Friday, January 05, 2007

Part 2 of 2. Part 1 was the previous post.

I got my insulated work gloves and walked to our airplane for the evening, C-FZOW. I watched my breath freeze in little puffy clouds and listening to the crunch of my Sorel boots on the hardpack snow. I fired up the engines, popping and belching smoke as they roared into life, and finally got them to idle contentedly, warming the oil and the metal crankcases, then I went in the back of the plane and pulled out a couple of the airplane seats, stored them in our shed and waited for the taxi to arrive. There weren't any ambulances in Stony Rapids, so the local taxi services were responsible for the medical transport runs.

I stood outside with my hood and ski mask on, and watched the ice crystals glitter in the night sky. Up north in Winter, it's too cold for clouds to form and so we were regularly treated to spectacular views of the sky and the stars. That night the moon was really bright, and I remember being able to see almost as well as if it were daytime. After a few minutes I shut down the Navajo engines and put the engine covers on them, big insulated tea cozies that would keep the precious heat from escaping the engines too quickly.

About 5 minutes later, a taxi van pulled up and out stepped a couple of nurses. They pointed to the back of the van and we opened the doors to reveal a body wrapped in blankets. The first thing I noticed was that it was adult-sized, and the second thing I noticed was the smell of alcohol.

"What happened?"
"He was snowmobiling with a friend and he hit a tree. He was only 16. One of your airplane mechanics found him out in the bush."

** Later that week I talked to Scott, our young mechanic who had been driving to Black Lake and had come upon the shattered remains of the snowmobile and driver. Scott was barely 17 years old and was pretty shaken up to find something like that in the middle of a lonely road late on a Winter's night. He never went snowmobiling at night after that, and he often spoke of that evening, so I think it really stayed with him. **

"Where do you want us to take him?"
"Saskatoon, but first you have to go to Fond du Lac to pick up his family"

That didn't sound like fun at all. We loaded the body onto a stretcher, then gently loaded him into the back of the plane and got the stretcher all secured and tied into position so it wouldn't move if there was turbulence.

One of the nurses was coming with us, and she got on board as we fired up the Navajo. The flight to Fond du Lac was uneventful, aside from the fact that it was nearly 1am. The smell of alcohol from the body was so strong it began to permeate the air inside the Navajo.

"Leave the door open when we land so his family doesn't have to smell that"
"Okay, but I think they are gonna notice on the flight to Saskatoon"

We taxiied into the dirt ramp of Fond du Lac airport, shut down, and saw a taxi van already waiting for us.

The nurse spoke.

"His parents and brother and sister are here."

I'll never forget the few seconds it took for the family to get out of their taxi van and come over to the airplane. They walked slowly over to us, not looking at us until they were standing close. And then I wished I hadn't seen their faces at all. His fathers eyes were flat and hopeless and angry, and the moms eyes were red slits, tear-stained and puffy. The brother and sister were really young, and were sleeping while mom carried them in her arms.

The father asked to go in the plane first, and we let him inside while we stood outside for a few minutes to let him spend some time alone with his son.

When we entered the plane again, the cabin and the wrapped body smelled like Drakkar Noir, a men's cologne. The father must have brought some. But why would he have? I mean, what circumstances would have led the father to think "I'm going to see my dead son and I should bring something to mask the smell of alcohol" I don't want to know.

We fired up and flew to Saskatoon, 2 1/2 hours in complete silence in the middle of the night. The smell of cologne was strong, but it was better than the smell of stale beer.

After we dropped the family and nurse off in Saskatoon, we flew back up north, silent, arriving back in Stony Rapids just as the sun started to rise.

Dwayne spoke for the first time in hours.

"That was a hell of a trip"
"Yeah. Pretty sad. I hope that's rare"

Dwayne smiled, but it was a sad smile.

"It ain't rare"

That month we did 3 more trips taking snowmobile riders down south for preparation and burial, out of a local population of maybe 1,000 people. The circumstances of those trips were different, but the smell in the airplane was always the same.


Anonymous said...

I think driving a snowmobile while drunk is an unconscious form of suicide. Add it to the long list of ways First Nations youth take themselves off the planet. You told that terrible story of loss and helplessness very movingly, Bless you for that gentle voice.

Flyin Dutchman said...

With all the negative things that surround the north the positive outcome of those experiences are that we realize that we have been placed in the poll position of life.

Given our starting position we are all able to end up dead in a snowmachine accident while drunk but with our fortunate circumstances we do not in most cases.

I used to think less of the natives in the beginning for the fact I would never do some of the crazy stuff they did (huff gasoline for instance).

But I was so fortunate to have two great parents and a wide open road of opportunity ahead of me which most on reserves do not.

I would love to give more natives opportunities but it seems with the previous and current track record giving them things is not the way to go about it.

Good post Sully.


Flyin Dutchman said...

To complete my thought....

What would be the best approach ?

I just spent the evening watching:

Darwin's Nightmare and
Scared Sacred
(two independant documentaries about what is basically wrong with the world)

Compassion is one thing but results for those affected is another.


Aviatrix said...

I thought about this while I worked in the north. I thought I'd like to organize some way of:

a) showing the kids they can achieve something better than they can see,
b) offering them something of value to do instead of drugs, and
c) providing a short-term incentive for them to make it through highschool--or at least grade eight--with their brains and bodies in usable condition.

I envisioned finding a few mentors, not big names like Susan Aglukark or Gino Odjick, just a Dene guy from Prince Albert who makes good coin in a paper mill or a Micmac automechanic from Fredericton. How can the kids have the idea of growing up to have a trade when there are literally no trades in their community? I'd convince Air Canada and my company to provide airfare for a little tour of these communities, letting the kids meet a native person who has made a mark higher than can be carved with a snowmobile.

One could organize a local history project, a boy scout/girl guide group, a sports league, something sustainable, fun, challenging and resulting in achievement.

And then comes the incentive. Some real, good prize at the end of the school year for kids willing to sign a pledge to stay clean, and take a drug test to prove it.

There is federal money available for the health and education of native people.

Soaring Student said...

Great post Sully.

There are a number of commercials running on TV (Ontario's Worker's Compensation Board, or whatever it is called now, is one that comes to mind; Volkswagon crash safety is another) that have high impact. And high realism.

Organizations like MADD (ignore the recent stories about fundraising controversy) that could use input like this, and create an effective commnications campaign.

Ontario's LCBO, the Government agency that sells hard liquor int he province, has also embarked on yet another series of don't drink&drive ads.

Foo on the suits coming up with concept - this is Real Life.