Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas Bigfoot.

Merry Christmas.
I make a point of saying Merry Christmas instead of the generic Happy Holidays, or Seasons Greetings. It isn’t that I am insensitive to other corresponding holidays but rather I don’t celebrate them. More importantly, I have never known anyone to get upset by wishing them a Merry Christmas.
I think that the fear of making someone uncomfortable distracts us and ultimately diminishes the significance of the season. I mean, I don’t go out of my way ensuring that I don’t unintentionally insult Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, so why should I worry about offending someone by saying Merry Christmas? I think the chances of doing either is statistically the same. 
It isn't call a Christmas Concert anymore.
They are called 'Winter Sit through until you kid is finished.'

The meaning of Christmas has changed for me over the years as I’m sure it has changed for all of us. As a child, Christmas vacation was a mash of festive cartoons, school concerts, hockey tournaments, and wrapping paper. I vaguely remember something about a star, donkeys and wise men dressed in period costume, but principally Christmas was about family being together.
I was never really impressed with Santa Claus. He was always at the end of a line- a line that you had to wait in for what seemed like days and days wearing your snow-pants and holiday sweater. The wait was never worth it. It just made you feel tired and dirty. 
I don't think either of them wanted to be there.
More importantly, Santa flew one night a year- my Dad was often gone flying 6 months at a time. The jingling bells of Santa's sleigh could not compete with the sound of four Wright Turbo-compound engines of the CP -107 Argus. So what if Santa could deliver presents, the Argus could drop torpedos. The only thing that made me happy about Santa flying on Christmas eve was that I knew my father didn’t have to. 
Presents were great too. Don’t get me wrong, I love presents, but I can only remember a handful of them. The ones I do remember (the table hockey game, the race track, the army men, the parachute SAR game), I played with my Dad. 
Now I am the Dad, and like my father I am away from time to time. My kids don’t seem all that interested with Santa. My oldest is mostly curious about the great elve’s logistical considerations. She is concerned about the lack of snow and high winds and how it may affect his approach plans to the roof. My son is just happy that there is an endless supply of chips and dip.
Chutes Away- the best ever game ever made.

I sat down with them a couple of days ago and made sure they knew the reason why we celebrate Christmas. My daughter did a pretty good job. I thought though she gave too much detail when she started describing the modern Geopolitical implications. My son mumbled something about chips and dip.
I don’t think in the coming months my kids will remember what Santa brought them this year. I’m sure they will remember that Mom and Dad were home, and they spent the day with their Grandparents. When they get older, I’m sure they will understand that was the most precious gift any family could get. 
Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I miss Kamchatka.

My wife has decided to paint the house over the Christmas holidays. That in itself isn’t really blogworthy, because she has been painting the house for the past two years. It has been a piecemeal process since we moved in.
She loves to be busy and is inspired by challenges. I think that is why she married me. I have enough character flaws to keep her busy for a lifetime. 
When we moved into our home, I liked the colors that were on the walls. If I didn’t like the color of one room, I just moved to another. We were living in a crayon box. Each part of the house was demarced like the countries on a Risk board. I spent most of my time in Kamchatka, the kids played in Ural, and my wife liked read in Western Australia.

On my first deployment my wife discovered a coping strategy. She painted. When I came home my beloved Kamchatka was overrun by some Beige/Taupe hoard. She didn’t call it beige or taupe, it was “Pony Tail.”
Each time I went away the hoard returned. Soon, my home was a patchwork of beige. “Straw Hat” blitzkrieg the kitchen. “Lion’s Mane” conducted unspeakable atrocities to the the family room. The stairway and main foyer were rolled over by “Sand Stone.”
I tried to voice my concerns. Like the the United Nations, I suggested that we form a committee to study the color arrangements of the rooms and perhaps created some kind of framework for future considerations. 
My wife is a scholar of Sun Tsu’s “Art of War.” She knew her adversary and plotted accordingly. She ‘appeased me” by suggesting that she wouldn’t mind if I painted over what she had done. It was agreed. If I didn’t like the color of a room, I could paint it back.
It was a victory for me- or so I thought. Unfortunately, my apathy of color and my laziness of work trumped my desired to have a say. War is hell, and I didn’t even get a medal.
All these subtle tones of beige has caused me a bit of private grief. I can’t tell them apart, and I am wondering if these color shades are an elaborate practical joke. When new people come over to the house, my wife will take them on a tour and describe the color. Women in the tour will always smirk knowingly, and the men always rub their eyes.
In order for me to do my job, the government of Canada poked, prodded, and made me ‘turn my head and cough’ my way into a cockpit. They wouldn’t accept anything less that a ‘perfect physical specimen.” (Just to let you know, I laughed to myself when I typed that.) So, I should be able to tell the difference between “Snowflake skin” and “Moldy Walnut’. 
I do like this blue. I call it Eastern Passage Whooping Crane Dream.

