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Posts Tagged ‘northwest territories’

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

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Frank’s Last Boogie

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

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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.

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Fearless Frederick Lepine
Yellow Point Road
Ladysmith, BC

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