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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Far off places where you live

When I was a kid: We had small houses and big families. We had one phone and one TV. It was Black and White. We got two channels, but my parents had four remotes, three when my oldest sister moved out. If your neighbour owned a ladder you didn’t need one and you probably owned something he didn’t. You knew your neighbours and their problems. You never knocked you just stuck your head in and yelled “You decent?” The doors had no locks. If the car broke down you called your neighbor whose number you knew better than your own and asked if the kids could stay there until you got home. They were already eating supper. We had little and shared lots. We shoveled the widow’s driveway before our own. The neighbour’s kids went on vacation with us. We made do. We stopped on the street to talk about what we had seen on TV last night. Today: We live in huge house on small lots five feet from the stranger next door. We have four or even five flat screens. There are one or maybe two kids, each with their own room, with a phone and a flat screen and a cell phone. Who knows what they watched on TV last night there are over two hundred channels. Lots of cars in front of the neighbour’s place when you got home last night, a wedding you supposed. But when you went out to jockey the three cars in the driveway before bed you saw a man carrying a spray of flowers, not for a wedding for a funeral. Guess you should have said hello. You drive around a while and find yourself in the old neighborhood. Some of the houses are the same. Some have been built onto. There are fewer bikes and swings in the yards. The widow is gone now. So are most of the families you grew up with. Then you see a familiar face. Raking leaves in what was his parent’s yard. He recognizes you and waves his hat to flag you down. You hug each other a little too hard. He looks at you with a knowing eye “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” You look him in the eye and he knows. “We gotta get together this weekend man. You know where I live I bought my Dad’s place.” “How is your Dad?” You ask a little scared of the answer. “He’s gone man, a year after your Dad died. I was at the funeral but I left early.” You lock eyes again. He’s trying not to tear up too. With wavering voices you both say “I’ll miss your Dad.” At the same breath, you both had to speak to swallow the lump that was growing in both of your throats. You both laugh in the same breath too. “I’ll see you Saturday night then?” He smiles “Right here at 7” Your turn to smile “I’ll bring the beer, same kind?” “Of course the same kind, nothing ever changes around here” Sure it doesn’t…

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sniderman the Record Man

If I were to tell you that Sam Sniderman died I would have only very limited expectations that you would know who I was talking about. But if you are of a certain age, a boomer or perhaps Gen X I would have a reasonable expectation of a knowing look if I told you that Sam the Record Man had passed away. Well he did. He was 92 so as they say “he had a good life”. But his death is more than the death of a man it is the death of an era. It falls on the heels of a change of gargantuan proportions in the way we look at music. I bought my first record from Sam. Well not personally, but from one of his stores. From one of his staff who were as unique and interesting as he was. Sam; like most successful people loved what he did. He loved music. He especially loved Canadian music. He knew every album by every garage band every record that was recorded in a basement in Spadina or a garage in Winnipeg. As they say “Build it and they will come.” Sam did build it. His flagship store on Yonge Street in Toronto attracted like-minded people. Customers who loved that Sam could disappear into a stock room and come out with some obscure piece of vinyl that they couldn’t live without. The same was true of the people he attracted to work for him. Whether he attracted people like himself or whether he only hired the ones who loved music he always had staff who loved what they did and it showed. Sam hated a customer to leave one of his stores empty handed. I don’t think I ever did. My wife and I found ourselves on Barrington Street in Halifax once. She was looking for an album that I knew was long out of print. “If you find it anyplace…” I said to her “you’ll find it at Sam’s” Sam the Record Man on Barrington was three floors of eclecticism; eclectic music; eclectic customers and eclectic staff; on the wall eclectic memorabilia. I loved the place I loved the bulging shelves; the crowded aisles, the funky stairwell and elevator that literally didn’t go all the way to the top. The warped floorboards that creaked as you passed alerting a staff member who looked lost in reveries to your presence. Not that they were inattentive ; on the contrary they were slightly doting but not like most commissioned staff who were on you like white on rice. But they loved a challenge. A tall thin man of indeterminate age approached us on the third floor he was wearing a jack shirt open to a Grateful Dead T-shirt, a sash around his waist and gold cords. “What are you looking for?” He asked with a quick smile. I told him and his head turned sideways. He obviously knew the answer. “That’s not in print in North America.” He said firmly. But I knew he wasn’t done yet so I waited. His smile