Flying, Shooting and getting Skunked

Winters in Hopeless during the time I was attending The Blessed Virgin of the Bleeding Heart Elementary (I’ve changed the names of the town and school) were often harsh and sub zero temperatures often lasted for days and even weeks. During such severe temperature dips exposed skin can easily freeze within minutes. If you’ve ever taken a breath quickly through your nose in such temperatures you know how painful it can be – and in such circumstances people take quick, shallow breaths in the short time they venture outdoors.

 

During the weekends in the winter we would frequent a property my parents had in a remote northern community centered on a large lake – over almost 100 kilometers long. The severe winters froze the ice solid, making it a great time to ice fish, target shoot or cross-country ski – all of which I did with my family in the winter times. My father flew a Stinson aircraft – and he had skis on it for flying in the winter. I loved flying with him. He was a good pilot and took care flying when I was with him. On clear days we would fly over the lake and find quite places to land and set up cans to shoot.

 

I secretly hoped that I would be able to take my father’s rifle to school and shoot the priests, so I always took my target practice lessons seriously. My father was a crack shot – he had been a marksman in the military with the Parachute regiment in WWII. It was on a weekend in December when my Dad took me out for a day of flying and target practice. We left early – at first light as my Dad would say – and flew for a bit. My Dad liked to drop the plane when we flew – suddenly in the air – much like the feeling on a roller coaster. He knew I liked it when he did that. After about forty minutes of flying we found a section of the lake that was far enough away to do some target practice without disturbing anyone around. We landed and found a good direction to shoot in, snowbanks in front of cutbanks. This way our bullets couldn’t hurt anything but that cans and bottles we had brought along. My father was a big supporter of “pack it in, pack it out” long before it became mainstream. I set up the row of assorted targets. My father brought out the .22 pump action rifle. He told me it was mine, as every young boy had a rifle when he was a kid. He grew up in the 1920’s in a community called Ootsa Lake. The community that once was a settlement for hunters, pioneers and settlers was flooded and the remains of his early home now rests under water, and did even when I was a kid. My father had bought me a BB gun a year before, and taught me the safety of handling any kind of weapon. Even though I secretly desired to use my training to ultimately revenge myself at school, I appreciated the time my father and I spent together. And soon enough he had me loading the rifle and getting ready to test my aim on the cans.

 

It started to snow before we began to practice. If you have lived in northern communities during winter, the snow – as it falls – acts like a sort of muffler – deadening sounds around. It places an eerie deafness all around. It was just my father, myself and the sharp crackling of the .22 that could be heard on this particular snowy day.

 

After about five minutes of practice (I had been doing pretty good – especially since we did not rely on scopes when we were shooting) a strange pungent sound filled the air. A skunk must have been shocked by the sounds and sprayed near us. We continued to shoot, but the smell became smaller – my Dad – ever the woodsman – put his hand on my shoulder and asked me to be quiet. He had heard something. We began to walk towards the targets. As we got closer, we saw it. A skunk, not much bigger than a kitten, was laying behind our targets – not more than ten feet behind them. It was caught in a trap. It was emaciated. The area was well used by trappers (people who set clamps with bait on them to lure small game. It appeared that this small skunk had stepped on the trap and both of its legs were caught in it, shattered as the trap shut itself on the animal. It had been there for some time as it had tried eating it’s legs away as a means to escape. What was left of the lower half was bloody and skeletal. It had drifted into sleep and was close to death before we arrived. There was no saving it. My Dad was upset to see this little thing squealing in pain as it laid there, still trying to escape now that it had heard the gunshots close by. I was holding the rifle. My fathers’ command was serious and direct. “For God’s sake, shoot it.” I had the rifle. I had never, never killed a living thing before. Suddenly my target practice was going to be put to the test, but this time on a living creature. I started to shake as I brought up the rifle’s stock to my shoulder. “Shoot it!” I took aim and squeezed the trigger. The skunk banked sharply to the left and dropped. A split second it was up again, squealing even louder. “God Dammit, put it out of its misery”. I had to take a second shot. I was trembling now, and I felt queasy. I squeezed the trigger again. For a second time the skunk banked (this time to the right) and dropped again. But once again it was up and continued to squeal. I had only made the poor thing suffer even worse. “Jesus Christ” my father said as he grabbed the rifle from me, shoving me aside in doing so. With an action that can only be explained as that of a trained woodsman, hunter and soldier, my father reloaded the rifle, and had fired it so quickly it was shocking to me. He killed it instantly. I had been responsible for only increasing its pain in the last moments of its life. My father did the only thing that could be done (what I had tried to do) and put it out of its misery and suffering.

