About the Author

Kevin Patterson

Books by this Author
Consumption
Excerpt

Eskimo ­Poetry

Here I stand,
Humble, with outstretched ­arms.
For the spirit of the ­air
Lets glorious food sink down to ­me.
Here I ­stand
Surrounded with great ­joy.
And this time it was an old dog ­seal
Starting to blow through his blowing ­hole.
I, little man,
Stood upright above it,
And with excitement ­became
Quite long of body,
Until I drove my harpoon in the ­beast
And tethered it ­to
My harpoon line!

–Recorded and translated from the Inuktitut by Danish ethno­grapher and explorer Knud Rasmussen in Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 1921­24

One

Storms are sex. They exist alongside and are indifferent to words and description and dissection. It had been blizzarding for five days and Victoria had no words to describe her restlessness. Motion everywhere, even the floors vibrated, and such motion as was impossible to ignore, just as it was impossible not to notice the squeaking walls, the relentless shuddering of the wind. Robertson was in Yellow­knife, and she and the kids had been stuck in this rattling house for almost a week, the tundra trying to get inside, snow drifting higher than the windows, and everyone in the house longing to be ­outside.

It was morning, again, and she was awake and so were the kids, but they had all stayed in bed and listened to the walls shake. Nine, or something like that, and still perfectly black. She had been dreaming that she had been having sex with Robertson. She was glad she had woken up. Even the unreal picture of it had left her feeling alarmed–though that eased as the image of the two of them, entwined, had faded. In another conscious moment she was able to blink the topic away and out of her thoughts. As it had ­been.

She could hear her girls, Marie and Justine, whispering to each other in their bedroom. She couldn’t tell what they were saying. She heard the word potato. Pauloosie, her son, her oldest child, was silent. She listened carefully and thought she could hear him turning in his bed. And then the wind wound up and just ­howled.

As a girl she had not been this restless, waiting out storms with her parents on the land in a little iglu, drinking sweet tea and lying on caribou skins. It had been more dangerous then but less frightening. Storms make an iglu feel more substantial somehow. This house, on the other hand, felt as if it were about to become airborne, and it would have if not for the bolts tethering it to its pilings. It had been made in Montreal, of particleboard and aluminum siding, before being shipped by barge to Hudson Bay, sagging from square with each surge of the sea. Where the door frame gapped away from the kitchen door, snow sprayed through in parabolas. These wee drifts persisted as long as the door stayed closed. After five days they seemed as permanent as furniture. The wind whistling under the house kept the kitchen floor nearly as cold as the stone beneath ­it.

That stone slid, in its turn, through the town, to the shore, and then under the ice of Hudson Bay, angling shallowly out into the sea basin like a knife slipping between skin and meat. And on top of that water was ice, a ­quarter-­million square miles of it, arid and flat and sucking in the frigid air from the High Arctic like a bellows–blowing it down through Rankin Inlet and into the rest of the unmindful continent. Chicago would be Rome but for this frozen ocean, not that its significance is known to anyone who doesn’t live alongside ­it.

Rankin Inlet, Repulse Bay, Baker Lake, Coral Harbour, Whale Cove: variations on the theme of shelter from the sea, each of these hamlets lies on the west coast of Hudson Bay, named by whalers seeking safety in the nineteenth century. The smallest is a couple hundred people and the largest of these, Rankin Inlet, is two thousand, almost all Inuit, with a handful of southerners, Kablunauks, among ­them.

The people exist along this coast against a backdrop of a ­half-­million square miles of tundra, gently rolling treeless plains. In the summer, this land is boggy and ­moss-­bound; in the winter–frozen and blasted lowlands: eskers of rock protruding through shallow snow. The Inuit lived here for ten thousand years, pulling their living from this meagre forage until the 1960s, when they accreted in the little government towns built along the coast and left the tundra empty of human inhabitants for the first time since the glacial ice ­melted.

Victoria and Robertson had been married a year when Robertson paid to have this house shipped here, for his new family to live in. It was twice the size of the housing department shacks offered to the rest of the community; this benefit of marrying a Kablunauk had been observed and remarked upon in Victoria’s presence since the house had floated its way to the bay at the edge of the town. The other young families were crowded into the back rooms of their relatives’ cramped houses, and privacy such as Victoria knew was held to be an uncommon ­luxury.