broadened. “But it is still in print in Germany. Can I order it for you?” I explained that we were on vacation and only in town for a few weeks. “Let’s try anyways; shall we?” So we did. I called on our last day in town but it had not come in. The next year’s holidays found us on Barrington. I practically dragged Lina up the stairs. I went to the shelves and started my search when a voice boomed from behind me. “Blue Train, Am I right?” I turned. It was our friend from the previous year. “Yes; you have a great memory!” I responded. He deafly leafed through the plastic dividers and produced the CD with a flourish. I wasn’t surprised I had come to expect a higher level of service from Sam’s. But times changed. As they always had. The music changed; the media that the music was on changed. Over the years I have even bought the same album from Sam’s on vinyl, eight track (god help me), cassette and later CD. Through it all Sam rode the trends and persevered. Gone are fragile vinyl disks handled lovingly by their edges. Gone are eight tracks; their chunky glove compartment eating carcasses gone to apple boxes at yard sales and flea markets. Gone are cassettes with miles of magnetic tape hanging out of them. Lastly the CD is not gone but it is going. Music today is on files and the internet; essentially on air. You don’t need to go to a store to buy air. You no longer need the guy in the funky T-shirt to tell you where to find it: you just Google it. Chances are you don’t pay for it either. Chances are you download it for free. So stores like Sam’s went away. I miss them. I don’t steal music. I didn’t steal it when it was on glossy vinyl albums with a million things to learn on the covers. I don’t steal it now that it is on air. I love music. Sam loved music. He also loved musicians. He opened his home and this wallet to struggling Canadian artists. Sam is gone and with him an era. Sam was famous for saying “I said it; I did it!” and he did. Canadian music owes him a lot. I still walk past Sam’s on Barrington with a sigh. It is gone of course but the building is still there. I think of all the music lovers who found that elusive gem in those walls; if the walls could only talk…

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Feeder Fever (starve a cold)

When we moved into our current home I was delighted to see that it was set among the trees. It has no yard to speak of just a lot of rock and trees. It does however have a marvelous big deck. The deck is our yard. We use it a lot. I like to BBQ out there all year around. Mind you we don’t often lounge out there and read when it is forty below. I have; in the past had bird feeders on my property. My last location was not favorable for them, there being no trees close by to shelter the little fellows. But this new place was perfect; so I bought a few and filled them up and waited; and waited and waited and waited… Nothing. I searched the internet and all the sites said the same thing. Wait and they will come. Build it and they will come I kept thinking. At first I checked them every chance I got. Then just in the morning and at night. Finally, months after setting up the first feeder I saw a lone bird on the perch and then gradually more and more. Soon the trees around my place began to come alive with twittering and chattering. I began to sit on the deck with my coffee in my hand rain or shine. I loved the sound of the birds they were like to heartbeat of the forest. Now some of my birder friends are a bit snobbish. They love the feathered friends that visit their feeders but look down with disgust on their furry brethren. I draw no such distinction. “You can get hoods.” One particularly close minded bird fancier once told me. “Hoods?” I replied amazed. My mind raced I saw people going out to bird feeders in white robes with hoods on; a KKK of bird fanciers and kind of Avian Brotherhood. “For the feeders!” She said.” Goes on the wire they hang from keeps the Damn Squirrels out!” She sneered. “Damned rodents!” At the time I had almost a dozen feeding stations, a couple specifically designed for squirrels. I had a pair of chipmunks I had named Chip and Dale. I assumed they were a couple. Chip was bold as brass and Dale was shy. Chip would come up to me and take a sunflower seed from my hand and Dale would watch from the shelter of a log in the wall of my log house. I even had flying squirrels. I assume I had been feeding them for a long time and never knew it. The days are long in the arctic summer and the sun never sets. The flying squirrels are nocturnal and I don’t know when they feed in the arctic day when the sun never sets. But that summer I had installed motion lights on my deck and one evening the motion light came on and I watched amazed as a flying squirrel gracefully glided to one of my feeders and made a three or four point landing with amazing grace. They don’t actually fly; of course, they glide and do so beautifully. He took a cheek pouch full of seeds and glided to the ground and then scampered up a tree to repeat the process to my absolute delight. The flying squirrel has fur that is like a cat; very soft and silky not as course as his muddy footed cousin in the vermin infantry. His eyes are bulgy; I suppose for seeing in the dark. Being nocturnal they need that advantage. I was delighted at the range of four footed fellows that frequented my feeders (pardon the alliteration). I soon noted different characteristics in different animals. The squirrels and chipmunks seemed to travel in pairs. Mated