Thursday, 1 November 2012

Halloween–I’m Ba-a-a-a-a-a-ck

HalloweenWell, here it is Halloween once more and memories of other Halloweens are creeping back into my memory banks.  I can remember as a small boy living with my grandparents in Medicine Hat during the war, my mother dressing me up like a clown with costumes fashioned from old drapes and painting my face with lipstick and smearing burnt cork over my cheeks.  We would trudge through the snow, my treasure bag (a flour sack) clutched in my hand, and then we would knock on the doors in our small neighbourhood in Medicine Hat.  The doors would fling open and there would be a seemingly giant but friendly person in the doorway who would drop something into my bag.  Candy was scarce in wartime and every sweet morsel was treasured.  So popcorn balls (remember those), along with bits of fruit, for example, apples, were the most common booty.  Some benefactors would drop pennies into our bags for charity.

After the war, when we moved to Bindloss, the bigger boys would take some sort of morbid delight in tipping over outhouses (outdoor toilets).  I never participated in that ritual, though I did assist in coating a toilet seat with corn syrup and the door handle with mustard one time.  In the town of Empress, east of Bindloss, the legend goes that the occupant of one of the local farms moved the outhouse three feet so that the pit was exposed.  Not detecting the trap in the dark, one of the boys fell into the pit!  He apparently ran full bore to the river and jumped into the freezing waters .  I’m not sure that he ever tried tipping an outhouse again.

One thing that was outstanding in the small towns in the country was a sense of community.  There would be weekend dances, picnics, plays and, when electricity came, movies (I particularly loved Hopalong Cassidy films).  Halloween was no exception.  Every year there would be a party in the town hall.  I remember one year participating in the event, dressed like a witch.  For some reason that I forget, I had been grounded, but there was a requirement for a witch so I was paroled long enough to wear a black costume with an ugly, smelly rubber witch mask with an enormous wart on the nose.  There were some small passages behind the walls of the town hall, allowing access to the stage and up to the projection room.  My job was to stand by a pot of cold, slimy spaghetti, cackling in my then soprano voice, tempting the passers by to submerge their hands in the pot, whereupon I would inform them that the noodles were actually intestines.  I’m not sure that anyone actually believed me but it was fun nevertheless.  Of course, for trick or treaters, the pickings were a bit slim in small towns, but we had a good time anyway, probably why some of the boys resorted to outhouse tipping (I swear that I never, ever tipped an outhouse. Honestly!).

Once we moved back to Medicine Hat, things were different.  There were many more houses to haunt and candy was not in such short supply.  I used to take a pillow case to hold my not inconsiderable booty and would have to return home at least once to drop off my loot before heading out for another mission. I can just visualize the local dentists rubbing their hands together in glee as they perused the new car brochures.
Since there is a statute of limitations on crime, I can admit the following:  One year I had made up my face with the traditional lipstick and burnt cork and had a mask as well.  That, along with turning my coat inside out, allowed me to make the rounds twice.  Sadly, some bigger boys snatched my bag and ran away so I guess that was my punishment for such a nefarious deed!  My mother’s concern was mainly for the pillow case, not for my greedy self.  The perpetrators were never apprehended as far as I know, but hopefully to this day, these miscreants may be languishing in a penitentiary somewhere, vowing never again to rob such a supposedly innocent kid!
As time passed, ever too soon I was escorting first one daughter, then two through the wintry streets of Rivers, Portage la Prairie (both military bases) and then Winnipeg, all in Manitoba.  On the bases we again encountered that spirit of community with parties for the kids and then mess functions for the adults.  We all dressed up in various costumes and were treated to fine dining and dancing and revelry.

The boys didn’t arrive until we were living in Ottawa and their first Halloween outings were, I think, in Toronto, then Montreal.  (Olaf Jr. did the rounds in Ottawa too).  By this time costumes were more sophisticated with the likes of Star Wars and Batman.  They dressed like cowboys for a while and once suffered the indignity of their mother dressing them inclown2 their sister’s clown suit (the one fashioned from draperies), but the lure of hi-tech, not surprisingly, eventually overtook them and they joined the hordes of space travellers and super heroes.
When we lived in Montreal, I decided to have some fun with the little denizens that came to our door.  Dressing in a US Army Nomex flying suit, I donned my flying helmet, having painted my face to look like a skull.  I taped a couple of red LEDs to the visor and wired them to a battery and IC chip, making them flash like red eyes. Vacuum cleaner pipes resembled some sort of a space weapon and I added sound effects to enhance the realism.  I would sit motionless near the front entrance and the kids would approach cautiously, whispering to one another, wondering if the apparition in front of them could be some sort of a fake dummy.  After they studied me for a few moments, I would suddenly move, sending the children retreating down the driveway, squealing in horror and giggling in mirth.  Working up enough nerve, they (or at least most of them) would return to collect their goodies.  My reputation as an alien being spread and soon we were almost overwhelmed by kids who came to have the livers frightened out of them.  I worry that a few of my victims, now adults, may be in therapy to this day!  Pat would also dress up in a Raggedy Ann costume so we all had fun participating in the events.

It seems that in those days, as we wondered from door to door, we were always ploughing through snow drifts into the face of freezing winds, necessitating winter parkas over the costumes.  But today in Ottawa the temperature is well above zero but with some rain from the remnants of Hurricane Sandy.  The newscasts are full of the tragic scenes from the Eastern Seaboard depicting the terrible destruction in New Jersey and New York City as well as other New England states.  We are lucky to be here with only a few brief showers to dampen our outings.  I have always declared that you shouldn’t have buildings on the waterfront (floods) or in the woods (fires).  Buffalo, Alberta looks better every day!

Nearly all of the kids on our street are grown up and have left for college or developing careers carrying on with their own lives.  After 22 years many of them probably have their own families to escort around at Halloween.  This year, there were no goblins, pirates, superheroes, witches, spacemen, wizards, or anything else arriving at the door.  Zero!  It’s a bit sad, really.  We enjoyed seeing the excited children, sometimes as many as 60 or 70, coming to the door every year holding their sacks out in front, some singing songs in order to collect their reward.

sugar-skullsA couple of years ago, Pat and I were staying in brother Graham’s condo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  His place is right on the waterfront and a scenic walkway, the Malecon, stretches along the beach in front.  To our surprise, Halloween gives rise to a huge celebration in PV.  There were thousands of kids (with their parents) dressed in bright costumes roaming the Malecon, holding out their sacks for goodies.  There was music and excitement in the air until about 4 o’clock in the morning.  This precedes the “Day of the Dead” which occurs on November 2nd, another huge celebration.  People build shrines to their departed loved ones and gather in the cemeteries to mingle with the spirits.  There are biscuits and candies shaped like skeletons and liquor bottles made to look like skulls as well as other special treats.  We were fortunate enough to be in San Sebastian, a 16th century silver mining town high in the Sierra mountains that day and were invited into their ancient cemetery.  The locals bring favoured gifts to the departed, including tequila and other drinks as well as special foods, and  a fiesta follows the sombre part of the celebration, consuming sprits with the spirits, as it were, turning the event into a joyous occasion!  The next day, tradition has it, mirrors are hung in the windows of their homes so that the spirits see that it is time to disappear and re-enter the nether world beyond until they can visit the next year.

