Goodbye first love:
With a ponderous rhythm, the ship rolls and pitches gently as we plough through the Pacific en route to Pearl Harbor. A soft whisper comes from the ventilation system. The vibration from the engines is more felt than heard. It’s a pleasant feeling—like nestling in the protective embrace of a huge living thing.
I love the sea and the ships that sail upon it. The US Navy has been the best experience of my life. I’ve found a home here. Tonight, I have brig watch. I don’t mind. The quiet hours between midnight and four in the morning are a good time to think. On this particular night, the opportunity to ponder is especially welcome—I’m grappling with an issue that will affect the rest of my life.
The brig on this ship has two cells. One is empty. Eldon Rutledge snores loudly in the other. Eldon didn’t get into trouble—he is trouble. Sailors are known for being a bit rowdy when on liberty. It’s tradition: get drunk, get laid, fight with some Marines. Outside of a few bruises, no damage is done—that is also tradition. But with Eldon, somebody always seems to get hurt; that’s why he’s an outcast. He doesn’t leave the ship with one of the high-spirited groups. He skulks off alone. More often than not, the Shore Patrol brings him back. On two occasions, he’s been delivered back to the ship by local law enforcement. That’s why he’s in the brig. The civil authorities in both Hong Kong and Japan have cases against him. He’s to be confined to the brig at Pearl Harbor pending the trials.
Eldon’s problem has necessitated some serious thinking on my part because I’ve been given the task of escorting him from the ship’s brig to the brig on the base when we get to Pearl. We are not given to know what the charges against him are, but scuttlebutt is that both cases involve the murder of prostitutes and a mutilation in one case. It’s not fair or right, but we’ve all declared him guilty. Some people are said to have a mean streak; with Eldon, it’s the decorative motif of his entire insides. That’s the essence of my problem. If he gets away from me, somebody’s going to get hurt. I can’t live with that.
We will be on a US Navy base the whole time. What could he hope to gain by escaping from me during our walk from the ship to the brig? That’s not the point. Eldon Rutledge is also stupid. When something mean and stupid feels cornered, there is no telling what it might do. I have to prepare myself for the worst case scenario. If he got out of the cuffs, could I use the sidearm I’ll be wearing to stop him?
I’ve never faced this question before. Can I deliberately do something that has the potential to end another person’s life? I don’t know. Fortunately, Rutledge doesn’t either. That’s probably my ace-in-the-hole. Unfortunately, thoughts along these lines don’t end with Rutledge. I now must face the unfortunate truth that my beloved Navy, the ships, the airplanes, the people and my own involvement are for one purpose—to kill people. It’s a concept that I’ve managed to ignore for most of the last four years, but now I have to address it.
Rutledge and I are waiting for the gangway to be lowered as the ship docks. Getting rid of him is the Captain’s first order of business. Ordinarily, everybody who has liberty would be below decks getting ready. Today, the deck is lined with guys. Smirks and catcalls follow us up the pier. They lose sight of us as we round the dumpster at the end. I tell Rutledge to stop. The surly look on his face fades as I take the forty-five on my hip out of its holster. I’ve been told that I can look fairly intimidating. I try for that look as I address him.
“Rutledge, we both know there isn’t a chance in hell of me hitting you with this thing if you get thirty feet away,” I say as I chamber a round. “You fuck with me and you won’t get that far,” I continue, while holstering the weapon. We both know I’ve just committed a serious no-no, but it has the desired effect. I deliver him to the brig without incident.
In the washroom, I’m sweating as I get the round out of the chamber and back in the clip. I wash my face, straighten my uniform, and head back for the ship.
The walk is bittersweet. I look around fondly at the buildings and the ships. I like the Navy. It’s the first place I’ve ever felt I belonged, but I can’t stay. The Navy has spent a lot of time and money training me and I’m grateful. I’d like to stay, but my job description puts me on the trigger in a combat situation. Now it is clear to me. If the gunnery officer ordered me to pull that trigger, I couldn’t do it. I’ve pulled it many times when were locked onto a sock or drone, but I now know I couldn’t do it if there was a human being in the target aircraft.