Robertson was not from here, and so no toothless and ­snuff-­spitting aunts had been assigned to their family. The drawbacks of marrying a Hudson’s Bay Company man had been explored by dozens of women in the town, but this single advantage held. She lay in her bed now and listened to her daughters squealing and whispering and calling out to each other. This was an intimacy, she thought, that could never be available to a family who shared its house with another. She was lucky, at least on that score. But then, she thought, there might be a different kind of intimacy available to the cousins and brothers who had grown up unencumbered by the rind of ­privacy.

She was thinking about that when the banging at the kitchen door began. Victoria thought the door had become unfastened, and she leapt out of bed to close it before it was torn from its hinges.

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Country of Cold
Excerpt

LES IS MORE

It was a Tuesday when Lester came home from work, five in the morning and the sky bled pale in the east, trailer empty. Rhonda gone, gone, gone. Lester sat down on their bed and looked at the drawers still pulled open and the detritus of fast packing. The carpet was flaked with torn paper and the rising sun lit the pressboard-paneled walls with an oblique and brightening glow. Lester felt like detritus himself. Then he got back into his truck and drove down to the Billy Burger Drive-Thru. He ate a triple Billy Buster Burger and two orders of onion rings and a piece of apple pie and an ice cream cone. Then he went home and slept. When he woke up in the afternoon he went down to Flora's Cafe and ate steak and eggs. Then French toast. And a milkshake. And another piece of apple pie.

In the months that followed, Lester gained a half-dozen track suits and the profile of an engorged chigger. Never in his life had he been more than routinely bulbous. Now, when he stood straight and naked and looked down, he could barely see his penis from above. He shook his pendulous arms and watched them jiggle.

In the mirror, behind his burgeoning girth, he could see milkshake cups stacked on the table beside his bed. Walking through the house: in the kitchen the dishes leaned drunkenly and the takeout menu of every restaurant within thirty miles that had a delivery van was taped to the refrigerator door. He had not spoken much with Rhonda since she left, although he had seen her in town a few times, where they both had looked frightened and alarmed at one another. Her lawyer had written him a letter a few months ago. After he read it he had cried for about an hour, hanging on to the door handle of the freezer compartment. If things continued at this pace, soon he would not be able to turn around behind the bar down at the Rushing River Bar and Grill.

Fridays, when college is in session, the Rushing River howls with adolescent fury; mascara runs like rained-on fresh paint, cotton ribbed T-shirts cling to magnificent shoulders, and there are always some who can't wait to get home. Angry music hollers and so does Lester: Beer is two and a quarter I said! And get your ass off the bar! Bud and Double Diamond on tap! Thank you!" Lester and his friend Cindee, one of the waitresses, kept up a running repartee of deranged facial expressions. Cocked eyebrows, crossed eyes, and pre-emetic cheek bulging kept them entertained and at least a little distracted from youth, half in the bag.

On this night, Marilyn, the head waitress, was in a foul mood, and when it was this busy the kids made her steadily fiercer and Cindee was hiding from her. Apparently there had been words. Cindee's absence only increased the number of belligerent and beer-breathed children thrusting their faces into Marilyn's and the coming cataclysm was one well-trod path. Lester decided that tonight it would be worth the price of defusing the Cindee-Marilyn thing and maybe not getting hit with flying crockery. Lester got Harold, the bouncer, to watch the bar for a minute, which Harold never minded, as he felt it gave him license to steal as much of Lester's tips as he could fit in his too-tight jeans pockets.

First Lester checked the stairs below the kitchen and listened for weeping. Then he went into the kitchen and asked Donna, the cook, if she had seen Cindee. Finally he climbed the stairs to the roof and looked out. He sat down on a ventilation shaft and panted. The sky was very clear and very black. The roof shook from the music. The ventilation shaft shook from Lester. When he finally caught his breath he heard the soft mewing of Cindee crying. He stood up and followed the sound through the maze of ventilation ducts on the rooftop. He sat down beside her. She was holding a bottle of Molson Canadian between her legs and looking off toward the falls. "Hey," he said, wheezing.

"Hey yourself," she said, between sobs. The floodlights were shining purple and green against the falling water and they both studied them.

"She's cranky, hey?"

"Who?"

"Marilyn."

"No, she's fine." Cindee and Les sat there. The music thumped below them and the Rushing River Falls roared faintly at the edge of town.

"So . . . you thought you'd set down your tray in the middle of a set and come up here because . . ."

"I feel awful, Les."

"How come?"