Now that time has so rapidly passed, our grandchildren are donning their costumes and heading out on the streets to collect their treasures and terrorize the neighbours, at least ours in Ottawa.  I gather that Halloween is not celebrated with much vigour in New Zealand as it is not dignified to go from door to door begging for candies, but I understand that the expatriates such as our kids and grandchildren living there hold their own parties in order to carry on the tradition.  This makes me happy!

Scottish SayingFrom ghoulies and ghosties and long leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Back to Bindloss


Here are three photos that I took of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, the first two taken  on March 20 and the third on March 21.  These were actually my initial attempt at planetary photography so they are far from perfect, but I found them interesting in spite of that.  Note the positions of the moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Calisto in order of their distances from the planet).  In the first two shots, Calisto is just peeking out from behind Jupiter.  Note the position changes of the two “middle” moons – these two photos were taken one hour and five minutes apart!  And look how much change there is in 24 hours!

Jupiter 1

Jupiter 2

Jupiter 4



I have been remiss about writing lately – I guess that the muses deserted me for a while.  However, a couple of events occurred that started the old blog motor again.  

1.  I was in the dentist’s office this week to have a couple of fillings done.  He, like all modern dentists, uses a high speed drill which is virtually painless – in fact, I didn’t require anesthetic for one of the teeth.  As a young boy living in Bindloss, we went to a dentist in Empress, about 20 miles east.  He used a treadle drill like the sewing machines of yore making dentistry plenty uncomfortable.  In addition, as I lay back this time, there was a TV set above the chair for the entertainment of the victims, although “Live With Kelly” was playing and that is just about as annoying as the old treadle drill with the belts and pulleys.  The only entertainment while trapped in the chair in Empress was to try to count the number of hapless flies stuck to the flypaper coil hanging from the ceiling!

Train in Snow

2.  I received an e-mail from a girl who boarded with us in Bindloss so she could attend school, because the roads were virtually impassable that winter of 1948-49.  She had found my e-mail address attached to a note that somebody else had sent, perhaps to the two of us as well as others.  Although that is scary, because e-mails should really be “cleaned up” by bcc and/or erasing names, I was mighty glad that she received it and took the time to send a note.  Her name is Shirley, and I do remember her though I completely lost track of her after we left Bindloss.  In fact, as a 6 year old boy, I had a bit of a crush on her though she was about 7 years older, more than twice my age.  She was one of several public school pupils who stayed with us that winter, though she was only there for one year as she then had to board at the dorm in Medicine Hat in order to attend high school.  So I am writing a letter to her in order that we can catch up on our lives’ events:


Dear Shirley,

Bindloss HouseI am so glad that you took the time to contact me.  I have often wondered what happened to my friends and acquaintances from those early and memorable days in Bindloss when we were just kids.  I only knew you for a brief time but certainly do remember you.  I think that I may have visited your farm one time (or perhaps it was Donna A’s farm) and I remember that we were trying to catch field mice in one of the out buildings.  I don’t think that we actually captured any of the poor things but the pursuit was terribly fun although you really did not seem to appreciate mice as much as I did.  I still like the little critters and think that they are cute.


We moved into Medicine Hat when I was in Grade 4, living with my grandparents for a while until Dad was able to purchase a wartime house on 10th St., S.W.  I attended school at Connaught, Alexandra and MHHS.  Since I loved airplanes I tried to join the air force the day I graduated, but they required a university degree, so I worked as a lab technician at the Medical Arts Clinic for a year, saving every penny I could.  The clinic offered me a scholarship to attend university and work towards a BSc in laboratory science.  Bob Ayling, one of the teachers and fellow musician at MHHS said to me “Why not go all the way and work towards an MD?”  That wonderful teacher changed my life.


In the meantime I pursued an interest in music, becoming a trumpet player with the city band, the South Alberta Light Horse band, the Med Hatters big band, the MH Symphony, my own jazz quartet and taught music on Saturday afternoons.  Later, I organized and led the University of Alberta Big Band.  I was a busy lad, playing at rehearsals and dances, but these activities, along with summer jobs, helped to finance my quest to become a physician.


When in grade 10, I went on a blind date with a sweet girl named Patsy Turvey.  This was to a drive-in theater featuring a Tarzan movie.  She was more interested in Tarzan than me, but love blossomed – we recently celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary!  We have two daughters, Laura and Kirsten and, 9 years after Kirsten, we had two sons, Olaf Jr. and Graham.  We also have two granddaughters in New Zealand (Kirsten and Shawn Dunn’s Shenna and Nissa) and a granddaughter and grandson in Ottawa (Graham and Carole’s Juliette and Erik) and one on the way in NZ (Olaf and Tammy).  Laura and Carm didn’t have children and they live on an acreage near Ottawa.  They have retired early and enjoy life with their pets and RV. 


IMG_0162.JPG (2)For the first years of our marriage we lived with very little money while attending university in Calgary and Edmonton.  Fortunately, on the advice of one of my uncles, I joined the RCAF and that fine organization subsidized my studies from then on, so we didn’t have to worry about finances any more.  Graduating with an MD in 1967, I interned at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and, upon completion, was posted as a Medical Officer to Rivers and then to Portage la Prairie, both bases in Manitoba.  I was fortunate enough to receive training in leadership and other military courses and then to qualify as a paratrooper and a pilot.  As a pilot, I flew military fixed wing aircraft and qualified on helicopters before flying jets out of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.  So my dreams of flying were finally realized, albeit having taken a more circuitous route than originally intended.  I would not trade my time in the military for anything and most of our best friends were met during our various postings.  I left the military with the rank of major (or squadron leader).


Although I loved life in the Armed Forces, I was offered a position attached to the Department of Transport who offered to send me for post graduate studies in aviation medicine in England.  How could I refuse!!  So, Pat, the girls and I headed off in 1973/74 to live in Farnborough after visiting relatives and spending Christmas in Norway.  We picked up a Volvo station wagon in Sweden and were able to tour much of England, Scotland and Wales on weekends.  As the course was extremely demanding, I had to study really hard during the week so we could get away.  We also drove through many countries in Europe.


I worked for Civil Aviation Medicine for 8 years, residing in Winnipeg and then Ottawa.  I became a participant in teams that worked on aircraft accidents in Canada and abroad and, because of this experience, became an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California who used my book “Cause Factor Human” as a textbook, lecturing several times per year for 20 years.  I also taught at the Royal Technical Institute in Stockholm each June for 14 years and was fortunate enough to teach in countries such as Jordan, South Africa, Malaysia, Spain, Mexico, Finland and others.  Pat and the kids were able to join me on many of these excursions.


In 1982 I was recruited by Air Canada and became the Chief Medical Officer and was also in charge of ground safety.  My team created several programs enhancing the health and safety of employees and passengers, (I think that my crowning achievement was to introduce non-smoking flights.)  resulting in Canada Post Corporation head-hunting me to create similar programs for that organization.   So we moved from Montreal back to Ottawa and have been here for 21 years (this is our 14th home!).  In 1996, we purchased an occupational health clinic here in Ottawa.  I was happy to return to medical practice and Pat ran the mobile clinic, performing hearing tests and lung function tests for various industries in the region.  We sold the business 6 years ago.


