Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Shuffling off to Buffalo

Prairie, Near Buffalo
     As mentioned in a previous article, the first few years after the war are kind of a foggy blur and it is difficult to remember specific times or dates.  I am by no means a writer in the proper sense of the word like W.O Mitchell though I have had one book published:  "Cause Factor:Human" was a textbook full of things technical and lacked the welcome embellishments of descriptive and flowery adjectives and adverbs. 

On we go:
     Once my father had recovered sufficient strength we moved into a small shack on my Grandmother and Grandfather Skjenna’s farm way out on the prairie about 70 miles north of Medicine Hat as the crow flies, and about three and one-half miles south of the town of Buffalo, Alberta.  At that time Buffalo was a thriving little rural community serving the local farmers with a grain elevator, rural CPR train station hosting the local weekly run, a general store (Woo Sam’s), a blacksmith shop, a pool hall and a community hall for weekend social events, as well as several residences and other buildings that I can’t recall and that are presently missing or derelict.  Sadly, Buffalo is now a ghost town, slowly decaying in the prairie sun, relentless hot, dusty wind and the ravages of winter and time as the memories of the good and, sometimes bad, times fade away forever.
     Farming way out on the prairie was a pretty lonely way of life, especially for the women, and it was important to have social events like community dances, picnics, occasional plays put on by the locals and even an annual parade as summer approached and the fields were sown.  Folks would decorate their hay wagons, tractors and buckboards and, wearing homemade costumes, would drive down the one gravel road that ran through town, often fortified with a "wee" dram of hooch.  Of course, the wagons and buckboards were horse-drawn and the animals were festooned with colorful ribbons and crepe paper flowers as well as little bells that jingled merrily, though it was difficult to hear them over the cacophony of the Model A’s and T’s and steel wheeled tractors and even the odd steam tractor or thrashing machine chuffing along.  I have painted here a picture of a much larger and grandiose event, but to a 4 or 5 year old, the parade seemed like a huge and exciting celebration and, for the grownups, a great chance to party, quaffing more of the home brewed spirits.
Woo Sam's - not much left
     One of the centers for weekday socializing  was Woo Sam’s general store and post office.  Since there was no electical power or telephone, folks often made a weekly journey to his store to pick up the mail, catch up on local news and gossip and stock up on supplies.  The floors were made of creaking hardwood, sagging in some areas, and the ceilings were covered with pressed tin sheets , decorated with symmetrical flower patterns and painted in a nondescript cream color as was common in that era.  There were glass faced counters and giant cabinets towering from floor to ceiling behind the counters and they were stocked with an unbelievable variety of goods ranging from canned foods, biscuits and other consumables, to dress and shirt making material, nails, fencing paraphernalia, tools of every sort, gopher traps, rifles, shotguns and ammunition and nearly anything you could want or need or think you might like, or never even knew existed.  We kids were always  attracted to the counter holding the jars of brightly colored lollipops, jawbreakers and candy sticks and our parents might part with a few pennies for the sweets if we had been good.  Woo Sam’s kindly, smiling face would always be present as he proudly displayed his wares and he would beam as he handed us kids little brown paper bags of goodies.  If it wasn’t in Woo Sam’s, it wasn't worth having!
     My grandfather, Olaf, had immigrated to Canada in about 1913, having lived in Minnesota and California, and having been enticed by the offer of free land in Alberta.  Each pioneer was given a half section of land and, if they fashioned some sort of residence and lived there for at least a year, they could file for another half section, which amounted to a square mile or 640 acres, large by European or Eastern Canadian standards.  Initially living in a sod hut, Grandfather later built a wooden shack and then imported a house from Little Sweden after that hamlet had been abandoned.  Over the years, the Skjenna properties expanded as other pioneers gave up trying to farm in this harsh, unforgiving land and my family, with guts and determination, bought them out and carried on.