"I gotta move out from Sam, I think." Sam, her live-in boyfriend of the last three years, quiet guy, employable, came to the bar now and then, never said too much. Handsome too -- looked like a billboard ad for plaid shirts. To Lester they had always seemed like deer together, graceful and quiet and attentive. At ease with each other.

"What's up?"

"I'm not what he thinks he's headed for."

"What do you mean?"

"He thinks he's bound to marry some six-foot tiny-assed blond woman who doesn't smoke, never loses her temper, and shaves her pubic hair."

"Who?"

"I don't know, he doesn't either, I don't think. But he keeps waiting and waiting. In the meantime he hangs out with me."

"What makes you think that's what he wants?"

"Don't be naive, Lester. That's what everyone wants."

"It isn't what I want."

"Of course it is."

"What's happened lately?"

"Nothing. Nothing has happened lately. We both go to work and eat breakfast and we play pool and go to movies. He pays off his truck loan. He likes me, feels comfortable around me, but wonders when his ship is going to come in. One of these days he'll win the lottery. He's optimistic like that. When I first met him it was part of what I liked."

"Does he say this, that he's waiting for someone better?"

"No, of course not."

"Then what makes you so sure that's what he thinks?"

"Sometimes you just know things, you know?"

The falls roared on and on. Lester didn't have any reply for that. He seemed to rarely just know things. He had been so astonished at Rhonda's departure that he wondered afterward if he understood anything about her and what she had wanted. But Rhonda wasn't six feet tall and blond, and he wanted her. The only thing she was was gone. Cindee and Rhonda had become friends through Lester, and though he knew the women still spoke to one another, Cindee never talked with Lester about Rhonda. He had wanted a hundred times to ask her what she knew of Rhonda's reasons for leaving but had always bitten off the question. After a while he stopped always wanting to ask, but he still wondered why.

"Do you think anyone ever knows why anyone else loves you, or stops loving you?"

"Lester, it was good that she left. And it will be good when I get it together enough to leave Sam. Those two don't want us."

The Rushing River Falls were visible from nearly anyplace in Rushing River township and audible anywhere out of doors; they were the whole reason for the town to exist. In the 1880s the falls had become a tourist destination, and the train was put through expressly to take advantage of the anticipated visitor traffic. Since then, representations of the town had been spread through the continent in a thousand glass bubbles of water and miniature snowy waterfalls and tiny perfect houses abutting the cataract. Even now the town could no more be thought of as existing independently of the falls than Banff could be thought of without mountains and lakes. Or Wawa and its giant goose. Twenty-six feet, eighteen inches, total height.

The first man to attempt to ride over the falls did so in a rum barrel the day after Armistice Day, 1918. The barrel was shattered on the rocks and his pulped body was gathered up with dip nets in the pool below. After this there was a succession of attempts in steadily more elaborate vehicles--the first nonlethal ride was made by a twenty-two-year-old man named Roy Bodner in 1932 in a steel ball. He nearly asphyxiated, and spent the remainder of his years in the Rushing River Memorial Hospital drooling into a towel. He died in 1976, a local hero. Following his lead, there were episodic rides made throughout the forties and fifties, in balls and barrels of different designs. One man alone had made five successful trips over the falls, in a vehicle he called the Roy Bodner. In an effort to discourage these stunts the town council had passed an ordinance that dictated that survivors of the trip would be fined ten thousand dollars upon their rescue. Making the trip illegal of course only made the undertaking more attractive to the folks who were drawn to such things anyway, and soon the river was filled with drifting and bobbing cylinders and spheres and pyramids with snorkels protruding. It wasn't until a hydro diversion upstream nearly doubled the water flow in the river that the problem abated. In one weekend in 1973, eight barrel riders disappeared. Concerned about the tourist traffic, the town rescinded the ordinance, but word was out: the falls were no longer passable, spoiled like so much of the country. Rushing River was nearly forgotten overnight.

The barrel riders had left their mark on the town, however, and even now were remembered in neon signs along Main Street, announcing perpetual vacancies to the world at the Splash 'n' Dash Motel and the price of grilled cheese sandwiches at the Foamy Water Cafe. The townspeople remembered, as well, the sight of the terrified young men and women as they walked up and down the sidewalks of Main Street the night before their attempt. The bartenders, at one time, were adept at judging how many hours the prospective rider had to wait from the rate at which their jauntiness eroded. Just pulled into town: swaggering and laughing. Six hours to go: lips pulled tightly back, eyes narrowed, disposed to vomiting. But the riders were all gone now and the town was the less for it. The floodlights danced against the falling water and it was still beautiful, but duller.