pairs I have always assumed. S o I was delighted when I saw numbers of squirrels visiting my feeders here; many, many of them. I have seen seven in my field of view at once so there are a large number of the friendly little fellows. They chatter to me when I approach on frosty spring morning with a bucket of nuts in hand. They wait patiently while I spread some out on the railing and they do not wait for me to leave. They dash about mu feet waiting for the feast. I see them crossing the street in front of our house from my neighbor’s yard. One day Lina said with some pity in her voice. “Aw that little squirrel has no tail.” I looked but as I am legally blind I could not see it at that distance. Several days later; on my day off I was settled into a yellow plastic adirondak chair sipping my morning coffee and watching my breath as I exhaled in the cool morning air. The coffee made my breath even more noticeable. I was savoring a Royal Edinburgh shortbread cookie when I heard a scampering at my feet. I looked down into two chestnut brown eyes ringed by white circles. A squirrel cocked his head at me. I broke off a piece of cookie and set it by the heel of my house slipper. Like a flash he snapped it up and held it in this paws and began to eat it with vigor. I could not help but notice that he had only the tiniest nub of a tail. When he had finished I went to the door and called Lina. “I think your friend is here.” I said. She got down on all fours to sneak a peek around the corner. When her head appeared he scampered towards her not away. He passed inches from her face and grabbed a peanut off the deck and began chewing. “It is him!” Lina exclaimed. Over the next few days he became a regular feature on the deck and was there every time I looked. As I sat in my yellow chair yesterday I said aloud. “I must give you a name.” Lina was sitting beside me. “What do you call a squirrel with half a tail?’ I thought for a moment and a wicked smile crept across my face. “What are you thinking?’ Lina said warily. “I was thinking what else you could call a squirrel with half a tail. Bob!”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A date which will live in infamy...

Today December 7 2011 is the seventieth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. As the event that brought the United States into World War II it is certainly one of the most pivotal events in world history. No American who lived through that day will ever forget it. For them it was an event so cataclysmic that it became one of those “where were you when…” events. It was one of those events so momentous that everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news; like later generations with the assassination of JFK or the events of 911. Several generations have passed since that day in 1941. Many young Americans have forgotten; if they ever knew, what happened that day. Yet there is still an understanding of how important the event was to the American Psyche. Americans have always been better mythmakers than Canadians. I don’t mean that in a derogatory fashion. They have always been good at taking events; crystallizing the spirit or essence of the event and preserving that. Americans still “get” Pearl Harbor Canadians don’t. I was there last month; in Honolulu and there was no way I would visit Oahu without visiting Pearl Harbor. You will never get the historian out of me. You can never understand Pearl Harbor without understanding what was happening in America and the rest of the world in December of 1941. Like most world events war was at the heart of it. The world had emerged from the First World War, bloodied, exhausted, sick (Spanish influenza) and broke. The victorious Allies (including the Americans) had inflicted a punishing peace treaty on Germany and were forcing her to pay back vast sums of money spent by the Allies on the war. Germany had been forced to surrender by mass starvation and had no money to pay reparations. The whole world descended into the great depression. All nations began to look inward. They were poor and starving and had no time to think of their neighbors in Europe and no money to do anything about their plight even if they did care. America especially retreated into “Isolationism” it was felt that America had been sucked into the First War by her European Allies the French and the English and that the war had been a waste of American lives and money. American politicians began to run on platforms of “No Foreign Wars”. While the economy was going south in America the Germans were starting to rebuild. Hitler rose to power and the world looked aside at his eccentricities because he was rebuilding the economy. When he began saber rattling the European democracies made deals backed up by vague threats that they were ill equipped to support. Had Hitler existed in a vacuum America might never have joined the war. But Hitler had made a pact with Japan and Japan had plans of its’ own in the Pacific that made conflict virtually inevitable. America remained neutral while Germany overran Poland and Belgium, Holland and France and bombed the great cities of Britain into rubble. The American President FDR knew that he should do something but he did not have the people of America behind him. He was a great friend of Winston Churchill (who was himself half American) and gave as much aid in money and materiel as he dared. In the Pacific the Japanese invaded Manchuria and were threatening the holdings of the European powers then at war with her German ally. The