     His wife, Mary, joined him some time after 1913, never again to see her family in Norway. And together, they raised eight children, the girls, Rena, Ragna, Ruth and Rachel and four boys, Oscar, Olaf, Oliver and Arthur (my father was the odd man out as his name didn’t begin with an “O”).  Unfortunately, Oscar died from subacute bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves, when in his early 20’s.  The three remaining boys all served Canada during WWII, which surely must have resulted in several years of major consternation and profound worry, as well as deep, patriotic pride, for my grandparents. Uncle Olaf served in the RCAF as a rigger in outfits like 416 Squadron (Spitfires) while Uncle Oliver was a WAG (Wireless Air Gunner) on bombers and Dad was in the army as outlined previously. As fate would have it, they all came home, thank God.
Our First Home
       Mom, Dad and I along with my infant sister, Kristine, who was born in June 1946 (you do the math.  I guess my father was not totally disabled), lived in a two room cottage (read “shack”) which didn’t seem so small to me at the time.  I can remember my father awakening us as he shouted and screamed enduring some war related nightmare that invaded his sleep, and also, my terror as I could hear the tanks manoeuvring in the “British Block”  on which the farm abutted.  The largest military reserve in the Commonwealth, the block was formed for wartime exercises and weapons development by appropriating farms and other properties, including entire settlements like “Little Sweden" and "Social Plains.”
     Waking up after the grownup men were in the fields, I would proceed to the main farmhouse, lured by the fragrance of freshly baked bread and sizzling bacon wafting across the yard. I had to be nimble and quick in order to cross over to the main farmhouse lest I be attacked by aggressive, mean spirited, man-eating, monstrous creatures called turkeys. (Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were always enormously satisfying times as revenge was sweet - and tasty!).  After hugging Grandma (my arms were not long enough to encircle her ample midriff), she would serve me slices of the bread with homemade butter and strawberry jam or pancakes smothered with farm cream, separated that very morning, and poverty slop (chokecherry syrup, manufactured in the fall when the berries ripened and were picked).  At noon I helped Granma carry lunch out to the field and we would join them as they took a well deserved break from work.
     Other pleasant memories include snuggling down in the hay in Grandpa's large horse drawn sleigh and wondering at the aurora and stars in the dark firmament, the snow sparkling like thousands of diamonds, watching my breath condensing like ghostly smoke as I exhaled into the crisp cold air, and hearing the puffing and snorting of the horses pulling us along and the supercold snow crunching under the runners as we wended our way into Buffalo for some sort of social event.  Or riding on the horse drawn stoneboat as the grownups vainly attempted to clear, for future agriculture, the virgin prairie of rocks deposited there by the glaciers in a long past ice age.  I loved hearing the lonesome howls of coyotes or the whistle of the weekly train as it approached and watching the locals as they waited on the station platform for mail or things that they had ordered, perhaps from the Eaton's catalogue before it was relegated to the outhouse, taking on the role of toilet paper (I can't bear to use the term "tissue" as there was nothing soft or comfortable about the pages though they did provide some entertainment as one waited for them to be necessary). And looking up at a kite that Uncle Olaf had fashioned for me from sticks, string, and brown wrapping paper as we flew it off one of the gently rolling hills in which the farm nestled - and hoping that someday I could fly too.

