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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

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Last Flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 2011, Cairnsmore.

Morning Star

Consolidated PBY-5 Canso Catalina

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

So, he never sang that song again.

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

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

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

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

They never fought again.

********

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

My Darling William:

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

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

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

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

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

Those playful gazes we exchanged at work early on.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Forever yours, Ellie.

********

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

—————————————–


Fearless Frederick Lepine
Yellow Point Road
Ladysmith, BC