two great Pacific powers (the U.S. and Japan) were on a collision course. Japan had few natural resources and the Americans had gotten fed up the Japanese aggression and cut of exports to Japan. The Japanese formed plans to seize the resources that they needed. In secret they formed a plan to strike the Americans hard and fast. Admiral Yamamoto the great mastermind of the Japanese war effort had spent time in the U.S. he knew the awesome power of the industries there. He told the high command he could promise only six months of victory against the Americans. What the Japanese wanted on December 7th was to catch the American aircraft carriers in harbor. They knew the surface ships were there but they wanted the carriers. While the attack was a huge humiliation and blow to American prestige it was a limited victory for the Japanese. They did not get the carriers and they did not damage the naval facilities and fuel storage on Oahu. The Americans lost four battleships (three of which they salvaged and refloated). Six months later at the battle of Midway the Americans caught Admiral Nagumo’s flotilla and sank four of the carriers that were at Pearl Harbor. True to Yamamoto’s word he gave them six months of victory. Today when you go to Pearl Harbor it is still bristling with naval might. The museum dedicated to the battle overlooks Battleship Row where those four ships were sunk. You watch a very moving video put together by the U.S. Park Service then board a launch to visit the site of the USS Arizona. She is the only Battleship left at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Aboard her are eleven hundred of her crew; they died that fateful day and sleep in her belly. When you look down from the memorial you can see the rusted hull beneath the waves. Oil still bubble’s up out of her seventy years later like the blood of the great lady. Do you remember the old joke about the plane crashing on the border and where do you bury the survivors? Well if you were a survivor of the Arizona you might have a choice to make. For if you are a survivor who was aboard her on Dec. 7 1941 you can opt to be cremated and have your ashes interred with your shipmates in her hull. If you served on her before Pearl Harbor the Park Service will scatter your ashes over the site. This day December 7 2011 they will inter the ashes of three survivors with their old comrades. This is a solemn place; a place of remembrance and reflection; of loss and of forgiveness. For out of the ashes of the Second World War came a different plan. Not to punish our enemies like the Treaty of Versailles did in 1919; but instead the Marshall plan where the Allies (largely the U.S.) helped pick her former enemies up and gave them back their dignity and helped them build two world class economies out of the dust and death of war. These men who are today being reunited with their comrades are heroes too, for not only the dead are heroes. The fact that I observed Japanese tourists on the memorial says to me that they didn’t die in vain. May they all rest in peace.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The miracle of flight

I just came back from holidays. When you live in the north holidays involves a series of plane flights, usually on progressively larger planes on the way out and progressively smaller ones on the way back. I have started holidays in a four seater where I have sat in the copilot’s seat and finished up on a jumbo jet; where, oddly enough they did not ask me to sit in the copilot’s seat. We had a pilot who used to joke “There are two washrooms on this flight; one here in Tulita and the other in Norman Wells. The flight is too short for an in-flight movie but not to worry your life will flash before your eyes!” Bush pilots; you gotta love them.
At some point in time on any number of trips I have made over the years someone standing in the departure lounge staring out at a massive piece of metal and glass and rubber that is their aircraft and will remark; “I still don’t understand how they get them to fly.” It does seem quite unlikely that this massive object can slip the bonds of earth and soar into the sky. I have had the opportunity to witness many flyers who are totally unconvinced that it will happen as they sit in their seats feet plastered to the floor hands lifting the arm rests like they were holding the plane in the air. I feel like leaning over once we have landed and saying; “Thanks for the smooth flight!” But that might be a bit cruel. I do not recall ever being afraid to fly. In fact it is a bit of a rush. I love the feeling of G-Force when you are pushed back into your seats as the plane hurtles down the runway. Where else could you hit such speeds on the ground without blue lights flashing in your rear view mirror? I love this part of flying. The lack of leg room; the sucky food and surly attitudes of fascist flight crew who have studied every rule of flying and want to make you aware of every one of them on every flight is another matter. But the sense of speed and the sheer power of takeoff are great.
No; this is not the miracle of flight of which I speak. I have long ago accepted that the miracle of flight itself is a simple matter of physics; thrust and lift, weight ratios etc. Even those who claimed that it was impossible for a bumble bee to fly if you worked it out on paper are wrong. I once watched a television show where a physicist explained bumble bee flight and they are quite capable. No to me the miracle of flight is something else entirely.