Orion Nebula, a stack of 30 5 min. exposures taken
 through my brother Graham's scope, 2011
     When I was a child, all tricks were magic, but as I grew up all magic became tricks.  Now that I am in the autumn of my life, magic is everywhere.  It is in things like the blueness of the sky and sea, the color of the leaves in fall before they make their final descent and in the laughter of children as they play and enjoy the little things that life has to offer.  One has only to open one’s eyes, heart, soul and mind to discover this.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Fire in the Sky

The Sun - Nov 25, 2011
     The last few days have been quite mild, even allowing a brief opportunity to photograph the sun through my solar scope moments before Old Sol set behind our neighbour’s house across the street.  You can’t see any flares around the periphery but there are numerous sunspots and at least one large filament and, if you know what to look for (whoops, wrong place for a preposition), you can see flares on the surface.  But I digress.
     I just received one of my favorite author’s, Guy Vanderhaeghe’s latest book, A Good Man.  Guy has won many prestigious prizes, including the Governor General’s award and was nominated for the Giller Prize for his prose.  In his book, The Englishman’s Boy, he was able to switch venues from Hollywood in the 30’s to the Cypress Hills in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the 1880’s and still keep the book interesting, informative and entertaining.  I suppose it helps that I am very familiar with
Fort Benton and the Battle Creek, a favorite fly fishing spot back in university days.  Maybe I’ll try his method, as some of the memories from much later times keep invading my thoughts and perhaps they should be put into print before vaporizing like so many others – I can harken back to early times later, though probably lacking Guy’s expertize and facility.
Intrepid and youthful aviator
      The night my airplane caught fire:  Pilot Log: February 5th 1970.  Solo night cross country navigation exercise.  It started out to be a beautiful night; cold and clear as  often it is in Manitoba wintertime.  I was heading eastwards at 7000 feet in the L-19 (you use odd altitudes flying eastbound).  I marvelled at the dazzling stars and constellations like Orion and the aviator's friend, Ursa Major (Big Dipper), and was able to pick out the lights of Rivers, my departure point, as well as Brandon, Portage la Prairie and even Winnipeg, in addition to a multitude of smaller rural settlements dotting the prairie landscape.  The snow covered fields glistened below, amplifying the lights of the habitations and I was as content as an aviator could possibly be - Antoine St Exupery would have approved.
     Then, it started to snow - just a few lonely flakes at first but rapidly increasing, partially obscuring visibility.  Closing one eye to maintain night vision, I briefly switched on the landing lights and noted the white streaks passing in front and over the plane and shining my flashlight out the side windows, seeing the snow flashing by at 100 miles per hour under the wings.  Should I turn around or press on?  I could, at the very least, vaguely pick out lights on the ground and, what the hell, I was a military pilot, after all, and had some instrument training on the L-19 and Beech 18 Expeditor (we called it the Exploder or Bug Smasher).  Perhaps I knew enough to get me through as the weather forecast called only for occasional scattered snow squalls and I should be out of this soon.
     I checked the temperature and pressure and other gauges, ensuring that all systems were in good health, and made certain that the compass and artificial horizon gyros were uncaged.  I began to concentrate on my attitude, altitude, heading, etc., all the things that a pilot must do to stay alive in IFR (instrument) conditions.
     Then it happened!!  At first it was barely noticable - a small blue flash that made me look up from the instrument panel for a few seconds.  Then nothing.  Again another longer and larger flash and that got myattention again.  I began to feel a bit uneasy but settled back to the task of handling the airplane and navigating.  I had strayed off course a few degrees but put the aircraft in a gentle bank until the compass indicated that I was back on track.  I relaxed again, but then blue flames began to arc through the propeller disc and sweep back along the cowling to the cockpit frame.  Now the snow flakes showed up as bluish streaks in front of and beside the aircraft without the requirement for an electric light.  "Damn it, we’re on fire!!", I thought and I could feel my heart pounding.  Hardly anything engenders so much fear in an aviator (or a sailor for that matter) as an onboard fire!  (With me, fear of heights comes surprisingly pretty close - honestly!)  My mind raced and I could feel the dampness of sweat running down my back despite the cool environment inside the cockpit as my previous composure and enjoyment evaporated and was overcome by a sense of foreboding , terror and helplessness.  My parachute began to feel much less uncomfortable behind my back as it reminded me that it was there.  I began to think about emergency procedures.  I didn’t relish the thought of bailing out at night over the prairie when the temperature was minus 30 outside, but what the heck, I was a trained military paratrooper ( I’ll tell you about that in a future episode) and jumping would be preferable to going down in flames and perishing in a heap of burning metal and avgas! Besides, I was attired in my down filled winter flight garb and fleece lined aircrew boots, as I always dressed as though I might have to stay outdoors all night. “Get your act together Flight Lieutenant Skjenna,” I reminded myself – "calm down and start acting like an aviator rather than like a frightened lamb."
L-19 Bird Dog
     But hold on a minute!!  My thoughts began to clear and I realized that these flames were blue, not yellow and orange like burning fuel, and I couldn’t for the life of me smell smoke or feel heat.  Then I thought back to St Exupery’s romantic aviation experiences.  He had described an episode where he beheld St Elmo’s fire in flight and I realized, thanks to my appetite for reading, that was exactly the phenomenon I was witnessing and the flames became wondrous and beautiful things and I smiled inwardly and relaxed.  I wouldn’t have to jump after all and survival was almost guaranteed, depending on my flying skills!  One can’t hope to describe the sense of relief when realizing that you are not in mortal danger and would live to fly another day.  I manouvered the plane back to the correct heading and altitude and I pressed on into the night and out of the snow.
     Mission accomplished, I headed westward back to Rivers (at an even altitude this time), descended, and lined up on the runway lights, making one low pass to regain depth perception, and flew my final approach, holding the aircraft in a three point attitude with enough power to keep from stalling but allowing for a gentle descent until feeling the wheels gently kissing the runway.  Then, taxiing in and flipping on the oil dilute switch, I idled the engine for a few minutes as prescribed, feeling a sense of great wonder, gratitude, accomplishment, contentment and, most of all, relief.  At that moment, I realized that fear could be conquered and that I could overcome the fogginess of the mind that comes with danger with a clear head and logical thinking, factors that would, in still another story, allow me the presence of mind to rescue a young boy who was in harm's way and prevent him from dying in a terrible flaming accident.