My enlistment ends later this year. I’ve been putting a lot of thought into reenlisting—making the Navy my career. And, I’ve been offered a sweet deal. This has been the best four years of my life, but it’s time to come to Jesus; time to admit that my first love—the Navy—is an immoral enterprise. I cannot remain loyal to an armada of death. I can’t reenlist. I must accept my discharge. Damn that Rutledge anyway. His antics have forced me to be honest with myself. People who do that are so inconvenient.
Goodbye, my first love.
Someone I don’t want to be:
I missed the sixties. While the groovies were slogging about in the mud at Woodstock, I was trying to get a lawn to grow in front of my brand-new house. While the folks around Haight-Ashbury were getting stoned, playing guitars and decrying the material society, I was enjoying a rather heady rise up the corporate ladder. Life was good. Viet Nam and Kent State were far away news items of little consequence.
I’d been busy. The company I worked for was transferring much of their manufacturing activity from California to my home town in Colorado. This meant lots of long hours as well as working nights and weekends, but it also created gobs of opportunity. Hired as an electronic technician a mere five years ago, I was now a department head. It had been a whirlwind: getting my first job in the corporate world, getting married, getting promoted, buying a house, getting promoted again, finding out that I was to be a daddy, getting another promotion. But, hey, it was all good. By the time my wife discovered we were pregnant, I was making enough that we didn’t need her teacher’s salary any more.
Although it had all come easily, it wasn’t without sacrifice. I’d not had a real vacation or weekend off in three years. This year, it appeared that I was going to have the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I was two days into a three-week vacation, puttering about in the yard, listening to the Indy 500 on the radio when the phone rang. I didn’t hear it. My wife answered. Later, I learned that the conversation went something like this:
“Hello, Mary Lee Burnham speaking.”
“Mary Lee, this is Paul. May I speak to John please?”
Paul was my boss. I’d have been horrified at her answer. “He’s supposed to be on vacation. Can’t you people leave him alone?”
“Something has come up. We need him to go to Redwood City.”
“Can’t you find someone else?”
“You need to understand that John is the fair-haired boy around here now. Doing this is important for his career, but we could find a replacement.”
“Please do,” she answered and hung up.
Mary Lee was crying when she came out into the yard and handed me the phone. “You’d better call Paul,” was all she said. For the next few minutes, I tried, without success, to console her and find out what the problem was. When I attempted to call Paul, his secretary said he was unavailable at the moment, but that he’d asked that I remain available for his return call. I wasn’t halfway through a beer when the phone growled.
“Hi, this is John,” I answered.
“Hi, bud, have you talked to Mary Lee?” It was Paul.
“Yeah, she’s pretty upset but won’t tell me what it’s all about.”
“Well, we need you to go to Redwood City. Engineering is accusing us of accepting sub-assemblies that don’t meet spec. They’re making a case for management to delay transfer of the Mk. 10.”
“I can see why she’s unhappy.”
“I think I’ve got that covered. My return call was delayed because I was getting permission for you to take her with you.”
“Hey, you didn’t have to . . . you know I’d go, you didn’t have—”
“I know that. But she’s been a real sport, not hassling you about all the extra time you’ve put in. You guys deserve it. Have a good time in San Francisco.”
Mary Lee had never been to California, so we followed orders and had an excellent time. We dined at places like The Cliff House and Japanese restaurants that served mushrooms as big as saucers. We saw the sights and shopped on the company credit card.
On the way home, Mary Lee was bubbly, but I was troubled. I spent most of the flight thinking.
My only task had been to attend a meeting around the big oak table. The corporate heavies were seated around it. I and the representative from Design Engineering were seated across from each other. He made a case for management not transferring manufacture of another product to us because we’d been sending product that didn’t meet specification into the field. He was knowledgeable and articulate, but I knew he had a short fuse. I made a remark that lit it. He got mad. I had him. After I made my presentation, he couldn’t come up with a rebuttal. Corporate went with me.
I’d won but I wasn’t happy. The whole thing hadn’t really been about specifications, measurement and technical competence. It was about jobs—whether they’d stay in California or move to Colorado. I hadn’t made an eloquent defence of the Colorado facility, I’d just told corporate what they’d wanted to hear. I’d won the day for Colorado even though we’d been wrong! Design engineering had been right. We had accepted and employed parts that didn’t meet specification to make one of our products. As a result, the device was performing poorly. But, corporate had already decided that manufacturing was moving to Colorado, so I structured what was ostensibly a technical reply as an affirmation of their wisdom.