HarleyPat and I were infected with West Nile Fever while visiting the ‘Hat six years ago.  Pat’s case was relatively mild, but I had the neurological syndrome, forcing me to retire from medical practice.  I also had to give up motorcycling, an activity that took us across the continent 7 times and allowed us to explore fascinating places and meet many wonderful friends.  My beautiful soul candy, a Harley-Davidson, is languishing in the garage but will be sold this year.  We also sailed in the Thousand Island area of the St. Lawrence River for 20 years, perhaps as a result of a genetic Viking spirit!


So that’s it in a nutshell, perhaps a pretty long and maybe boring nutshell.  I would not change anything in my life, maybe the exception being the West Nile problem.  Our offspring are all doing well and we are very proud of them.  I have had a varied and interesting career and life, not bad for a wee lad from Bindloss!


I hope that you will write and fill me in on your life and perhaps tell me what you know about other folks that we knew in Bindloss.  In the meantime take care and I wish you health and happiness.




P1020374"The clock of life is wound but once, and no man has the power to tell just when the hands will stop, at late or early hour. Now is the only time you own.
Live, love, toil with a will. Place no faith in time. For the clock may soon be still."

A poem found in the pocket of Al Capone’s lawyer after he had testified against Al and was shot.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Death in the Arctic–Part 3

Sunspots 20 Feb 12I haven’t written for a couple of weeks.  I just turned 70 on the thirteenth of February (I was born on a Friday the Thirteenth!) and, aside from being quite busy, had a bit of writer’s block perhaps due to disbelief! (Also, the nightmares came back.)  This past week has been quite nice here in Ottawa, though we had quite a bit of snow on Friday.  On Tuesday, I was able to take some solar photos – here is a photo of sunspots – I processed the RAW images in Picasa.  The sun was quite active this week with large flares and numerous sun spots so I enjoyed two afternoons of observing.

Back on the Ice
Well, things proceeded rapidly in the investigation of the L-188 crash.  The underwater recovery expert arrived and the weather moderated somewhat so we were not so desperately cold.  However, it was cold enough that the ice thickened up and became safer, allowing more of us on the ice at once.  One thing that I would like to clarify and that is none of the victims were touched by polar bears.  There was always a “hunter” guarding the site when we were not present.  In fact this resulted in a somewhat humorous event though it could have resulted in serious injury or worse:  On the afternoon of the third day, the hunter thought that he heard something behind the Quonset and, thinking that it was a bear, he blew the back wall out with his shotgun.  Since this was the only shelter, the area behind the hut was the only place where a person could answer the call of nature.  At the evening meeting, I persuaded the oil company to construct an PICT0001outhouse.  In order to save weight, the engineers built it out of Styrofoam and 1/4 inch plywood and named it the “Skjenna Building!”  This is the only time that I have had the honour (although perhaps dubious) of having a building named after me!

Another arrival from the sun drenched shores of California was Herman “Fish” Salmon, Lockheed’s famous and respected test pilot – a marvellous and hugely interesting character (check out his outstanding career on Wikipedia .)  He was representing the Lockheed corporation on this accident – it is the usual practice to have a company representative as a member of the team.  In fact, I did represent Air Canada on the DC-9 accident in Cincinnati back in 1983 and was subsequently seconded to the NTSB.  Well, Fish came directly from sunny climes hsalmonsm[1]and did not have any winter garments.  We all pitched in and provided him with enough clothing so that he could venture out on the ice with us.  One day I was standing with Fish enjoying a chat.  He had his back to the crack in the ice that I mentioned before.  Suddenly a seal broached in the water directly behind Fish.  I didn’t know that a human could jump so high – I swear that I saw the soles of his boots when he reached apogee!  Needless to say, anyone who observed this event dissolved in laughter.  Sadly, Fish was killed in 1980 in the crash of a restored Super Constellation that he was delivering to Alaska .  In 1994 he was inducted into the Aviation Walk of Fame.

Among the equipment that arrived was a hyperbaric chamber and  a bottle of scotch.  Although alcohol was forbidden on the base, I felt that some of the investigators, especially the ident team, could benefit from a wee dram so I had requested a container of hydroxylated ethane, preferably the kind manufactured in Scotland, and the Regional Aviation Medical Officer in Edmonton thankfully broke the code.  Other equipment included underwater cameras, air pressurization pumps, physiological monitoring equipment and underwater communication equipment.

PICT7056The oil company engineers went to work and built a diving shack on the ice and cut a hole for the divers.  As mentioned, the crew had done a pretty complete survey of the sea bottom so we could minimize the diver’s time in the water.  Since we couldn’t bring all of the wreckage to the surface we relied on video and still pictures in order to examine engine settings and other pertinent details.  This involved briefing the divers and then assisting them with the electronic communicators, the wires running along the oxygen hoses to microphones inside the helmets.  Of course, the highest priority was recovery of the victims and this was accomplished within a few days – or 24 hour periods if you like, as daytime light was non-existent.

polarBearWe did have one more close encounter with a polar bear.  I was helping the Mounties recover a victim frozen in the ice.  We were using chisels to chip away at the ice when I looked behind me and spotted three dark spots, the nose and eyes of a bear, approaching us.  I told the sergeant and he glanced at the bear and continued chipping away.  I started to become extremely anxious, but the Sarge would just look up and then chip away some more.  At last, he picked up a shotgun and fired it into the air and, without even looking at the bear, continued to chip at the ice.  Much to my relief, the bear ran away!

The Sarge was a legend in the North.  He was a giant of a man with  a very quiet and calm disposition.  On one occasion, or so the legend goes, he was investigating the murder of an Eskimo by a fellow aboriginal.  He did not let on that he spoke the language and, instead, hired an interpreter to translate.  Unfortunately for the suspect he began to discuss the murder with the interpreter in native language whereupon the Sarge responded in the Eskimo language and slapped the handcuffs onto the hapless murderer!

The victims were flown to Edmonton.  I contacted Dr. Neville Crowson, a dear friend and mentor, who was Canada’s leading expert in aviation crash pathology and he arrived in Edmonton to supervise the pathology.  I was able to join him a few days later and assisted in the gathering of evidence. 

One of the most pertinent findings was that the captain’s liver was grossly enlarged, about twice the normal size.  Microscopic examination disclosed fatty infiltration with some inflammation.  It turned out that he had a hobby farm and had been using carbon tetrachloride to clean his implements and tools.  Carbon tet is very toxic to the liver and will interfere with liver function, for example the detoxification of amino acids.  Since the crew had consumed a steak about an hour before the accident, it is most likely that high levels of amino acids had resulted in incapacitation.  In fact the two surviving crew members indicated that the captain had descended to 300 feet about six miles from the beacon (the descent limit was 400 feet).  As they approached the ice floes, he stated that they were above cloud and had to get below.  He then pushed the nose of the aircraft down so violently that the crew experienced negative “G”.  Both the first officer and flight engineer shouted out altitudes to the captain but he continued diving towards the ice.  Finally, the first officer grabbed the control yoke and attempted to pull out, but it was too late.  The aircraft hit the ice in about a seven degree nose down attitude.  Much of the aircraft broke up and the cockpit slid about 900 feet and then sank.  The two crewmen jumped out but the captain just stayed in his seat appearing to stare straight ahead and went down with the cockpit.  These events indicated that he was impaired, not by alcohol, but by toxic levels of amino acids.

