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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

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… 😉 )

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“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

From Slingshots to Astronauts and Memory Slots


My father (with fur hood) fishing with snowmobile and sled on Great Slave Lake, circa mid-sixties.

My father (with fur hood) fishing with snowmobile and sled on Great Slave Lake, circa mid-sixties.

Both sides of my family are Cree from northern Alberta and Saskatchewan who moved to the Northwest Territories during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the 1940s, my grandfather took up commercial fishing on Great Slave Lake in addition to a traditional lifestyle of subsistence fishing, hunting and trapping. As a result, my very earliest memories were of growing up on the land in what might now be called relative isolation.

In 1962, when I was 4 years old, my father saw that the world as he knew it was coming to an end. The federal government in a place far, far away called Ottawa, now had a firm grip on the North and, like it or not, people would be forced by law to succumb to the new system. Most families, who had traditionally spent winters living on the land now had to move back to the communities to be closer to schools, health care and work. It was the end of something old and the beginning of something new. Things would never be the same.

Recognizing that traditional life – as he and his ancestors had always known it – was soon going to become a thing of the past, my father decided to disobey the law one last time and instead of registering my older brothers and sisters for school in September of that year, he kept our entire family together out on the land for one last winter. For him, it was as much a last stand as it was a parting shot to the government. For all of us, however, it would be a winter to remember.

By the end of that summer in 1962, we had built a log cabin on the shore of Great Slave Lake at Moraine Point, a summer fishing station. There were 7 kids and two parents in that tiny one-room cabin. I was the second youngest of the five boys and the second youngest in the family. Two of my sisters were there, but my eldest sister was not because she had contracted tuberculosis that spring and was taken to a sanatorium in Edmonton, Alberta. And there she would remain for two years.

This small cabin could be cramped at times, but most of us kids were small, too, so we managed to get along. In fact, at the time, the place seemed massive to me.

When the lake finally froze over late in the fall, my father fished through holes in the ice for several kinds of commercial fish, including lake trout, whitefish and pickerel. Most were sent back by airplane to a small fish processing plant in town. Some were kept as food. He also hunted for moose and caribou and trapped for lynx, marten, fox, mink and beaver. The fur was sent to the wildlife office for sale down south in Winnipeg. My father and mother were a good providers and, as a result, we were never short of food or warmth that winter.

Some nights we would watch wide bands of the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights) dance from one end of the sky to the other like giant curtains blowing in an open window. These would also be a good nights to listen to the radio because the lights would create what was called a skip, an atmospheric phenomenon which caused radio signals to bounce off a very high layer of the atmosphere and scatter great distances around the globe. Sometimes this gave us the ability to receive radio stations from far, far away, even as far as a place called America. But the strongest signal we would pick up was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio emanating from the town of Yellowknife just 60 miles to the north. It came in as clear as the sky on those cold starry nights.

I remember lying there in my small bunk listening to music on the radio late into each night. Our radio was a big plastic dark brown and tan monster made by the Mitsubishi Radio Company. My father said that the Mitsubishi factory in Hiroshima was directly beneath the atomic bomb when it went off so it was one of a handful of buildings that survived almost intact. I am not sure if the story is true or not, but it was part of a wonderful, much larger story that he told, so in retrospect it does not seem so important to find out the truth about such details. Small facts like that sometimes get in the way of a much larger truth.

On one particular night, as the Northern Lights danced the can-can as far as the eye could see, I listened to a man named Nat King Cole who was belting out a song called Rambling Rose while playing his piano. At least, in hindsight, that is the way I am now able to understand it. Back then, however, I had no idea how he was able to create those strange and beautiful sounds that accompanied his booming voice. I had never seen a piano before. No one in my home town had one. Perhaps some one had seen one somewhere, but no one talked about it.

Oh sure, I knew what a fiddle and guitar were because I had seen and heard people play them at parties. So I was very much aware of other stringed and percussive instruments. I even saw my uncle slide a glass bottle across the strings of his guitar one time so I could identify a Hawaiian slide guitar immediately. Before the pedal steel became popular, they were the mainstay of many a country song from crooners like Hank Williams, Eddie Arnold and Ernest Tubb.

And once, I even saw my brother blow into a metal pipe, so I was sure of how horn sounds were created. And because each spring when the sap was flowing, my father would cut down red willow and carve small wooden flutes for us, I was also aware of what wind instruments could sound like.