Colorado’s chestnuts had been pulled out of the fire. I had another feather in my cap. Mary Lee had enjoyed San Francisco. But the guy from Design Engineering was looking for a job. After blowing the whistle on an act of incompetence that was costing the company, he was out of a job. We’d been wrong, he’d been right, but I’d played the game better. Initially, I felt good. Winning is intoxicating, but sobriety is always around the corner.
I’ve often opined, with righteous indignation, that our legal system seems to be as much about who has the cleverest lawyer as it is about right or wrong, guilt or innocence. But, here I was, a player in the same game. It made me want to puke. Moreover, I’d spent a short period being proud of what I’d done. That really scared me. Success was seducing me. I was becoming somebody I didn’t want to be. Before the airplane landed in Colorado, I knew I couldn’t stay in the corporate scene.
Back at the office, it was all congrats and back-slapping. I received accolades for doing something that was wrong, pure and simple. The performance was disgusting, the performers were more disgusting. Admittedly, I’d been on the slippery slope to being just like them, but I now saw with perfect clarity that a guy who fit here was someone I didn’t want to be. I couldn’t stay.
It reminded me of the time I’d realized that my beloved Navy was an immoral enterprise. After four great years, I couldn’t stay. After five good years in the corporate world, I realized that I couldn’t stay there either. I began to wonder if I’d ever find a place I could call home.
I park the airplane, hoping this was my last flight of the day. As I walk toward the office, visions of supper dance about in my head. The office atmosphere is stormy as I walk in. The visions of a pint and a steak sandwich at the pub fade as I watch the Superintendent stomp about. Something has gone awry in the field. In the Canadian north, that usually means work for the pilot.
The Supe’s face is red as he turns toward me and snarls, “Can you believe that goddamn, stupid, son-of-a-bitch?”
“What particular goddamn, stupid, son-of-a-bitch are we referring to?” I ask.
“Carl! How anyone could be so stupid? I’m gonna take a pair of rusty side-cutters and make a gelding of him.”
Construction foreman Carl Sutter left here three days ago with a four man crew and equipment to prepare a gas well drilling site. The roads would have become poorer, and the going slower as he pressed into the undeveloped Canadian bush. During the last day, he would not have been on roads at all—just trails through the trees. He should be at the site now. “What’s his problem?” I venture.
The Supe runs his hands through thinning hair as he raises his head and closes his eyes. “Propane! That stupid klutz is out of propane!”
My voice is incredulous. “Out? Clear out of propane?”
The Supe lowers his head. He’s beginning to calm down; the rant has had a cathartic effect. “Not out, he has about fifteen percent left in one bottle, but the other two are empty. Empty! Can you believe that? He leaves here with two empties!”
I do some math in my head. The skid-shack Carl and his crew will live in for the next several weeks is heated by propane stored in hundred-pound bottles. What he has left won’t last until morning. “You got any more headed his way?” I ask.
“Of course I do. Whaddya think I am, some sort of freakin’ ninny? I sent the fuel truck early.”
I ignore the question and ask, “How early?”
“Coupla hours ago.”
We look at each other. We’re both calculating. The answers aren’t nice. It will be around thirty-six hours before the fuel truck gets to Carl. The best scenario means he will be without propane—and heat—for twenty-four hours.
The Supe’s voice is husky as he asks, “What do the weather-guessers say for tonight?”
We continue to look at one another. We can’t leave Carl and the boys out there in subzero weather without heat. The Supe falls into an uncharacteristic silence. Even though it will take the truck another thirty-four hours to get to Carl, I can be there in a little over two. We both know what has to be done. The Supe can’t tell me to do it, because it’s illegal. His eyes betray an inner plea. I nod, turn to the phone, and dial the loading dock. “Ernie, this is Jay. Please fill a hundred-pounder to sixty percent.”
“Carl?” Ernie asks.
“You’re the man,” Ernie replies enthusiastically. “It will be at the bird in five.”
“You have it filled already?”
“Yeah, thought things might shake out like this. I even cinched the vent a little.”
Carrying propane cylinders in an airplane is like hitting on Mother Superior. You just don’t do it; nor do you want to. These hundred-pounders are fitted with a mechanism to vent off excess pressure. Raw propane wandering around in an airplane cabin is a recipe for turning the whole works into a fireball. That’s why I asked for the cylinder to be under-filled. It’s also why Ernie did something that may have disabled the vent.