PICT0007The only part of the aircraft brought up from the bottom was the cockpit as my very dramatic photo shows.  This was done in order to examine instruments and switch settings although this is notoriously misleading.  Unfortunately for the investigation, very little information was recovered from the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder.  A public inquiry was called and I, along with the other investigators worked on that for around two years and I spent considerable time on the witness stand, experience that would help me greatly in the future.

Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.

Winston Churchill

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Death in the Arctic–Part Two

Today it is cold here in Ottawa, but only about minus 5 Celsius, a far cry from the weather in Rea Point in that fateful November of 1974*   In fact, relatively balmy.  The sun is shining brightly on the snow where, at that time of the year in the high Arctic, the sunshine consisted only of a faint rosy glow briefly seen on the horizon, making for eerie lighting over the accident site on the new ice though the aurora did often help us see.  *(Actually, the accident occurred on October 30, but we were not on the ice until November 1).

arctic_fox_snowyI guess that Arctic foxes had never encountered humans before because they would tamely approach us and dart around our feet seemingly unaware of the threat that people could impose.  Their only predators were polar bears.  In fact, I saw one bear chasing a fox over the path to the site behind me.  Unaware that these beautiful but fearsome creatures could run so fast, I was duly impressed and, luckily for the fox, he outran the bear.  This resulted in mixed feelings as we all knew that none of us could even hope to outrun these snorting white locomotives and we were next on the menu.  We were all very respectful if not fearful of these animals.  Having experienced several encounters with bears, I am now glad to view them in enclosures rather than face to face with no protection.

polarBearOne night, I had gone over to the “auditorium” to see the nightly movie (I remember that it was Sugarland Express with Goldie Hawn).  As I trundled through the snow banks  back to the quarters, the strangest sense of horror and foreboding overcame me and the hair on the back of my neck bristled and my heart raced.  Not even daring to glance behind (wearing an arctic parka that would necessitate turning about face) I hurried as fast as I could to the barracks and rushed through the door into the vestibule a.k.a. “cold air lock” and, with a sigh of relief, slammed the door behind me.  The first thing that caught my eye was a poster warning about the dangers of polar bears near or in the camp.  The next morning we found polar bear tracks over the route that I had taken and they were huge – larger than my winter flying boots - sending a further chill down my spine.

PICT7045Now, back to the ice.  Because of the dangerous condition of the ice, we roped together in fours with a tether to winches on the sturdier pack ice.  The two divers who accompanied us donned their dry suits and, being roped together, demarcated areas using yellow ropes on the debris field where it was probably safe enough for one, two or four investigators.  Then we set out to recover the victims, some of whom were on the surface of the ice, some frozen in the ice and the remainder under the ice in up to 110 feet, about 30 meters, of water which, by the way, had a temperature below zero Celsius due to the salt concentration.

The wind was howling at over 50 knots which drove the equivalent temperature to about minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit and made it difficult to even stand.  We had been issued chocolate pieces to chew on to keep our “furnaces” going as we intended to stay on the site for over 10 hours.  The chocolate, which I kept in my parka’s pocket, was as hard as a rock!   Since we were dressed in many thick layers of clothing requiring the release of as many zippers, answering the call of nature was a major undertaking and mightily uncomfortable as well as potentially gender altering, so we kept ourselves in a state of relative dehydration.

I stayed with the identification team, labelling, photographing and recovering the bodies on the surface of the ice.  Normally we would pound in a metal stake where the bodies were found and affix a tag to the stake with an identical numbered tag to the victim for further mapping.  This posed a real unforeseen problem as the wires on the tags fractured like strands of glass due to the extreme cold.  We tried to use tape but it was so frozen that it would not stick.  Therefore we were forced to resort to using plain ordinary string which necessitated removing our mitts in order to tie the knots resulting in frostbitten fingers.  We would vacate the location while a second team came over to remove the victims on a toboggan as we could not chance having more than four plus the body at one time on the broken ice.  Hence the process of recovering victims on the surface consumed more than 10 hours.

PICT7048In the meantime the technical, structures and engineering investigators were mapping and photographing the overall site.  There was a fair amount of wreckage on the surface, including one of the engines and other smaller debris, the “splash pattern”in the general direction of the runway and indicating a relatively low angle impact, known as CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) as defined by international protocol.  It was immediately obvious that much of the debris was on the bottom of the sea and that underwater exploration would be necessary.

We all headed back to the camp to warm up and have a hot meal.  The food in these camps is of very high quality and full of calories to help personnel cope with the extreme environment.

At our evening meeting we expressed many concerns related to the underwater exploration and the safety of the team members:
1.  We should have some kind of shelter.  The oil company engineers supplied canvas and metal frame Quonset huts that would be relatively lightweight.
2.  An expert in arctic sea ice pointed out that the ice was cracked between the accident site and the shore and that a wind shift could drive the site off to sea with the team members as unfortunate and unwilling passengers.  Therefore, row boats would be placed on the ice near the cracks.  They were, but we discovered a couple of days later that there were no oars in the boats!
3.  Since the water was  up to 110 feet deep, there was a risk of decompression sickness.  Therefore a portable diving chamber was flown up from the south.
4.  Because the water temperature was below freezing due to the salt content, traditional SCUBA gear would not suffice as water in the breath would freeze in the regulators.  The divers were part of a Vancouver company that had invented “Rat Hats” with an air line and communication cables that would be connected to a compressor and physiological monitoring equipment on the surface.  The divers also had a traditional diving suit as used by the navies and commercial divers of the world.
5.  We needed the very best underwater specialist who was experienced in mapping and retrieving debris.  An American who had supervised clearing out the Suez Canal after the 1956 conflict in the Middle East was retained and he would arrive in a couple of days.
6.  It would be necessary to perform a  survey of the sea bottom so that the underwater time of the divers could be optimized.  This would be accomplished, under the direction of the expert, by lowering cameras through the ice at intervals along the crash path so that important items of wreckage could be located.

Exhausted, we all headed for the barracks to log some sack time.

Next time:  Death in the Arctic - Back on the ice.

PICT7050“On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of the cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see.
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.”

Robert Service: The Cremation of Sam McGee

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Death in the Arctic–Part One

I should warn you – I am jumping ahead many years as I have had a case of writer’s block lately and also I’ll tell you that what is about to be written is not altogether pleasant though you may find it interesting.  I have been undergoing treatment for pre-malignant skin tumours on my face for the past month.  The medication, 5-fluorouracil, is a very powerful cancer agent; one of the side effects can be feeling unwell which results in lack of motivation to do very much, including writing.  However, the treatment is working very well as my face has been stripped of much of the epidermis (outer layer of the skin) - this is quite uncomfortable and interferes with mundane activities such as sleeping or consuming spicy foods.  This condition arises from many years of sun exposure, for example 20 years of sailing, thousands of kilometers of riding motorcycles not to mention the years spent growing up on the prairie with inadequate skin protection.  So please encourage everyone to use sunscreen, wear a hat, etc.