What I find miraculous is when the gate agents announce “This is a pre-boarding announcement only. Will those people requiring extra time boarding and those flying with small children please board the plane now?” Fifty people will surge forward with all manner of physical impairments and board the plane early. As soon as those poor unfortunates have boarded the healthy ones will stand and form a line long before the gate agents voice comes over the speakers and says “ Ladies and gentlemen thank you for your patience we will now begin general boarding of Fascist airlines flight blah , blah, blah.” The rest of us board the airline. Now I would like to point out one salient fact to all who fly. It doesn’t matter when you board; that plane aint leaving until every last mother’s son (and father’s daughter) is on that plane. We have all heard the plaintiff voice of the gate agents as they butcher people’s last names over the pathetic public address system “Would passengers Hrzelsquatch and Spuzzerby please report to gate blah, blah, blah for the immediate departure of their plane? That is passengers Hrzelsquatch and Spuzzerby to gate blah, blah, blah for the immediate departure of your aircraft.” The poor sods are probably fifteen feet away but don’t recognize what the gate agent has done to their names. If even one person misses the flight they have to remove that person’s baggage before the plane takes off so what’s the rush?
So let’s say that all the passengers make the flight. You soar to twenty; thirty or even forty thousand feet on route to your destination and somewhere along the way a miracle occurs. Because lo and behold; when you reach said destination no matter how short the flight; no matter how high or low you flew, when the flight attendants come on the PA and say “Those passengers travelling with small children or requiring extra time deplaning please remain in your seats and we will assist you.” Behold the miracle; only the people flying with children remain. Somehow all the other people who limped on the plane have shaken their impediments and been cured mid flight. It’s a miracle!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Wringing the last drop out of a wrong number

I wonder if Alexander Graham Bell got wrong numbers. I hope so. I hate them. There is nothing as loud as the sound of a phone ringing in a sleeping house at two in the morning. Lina got to it first on about the third ring. “Hello?” She answered weakly and groggily. “Is Wuzzername there?” Said a thick; slurred voice on the other end of the line. “You have the wrong number!” Lina replied, sounding more awake and a lot angrier. We put the incident out of our minds and went back to sleep. This time; when the phone rand Lina picked it up on the second ring “What?!” She barked. “Is Wuzzername there?” It was the same drunken voice. “You have the wrong number!” Lina answered with as much venom as she could muster. She slammed the receiver down even though it was cordless and that’s not what hangs it up.
Now this was far from my first late night wrong number. I remember when I was living in northern Alberta in the 1980’s. Back in those days there were no cordless phones. There was only one phone jack and it was in the living room at the other end of my trailer. When the phone rang at three in the morning I staggered ha length of the trailer in inky blackness stubbing my toe on the kitchen table in the process. “Hello?” I said still half asleep. “This is Alberta Government Telephones; I have a collect call from Henry do you accept the charges?” The operator’s voice sounded young. It figured only someone new would get stuck working at this hour of the night. I could hear a plaintiff voice in the background. A drunken plaintiff voice “Accept the charges Dad it’s me Henry.” Now Henry was a neighbor of mine. He was a sweetheart when he was sober. As there was no place to drink or buy booze in our little town he was usually sober. But every time he went to the nearest larger town he got drunk. Three a.m. was when the bars closed. “You have the wrong number.” I said putting the receiver down. I tried to get back to bed without opening my eyes.
I have had sober people call me back after a wrong number and I had barely put the phone down. I swear they hit redial. That is stupidity. Drunkenness is a different kettle of worms. Drunks have randomness to their thought process which allows their poor victim time to fall back into that deepest stage of REM sleep. The stage where young men are dreaming of waving a fly rod on a clear day in their favorite strip of trout water. A day so still and so perfect that the only flies are in your vest pockets and the only ripples on the water are trout rising to your fly. When suddenly with a deafening clatter the phone bell rends the air like the atomic bomb! I shot to my feet like I had been ejected out of bed. Again I thought I could stay asleep with the lights off so again I navigated the shoals of furniture without the benefit of the lights. I ran aground on a kitchen chair and hopped the last six feet my wounded toe in one hand as I scooped the receiver up with the other. “Hello?” I squealed into the mouthpiece. The same young voice as before; the same professional spiel “This is Alberta Government Telephones; I have a collect call from Henry.” I was stunned. There must only be one operator on duty at that hour of the night in northern Alberta. “Oh for crying out loud! It’s the same number as before lady; it’s still the wrong number!” I could still hear Henry sniveling on the other end of the line. “Well I am just doing my job! I have to put these calls through what if it was an emergency?” She sounded hurt and I immediately regretted my tone. “I’m sorry operator. But this isn’t his Dad’s place I am just trying to fish. I mean sleep.” As I hung up I made a mental note to look up Henry’s Dad’s phone number the next day.