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I had never killed anything before. Let me rephrase that. I had never seriously attempted to kill anything before. I felt sick to my stomach in what I had participated in. My father did what he had to do. We walked over to the lifeless body of the skunk. Hot tears were rolling down my cheeks. I had only grazed each side of the skunks’ body with my shots. My father had killed it instantly with his single shot. I asked if we should bury it. My father told me it should be left out for other animals to eat. He pried the trap open and let the lifeless body drop into the snow, black and red laying on the cold white blanket of the ground. He looked at the trap and said that the trappers had to take responsibility for the traps they set, and somehow he could tell the trap had been out for some time, probably forgotten. We didn’t resume target practice that day. In fact, that was the last time I fired that .22. A few years later I would use my skills at Circus Circus to win stuffed animals, but it was the last time I ever harmed an animal. My desire to kill vanished that day. As we flew away I looked out the window from the cockpit of the airplane. The dead body of the skunk was a little black dot surrounded by dots of red. Food for wolves. I regretted the pain I caused that little thing. I was even more upset that somehow I had failed my father. I had tried to do what he asked, but I couldn’t. Killing the skunk was the only thing that could be done, and I hurt it even more. We never spoke about that day again. For some reason that was the last time we went out like that. Though my childhood was being ripped away from me at the school I attended – on that day – the day that my father and I shot a helpless skunk, I grew up a little more as I saw firsthand the preciousness and fragility of life.

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My father, my Jedi

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A long time ago, in a podunk far far away I was born. The town was called Hopeless (at least that’s what I call it). My father and mother made their living there. It was a town where I would make few lasting friendships, and a place that I really only look back with fondness when I think of my parents and their love for me.

This past week was a week of remembrance. Even though Starbucks took to the holiday season early (November 1st) and faced a trivial controversy of issuing a holiday cup that was plain red, people still took time out of their schedules to pay respects to the veterans who have served their countries in times of need. I am not going to write about the right or wrong of the conflicts as that is not for me to say. I could easily look back and comment on the horrors of war, and war is horror. But I am not writing about that. This week I am writing about a Jedi that I knew and loved. He was the first real Jedi I would ever know – and he still is a hero to me. My father. You see, I had a much older father than any of my friends did. He was not young and foolish. He had already lived a full life by the time I was born. Some people say that it is not fun to have an older father, but I am so thankful that I did. By the time I was born he had already grown into the man he was. He was kind, intelligent, and he always had time for me, even though he worked hard. He was a welder by trade. But he had also been a soldier. My father was a paratrooper. He served with the First Canadian Parachute Battalion during the Second World War. He was a young man when he joined the army. He joined not because he felt a moral responsibility. He did not join because it was the right thing to do. He joined because he was supporting his brother and sisters – my father was seeking employment. The army promised him a steady paycheck, and the parachute battalion offered even more money because of the danger. He didn’t really know what he was signing up for or how long the conflict was going to last. I am sure there was also a moral pressure among the Canadian men at that time. As a younger man I wanted to know what he did, as his son I wanted to know even more. My father told me many funny stories about his time in England. His stories all seemed to stop on June 5th, 1944 – the eve of what we now call D-day. The paratroopers dropped the night of the 5th, before the land invasion happened. He never shared with me any battle stories. I had friends who were in the military and who served in Afghanistan. I watched my father once speaking passionately to one of my friends who was a soldier. When I arrived to join the conversation I could tell I was not to be privy to their discussion. I was jealous. Though I was his son, there were some things he wanted to keep with him to his grave. When he died in 2006 I learned a few more things of his active service. On November 11th, I do not think of the glory of the battles. I think of the horror many young Canadians have faced in all our conflicts, then and now. horrors I can only hope never to encounter. I remember the sacrifice many gave to protect people like me – the sons and daughters, brothers, nieces and nephews, mothers and fathers, friends of those who served and who continue to serve. It makes our every day trivial things seem very insignificant. So what if Starbucks did not put snowflakes on a cup during the holiday season. Why do we have to make that an issue? Personally, as I looked around the crowd that had gathered on November 11th, the red cups that many held blended in a lot more than illustrations of Santa, elves or reindeer.

When the ceremony was over, my daughter and I waited patiently in line to approach the cenotaph and we chose wreaths to lay our poppies. We took a total of a couple hours on November 11th to remember people like my father. While others were too tired, too busy, or too important to do so, we paid our respects – not as a memory of war, but as a respect for those who fought and fight so we don’t have to.

