It was long overdue. Our two-car garage had become a repository for old furniture, stereo components and speakers, cardboard boxes, and all sorts of plastic, styrofoam, leftover lumber, and just plain junk. Tools migrated about the bench, the shelves, and across the floor and I swore every time I looked for a tool I needed that I would one day clean and organize the mess. And that went on for what seemed like years.
Until a few days ago. Of course, any normal human being could have cleaned out the garage in a few hours and gone on to bigger and better things — but not me.
I would find a box of old papers and instead of quickly tossing them aside for recycling, I would rummage through and find forgotten treasures: a handwritten letter entitled “Notes to my two-year old son,” (who is now 16), passenger lists from Heli-skiing (the wealthy celebs I flew around), notes and reports from geologists, receipts for worthless stock, early attempts at poetry and fiction. And photographs! “Artistic” 35mm slides from the 70s, an archive of my first adventures in the Arctic with a Bell 47, prints from Africa, pictures of friends long gone and awkward poses of teen heartthrobs.
I didn’t question why I had kept all these items over the years. I just knew I had to keep them still. Soon papers and photographs surrounded me, the garage now completely out of bounds, and hours passed as I returned to a life almost forgotten.
And then I found my first published piece of writing: my father’s obituary. It was emotionless and factual, revealing little as to what happened: no code words or phrases — suddenly; a long battle surrounded by family; a quiet passing into the arms of the Lord.
No, not my father. There was no quiet passing, no long battle surrounded by family. For some curious and perhaps morbid reason I still have the rifle he used to end his life. Talk about sudden, and unexpected.
It was the winter of 1981. I had just spent Christmas with the family in the Ottawa Valley, and had moved back to my cabin in northern Ontario, 15 miles from the nearest town of 2500 souls, doing my best to imitate Grizzly Adams. All seemed well at home, and I had been pleasantly surprised at how easily my father and I got along. It hadn’t always been that way.
When I was a youngster we got along famously. He taught me to fly when I was five, we cooked our own grub at his summer air base before my mother and sister arrived when school finished for the year, we shared common interests, albeit all his.
Then I became a teenager. And there was some brittle fibre in his character that would not allow him to accept that my interests had grown, that I wanted to wear my hair long, I liked rock and roll and the gravelly, provocative lyrics of Dylan. (It was the late 60s after all.) I’m not sure what he would have done had he lived to see mohawks, grunge and body piercing.
At 17, I was happy to leave home and had my 18th birthday on the Canary Islands. A few months later I received a wire transfer at a bank in Casablanca to buy a ticket home. I had sold every pair of jeans I owned to the Moroccans and invested everything else and had no other options. And then I felt obligated to him.
I shelved my dreams of becoming a director and instead became a pilot, albeit reluctantly, flying floatplanes in northern Ontario, and despised always being compared to my father, both in flying skill and in character.
He loved to entertain and tell aviation stories and jokes — ones I’d heard all my life. I was more inclined to quiet reflection. I learned to fly helicopters and worked in the Arctic, moved to the prairies, and I justified this deviation to my life by looking upon flying as an art. I experienced the thrill and power of controlling a machine, and understood the attraction my father had for aviation.
Then in 1980, just after I had moved into a depressingly dull basement apartment in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, my mother called and told me that my father had had a mild coronary.
His pilot license was immediately suspended — he could no longer fly. His whole raison d’etre suddenly ended. I moved back home, got a flying job with a company based in Carleton Place — his home town — and watched this witty, strong, confident and often acerbic man struggle with loss of identity and depression.
We walked together, an activity prescribed by his doctor. And we communicated, as long as we talked about flying. His doctor advised him to stop drinking and smoking — two pastimes he had indulged in heavily. But he refused. “Smoking helps me relax,” he said. “And a drink or two can’t hurt; it helps thin the blood, and that’s got to be a good thing, right?”
His logic was sound. He cut back from two packs a day to less than one. And a 40-pounder would last a week instead of one night. Progress was being made. The government provided him another job so he had sufficient income; but he was no longer a pilot. And that gnawed at him. He had a mortgage at 21%; he had just begun to think about retirement; my younger brother was still in high school. My father had never considered changing his career.
His identification with what he did instead of who he was eventually led to his downfall. And the signs were obvious — now. But back in 1980 no one seemed to notice; psychiatrists doled out pills, tried electroshock therapy, and convinced us that given time he would be right as rain.
Had he been given the gift of clairvoyance for only a few moments that early morning in January, and witnessed the traumatic affect his action would unleash upon his family and friends, I’m sure the outcome would have been different. But at the time the pain and confusion must have been overwhelming, and over the years I have run the gamut of emotions — compassion and understanding, frustration and anger, and back again. I have regarded the episode as a tragic love story between man and machine, and also as a ridiculous and cowardly inability to accept change.
Finding his obit in my garage, and photographs of happier times, made me realize that he has been with me every day since then — whether I hear his stinging words chastising my attraction to the arts, my choice of music or pastime, or when I remember camping out in the back of his floatplane, caught in a major thunderstorm and unable to get home. In his unorthodox way, as an odd, and absent role model, he taught me how to be a better father, a better man: embracing change, curious about the world and tolerant of new ideas.
Happy Father’s Day.
We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
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