This is a nice orange. I think it is called Beach Garbage Orange.

This is my favourite color of beige. It is called Weathered Pier.

Friday, December 17, 2010

My Haitian make work project.

It has been almost a year since the earthquake. 
Big Dawg delivering 750 litres of water.
A couple of days ago, a young guy at work was giving a power point history lesson on 423 Maritime Helicopter Squadron. It was a pretty dry summary of someone else’s research. The presenter stumbled over the script and the slides. Unfamiliar with the material and nervous about the crowd, he tried to ad lib.
He spoke of 423’s battle honors, listing Normandy, the Bay of Biscay, Battle of the Atlantic, and Kuwait- then he added that our tradition of excellence continued in Haiti. The rest of the audience fidgeted and did not notice the addition. To me, it was the only thing he said that I remember.
I was a member of the air detachment that sailed with HMCS Athabaskan 36 hours after the terrible quake. Looking back, I remember being excited to be going on this mission. That feeling of boyhood thrill was soon tempered when we loaded 10,000 body bags on the back of the ship. They came stacked on pallets. My last thought sailing out of Halifax harbour was that we were going someplace that a part of us was never going to leave.
Our crew launched at daybreak the first day on scene. The sun was rising over the early morning cloud and the air smelled like fire. Everything felt still. As soon as we made landfall we began to assess the destruction- calling out on the aircraft’s intercom the various points of interest- a collapsed building, a fire, signs for help, bodies. Soon we realized that we didn’t need to highlight areas of destruction- everything was destroyed.
One of the many signs for help.
That first morning we had to transport the ship’s Executive Officer (XO) to meet with the Canadian point of contact and the UN representative in Leogane- and this would lead to my greatest single accomplishment of the entire mission. 
The day was just beginning, but it was already getting hot. There was’t any wind that morning and I’m sure if it was anyplace else in the Caribbean it would have been the nicest day. 
Heavy helicopters don’t like hot, humid, windless days. The landing zone for the meeting was relayed to us, and it soon became apparent that we were limited (torque limited to be exact) with the number of options as to how to land there. I briefed my approach plan to the crew. I detailed the wind and obstacles and an escape route in the event we had an engine malfunction. My approach was to maximize the limited wind we had available and I was going to use a shallow approach path to limit the power requirements that I would need to stop. Unfortunately, my approach path flew directly over the only undamaged building in Leogane.
As we flew over, the guys in the back of the aircraft said, “Oh, we just blew the roof off that house.” We continued with the approach. The XO met with the military commanders on the ground and they began to develop a coordinated relief strategy. When we departed the landing zone, we learned that we flew over an orphanage.
I blew the roof off the only standing orphanage in Haiti.
I felt pretty bad about it. Later that evening, the Captain of the ship called me to his cabin to talk about what I had done.  He told me that we are all doing our very best under very difficult circumstances and although I blew the roof off the orphanage, the Canadian command team was able to solidify a relief strategy. He continued by reassuring me that he had assigned a ship’s team of engineers to go to the orphanage the next day and make it “better than before.”
I snapped to attention and said “Thank you sir,” And then with a smirk I continued. “...being from Newfoundland I am quite familiar with make work projects. I’m am just glad I could provide my expertise.” Thankfully the ship’s command team appreciated my sarcasm. 
I believe by the time we left Haiti to return to Canada, the ship constructed eight separate orphanages in Leogane.
Moving a hospital over a mountain.
I was the only clown on that deployment. The other members of the air detachment were average Canadians who did unimaginable feats exceptionally well. 
My aircraft captain (AC) once shot an approach into a remote mountain valley to deliver food and water to a village that had not received supplies for weeks. The landing zone was so small and off level, that the AC had to hover on two wheels for twenty minutes while the two ‘backenders’ unloaded 3000 lbs of aid.
My AESOP (don’t ask me what it stands for), held a dying woman’s hand for a half hour while we tried to transport her to the USS Comfort. She smiled at him and whispered thank you.
My TACCO embodied the Canadian effort in Haiti. His leadership was the reason why we were successful. This photo of him lifting an elderly woman from the aircraft will forever represent to me what it means to be Canadian.
The Tacco is the guy with the wedgie.
Sometime during the mission, we went back to our early squadron roots and painted some nose art on our aircraft. We delivered two mobile hospitals, over 160 000 lbs of supplies and 45 000 litres of drinkable water. 