I think the randomness is as infuriating if not more infuriating than the thing itself. I had actually hooked the fish this time when the phone exploded into action. This time I made no pretense of trying to stay asleep and I turned on the hall light which seemed to be a million candle power. It blinded me so badly I walked straight into the end table the phone sat on. “Hello?” I said dumbly into the phone. “This is Alberta Government Telephones; I have a collect call from Henry.” She sounded apologetic almost pleading. “I’ll accept the charges.” I said forlornly. She seemed stunned. There was a long silence only partly filled with the sound of Henry on the other end begging his Dad to accept the charges. “It’s the same guy; the same wrong number.” She said finally. “I know; but it is the only way I am going to get to sleep. “ I said. “I owe you.” She said kindly. For the next half an hour I got Henry’s life story. Once he realized I wasn’t his Dad he asked who I was. In time he figured it out. In time to he passed out. I hung up and grabbed the skinny phone book and turned to the half page that held our town’s phone numbers. Sure enough Henry’ Dad’s number was the reverse of mine. So Henry was not just an alcoholic he was dyslexic oot.
A month or so passed in which I slept well. Then; one night at three a.m.; the phone rang. I had learned a lesson and with a flashlight by my bed I walked the distance from my bedroom to the living room without incident. I picked up the receiver “This is Alberta Government Telephones;” A now familiar voice said. “I have a collect call from Henry for Greg. Will you accept the charges?” I was stunned. “Yes operator I will.” Henry and I had what would become our typical conversation. He talked about how bad his life was and I listened. We didn’t become friends but we became friendly. As the calls were only once in a while; and as they were no longer wrong numbers I actually grew to enjoy them; sort of.
When I moved about a year later my replacement asked me if he could keep the same phone number. We had shared the small trailer for some weeks and his parents already had the number memorized. I gave it no thought and quickly agreed. Some weeks later and in a somewhat testy voice he asked me; over the phone, of course. “Who is Henry?” “Probably a wrong number.” I commiserated. “A pretty damned persistent wrong number!” said he.
Meanwhile back in the present tense the phone rang again. I beat Lina to it this time. “Is Wuzzername there?” The voice sounded a little angry. “You have the wrong bloody number!” I thundered. Lina put her hand on my arm to calm me. “Look this is my own number; I ought to know my own number!” Said the boozy one. You should I thought but obviously you don’t. Just then an idea hit me. “Wuzzername is passed out. After you left she invited us all over and we drank all your booze and broke a few things, sorry!” There was a pause. I could almost see the look on his face as he figured out what that meant. “I am coming right home and you had better all be gone when I get there!” This time he slammed down the receiver. Lina stared at me. “So now he’s coming here?” She asked incredulous. “What do you call that?” I beamed. “Payback!” I rubbed my hands. “He isn’t coming here. He has no idea where we are. He is going home where a very surprised Wuzzername is no doubt sleeping. I’d give ten bucks to see the look on both of their faces.” I wish I had Graham Bell’s number in heaven. I’d love to ring him up and ask him if he has Prince Albert in the can.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The lure and lore of the northern lights

Photo By Brodie Thomas

“When am I going to get to see the northern lights?” Sharon the newest member of our management team asked. Fresh from God’s country (Nova Scotia) she wanted to see the big show. I couldn’t blame her it is well worth the wait though. “Well you’ll have to wait until it gets dark at night which won’t be until late August. Some of the best lights are at the end of August and early September.” I was smiling as I said it her exuberance reminded me of my own when I first went north. I had seen it many times over the years everyone has a natural curiosity about the lights and they are magnificent; one of the great natural wonders of the world. I thought back twenty five years ago to when I first saw them on a bus headed into northern Alberta. I had asked the bus driver if the apostrophe shaped smudge on the northern horizon was the northern lights he said he wasn’t sure but if they were still there in an hour or two they must be. “Otherwise,” he informed me “it’s just smoke from the mill.” Big mill; I thought. As I got off the bus eight hours later they were still there. “Looks like they were the lights.” He said with a smile as I got. Off. They filled the horizon now. “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” I remember thinking.