After many minutes of not talking, Lester and Cindee both stood up and walked back to the stairs down to the bar.

"Hey Lester?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you mind waiting until I get to the bottom before starting down?"

"No problem, Cindee."

"Thanks, Lester."

When they got back, Marilyn was in a white-hot burn. Harold's trousers bulged as if a trio of fattened ground squirrels had wedged themselves in there. The line of eager beer purchasers was twenty deep. Lester set to tending bar. Somebody was spraying beer into the mouth of somebody's girlfriend.

Cindee cashed out fifteen minutes after closing time and grabbed one of the cabs waiting outside beside the still-milling crowd. Ten minutes after that, Sam showed up. Lester was sweeping the floor and Marilyn was counting her money. She tipped out five dollars to Lester. Just to make herself clear. Sam knocked on the door and Lester let him in. He felt guilty, for knowing what was in store for Sam before Sam did, and he would not compound that by being rude to him.

Lester poured him a bourbon and Sam sat down at the bar. "Cindee's not around?"

"Just missed her. You want some chicken wings with that? They're still hot."

"Well, if they're still hot."

"Coming right up."

Lester brought a platter of wings the size of a garbage can lid and pulled up a stool opposite Sam at the bar. He opened a beer for himself. "How are you, Sam?"

"Fine as wine, Lester. Could use some more work these days, but otherwise I'm fine."

"What kind of work do you do again?"

"I'm a welder."

"What do you weld, Sam?"

"I can weld anything. Aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, magnesium, anything. Electric arc, tungsten-inert gas, oxyacetylene, I do all those. Got my tickets for aeronautical work, underwater work, and pipelines. Since the Rockwell plant shut down, there's not much call for the fancy stuff anymore. I liked that work -- delicate, precise joints in wild alloys. But even black iron is fun to me. Pulling the bead along a plate never gets old for me." Sam lifted his bourbon to that. Lester too.

"Sounds kind of stupid, making such a fuss about it like that, but it always gives me a charge. I think it's great work -- making things out of parts."

"Sounds like it."

"You mean stupid or great?

"Oh no, great. Melting metal so that it is joined to another piece. Smoothly and evenly."

"Yeah. It is."

"You about done that bourbon?"

"Are you offering?"

"I'm offering."

"Then I'm accepting."

Lester refilled his glass.

"Cindee looked okay when she left, did she?"

"Sure. I guess she's been a little moody lately," Lester said.

"She's got a lot on her mind," Sam replied.

"I guess so."

"It eats at her."

"Nice woman, though."

Sam looked right at him. "Yes."

They went to work on the wings then. Lester ate four-fifths of them and even so Sam leaned back stuffed before Lester wiped the last of the sauce up with a bread roll. They drank their drinks, two men never previously alone with one another, full of barbecued chicken wings in the empty bar. The lights bounced off the heavy cigarette smoke that hung like fog. The cashout was done and the staff had scurried out, headed either for all-night restaurants or late-night television, and just like he always was, Lester was the last one there, nearly alone. Like always.

He stretched and turned around on his stool, away from the bar. "This is a stupid job for a man my age."

"You don't like it?"

"It's easy, but it's not, you know, not very beautiful. The way welding is, say. I never talk about bartending like that."

"Welding is the only thing I talk like that about."

"It's something."

"It is." They sat there another few minutes and then Sam started rubbing his eyes.

"I don't know how you guys manage to work in all this smoke. Hey, do you want to get out of here, go for a drive?"

"Sure."

And they got up and walked to the door. Lester stopped to turn on the alarm and lock up behind them. Then Lester got in his truck and Sam got in his. Sam pulled out and Lester followed him out to the lake road and into the industrial park. They pulled into one of the lots. Sam got out of his truck and unlocked a chain-link fence gate and opened it. They drove inside and Sam locked it behind them. Around them were stacks of old car wrecks, train axles, and farm machinery. Among and through this a path led to an old corroded Quonset hut that they could just make out in the moonlight. The two men walked there and Sam opened the door with a key. "I rent this place for a hundred bucks a month. It's where I spend most of my time these days." He reached inside and flipped a breaker switch.