Big Dawg's nose art.
It was very humbling to be on that air detachment with those people.  IMAX just completed a movie about the event. If you watch carefully you will see those great people and the clown.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Eastern Passage Baby Reindeer.

The elusive Eastern Passage baby Reindeer.

I left work a little early today. It was the office’s Christmas party. As I was walking out, a colleague asked me where I was going. I told her that I had to go home and walk my goat. 
“A goat?” she asked.
“Yes.” I replied rather matter of factly.
“You have a goat?”
“Yah, he is great. Cheaper than owning a lawn mower and he eats garbage. We only have to put too bags out on the curb every other week. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t eat cans though.”
“How are you allowed to have a goat in Eastern Passage. Aren’t there zoning regulations against farm animals in the town?”
“I don’t know. No one has ever said anything about it. Neighbors love my goat too. In fact people have been stopping in front of my house this past week to look at my Christmas lights and see the ‘baby reindeer’ in my backyard. Kids get a big kick out of it. They are so gullible cause it looks nothing like a baby reindeer.”
“You’re joking, right?” she asked.
“Who could lie about something as special as the Eastern Passage Baby Reindeer?”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An afternoon with David Hornell.

A while back, my son and I were introduced to David Hornell. We bumped into him rather unexpectedly while we were at the Shearwater Aviation Museum. 
My Son, using the same Cockpit Procedure Trainer my Dad used.
Mr. Hornell is from Mimico, Ontario. He spends all his time now in Lerwick, a small town situated on the Shetland Islands of Northern Scotland. He doesn’t get around much anymore, so it was very fortunate that we had a chance to make his acquaintance.
He was a pilot during the second world war and flew with 162 Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron. Most of his time during the war was spent patrolling Northern England and Scotland for Nazi submarines. He logged 60 coastal patrol missions and finished his career with 600 flight hours on the PBY Canso. He successfully ditched the aircraft on his last mission, and never flew operationally again.
Submarines, I looked for in Scotland.
I told my son that his Grandfather also flew in Northern Scotland, looking for submarines. I mentioned that I have as well, but I don’t think my son was listening to me anymore. He was mesmerized by Mr. Hornell’s story. 
I’ll try and retell it the best I can remember.
Sometime in June of 1944, Mr. Hornell and his crew were on patrol somewhere over the North Sea. The day started like any other, and the crew were fully expecting another long, uneventful trip. It wouldn’t be what they expected. To their surprise, they sighted a fully surfaced U-boat.
Mr. Hornell and his crew closed to attack. At a three quarters of a mile, the submarine began to fire at the Canso with its anti-aircraft guns. Mr. Hornell continued to press.
At roughly 1200 yards Hornell engaged the boat with his two guns. Almost immediately, their starboard gun jammed. Mr. Hornell continued to press.
At 800 yards the aircraft was hit by flak. Two fairly large holes appeared in the wing. Mr. Hornell pressed.
At approximately 500 yards it was noticed that the starboard engine was pouring oil and a fire had started trailing on the leading edge of the wing. He did not waiver.
At 300 yards the starboard engined feathered, but Hornell pressed on with the attack, dropping the depth charges it was carrying. The first depth charge hit between the bow and the conning tower of the submarine. The second hit the water approximately 45 feet from the port side of the U-Boat.
The pilots struggled with controlling the aircraft.  Starboard engine continued to vibrate and fell out of the wing. The aircraft couldn’t stay airborne, so Hornell decided to ditch. The aircraft was brought into wind and the pilots carried out a fully stalled landing, boucing twice. The first time approximately 150 feet, and the second time about 50 feet. Ditching successfully accomplished despite 50 foot swells.
It is our responsibility to teach the future of our past.
The aircraft sank to wing level within 8 minutes and completely disappeared within twenty. No one was injured in the ditching. For 21 hours the crew took turns in the life raft. The wind was 45 knots and the waves were 50 feet tall. Hornell lead his men, keeping moral and spirits high. He whistled and sang. They invented a game of “Ride em Cowboy” as big swells threatened to swamp the dingy.
They lost two men due to exposure. They released their bodies to the sea. Hornell was blinded by the fuel and oil. He lead his men, without sight until the end. He died fifteen minutes after his crew was rescued. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions. It is one of three that Canadian airmen were awarded during the second world war.
F/L Hornell is buried in Lerwick, Scotland. His Victoria Cross can be seen at the Shearwater Aviation Museum. His account can be read here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Banjos and Rotor Blades

Me and Old Man Luedecke.