So here we go, back to the future as they say.  I’ll tell you later about how I arrived at this place in my professional career and also regale you with further stories from the prairies.

November 1974, Dear diary,

The phone rang at about 0400 this morning.  To an accident investigator, the telephone is about as welcome as a cobra because most of the time when it rings he will be away from home and his family for days or even months.  It is difficult to describe one’s feelings as you approach the dreaded thing.  There is a mixture of dread, anxiety and a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, almost a feeling of sickness.  With much trepidation and with shaking hands I answered.

The sleepy sounding voice on the other end stated “a Lockheed L188 Electra has gone down in the high Arctic and the news that we have is that there are at least 32 fatalities.  Be at the airport in two hours prepared to spend a few weeks away.  We will take a commercial flight to Calgary and the oil company that owned the Electra will fly us up north on its sister ship. We have arranged for your tickets.”

So I hurriedly threw a few things in my kit – it was always nearly ready since I was a member of the “Go Team” -  and rushed to the airport to meet up with the other investigators.  I was dressed in my heavy cold weather gear as it was, after all, winter and the high Arctic is notorious for being extremely cold and inhospitable.  As we winged our way from Winnipeg to Calgary we discussed the case on hand and began to formulate our approach.

Upon arriving in Calgary, we were briefed by the oil company management and safety personnel.  According to them the aircraft had departed Calgary, landing first of all in Edmonton to pick up other oil company employees, and then heading to Rae Point which was way up north, above the range of normal maps and was actually north of the north magnetic pole!  On approach into Rea Point, contact had been lost with the pilots and so, some time later, a Twin Otter belonging to the RCMP took off to have a look.  The crew immediately spotted flames about 4 km. from the end of the runway and, having confirmed that it was an aircraft wreckage, rescuers were dispatched to the scene.

What they found was a carnage:  There were aircraft parts scattered over the ice and only two survivors – the First Officer and the Flight Engineer.  The First Officer was not badly injured but the Flight Engineer had frostbitten hands which he later had to have amputated.  The Electra had gone down on new sea ice in line with the runway.  Electra’s were one of the last of the high performance turboprop aircraft and were  powered by four engines.  The wings are quite stubby PICT7046resulting in quite a high wing loading and hence the approach speeds are about as fast as a pure jet aircraft.  These machines were used extensively in the north after the airlines got rid of them as they converted to pure jet aircraft like Boeings and Douglas airliners.

Rea Point was an oil exploration camp, searching for undersea oil in the high arctic.  Since it was inaccessible by land all of the buildings and equipment had to be flown in by Hercules aircraft and were then bolted together to form barracks, cookhouses, storage facilities, offices and meeting rooms.  During the winter, their large-tired machines were dispatched over the ice to look for potential drilling sites.  When they found a likely spot, they would flood the surface of the ice in order to fashion a runway strong enough for the Hercules aircraft who would fly the drilling equipment to the site.  As summer approached the wells would be capped until the next season.  Since magnetic compasses were useless there, all navigation had to be done using radio beacons and sun compasses.  Like almost all northern camps gambling and alcohol were prohibited.  In fact one of the oil company employees had his life saved by a bottle of whiskey when a search of his luggage was performed.  He was kicked off the flight in Edmonton – I wonder if he still has that bottle!

After several hours of flying we approached Rea Point.  I rode in the jump seat as the head of the human factors team so I could observe the approach to see if I could pick up any clues of what may possibly have happened.  The survivors had already been airlifted to Edmonton so we did not have an opportunity to interview them right away, which is the usual case.  Accompanying us on the trip were six RCMP officers, some company management, two divers and and an insurance broker.  We spent a couple of hours discussing the event and then grabbed a couple of hours of shuteye.  At first light (there is not very much light at that time of the year) we gathered for a further briefing.

Everyone was anxious to head out onto the ice, but due to concern about the condition of the ice we organized into teams of four who would be roped together and tethered by a long rope to safer ice.  Fresh sea ice is, after all, not very strong and also the ice had been broken up by the crash.  In addition, it was extremely cold – the equivalent temperature (like wind chill) was minus 103 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cold weather gear was an absolute requirement.  Most of us had some part of our bodies frostbitten – for me it was a couple of fingers as I had to remove my heavy winter mitts in order to operate my camera.  These photos were taken by me on my Pentax Spotmatic.  I kept the camera warm by tucking it in behind my neck in the parka and only pulled it out when I knew that a photo was warranted.

We all headed across the old ice, some of us in snowmobiles which were kept running 24/7 or else they wouldn’t start.  My companion, the insurance adjuster, and I stopped at the edge of the piled up pack ice to view the scene of devastation.  As we sat there, I detected a movement to the left of the snowmobile – it was an enormous polar bear and it stood right up attaining its maximum height – those things are huge!  It was less than 20 feet away and I thought that we were goners for sure.  I guess that the sound of our engine spooked it as, after looking at two potential meals for a few seconds, it ran away to our left towards my medical colleague, Dr. Roy Hewson who happened to be on foot.  I fretted about Roy for a couple of minutes but the bear kept racing past him.  These bears continued to be a bit of a nuisance as there were still bodies on the ice and the aircraft had been carrying ten thousand pounds of meat for human consumption in the camp.  Polar bears are also man eaters and they will actually hunt humans for food.  In fact while we were up there a cook in another camp had stepped outside of the cook house for a smoke and was killed and dragged off by a polar bear proving that smoking is injurious to one’s health.  Since only northern aboriginals were allowed to kill them, we had an armed Eskimo accompanying us at all times.  The oil company had also placed rifles and shotguns in the wreckage just in case – they hadn’t figured out that they would be unable to fire due to the cold!

My friend questioned me about dealing with polar bears.  I told him that we should always walk together and if we saw a bear approaching run like crazy.  He told me that he doubted that I could outrun one of these creatures, to which I replied “probably not, but I’m pretty sure that I can outrun you!”

Little did I know that I would be spending the next two years working on this case.

     Next – Death in the Arctic – Part Two - Recovery and Discovery

Monday, 16 January 2012

Two Gun Pete – a.k.a. The Lone Ranger

Farm 1Last night the temperature dropped to minus 25 Celsius – cold by any measurement!  But today it is mostly clear with beautiful blue skies reminiscent of prairie skies, but not the same kind of blue.  I have never seen, in my travels, skies, especially sunrises and sunsets, like those on the prairie – perhaps because the air is pure and the sky is so huge!  After all Alberta is called “big sky country.”

It was about this time of the year back in 1947 that I came to a sad realization.  That is, the anti-aircraft pop gun that was received for Christmas would never suffice in fighting renegades or outlaws alongside Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Red Ryder, or even the Cisco Kid, unless they were flying airplanes – which they were not.  And I had been deprived of a Red Ryder BB gun and even a measly pop gun rifle.  Therefore I decided that I required more appropriate fire arms to protect our humble homestead and occupants from any roustabouts that might appear.