“What are the lights?” Sharon asked. “That depends who you ask.” I replied. “The peoples of the polar world all have their own explanation. The Finns call it Fox Fire they say that a great fox painted the Arctic sky with snow on its’ tail. The Eskimo of Greenland say they are the spirits of babies who died in childbirth.” Sharon visibly shivered. “That’s so sad.”She replied. “The Sami of Scandinavia believe they are the souls of the dead. They have an icon for them and use it in the artwork and evoke their power in their magic. My people; the Scots, call them The Merry Dancers. Closer to home the Cree I have lived among called them The Spirit Dancers. They too believe they are the spirits of the dead.” “I never knew they had such power over people.” Sharon said in a hushed voice. “Wait until you see them. You’ll understand.” I said smiling at her naiveté. “Don’t whistle when you see them.” Said my wife quietly. My wife is Dene; Chipeweyan to be exact. “Why not?” Sharon asked. “They will attack you.” Lina said seriously. “Some native people believe that the lights will take you away if you whistle or call them down or trifle with them. I think it comes from the awe and reverence in which they are held. It’s like a mark of respect; to take these wonders seriously” Sharon seemed impressed. “They crackle too.” Added Lina. “Really?” Sharon sounded incredulous. “Yeah, to the Dene the lights are a multi media event. They believe that when the lights are low the crackle and they have a smell.” “A bad smell! Don’t breathe it or it will kill you!” Lina added. “There is a legend of five hunters near Hay River who were using the light of the Borealis to hunt. The sound of their dog sleigh bells brought the lights down on them and even though they lay in the snow they were killed by breathing in the vapor.” I added.
“I remember once I was hunting in the Peace country of Northern Alberta. I had just bedded down when my dog raised his head and started to growl. I looked up and the wall of my tent was lit up like daytime. “What on earth?” I thought as I scrambled out through the tent door; my dog beside me. When I got outside I realized that it was not a case of what on earth? But rather of what in Heaven? The sky was dancing with curtains of neon green waving as if in some great cosmic breeze. Then I heard what had made my dog growl. Wolves! Choruses of wolves over the distant hills were calling out to the distant lights. Answered by a lone wolf much nearer; no doubt a lone black male we had spotted earlier in the day. A shiver went up my spine. I petted my dog and stood in awe of the sight and sound. This was what I had come north for.”
“But what are they really?” Sharon’s boyfriend Bart asked; always the skeptic, always the realist. “Cosmic dust carried on the solar wind.” I replied as cryptically as I could manage. “No; seriously.” He added. “Yes, seriously. They are caused by energized ions of dust carried by the solar wind. They enter the upper atmosphere and react with the elements there. The color of the lights changes according to the elements that the charged particles react with. The upper atmosphere is mostly oxygen which makes them green. Other elements make them blue or rarely red. They are often visible further south but they appear lower on the horizon. The closer to the magnetic pole you are the more overhead they will appear. It is largely a magnetic phenomenon.” Like I said you have to see them. A month or so later I was on the phone to Bart and Sharon. “I saw them!” Sharon was saying. She was ecstatic. She was on facebook right away telling her friends. A month after that she was asking me if I had seen them the night before. I had. I never get tired of them.
“So tell me…” Said Bart; the skeptic. “Do you believe the legends of the lights?” I thought for a moment. “I believe there are legends about the lights.” I replied slyly. “That is not what I asked.” He replied. Another pause. It was a touchy subject. I have always believed that I am a guest here in someone else’s land; that I have been privileged to share in the culture of the people who do live here. This is their land and these are there beliefs. I do not take them lightly nor would I ever dream of mocking them. “I do not disbelieve them. I respect these beliefs and the rights of those who believe them. They are formed out of awe and respect for nature and the creator. I share that awe and I share that respect.” I said gravely. “Did you ever whistle at the northern lights?” He asked.

“Never!” I said and I meant it. “And I never will.”