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Outside the Wire

Outside the Wire

The War in Afghanistan in the Words of Its Participants
edition:Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

January
by
Corporal Gordon ­Whitton

Gordon Whitton was born on July 18, 1974. He joined the Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders in Cornwall, Ontario, in 1994, and transferred to the regular force in September 1996. He served in the Persian Gulf in 2003 during Operation Apollo. Upon returning to Canada, he served in Reconnaissance Platoon, 1 PPCLI (First Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry), and deployed to Afghanistan in January 2006 for Operation Enduring Freedom. He was awarded a “mention in dispatches” for an incident on May 15, 2006, involving a roadside bomb, and returned in August 2006. He is now a member of the PPCLI Regimental Headquarters and lives in Edmonton, Alberta, with his wife and two ­children.
This is the first of three edited excerpts from the journal Gordon kept while in ­Afghanistan.

January 25, ­2006
The day we’ve been waiting for, for more than a year, is finally here. Nicole, the kids and I woke up early and got ready to drive to the Lecture Training Facility (LTF) on the Edmonton Garrison to say our final goodbye. It started to sink in before I’d even left our house, I was looking at my wonderful family and home and I knew I was going to miss this more than anything in the world. We took a few minutes to just hold each other tight on the couch before we ­left.

When we got to the base, I had some administration to take care of before we got on the buses, so our families could hang around for an hour or so. Landon, Brooke and the other kids were having fun running through all the files of troops on the parade square floor in the LTF. When General Grant (commander of Land Force Western Area) was speaking to all of us, Brooke got lost wandering around in front of him. General Grant stopped in the middle of his speech and asked who owned the little girl in the pink shirt and ponytail. Captain Hamilton knew she was mine, so he pointed her in the right direction; I was almost embarrassed to walk in front of the general to claim my ­kid.

After a little while all of our admin was complete. I took every chance to just hug my wife and kids as much as I could, it seemed every time I was holding my son or daughter, reporters were all around us taking pictures. My ­in-­laws, Don and Shirley, were also there to say their goodbyes to me, I was happy they could be there to do that, they left about twenty minutes before Nikki and the kids. Landon was just sitting on my kit, he couldn’t say much and he seemed depressed, he said he just wanted me to come home. I told him to be a good boy, have lots of fun and Daddy will come home soon, but the truth was seeping out of my eyes, I was having a hard time holding it back. Brooklyn told me she loved me and handed me a penny, which I made sure I put in a safe place. They all just seemed to go silent. I picked up the kids’ jackets and helped them put them on, zipped them up and told them I’d walk them ­out.

Just before they went through the doors, I kneeled down to the kids’ level and pulled them both in, I told them I loved them. I stood up and hugged Nikki one last time, I said, “Goodbye, baby, I love you and I’ll be home before you know it.” I said, “Go, go now, you guys, I love you.” They walked through the doors and down the corridor, Brooke and I blowing kisses at each other until they went out of sight. I started to get overwhelmed with some of the stuff I’d been holding in, I had to pull a Kleenex out of my pocket and get a grip on myself, I didn’t want to think about it, it just seemed like too much for me to handle. I knew what I had to do and I knew I must get my mind prepared to go out and do it. I made my way through the lines and boarded the bus that took us to the airport where a plane was waiting for ­us.

A Family Reflection of ­Afghanistan
by
Sergeant Russell D. ­Storring

Russell Storring joined the Canadian Forces in 1991 at seventeen years of age. During his career he has been posted to a variety of units across Canada, and he served with the UN in Rwanda in 1994 and with NATO in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2005. He is currently posted to the Canadian Forces Joint Signals Regiment, and resides in Kingston with his wife Nathalie and his ­children.

Although my family and I have known for a while that I will be leaving again for Afghanistan, I have been so busy helping another squadron get ready to deploy, I haven’t really had time to focus on my own departure. Then, at the end of May 2005, when I leave 2 Combat Engineer Regiment to become part of Recce Squadron, Royal Canadian Dragoons, it finally sinks in to Nathalie, the boys and me that, in a couple of short months, I will be headed to Afghanistan for the second time in two ­years.

We have talked about the danger of serving overseas, and, never keeping anything from Nathalie, I have told her about a couple of close calls from my first tour. It’s not really something that comes up over a romantic dinner, just a topic of discussion that sometimes comes out of the blue. When I first told Nathalie about a rocket attack on Camp Warehouse, she worried for a week and kept telling me that she didn’t want me to go back. It’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t in the army that an incident like that, which may seem like a close call to them, is just part of the job to a soldier. It’s not that you forget about those close calls after the tour, but because the risk isn’t there anymore, they no longer seem like that big a ­deal.