I wrote my father was a Jedi. He was. He had compassion. He never hurt living creatures. He saw the fragile beauty in life and the world. He genuinely loved people. He was a kind man. He had been a warrior when it was required. He never resorted to violence when I knew him. He was a man of peace and love, of respect and of honour. He had been a hunter in his youth (out of a necessity to live and to feed his family, not out of glory for a head on a wall). He taught me many things in life. The only time I ever saw the warrior within him was when he drove me one morning to the discovery of one of the priests who had abused me. As he dropped me off at the lawyers’ office he said “If you only had told me what happened to you back then I would have been out of jail by now.” Now that I am a father I understood what he was saying. A Jedi stands up for what is right according to their cause. There is no greater bond than a father and mother protecting their family. I knew my parents would do anything for me. I believe I would do anything for my children. My father’s love was strong. Love is what surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together. My father, a guardian of love, died in 2006. His love is still felt in our house. He is still very much alive in our hearts. He was truly a Jedi to me and to my family. The Force was strong with him. I respect him and others who did what they had to do – right or wrong – they did what they did so we may have. Lest we forget.

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A Memory From the Book of Snoopy….Contacting with the Power of Touch

Before I went to my first school in Hopeless – before the abuse – before Star Wars, there were three things I loved -Mighty Mouse, Dennis the Menace and Snoopy. This week I was travelling and after clearing security I roamed through the airport shops as I waited for the boarding call. There were a few books that looked interesting, including the latest Stuart Mclean collection of Vinyl Cafe stories. I was leaving the bookshop at YVR when a yellow covered kids book caught my eye. It was simply titled “SNOOPY’. I picked it up and thumbed through the collection of Snoopy strips by Charles Schulz. He died in 2000, but even though I haven’t read a Peanuts strip in years, I remembered my love of Snoopy and especially Snoopy’s fantasy character – the WWI Flying Ace. I remembered having a book as a child similar to the one I was holding in the store. I remember that book being dog-eared (excuse the pun) as I put my early reading skills to use with every panel. Snoopy’s WWI Flying Ace character was distinctive as a character as Snoopy donned a flying cap, goggles and a flying scarf – and to round out his character, his dog house became his Sopwith Camel. I stood in the shop reading some of those panels – I am sure I had read them before as an adventurous curious four-year old.

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When I was four or perhaps even five, the first character I ever dressed up as for Halloween (at least that I can remember) was the Red Baron. I chose to be Snoopy’s nemesis – I had no clue about what war meant as a child – I knew my father had been a soldier in WWII but that was it. Snoopy made the conflict between him and the Red Baron fun, and I gravitated towards the fun. My mother helped me with the costume. My father was a welder so I was able to use a pair of welding goggles. A family friend named Chris gave me a leather-flying cap – a real flying cap. For some reason, either my mother or I decided I should have a moustache. Since false eyelashes were all the rage back then I had a felt black moustache applied with eyelash glue. I seem to remember that it held pretty well. The moustache curled at the ends, which was a must for portraying any bad-guy. Of course today I seem to notice an endless array of curly moustached baristas now that hipsters have adopted early 19th century facial hair fashion. On Halloween I was dressed and ready to go – there was a bonfire Halloween party at a neighbouring school complete with a costume contest. I was surly a shoe-in with my Red Baron look – and I was ready to go – flight helmet…..check……goggles….check…..felt moustache….check….an ample supply of eye-lash adhesive to keep it on…..check.

My oldest half-sister took me out to the event. It was a brisk ten-minute walk to the school grounds and when we arrived there was a plethora of children dressed in all sorts of Halloween costumes consisting of the typical fare – vampires, witches, ghosts, supermen, and me – the Red Baron. I was the slickest WWI flying Ace and bane of Snoopy’s WWI adventures. I was suave, slick and moustached. I was obviously a force to be reckoned with. I was in a serious costume. I felt good.

The bonfire seemed to be constructed and manned by teenagers. I remember it being huge – and there were metal gas cans nearby to keep the flames impressive. Two car tires and surrounding small trees and branches made up the main fuel for the flames. Black tarlike ash was breathed in by all, the scent of gasoline and burning rubber filled our lungs, black soot collecting in our nostrils as we revelled all hallows eve. Who needed parents with such great fun to be had? Eventually the costume contest was announced and I was sure to win. Another victory for Red Baron. Snoopy would be walking the long road to Tipperary for sure as I flew victory circles around him. I did win, and I was angry – very upset at my ranking in the contest. The teenage organizers had judged the costumes and while I was happy to win something, I was not happy to acknowledge the category – My win was for best comical costume. My prize was a do-it-yourself leather belt making kit. My cheeks turned red as I was pushed forward and as the crowd cheered and laughed at my costume as I collected my prize. The fumes must have made them crazy. Sad that I was not perceived as the character I thought I was I made my way home, clutching at my prize and picking at my fake moustache. It had been glued on well. My mother still tells me how upset I was when I came in the door – how dare they call my costume comical? I think I put myself to bed early that night.