“No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected. To live is to be slowly born.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Pre-flight Walkaround

     Well, the snow is melting rapidly and the forecast is calling for nice weather on the weekend with temperatures in the lower teens (Centigrade). We have had a very mild autumn this year and the leaves are still clinging to some of the oak trees – last week the thermometer in Ottawa actually rose to a surprising and welcome 18 degrees, nearly a record for this area! We were able to go for walks in the local woods and enjoy the fall colors.  But, the inevitable is approaching so we may as well accept the idea and dig out our winter apparel and ready our shovels.

     Now, where were we?  Oh yes - we were talking about my early days and the War.  It is interesting that when we say "the War" we older folk are really talking about World War II.  In fact there is a very good seven part documentary by Ken Burns called "the War" and it is entirely about the Second World War.  I know that many will have different perspectives about the events that occurred during this horrible period.  For example, our relatives in Norway suffered through the Nazi occupation whereas in Canada we lived in relative peace aside from inconveniences such as rationing and having the best and the brightest of our citizens leave for extended periods overseas, many remaining in the myriads of wartime cemeteries "over there".
Catching ZZZ's with Papa
     What do I remember about this time? Some of the memories may have been augmented by my family, but many are still vivid:
      1.   I remember living, along with my mother, with my Grandmother and Grandfather Murphy in Medicine Hat.  They were, and continued to be, more like parents than grandparents.  How fortunate I was to have such people in my life.
     2.   I remember vaguely about something called rationing (believe it or not, I won a much coveted can of Corn Syrup in a beautiful baby contest, or so I was told)!
     3.  I can sort of recall the family being very upset when Mom received a telegram (apparently she received 3 - one when my father had a motorcycle accident in England, one when he was in hospital with hepatitis and the last when he was suffering from his chest problems).

    4.   I can remember the night terrors when awakened by the Harvards, the "yellow perils," flying low over the house and making a racket loud enough to wake the dead, let alone a little kid.  Medicine Hat was, after all, a Commonwealth Air Training base  and there is an excellent book about this period by David J. Carter as pictured here:
    5.  I remember some of the aircrew that my grandparents invited to their home in order to make them feel like they were welcome and to savor Alberta beef.
    6.  I vividly remember VJ day, or maybe it was VE day.  It seemed that the entire population was downtown in the 'Hat and there was a real party atmosphere and sense of jubilation.  At last the troops would coming home and the loneliness and worry could end.  Harvards flew low over the city and dropped little spherical "bombs" which, upon bursting in the air, released colorful flags that floated slowly down to the eager hands of the spectators.  Some of the airplanes performed aerobatics over the city, looping and rolling as if in some sort of loud, crackling ballet.  The spirit was contageous - I can remember the wonderful feelings as the crowd shouted and cheered and a band played martial music and popular songs of the day like "White Cliffs of Dover."
   7.  Of course, the most vivid and treasured memory was greeting the stranger called "Daddy" at the door and wondering why everyone was crying.
   8.  I don't recall this though I wish I could: my Uncle Oliver Skjenna told the story that, when he came for a visit, he hoisted me up whereupon I peed all over his brand new uniform.  Darn, why can't I remember that!!
There were many events that happened in the years following the war as the men and women straggled back to civilian life. One event that does stand out in my mind was something that happened to Mrs. Loggin, one of the neighbours and family friend, and her husband, Harry, while he served in the RCAF. Harry flew Spitfires overseas and, during one of his missions, was shot down. At that very moment, Mrs. Loggin awoke in a sweat, being extremely anxious and frantic, nearly hysterical, rushing over to the Murphy house in a panic. As she later learned, Harry was able to "hit the silk" but his parachute tangled in the tail empennage of the Spitfire. However, he managed to free himself after a considerable struggle and landed safely, though his hearing was ruined. Harry later became a much respected bank manager, having returned to his pre-war position with the bank. I can still see his hearing aids, much larger and more obvious than today's models.
The next few years are a bit foggy in my mind but there were some incidents that happen to little boys who live in the city and in rural Alberta, memories that kind of stick like frost on your windshield when it is 40 below; the kind of events that shape who we are.  Maybe not as dramatic as in, say, "Tom Sawyer" or "Hucleberry Finn" but fun and noteworthy all the same.  In future episodes, I will try to recount some of these tales for your amusement and not apply too too much exaggeration or poetic license ;- )