I perused the Simpsons Sears and Eaton’s catalogues very diligently searching for appropriate side arms being that I could not score a rifle.  Finally, I settled on a two gun holster set that included two silver, faux pearl handled six shooters that would allow one to frighten away any intruders by firing off paper caps – in retrospect a most annoying sound.  I pestered my mom and dad for the set and was told that it could be ordered later on (I guess that money was tight).  I kept the catalogues, or at least the appropriate pages from the catalogues, as the rest of the publications were assigned to other less noble, albeit essential, duties in the out-house.  These pages I stashed near to my bed (actually a fold down couch) so I could study them every night before the lamp was blown out, allowing me to drift off to sleep where I met and teamed up with my cowboy heroes.

Finally the big day arrived when my mom said that she would order the gun set so I accompanied her to the “post office” which was in one of the private houses in Bindloss.  Now, in the 21st century, we complain about the slowness of surface mail, in fact calling it “snail mail.” Remember that back then,  there was no such thing as on-line shopping, the closest thing to a computer being Woo Sam’s abacus, so one had to be prepared to endure a long wait.  I mean a llloooonnnnggg wait!!  For a little boy it seemed like a lifetime, or even several lifetimes, and once more I haunted the post office nearly every day waiting for my order to arrive.  At home, I would practice quick drawing with imaginary pistols until I figured that I could outdraw any desperado who dared to confront me in the streets of Laredo or Tombstone or even Bindloss, for that matter.

Cap Guns 1Finally, the parcel arrived and I ran home with my prize.  When I tore the package open, I was treated to a brightly colored box with a picture of a cowboy armed with two pistols on the cover - the most wonderful thing I had ever seen.  And there in the box was a fake leather holster, that was probably manufactured from some sort of cardboard, and two silver pistols with white plastic handles.  The guns were embossed with wild west themes and I would surely become the envy of all of my cowboy friends.  Running back to town, I was able to purchase a roll of caps that fit into an automatic feeder that was visible upon opening the side of the ammo cylinder.   Now I was a real cowboy and anyone or anything that stood in my way should take cover – which the two cats and dog did when I fired the first noisy shot, the dog leaving an elongated puddle on the floor which left unmistakeable clues as to the whereabouts of his safe hide-out under the bed!

One of the problems I encountered as a gunslinger was confusion of identity – was I Roy or Gene or Hoppy or even Cisco?  Maybe I was Cisco’s faithful sidekick, Pancho – no that wouldn’t do, I needed to be in charge of the team.  I experimented with different characters in my imagination and settled on Roy whom I knew to be a most honourable and courageous gentleman.  Roy, being a singing cowboy, could sing alone or serenade with the Sons of the Pioneers. Besides, I liked Dale, Trigger and Bullet, Roy’s loyal German Shepherd dog and Roy held the title of “King of the Cowboys.”  Now I wouldn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of toting an anti-aircraft gun to venues such the OK Corral or Abilene.  Now I could ride my swift and loyal palomino through the prairie and fend off any outlaw who dared trespass. By the way, my palomino bore a striking resemblance to a broom and could be employed as such, making it more versatile than a real palomino!

roy-rogersSince I was to become a real cowboy gunslinger, I required appropriate apparel.  I managed to cajole my mother into making a Roy Rogers style cowboy shirt for me.  She gave me the difficult choice of having the shirt adorned with fringes or pockets.  I chose pockets, but really was hoping for both.  She embroidered the white with red trim shirt with colorful flowers over the breast – it was absolutely splendid!  However, I don’t think that I would walk into a biker bar wearing the same design today.  I also had a cowboy hat of sorts, but had to settle for running shoes on my feet.  I perhaps did not look altogether like a prototypical cowpoke, but could outrun pretty well all of the others who were encumbered with high heels.  Have you ever tried to run wearing cowboy boots?

I practiced my quick-draw techniques religiously until – horrors - one day one of the pistols slipped from my left hand, striking the floor and resulting in the hammer breaking off.  Certain that my father could fix just about anything, I took the gun to him.  He told me that the weapon was made out of a cheap metal which he explained to me was called zinc and could not be mended.  Because cowboys don’t cry, I had to hold back my tears until safely in the privacy of the out-house as I didn’t have a private boudoir in which my considerable anguish could be vented.

Soon the other six shooter met the same fate and they both crumbled gradually until the parts wouldn’t hold together and I was left with empty holsters that also deteriorated all too rapidly.  I still sported the holsters for awhile and, when asked about the whereabouts of my guns, I would explain that they were stolen by bandits during a hold-up.  So now, I was left with the anti-aircraft gun, hardly cowboy equipment.

Rocking HorsesMany years later, I had my own sons, Olaf Jr. and Graham.  I was determined to not let them suffer the same ignominy as me, so sought out appropriate guns for them.  Some parents would criticize me for giving them cowboy pistols, but little boys would always find something to use as guns.  Besides that, at some point in their lives they would have a real gun in their hands, perhaps belonging to one of their friend’s fathers, and I felt that it was good to learn how to safely handle a weapon, for example checking that it was not loaded and learning to never point it at anyone.

LoneRangerI had to make a business trip to Texas and so I picked up two sets of cowboy pistols and holsters for them at Toys R Us in Houston.  I told them that the Lone Ranger and Tonto had sent them.  They were both impressed with this revelation and very excited about the sets and immediately morphed into real wild west cowpokes.  I even made wooden rocking horses for them which did not resemble a broom even though their tails were made from mops.  Olaf Jr., who was about four at the time, dressed like the Lone Ranger night and day for about a year - even sleeping with his guns stowed beside his pillow!  I informed both of them that the Lone Ranger was a decent, honest man who believed in doing good things, never evil.  I hope that he had a positive influence on the boys like Roy Rogers had on me.  I think that he did.

roy-rogers2Roy always claimed that he was just an ordinary guy who got lucky and was in the right place at the right time.  He never forgot his simple beginnings and the hard work required to become successful.  His legacy will live on through my generation with the music and happiness he gave us.  He was an honourable family man and practiced Christian principles.  Roy and Dale adopted many children and gave them all better lives.

Happy trails, Dale and Roy!!

Monday, 9 January 2012

Airborne!!–From Otter to Hercules

Some folks have asked me about the diary format of the Airborne!! sections.  In fact this is about the only time in my life that I actually kept a journal.  Also, the letter is a summary of an actual letter that I sent to Aunty Jean in 1969.  She commented that the description of the night jump was, to her, beautiful and vivid and that she could imagine the sights and sounds of that night.

AirForceOtterProbably the most uncomfortable jump was number three from the Otter.  By that time, my fear had lessened and I was more aware of the sensations of parachuting.  Because the Otter is relatively slow, you tended to drop about 300 feet before your canopy opened and I began to experience the sensation of falling and forgot about some of the techniques, for example on number four, I landed with my feet apart, resulting in having to do 50 push-ups.  As I had pulled a muscle in my groin during the last PT session, I was in great pain and hoped that I would not land drifting rearwards, which I did on every single jump.  You can’t turn the T-10 so you land in whatever position you had when your chute opened.