On my way out of the office complex, the restaurant cook meets me with two thermos bottles of hot coffee. I’m surprised and touched. Even that crusty old bugger wants to have a piece of helping Carl.
Clad in parka, mitts, and pack boots, I taxi to the runway with the propane bottle strapped to the floor behind me. I don’t intend to turn the cabin heat on because I don’t want to warm the damn thing.
Takeoff into the inky sky is uneventful. I don’t climb very high because the bottle’s tendency to vent increases as the air pressure decreases.
There is no moon, but the stars are out. Their light makes things directly below quite visible. As usual, it is a bit hazy, so fewer stars are seen as one looks from the zenith downward. Somewhere ahead, the darkening sky merges with the velvety black of the forest below. There isn’t any horizon.
The main road going out into this part of the oil patch crosses beneath me several times as it weaves through the hills and avoids the swamps. Soon, it gives way to narrower roads that branch out to serve existing facilities. Eventually, these peter out and the cut lines for seismic work are the only evidence of man. Following this labyrinth of roads, almost roads and goat trails made Carl’s journey more than twice the length of my straight-line path.
Airplanes make strange noises at night. During the day, all you hear is the roar of the engine, but at night, you hear—or think you hear—squeaks and groans. Tonight, I’m hearing the fsst, fsst, of a propane tank venting. My rational mind tells me it can’t be happening. I’m able to ignore it until I smell the damn stuff. I flip the cabin light on and turn around to look at the tank. I don’t see any fog from the venting. I pour myself a cup of coffee. I don’t hear any more venting or smell propane as I sip the warm beverage. Obviously, it’s all in my mind. And, what the hell anyway, if there is a little venting; there isn’t any source of ignition. I’m ok, either way.
Suddenly, I’m blinded by a shower of sparks from beneath the instrument panel. My heart stops. I can hear the fsst, fsst, of the tank venting. The smell of propane is strong! I can see the airplane turning into a ball of fire resembling Halley’s comet. (The matter of comets not actually being balls of fire doesn’t concern me at this point.)
I shake my head and concentrate on what the instruments are telling me. My mind is reeling. I try to think as another shower of sparks lights my feet. I reach under the panel and produce more sparks as I touch a dangling wire. I check the instrument panel. Everything seems to have power. Which wire is loose? Another shower of sparks and more propane odour scrambles my brain. Thinking is difficult. I have to do something. I scan the breaker panel and pull the one for the cigarette lighter. Minutes pass without a spark. I reach under the panel and bat the loose wire around. No sparks. It must have come off the back of the cigarette lighter. I take a deep breath and sit back in the seat. There will be no Halley’s comet tonight.
According to my calculations, I should be nearing Carl’s camp, so I select the company air-to-ground frequency on the radio and key the mike. “Camp six, this is Alpha Bravo Zulu.”
My earphones come alive. “Jay! God, I’m glad to hear your voice.” Carl’s not much for radio discipline.
“Camp six, Alpha Bravo Zulu estimates your position in ten minutes. Can you show lights?”
Up ahead, a small lake comes alive with vehicle lights. As I get closer, I can see that Carl has plowed the entire length and positioned everything with headlights along the edge.
Carl rushes up and opens the door as I’m shutting the engine down. “Jay, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this,” he pants.
“No biggie bud,” I say. “just get that damned thing out of my airplane.” The last is unnecessary. Carl’s guys are already hauling it through the door on the other side.
On the way home, I relax. I’ve shed my parka and mitts. With the heat on full blast, the cabin is toasty. I’m working on the second thermos and thinking that this is why I love the Canadian oil patch. Robert Service wrote poetry about the men who moil for gold. I don’t think anybody will ever put the adventures of the men who moil for oil to verse, but it’s the same deal. Our common enemy is the cold. Facing this formidable foe brings out the best in us. Alone, each of us would lose the fight—we have to rely on one another. Carl knew he wasn’t alone out there. He knew the rest of us would do whatever it took—legal or not—to get him some propane.
Home in Our Canada:
I’m a newbie. That is to say, I’m new to Canada, new to the North, and new to the oil patch. In my thirty-fifth year, I’m starting over. This is my first day on the new job.