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159–167


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Pre-start Checklist

     Winter has arrived in Ottawa and it is cloudy so I can't pursue my interest in astronomy and astrophotography.  However, there is now ample time to do other things such as writing.
23 Nov 2011
     I have been told that I am full of stories (and other things).  I suppose that after over 40 years as a physician, pilot, accident investigator, musician, lecturer, father and husband, that there would be a few tales in there.  Having heard some of these, a number of people (including members of my wonderful family) encouraged me to write a book about my adventures and misadventures.  This seemed to be a daunting task and a potential minefield as it would be diffucult to de-identify some of the participants in this saga.  However, I have read my grandfather's autobiography, which was, unfortunately, incomplete, thanks to the Grim Reaper.  Wishing that I knew more about my family and had taken more interest early on, I decided to put down on paper (virtual as it is) a few of my thoughts and memories for, at least, members of my family who might at some time in the future be curious and patient enough to read this.  Recording has become more urgent lately because, as one of my friends said, "they are digging in our row!" and the ravages of time are beginning to take a toll.
     Not knowing how to proceed, I took, as a potential format, my daughter, Laura's, example.  She creates an interesting and well written blog on this site and has had some of it committed to hard copy - really cool.  Being a neophyte at blogging, I hope that there are not too many booboo's.
     So where to begin?  Perhaps at the beginning (sounds logical), and then proceeding as thoughts and events come to mind.  So here we go!
Mom and Dad 1942
     I arrived on a Friday the 13th in 1942, a cold February day during one of the worst periods in our history, as Hitler and Tojo had taken over huge portions of our planet.  My father, Arthur Frederick Skjenna, left for the European Theatre of Operations shortly after and I didn't see him until late 1945.  He was in the Royal Canadian Electical Mechanical Engineers (RCEME), leading in post war times, to a career as a mechanic and heavy equipment operator. Being in the First Canadian Division, he participated in the Sicilian, Italian, French and Belgian campaigns, returning at the end of hostilities on a hospital ship, the "Lady Nelson" in poor health due to an infected chest wound.  I still have the special VJ (Victory Japan) menu from the crossing - not too fancy in our terms, but probably a feast for the war weary and sick veterans aboard.

Lady Nelson
     The hospital train that carried him across Canada stopped in Medicine Hat for the night and he was allowed to go to my grandparent's home, where Mom and I had lived for the duration of the war.  I was introduced one dark night to this seemingly gigantic person who they said was my Daddy - I had no idea what a Daddy was and remember being intimidated by him.  My grandmother asked him if he wanted anything and he said "could I please have a fried egg!" and I watched with fascination as he devoured it, likely the first fresh food he had tasted for a long time. 
     The next few times that I saw him were in the Colonel Belcher veteran's hospital in Calgary where I played on his bed with the radio earphones and a model tank (I would have thought that he had seen enough of tanks in Europe).  There was a tube in his chest and he was left with a terrible scar from removal of a rib (not to mention the hidden scars suffered by so many veterans).  My mother said that he was changed forever.  In retrospect I guess that my Daddy had gone to war but it was my father who came back.  It is truly regrettable what wars can do to families, even if they need to be fought!
     After a few months he was released and returned to Medicine Hat for a long convalescense.  I can still see him sitting at a card table and working on some mysterious balsa wood creation that he told me was a bird's nest.  One morning he told me to look under my bed and to my surprise and delight, I found the model Spitfire that he had built for me.  It was a wonderful creation that actually flew for short distances and ignited a life long passion for airplanes as you shall see.