Back to my diary:

Sunday, March 30, 1969

Number five, the last Otter jump went well, though there is that constant companion – fear.  As I was drifting rearward, I watched as the other jumpers left the aircraft and observed the rather beautiful spectacle of their parachutes blossoming against the pure blue sky.  I concentrated on keeping my feet together and made a nice gentle landing - if you can say that any landing with the T-10 is gentle!  Landing has been compared to jumping off the top of a van moving at 15 mph, also described as hitting the ground like 10 pounds of manure in a 5 pound sack!  However, the instructors were pleased with my performance and indicated that I could go on to the next stage – the Hercules.

In retrospect, I would comment that the Otter jumps were worthwhile and I felt that I could parachute from anything!  I am still scared of jumping.  The feeling of relief when that big beautiful canopy opens is almost overwhelming.  The biggest thrill was the first jump.  I almost cried like a baby on the way down when the canopy opened.  I guess I’ll never experience that tremendous euphoria again.

Now on to the Hercules.

HerkThe C-130 Hercules (Hercy Bird), purpose built for the military, is commonly in use around the world as a tactical airlift airplane.  It is used in the military to deliver up to 64 paratroops at one time, equipment, or even buildings that are designed to fit in the cargo area.  From a passenger comfort standpoint, it was awful, but being coddled is not the motivation behind the design as far as delivering troops is concerned.  Having terrific short field take-off and landing capabilities, the bird is in common use on civvy street all over the world, especially in areas like Canada’s arctic region or the jungles in Africa or South America.  It is also used in forest fire fighting, search and rescue, meteorological research, air to air refuelling of helicopters, and as a weapons platform.

Herk3From the standpoint of delivering paratroops, it can hold up to 64 fully outfitted paratroopers and exits can be made from the side doors or, less traumatic, from the rear ramp – also utilized for loading and unloading.  The ramp can also be used for airborne delivery of materiel.  One of the units in CFB Rivers was tasked with finding methods of dropping military vehicles on palettes.  The best way was to have the trucks, jeeps, armoured cars and artillery mounted on corrugated cardboard, the corrugations running vertically thereby absorbing the shock.  The joke was that all of the vehicles had very low mileage – but all of the mileage was straight down!

But I digress.

Tuesday, April 01, 1969

Today was our first encounter with the Hercules.  We reported at 0745 but were informed that the plane had returned to Edmonton due to engine problems.  So we played volleyball for a while and I returned to the office to catch up on some paperwork.  After lunch the Herc arrived so we kitted up and embarked on our first Herc jump.  I was number one on the stick, as usual, and we jumped at 1530.  The experience was extremely noisy and very violent because we jumped from the side doors, directly behind the propellers.  You leap into a more than 200 knot wind.  I was spun violently to the left as if struck by some giant’s fist and the chute opened in a flash, within a second or so, in front of me due to the prop blast.  I experienced a wild swing under the chute, though missing part of the spectacle as my steel helmet was thrust down over my eyes.  The landing was pretty good.

After supper we did another side door jump in daylight.  This time I was number 16 on the starboard side, the last man out.  I was, in addition to my rifle and snowshoes, carrying a very large and heavy pannier reaching from the ground to my chin which necessitated waddling like a duck on the way to the Herc.  Remember that paratroopers are always dropped behind enemy lines and have to carry everything that is needed, then securing the DZ (Drop Zone) until the second and third drops carrying heavy equipment and support, such as medical personnel, are able to arrive safely.  The landing was quite gentle this time as I dropped into snow up to my waist.

Then came the night jump already described.

April 02, 1969

IMG_0269Today, we completed our requisite 10 jumps, but not without incident!  Number 9 was ok, but the wind picked up beyond safe velocity (about 15 mph) so we couldn’t drop into Rivers.  After waiting in the J-stage (Jump –stage) hangar we were informed that the wind was more favourable in CFB Shilo, east of Brandon, Manitoba, so we donned our equipment and then headed for the aircraft.  After a relatively short flight to Shilo, we made our jump.  My brother, Graham, who was 17 at the time, was invited to film the exercise with my 35 mm camera, hence the photo of me in the stick.

We departed the aircraft as usual, but Capt. “Buck” Rogers had a parachute malfunction.  Because Graham was snapping photos, the whole incident was caught on film.  Descending at a great rate of speed, Buck undid his reserve chute and tossed it out in front.  However the lines tangled with the main chute risers so he pulled the reserve in and launched it once more, and it tangled again.  So he pulled it in again.  Glancing down, he saw that he was about to hit, so he tucked the chute between his legs and prepared to do a high speed PLF (Parachute Landing Fall).  Fortunately, he landed in about a meter of snow and survived, uninjured.  Also, Buck was a wiry, very fit officer knowing enough to relax, and that helped to save him from serious injury or worse. The worst thing that he had to endure after that jump was field rolling two parachutes instead of just one!

One of the student jumpers experienced one of the most serious things that can happen to a soldier – his rifle came loose from the halyard, not being properly secured, and free fell to the ground.  A soldier should never, ever lose his weapon!!  All of us had to conduct a fairly lengthy search for the rifle but it was never found.  It is probably still buried under the Manitoba prairie on the Shilo DZ!

In the meantime, back in Rivers, Pat was performing her routine chores in the house when there was a knock at the door.  As she approached the door, she saw the silhouette of a military officer in the window.  Knowing that I was jumping into Shilo and that, in the event of a bad accident, the Chaplain would visit the family, she thought the worst had happened.  Fortunately it was just our next door neighbour, an Air Traffic Control officer, and not the Chaplain, so she breathed a sigh of relief.

Para GradThe next day, we proud paratroopers were presented with our airborne wings in a ceremony inside the Airborne hangar.

I made one more jump from the Hercules, a ramp jump, later that year. I completed that jump so that I could collect my thirty dollar per month jump pay.  Buck Rogers and I were the last out of the plane and we both were caught in a thermal so we soared high over the base for much longer than usual.  We watched from our high perches as the plane landed, taxied in and shut down.  We could chat with each other and hear the other jumpers on the ground wondering aloud why we were still up there, probably envying both of us.  As a coincidence, one of our fellow jumpers that day was a US Army Colonel on his way to Viet Nam to take over as Commanding Officer of the famous 82nd Airborne Regiment.  I don’t know whatever became of him.

Buck later became a psychologist, practicing in Calgary.

Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared."
— Eddie Rickenbacker
World War I hero

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Airborne!! - Training

Monday, March 17, 1969

Dear Diary,
IMG_0285I started airborne training today.  After meeting the other 32 candidates and listening to the briefings given by the commanding officer and the instructors, I realized that this is going to be one heck of a demanding exercise!  The first thing that happened is that we all lost whatever rank we had – I was no longer a captain, but just a f#*#&** grunt.  We are, however, all in the same boat.  There are 4 other officers, another doctor, a pilot and a lieutenant from the Black Watch.  About one third are “blue jobs” (RCAF) and there are a couple of medics amongst us.

We were shown a film about the Yank airborne school which is apparently not much different from ours.  They, too, place a lot of emphasis on physical training (PT) – for example, I had to run a mile in eight minutes in combat gear just to make it onto the course.  I darned near didn’t pass even though I had tried desperately for several weeks to get in shape .