As I enter the office, I’m a little surprised when the owner of the company personally greets me. After introducing me around as the new pilot, he says, “Go on over to the hangar and have a look at your airplane. Larry will bring a guy named Verle Sconi over in an hour or so. Take Verle down to Grand Prairie. His daughter will meet you at the Esso.” He pauses, takes an envelope from his pocket and hands it to me saying, “Give this envelope to her. It’s Verle’s pay for the past three weeks. Don’t let Verle out of your sight. Under no circumstances are you to give him this envelope.” I assure him I understand and head for the hangar.
I’m impressed as I examine the airplane and log books. It’s a well-equipped bird and all the maintenance seems to be spot on. My new employer’s referring to it as “your airplane” struck me as an odd turn of phrase. I’m more accustomed to something more impersonal, like, “The equipment you’ll be flying for us.”
Larry, the guy in charge of supplies, pulls up in front of the hangar. A wizened little man with white hair and a red nose exits the passenger side. He commences to move his bag from the pickup to the airplane. I go around to Larry’s side of the truck.
“Do we always haul people home?” I ask.
Larry smiles. “Not usually.”
“Then why . . . ? There’s four busses a day from here to GP.”
Larry chuckles. “If Verle got his hands on that money, he wouldn’t make it past the first bar—wouldn’t sober up until it was all gone.” Larry’s voice takes on a tone of concern. “Verle’s wife is not doin’ too good. That’s why the boss delivers him and the money to their daughter.”
The day is beautiful and clear. With no weather to fight, the two-hour round-trip to Grande Prairie is uneventful. It gives me time to wonder why the boss had me do this. Airplanes are expensive to operate. This is the first time I’ve been told do something that amounts to nothing more than a charity run.
The following days and weeks are an endless round of hauling people, groceries, and parts out to a camp in the bush, hauling other people back, and doing it again for a different camp.
As I return from my third trip of the day, I see the other company airplane parked in front of the hangar. Dan, the pilot, is sitting in the shade. I amble over.
“Sit-cher arse down,” is Dan’s greeting.
I settle on the grass. “You goin’ out again?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s like wipin’ your arse with a hula hoop—there’s no end to it.”
Our chat ends as Larry arrives with the van. I note that the people getting out aren’t our employees—they work for the competition! That’s the oddest part of this whole deal: We haul a lot of the people and goods as favors for other outfits. The spirit of cooperation among business people in this environment is foreign to me.
Strangely enough, this help-each-other mentality ends my bush-pilot career. I’m flying a couple of guys out to a production facility. On the way, I overhear them grousing about their pay. It’s over twice what I make. And, I work longer hours! I decide to change the picture.
Fast forward a few years. Now, I’m one of the guys that gets hauled around. The work isn’t as interesting as flying, but I now bring home twice the pay check and have more free time to enjoy it.
I’m at a production facility in the bush doing consulting work. One of the regular employees hands me the phone. “It’s your wife.”
I put the phone to my ear. “Hi hon.”
Terror colors her voice. “John, they found a lump in my breast!”
“Hang tough honey, I’m on my way home.”
Less than an hour later, I’m watching the Canadian bush pass under the airplane. I don’t know who’s paying for this. I work for a consulting company. They hired my services out to the oil company that owned the facility I just left. When I told the facility supervisor about the phone call, there wasn’t any discussion about who paid for what or how my task was going to be completed. All he said was, “Get your stuff together. Andy will run you over to the airstrip.” The whole thing reminds me of the charity run I did with Verle Sconi years ago.
Fast forward several more years. After a courageous fight, my wife has lost her second round with the cancer. Back in the U.S. of A, this would have resulted in financial ruin. Even the best insurance would have left me personally responsible for the most expensive aspect of her treatment. Here, in contrast, my fellow citizens picked up those costs through our national health care system.
These days, I have a lot of time to ponder. As a result, I think I’m finally getting this “Our Canada” business. It’s not another way of expressing nationalism. It’s not another type of jingoism. “Our Canada” isn’t about geography or national pride. It’s about each other. It’s an expression of the way we care for each other. We not only talk about looking out for each other, we take responsibility for making it happen. “Our” says we enshrine the concept of caring for one another in national institutions like our health care system. “Our Canada” speaks of a wonderful way of life. I’m immensely grateful and proud to be a part of it. I’m at home.