Old Man Luedecke is possibly the greatest banjo player Chester Nova Scotia has ever produced. I say ‘probably’ because I don’t think I have met them all. I will say however, that he is so good, that I once jeopardized a 12 year marriage and half my government pension to see him. I wouldn’t have done that for the second best banjo player from Chester.
It isn’t just me that thinks so highly of him. He has won several Juno Awards for Folk and Singer Song Writer of the Year. Mind you awards are not always very impressive. I won four Junos in the mid eighties for producing some of Glass Tiger’s greatest hits, and Justin Bieber just won Universal Artist of the Year (which, if you ask me is terribly wrong on several levels).
I’m not sure where or how I heard his music because I’m not connected to the indie-folk-banjo-arts scene in Nova Scotia. About a year and a half ago I tried to illegally download his work, I mean find someone to share his music with me. Nobody on the internet was willing to admit that they had his albums. Surprising, considering what people are willing to show on the web.
My kids sing his songs. There is something special about hearing a seven year old stomp and sing:
Don’t fuss, don’t fight it no
Take that wrong and right it ho
Can always live on rice and potatoes
Take your heart’s candle and relight it
I quit my Job,
I’m free today
I don’t have a lot in common with Old Man Luedecke. His real name is Chris, mine is not. He isn’t old. He plays the banjo, I fly a helicopter. Still, there is something about the simple truths in his songs that hits me like a rotor blade. 
Should be proud of where I am
All my friends work their dreams with their hands
And truly this is the promised land
All my closest friends work their dreams with their hands. Although not all of them quit their jobs to do what they do (some of them were fired), they all sacrificed to get where they are. Some sacrificed more than others and unfortunately, some may give the ultimate sacrifice.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Vikings and plug-in fireplaces.

I have a painting of a lighthouse that hangs over my plug-in fire place. Mr. Bud Best has his name on the lower right corner. He died this past year, so I guess the painting is worth more now. I find that hard to believe because it has always been priceless to me.
The lighthouse doesn’t exist anymore, it was replaced by a cheap imitation. In the 1990‘s the government thought it would be a good idea to shut down the station and build an automated beacon. The two homes that the light keepers families lived in were sold for a dollar, and the lighthouse was torn down. The lighthouse keepers were retired and given a framed letter of thanks for their 30 years of service.
When the station was manned, a skinny dirt road connected the town to Fisherman’s Point. The road could barely be called a road at all. It was a collection of Newfoundland’s most sizable potholes. It clung to the cliffs out of shear stubbornness. It switched dizzyingly back towards the rock walls and then to the deep blue as it inched its way closer to the lighthouse. 
If the road were to be christened, she would most certainly be called Impassible. Her younger more demure sisters Treacherous, and Unsafe would always be in her shadow never quite living up to her example. Locals did not try to make the journey, unless of coarse they were already dead- the old Anglican cemetery was the last stop before one reached the lighthouse.
There was a sign near the end of the road that explained in no uncertain terms, that no one was welcome any further. Beyond that sign is where I spent the first year of my life, and many summers there after. My mother was raised there, and my sister was married there. Understandably, the place is special to me and all I have left is the painting.

I travelled back several years ago. The government realized that tourists liked going up there to explore the coastline and take pictures of whales and icebergs. They paved the road and made it wide and safe enough so mobile homes could maneuver without restriction. They made boardwalk walkways over the paths our family forged through the tuckamore and berry bushes. 
In my Great uncle’s living room, strangers now can sit and enjoy seven dollar bake apple cheese cake and $49.99 Viking feasts. Afterwards they can go to the Newfie gift shop and buy their “In Cod We Trust” hand towel, or “Some Shockin Good” bumper sticker. If you don’t believe me, you can go here and see for yourself.
They have also hired a summer lighthouse keeper to monitor the automated station and answer tourists’ questions. The smell of the salt air has been replaced by the stench of Disney imagineering. 
When my Grandparent’s lived there, I never once had dinner with a viking, now you can do it four nights a week. If the subject of vikings did arise, it would be best to keep your mouth shut and cover children's ears. The case against vikings in Newfoundland was vigorously argued at that house. In a carefully thought out position based on expletives and common sense, any lay person would be convinced that Lanse au Meadows was a sham perpetrated by Parks Canada.  It is almost sacrilegious now to think that ‘hefty’ bearded Newfoundlanders are in Norris costume eating turkey legs in what was my Pop’s backyard.

I do appreciated the irony that my righteousness indictment against cheap imitations presents. My  painting hangs over a plug in fireplace. My sentiment is mix of teen angst and middle age realism. I understand that things change, and communities evolve to meet new challenges. My Grandfather hasn’t been the lighthouse keeper in St. Anthony for over 20 years and it would be selfish to wish he still was. I’m glad they paved the road, it was impassible.  And what is the harm if a family from Wisconsin enjoys an over priced dinner in a sod house?