But what was this new thing I was hearing? It certainly wasn’t a plucked instrument. And it wasn’t bowed like a fiddle. It had the hard, percussive attack of a drum stick but the sustain of a very long string. And how was it possible to connect a drum stick and a string and play them in such complex arrangements with just two hands?

For weeks I would listen to players like Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis on the radio and I would try to imagine how they coaxed out this intriguing sound. I would pick up things and bang them on other things, trying to reproduce it, but to no avail.

Finally, after many sleepless nights, I began to make some progress. In my very limited experience as a four-year-old, it occurred there was only thing I knew of that sounded even close to that instrument. Sometimes during the past fall before the lake froze over, my older brothers would gather all the empty Alpha brand evaporated tin milk cans they could carry and take them down to the lake. There, they would toss them into the water and begin to shoot rocks at them with their slingshots. Sometimes the cans would tip and take on a bit of water. This would change the pitch of the cans as they sat lower in the water. When hit with a rock, they would go toink.

The sound of those milk cans being hit by small rocks was the only thing I could compare to the sounds I heard coming from the radio. And with that starting point in mind, I began to elaborate. How would you be able to produce combinations of notes or chords with these tin cans? That’s when I came up with a complex scheme of hanging these cans from strings tied to my mother’s clothes line. I imagined several lines of these tin cans each at different heights so that you could play the entire range of notes without having to run up and down the line looking for the correct note – a kind of multi-channel system as apposed to a single linear arrangement.

I spent the greater part of that winter designing this elaborate instrument in my head. But somehow it just did not seem right. The timbre, the sustain and the resonance of each of the notes just did not fit those of tin milk cans filled with water and being struck with rocks.

Of course, within a couple of years, when my father’s last dream of living the traditional life came to an end, my entire world had changed and I found myself at my first day of school in grade one at the Hay River Federal Day School. It was there and then that Mrs. Cambridge introduced us to the piano and showed us how it really made sound. In one way, I was truly overjoyed to have discovered the answer to a relatively long standing question of how that complex sound was formed and controlled. In another, I was disappointed that it was so devastatingly simple.

Five years later, on a hot July 20th afternoon in 1969, I found myself watching my brothers, sisters and cousins splashing about in the water at the mouth of the muddy Hay River, where it spills out onto the white sandy beach of southern Great Slave Lake. While they screamed and chased each other around, I sat quietly on a log with my ear pressed tightly to the radio my mother had brought along. Some guy called Neil Armstrong was going on about some Eagle landing at some base and about himself taking “one small step for man”. A loud beep would drown out everyone’s voices every now and then.

For some reason, I was vaguely aware that this was a historic occasion, but I was more enthralled by something else that was happening on the radio at the time. Between radio broadcasts from the moon or whenever they lost contact with the lunar module, they were once again playing a completely new kind of music. It was called a Moog Synthesizer and once more, for me, it was going to change everything. This time, I was determined to make this music a part of my life.

In 1977, I got a great job with the forestry department in Helitack firefighting and within a few years, at the age of 22, I was given a bunch of airplanes, put in charge of water bombing forest fires and flew all over the country doing just that. It was an exciting job and a great responsibility for such a young man. But it wasn’t until many years later that I was finally able to save up enough money to buy something I had wanted for almost twenty years – my first programmable digital synthesizer.

In 1987, I bought one. It was a Yamaha DX27, and it was truly beautiful. It was made of a smooth, dark grey metal and had green plastic buttons that made an audible click when pressed. And now, because I had studied basic digital sound programming for many years before, I was able to put my knowledge to work within minutes. I had read the history of electronic synthesizers that began with the Theremin in Russia early in the last century. I pored over operating manuals and schematic drawings and got used to terms like frequency modulation synthesis and modular-carrier relationship. I explored the world of oscillators, and learned about digital sound processing and about different waveforms that included elements like attack, delay, sustain and release – a logical process for determining sound over time. And now I was ready to design my own sound.

So it was, in May of 1987, in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, after weeks and weeks of late nights of missed playoff hockey games and dinners with my girlfriend, I had finally created my first rudimentary sound.

It was the digital audio representation of a small rock hitting a tin milk can submerged in water. It went toink.

And, not known to me at the time, buried somewhere deep within the complex arrangement of ones and zeros of that tiny 8-bit sound file I had created and aptly saved as NtKgCole were the stirrings and the strings of a new and digital life.

Just one small step…

Fearless Frederick Lepine
Originally presented at
Banff Centre for the Arts
North Residency
January 15, 2007