It’s funny that such memories can flood back to you when you have a signifier such as that book in the airport bookstore to trigger them. I think back to that Halloween night and feel a sensation of bitter-sweetness. It really wasn’t that long ago – yet it was forever ago it happened. Time is a funny thing. It’s interesting to look back, and I know I tend to look back a lot – I cannot undo the events in my life that I wish I could. I cannot go back and change them. I can recall them and learn from them. I can cherish the several seemingly meaningless memories of my childhood and judge their importance. That Halloween was an important memory for me. It was a memory I have before the abuse – before the memories of cruelty. It is a memory of real innocence – of attachment to a character that I wanted to be when I wasn’t guarded in my actions. It is a memory of my mother helping me create my vision of a character, and going along with my plans. Sometimes I wish I could go back to those days of my childhood – certain ones, to once again feel the embrace of a parent larger than me when I was a child. To feel an all-surrounding embrace of warmth and love, and to slip away into the comfort of a parent’s hug is a feeling I cherish from my childhood. Now, at over six feet tall, I surround my children when I hug them – I am the all-encompassing feeling of warmth and love when I hold them. But, even now, when I visit my mother, and though I am taller than her, I still can feel her all encompassing love. It may not be felt from my outside in, but I feel it now from the inside out.

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One last thing I would like to share – never pass up an opportunity to hug those we love. We all could use a little more touch in our lives. Perhaps the greatest thing I learned from my Disney experience is also to never be the first to break away from a hug – because you never know how long the person hugging you needs it. I happened to witness this on this most recent trip. I had entered the park and was walking along main street when I noticed the characters of Chip and Dale (the two chipmunks within the Disney Cannon) kneeling to greet a park guest who was no more than two years old. The little boy, wearing blue pants and a red shirt toddled towards Chip (Chip can be identified because he has a nose akin to a chocolate chip). Chip outstretched his arms and the boy fell into his encompassing embrace. I watched this, smiling. I presumed it would be a quick hug, but the boy just lay in Chips arms, stroking his fur costume with his tiny hands. Chip gently rocked the toddler back and forth – there was no rush – and for a moment time stood still for the two, and for me as the accidental witness to this event. The hug continued for several moments, the boy showing no signs of wanting to let go, and Chip showing no attempt to break free. It lasted for two minutes before the mother of the child summoned him away. As he left Chips arms, he began towards his mother, then turned back and went to Dale, hugging him as earnestly as he had Chip just moments before. It was a wonderful moment to witness, and those moments transcend time – for while in such warm embraces, whether it be in the arms of a park mascot, a parent, spouse or partner, the feeling of a hug is incredible. It is pure, non-sexual and healing. It brings us closer, even if only for a minute or two. Hug more, take your time and don’t rush those moments. It feels like only yesterday I was hugging my children like that – now much older, my opportunities to hold them are slipping away. I never thought they would end as they grew. I never thought they would grow. Now time is picking up it’s pace. So let’s enjoy those moments when we can stop it for a time.

Sincerely, I remain.

R2D2 Where Were You?

It was September of 1977 in Hopeless. Star Wars had been out for a while and was still in the local theatre, and I was hooked. I had seen the movie a handful of times by then, but the internal trauma of the abuse was still very vivid. I was suffering from night terrors. I had a Ronald McDonald doll that had been given me. It seemed to come alive when I was trying to sleep and it terrified me in my room. I was not sleeping well, and I was eating candy bars and other junk foods to alleviate the feelings of shame, disgust, fear and rage within me.

But it was one September morning – on a Saturday – my mom took me with her as she ran her errands. We had stopped in a few different places that morning. The early fall fog was present through the town. Honestly it could have also been the pollution from the several pulp mills that surrounded Hopeless. The leaves on the trees were turning from red to yellow and had started to litter the streets and parks with the fall blanket, preparing the ground for the eventual snow that would bury it for several months. A typical fall morning in a northern town. One of the final stops was Reids Pharmacy.

