meant that Christmas was the biggest celebration of the year. So, the teaching staff, mostly Dominican Nuns and led by a very stern Sister Pouliot, planned a huge Christmas concert for the town and committed all of the students to be the performers. There were to be several Christmas choirs, a nativity play, solo singers, solo musicians and dancers. Some of us would be participating in as many as 3 or 4 separate performances.

    So, from October of that year, while we kids began to practice our lines and dance routines, some of the more ambitious mothers and school staff formed a sewing bee and began an assembly line that produced hundreds of little costumes for all of the presentations. After all, there were hats and cloaks and coats and shoes and pants and mittens to be made for shepherds and sheep and cows and little drummer boys and choir girls and choir boys and tap dancers and singers. Then there was the set design and a few of the fathers and maintenance staff got together and built a huge stage in the gymnasium and painted backgrounds and made plywood scenery cutouts for each performance.

    And we kids practiced and practiced. In dress rehearsal, we nailed our entrances, our songs, our lines, our steps and our exits with perfection. When we got backstage, we were stripped of our old costumes and adorned with new ones, ready for the next act. To save time, the costumes were sewn together with as few pieces as possible. So an entire suit of clothing could be pulled over your head in a single motion. They taught us how to hold up our arms with each change of clothing. It was brilliantly efficient.

    After almost three months of practice we had the entire production down to the split second. We were ready.

    And a week before Christmas, we did our stuff. We sang, acted and played our instruments like seasoned professionals.

    The crowd, packed to the rafters in that gymnasium that night, cheered and applauded and stomped their feet louder with each and every performance. And I kept up my part of the show. I stood in the front row of a 20-kid choir and sang my 9-year-old heart out. We all did. We sang about Peace. We sang about God’s love for all of his children. And we sang about all brothers and sisters being equal in the eyes of God. Then after a quick costume change I was back on stage and aced my lines as the Sheep No. 1 in the Nativity scene. And the crowd roared louder for us.

    But the best was yet to come.

    We were whisked backstage for the last costume change. A sense of excitement began to build. We knew this was the final performance of the night and it had to be not just good – it had to be great. As the mothers slipped on our last bit of costuming, a deep murmur rolled through the crowd. I peeked from behind the stage as Sister Chapeau stood up from the piano with great dignity and informed the audience that this was to be the last performance of this historic night. I could see this massive, dark, swaying blob of humanity hungrily drooling for the grand finale. I could see our principal, Sister Pouliot, sitting next to the mayor in the front row. For some reason she looked different tonight. I realized that it was the first time I had seen her smile. I knew she was going to be proud of us.

    Before we knew it, the big moment had arrived. Sister Chapeau introduced us and sat back down at the piano. The stage was ours again.

    And there we were: Ten Little Indian Boys – five entering from stage left, five from stage right – dressed in matching black tuxedos with silver sequins, top hats and walking sticks in hand, white gloves – all high stepping in perfect unison. And as if our skin wasn’t dark enough, the nuns had painted our faces, ears, throats and necks with dark brown grease pencil. And in case you couldn’t see our eyes and lips from the back of that gymnasium, they had been painted white. Ten Little Indian Boys, all dressed in black face!

    And we ten little black choirboys – some with Cree accents, some with Dene – opened our tiny hearts wide with a traditional gospel song called Go Tell It On the Mountain. Sister Chapeau hammered out the tune on the piano and we smiled our biggest smiles and opened our eyes as wide as we could because we were told that’s what the people wanted to see. And they could see us and hear us now from all the way in the back row.

    We gave it our best because, after all, this was Christmas and dammit, tonight, in celebration of the birth of Baby Jesus, we were not just ten little dark-skinned native boys – we were called The Negro Spiritual.

    And when we at last fell to our knees, arms spread wide, we brought the house down! They jumped to their feet and gave us a standing ovation that seemed to go on for decades…

    ———

    I swear I can still hear echos of the clapping and foot stomping whenever I drive past the corner where the school once stood. The stage that was built just for that performance remained in place for a few years after but I don’t think it was ever again used for a Christmas concert. It was dismantled long before fire brought the entire school itself down.

    Today, I often wonder if my nine little black Indian choir brothers remember this story. Few people in my hometown seem to remember. Maybe they just choose not to remember. And today, even though the Roman Catholic Church continues to insist that all men are created equal, I also wonder if the people who worked for the church and are still living remember such things from their past.

    Probably not. Perhaps some stories are best left buried in the ashes.

    Then again, perhaps some are never meant to be forgotten.

    I hope you start the circle of this story again.

    ———–
    Fearless Frederick Lepine
    1969 Alter Boy of the Year
    Roman Catholic Church
    at Hay River, NT
    Written July 2009