The instructors opened a T-10 chute which is the standard for the airborne.  It is 35 feet in diameter which seems large, but is quite porous in order to hasten the descent and minimize controllability as it is necessary to get on the ground as soon as possible to avoid enemy fire and it is not a good thing to have 60 or so paratroopers bumping into each other in the air as that could have fatal results.  We were then shown how to don the harness and attach our reserve chutes – the harness is darned uncomfortable, particularly on the shoulders and in the crotch.  We will be wearing the harness and reserve a good deal of the time during the course thereby developing a tolerance to pain, or perhaps callouses in vital areas.  Then the instructors ran us through aircraft drill, necessary for having many jumpers exit the airplane in the shortest time possible.

IMG_0273Then, PT.  Man, that was tough!!  A lot of running, push-ups, chin-ups, and sit-ups.  I was pretty bagged at the end of the first session.  However, most of the days will be spent exercising.  We will start the day with a five mile road run at 0630 followed by PT.  We will always move at double time and will do five chin-ups every time we enter the hangar.  Also, if the instructor thinks that you have made any boo-boos, you have to do between 10 to 50 push-ups or perform a crab walk around the hangar.  The day ends with another 5 mile road run and another session of brutal PT.  I am really stiff and sore this evening.
I can’t help questioning why I am here – what did I do to deserve this??  Like many things there are many cause factors, the main one relates to TGIF.  Every Friday after work the various messes have TGIF.  Booze is cheap and spouses are not permitted in the mess.

 CFB Rivers had several activities – 408 Tactical Fighter Squadron, 4FTS (Flying Training School), and the Airborne School and I was stationed there as the Base Medical Officer and Flight Surgeon.  Having bolstered my courage with a couple of drams of the demon rum, I allowed myself to say to one of the airborne officers “I wouldn’t mind trying that.”  Woops!!  The very next day Pat and the kids and I were hiking in the forest in Riding Mountain Provincial Park, when we encountered one of the airborne instructors who stated “I hear you are on the parachute course!!”  Woops again!!  I was always the type of character who liked to try new things so I graciously (well, sort of graciously) accepted the challenge, even taking personal leave to give it a whirl.  So here I am.

Tuesday, March 18, 1969
This morning I was in agony!!  I could hardly move when the alarm went off at 0500.  I had to roll out of bed onto the floor and slowly and painfully claw my way up the wall of the bedroom.  After the road run, I loosened up a bit and reminded myself to pick up some “Heet Liniment” that might ease the stiffness.  I learned that the philosophy of the school was to break us down physically and then build us up. Whoa!!  Never heard of that before.  I am certainly breaking down.

Today we spent the first two of many hours to come on the flight trainer, a.k.a. torture rack.  We hang suspended in our harnesses 20 minutes at a time and perform various drills – today, the points of flight procedures and turns, tangles and operation of the reserve chute as well as drift, oscillations and slipping.  We also spent a few more hours of aircraft drill and learned the six different ways of landing.

The PT was gruelling and after we cleaned up the hangar the bathtub felt good.  Upon retiring, I applied some of the Heet to my back, hips, and shoulders.

Wednesday, March 19, 1969
During the night I must have been sweating a lot as the Heat liniment washed down into some of my naughty parts wakeing me up pronto.  I changed the name of “Heet” to “Inferno” as well as other names that don't bear repeating !!  In the morning I was so exhausted  and my back and neck felt very weak and my shoulders were excruciatingly painful.  However, after the road run, I loosened up considerably.  On the torture racks we learned how to avoid obstacles; area, long and pinpoint.  We also had a workout on the landing swings.

Thursday, March 20, 1969
Today, we spent time on the torture racks with full winter kit including rifle, snowshoes and ruck sack.  Ouch!!  My hands are starting to toughen up.

Friday, March 21, 1969
Well, I’ve survived one week.  It will be nice to have a rest for the weekend.  Monday, we go to the mock tower on which a lot of people chicken out.

Monday, March 24, 1969
The morning road run came early.  I was extremely tired.  We spent the morning reviewing what we had learned and then headed to the mock tower.  In the door you stand 32 feet above the ground, the height where man’s fear of heights is maximum.  Was I scared?  You bet!!  I was number two out of the tower.  My exit was rather poor and I bounced a lot.  You drop about 15 feet  and then the trolley runs down the wire at quite a speed.  The sensation of falling is quite disturbing – like a very fast elevator.  I don’t know how I managed to jump.  I just did.  My last couple of exits were better.  One man chickened out and was whisked off the course and away from the base STAT!!  You weren’t even allowed to mention the word “fear” or you were cleared off the base in record time and were on the way home.

They are really putting the pressure on us now.  The PT was rough and I must have done over 100 push-ups.  Those of us who remain feel pretty smug about having weathered the mock tower.  There is a rumour that we will make our first five jumps out of the Otter rather than the high tower in CFB Shilo as the school is moving to Edmonton and they don’t want to move the towers.

Wednesday, March 26, 1969
We finally finished with that damn tower.  The young lieutenant from the Black Watch washed out.  He was able to overcome his fear and exit the tower but not properly, so they sent him home.  Too bad, as he was the most gung ho soldier on the course, other than the tower, and he even had the guts to exit though his body was paralyzed with fear.  So now I’m number one out of the Otter and Herc.

Friday, March 28, 1969 – The First Jump
Well today was it!!  The dawn was clear and it was about 12 below and OK for parachuting.  I guess that the waiting was the worst part.  We drew our chutes and sat on the J-stage benches after dressing and going through the rigger and jumpmaster checks.  You hear the plane land and taxi up and the jumpmaster tells you to put on your helmet and you walk out to the aircraft wondering what the heck you are doing here.  I was to be number three; Major Cesar, CO of the school was number one and his son, Pvt. Cesar was second in the stick.
Para 1The pilot climbed the airplane to 1200 feet and before we knew it, we were over the DZ, ready to jump.  You sit on the floor with your legs outside of the plane in the slipstream.  My heart was pounding and my stomach was in my mouth.  Time seemed to stop.  Will I be able to get out the door?  Somehow, when the command was given, I went – more of a conditioned reflex than anything else!  I felt myself falling and saw the horizon tilting as I rocked to the left from the prop blast.  I counted to four thousand as drilled into me, probably faster than I should have, and then looked up.  There it was, a beautiful, full, white  canopy - the tears came welling up in my eyes - I was so happy to be alive!  There was no sensation of movement except that the ground appeared to be coming up.  I looked around and spotted four more chutes at different levels, frosty white against the deep blue sky.  I hit the ground hard and was dragged by the wind across the packed snow, having one heck of a time collapsing the canopy in the wind.  Finally the chute cooperated and, after coming to a halt, I field rolled it and made the rather long trek through the snow drifts to the DZ shack where I met the other chaps.  The RCAF corporal who jumped with me finally had color in his face and his eyes regained a more human appearance. 

We were all very euphoric as we had made our first jump and proved to ourselves that each of us had the courage (or stupidity) to actually jump from a perfectly serviceable aircraft!

That was the last jump of the day as the wind had picked up, 15 mph being the limit.  But number one jump was over and I had made it!

Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities... because it is the quality which guarantees all others.

Winston Churchill