It was a different time back then for small businesses. Computerization was on the way in, but things were still done by hand. Clerks actually were able to earn a living wage, and it seemed that as a result people that worked in shops were genuinely happier and engaged the customers more – so much more than today. I had been in Reids so many times I knew my way around. Once we were in the door I departed from my mom’s side and snaked my way through the aisles, looking at the latest tensor bandages. I had come to the conclusion that Luke Skywalker’s legs were wrapped up in tensor bandages, and that the Sand People too, had their heads completely wrapped up in them. My dad was a welder and I was pretty sure the goggles of the Tuskens were welding goggles. I would go over how I could wrap my head in bandages while wearing my dad’s goggles…completely unaware that I may have accidentally asphixiated myself in the process. I was hoping that my mother would by a large stock of tensor bandages so I could attempt my own Tusken Raider look. Luckily we never had such a need.

The final stop on my rounds in that store was the small selection of toys, right next to the birth control products. It never dawned on me (being a child and all) the irony of having toys and birth control sharing shelf space. It was that September morning that I spotted my very first Star Wars toy. The movie had been out for months, but for some reason the toys took a lot longer to hit the shelves – unlike today when you can find the toys for sale months before the movie even comes out. Mass film marketing was new back then, and Lucas was pioneering that field as well. I stood there, in front of the small selection of toys, staring at the Kenner action figure of R2D2. I immediately picked it up and held on to it. My mother was not one to give in to impulse purchases but when I showed her the toy she agreed to buy it for me. I already had it out of the packaging before we were even back in the car. As we drove home I looked at my very own mini-R2. It’s head clicked when you twisted it. There was a little blue telescope you could pull up, and it had two legs to stand on. As far as an action figure goes it really wasn’t that exciting I suppose – but to me it was amazing. I played with that figure for a long time.

Before long I started my collection of Star Wars toys – I ended up having a very large collection by the time Return of the Jedi came out. I did something with my toys that was really not heard of back then – I kept all their packaging and though I played with them, they were always returned to their cardboard homes. All of them, except my R2D2 – R2 stayed by my side.

As the years passed, the boxes went into storage, complete with their original contents of toys, manuals and catalogues. Ten years ago I was excited to have my original collection brought to my house. Everything seemed fine, but I didn’t open them up to see the toys as I had packaged them up as a teenager. I was sure they were safe. They sat on my shelves untouched until one day I noticed that the tape sealing the boxes was brown. I was sure that I had used clear magic tape. I opened one, then another. Every one of my original boxes had been emptied, the contents replaced with cut ends of wood and resealed with brown tape. I know it is petty to mourn the loss of possessions. I did because what the toys represented to my childhood – my escape from the years of abuse. It took a while for me to get over my loss. It became clear what had happened. My half-sister had keys to my parents garage when they had been away at one point. She had gone through my toys and removed the contents of the boxes to pawn for drug money. I remember standing in the room where I had stored them, staring at the cut wood ends. I did what I had always done when stressed or upset. I reached in my pocket and pulled out my R2 unit. You see, when I had that first toy in 1977 I forged a bond – a bond with a piece of plastic in the shape of R2D2. As a result R2 had been with me for many adventures – as a child and as an adult. R2 was there when I endured physical fights in school. I would clutch him as I walked home and it was somehow comforting. R2 was there when I graduated high school, through university and my time living in London. R2 was with my when I was married, and has been to the Soviet Union with me when I was performing. He shared a spot in my Black Knight costume in Scooby Doo 2. R2 accompanied me when I was in the hospital with my dying father, the birth of my children and when I have spent endless hours marking. He was there when I had to take my cat to the vet to be put down, and when I was granted my PhD. R2 has been witness to my greatest achievements and my lowest moments. And though I had boxed up my other toys as a teenager, my childhood attachment to it kept my robot always diligently by my side. And R2 was there when I faced the pile of empty boxes. He has been my touchstone through most of my life. He is well worn, a little deformed from the years of being carried in pockets. He is my constant partner. I have ranted to him when I have been upset and when I have tried to think things out. He has also become a very important part of my story written about abuse. If you ever want to challenge me to his whereabouts all you have to do is ask to see him. He is always either on my, in my house with me or in my car. He is never far away. I know it is materialistic of me, but that first Star Wars gift from my mother, is not only a memory for me, but is also a constant companion. He is my security, my witness to events. R2 is my first toy from the Star Wars series I have owned. He is also now the last one left, having escaped the plight of my other toys being sold for drug money. My R2 is special to me. He represents the hope I had as a child for something new and happier times. He was more importantly a gift from my mother – physical proof of her love for me. If only we knew as adults the power of such moments as children. R2 was at one time my world. Now he is a reminder of my past. He is lovable, loyal and he is my droid.

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