On a sunny June afternoon in northern Newfoundland, a tourist from Ontario curiously pondered aloud, “What’s going on here?”
Standing in front of her was a small crowd of strangers, waving, shouting, laughing and crying at a gray helicopter that was trying its best to make as much noise as it could.
The assembled group was in St. Anthony, Nfld., on the eastern part of the far northwestern tip of the island. Precariously located between the cliffs and ocean here, a lonely lighthouse has stood as a guardian to sailors for many decades. And on that special day in June, the Canadian flag at the lighthouse station stood at half-mast.
An elderly woman amidst the gathering turned to the tourist, wiped a tear from her eye, and spoke softly to her, straining to be heard over the background roar of rotor blades. Listening intently, the tourist from Ontario learned she was witnessing a dream come true — albeit a day too late.
When the thundering aircraft shook and rattled the cliffs one final time before it sped off, the tourist from Ontario wiped tears from her own eyes. At that moment, in the helicopter itself, I handed the controls to my co-pilot and did the same.
My maternal grandfather, Baxter Pynn, was the lighthouse keeper in St. Anthony for 35 years. I spent the first year of my life living in that lighthouse and spent many summers thereafter clambering over the rocks and staring out at the ocean.
When I was a kid, my father told me a story of when he did a flyby of the lighthouse in the old Canadair CP-107 (CL-28) Argus maritime/anti-submarine patrol bomber. He told it countless times, as did my grandfather, because it had meant so much to both of them.
It all made an impression on me, too, and I often dreamt of flying low and loud over those cliffs. Sadly, my only chance to do so occurred a day after my grandfather passed away.
It had been a difficult week leading up to that day. On the Monday, my father’s mother, my Nan, Uldine Bowers, passed away after a very short illness. Our last words to each other were on the phone. It wasn’t how I wanted to say goodbye, so I didn’t. I told her I loved her, and she said the same. She died in the hospital in Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld., and was buried next to her husband.
Then, on the Friday, my mother’s father, Baxter Pynn, my Pop, passed. He was like every man — imperfect and flawed, but there was greatness in him, too; a greatness that yearned for opportunities to come out. He was a hero, but he wouldn’t tell you that. In the years to come, I will hope to even better understand who he was. For now, all that mattered is that he was my Pop, and that I loved him dearly.
As luck would have it, my squadron had a crew-training, cross-country exercise already scheduled for that weekend, and would be passing nearby the three spots where I had wanted to be. So, all I needed was special permission to make some slight detours. When I briefed my crew, I told them what had happened and my intentions. This trip would be a celebration of my Nan and Pop’s lives and a display of how they had shaped mine.
My father’s family was assembled at my Nan’s cabin in Bobby’s Cove (about 100 miles southeast of St. Anthony, as the crow flies). It wasn’t until I looked for it on the map that I realized it was right next to a place called Paradise. It didn’t surprise me, however. And, there, gathered on the beach, stood my extended family: uncles and aunts, and too many cousins to remember. They waved and laughed and cried as I made as much noise as I could. I’m not sure what Nan would say, but I’m sure Pop Bowers would have been smiling.
When I arrived in St. Anthony, all my family from my mother’s side were waiting for us at the lighthouse. There, too, was the aforementioned tourist from Ontario.
After my farewell pass of the lighthouse, I had one last stop to make. My Pop was lying in state at the Anglican church in Raleigh, some 15 miles away from the lighthouse.