To ease Nathalie’s growing concerns as the days tick by before I depart, I tell her that I won’t be heading outside the camp as much as last time, which I know isn’t true. I don’t really think of it as a lie, but just a way to protect Nathalie and the boys from worrying all the time. Most of what I have been hearing from Recce Squadron is that we will be outside the camp for most of the tour, conducting reconnaissance patrols and convoys for the impending move from Kabul to Kandahar. It’s not really something Nathalie needs to know, and it definitely won’t help her peace of mind, so I decide to keep it from ­her.

In June, Recce Squadron heads out to finish our training with a confirmation exercise for the whole task force. It’s a little frustrating that just before we leave for a ­six-­month tour, when we want time with our families the most, we have to spend as much as three more months away from home, completing the required training and exercises. I know it bugs Nathalie that I am headed out for a couple of weeks so close to my scheduled departure date, but I assure her that the training will demonstrate to the commander that we are ready for the stresses and dangers of a tour and will also show us that we are as prepared as possible, allowing us to test our skills through a series of drills and exercises that have no actual life or death ­outcome.

One of the training scenarios that I lead a section through is an urban patrol in “Little Kabul,” a small shanty town that has been constructed in the Petawawa training area. My mission is to conduct a presence patrol, and to meet with the local police chief and the town mayor, all the while keeping within mandated rules of engagement. I run my section through orders, and after a quick shakeout, we head into the outskirts of the shanty town. Immediately, the locals (played by Third Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment soldiers, dressed to the part) start harassing our patrol for food and money, and trying to sell us trinkets. Some are gathered around burn barrels and others simply hang out in their huts watching us walk by. Along the way we are greeted by a variety of locals, from seemingly friendly to indifferent, most just happy to get in our way and make our patrol as difficult as possible. If anyone ever says that soldiers can’t act, then they haven’t seen the show that 3 RCR put on for our ­work-­up training. Except for the smell and the absence of the smoke that hangs over Kabul, this could almost pass for one of the little gatherings of houses that I saw so many times on my last tour in Afghanistan. The realism doesn’t stop there but carries on into ­first-­aid scenarios that involve IEDs (improvised explosive devices), booby traps and enemy insurgents all tied into one continuous realistic training program that both reinforces our abilities and forces us to improvise along the ­way.

In the second week of my final field exercise, Nathalie calls me from home and tells me that my stepfather, Gerry, is dying. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in late March, and told that he’d probably had it for five years. I already lost my father in 2001, and now before I head out again into harm’s way, I’m losing my stepfather, too. I inform my chain of command, and for all the times I’ve bitched about the army, I have to admit that they move pretty fast in getting me out of the field, back to the padre, leave pass in hand, and on my way home. The army prides itself on being like a family, and the soldiers that I have been working with and for prove to me that they care for me as one of their ­own.

We consider not taking our boys, Jonathan and Jeremy, to see their Papa Gerry, but feel it wouldn’t be fair to them if they weren’t able to see him again. With me still dressed in my combats, we make it to the Napanee hospital in record time. In my rush, I forget to thank the police officer who pulls me over for speeding, but, once I explain the situation, quickly lets me go with a ­warning.

After a short, courageous battle, Papa Gerry passes away on June 17, with his family by his side. As we stand around the hospital bed, and Jonathan and Jeremy realize that they won’t be seeing their Papa anymore, I realize that my boys are growing up faster than I want them to. It’s sad to have to learn, at six and nine years old, that death is a part of ­life–­it’s not that I’d ever felt an impending sense of doom or anything, but Nathalie and I both realize that death is something they should understand. They manage to gather themselves to say their final goodbyes and to kiss Papa Gerry on the cheek one last time, speaking mountains of their own fortitude and ­courage.

Pre-­deployment leave kicks in shortly after we return to Petawawa, and I am on leave from June 30 to July 22, before flying out on July 23. Nathalie’s parents come up for the Canada Day weekend, which happens to coincide with Canadian Forces Base Petawawa’s ­one-­hundredth birthday. A ­fun-­filled day watching the CF Gun Race, taking in various displays, and enjoying a ­world-­class parachuting display by the Canadian Sky Hawks culminates in a barbecue dinner at our house. While sitting in the living room after supper, my ­mother-­in-­law appears with a birthday cake and everyone starts singing “Happy Birthday.” I panic, wondering whose birthday I have forgotten, when I realize that the party is for me. Knowing I would miss another birthday at home, Nathalie had planned a surprise one for me, so I could celebrate with my family. I’m not really one for making a fuss over my own birthday, but this time it brings tears to my eyes, reminding me of what I will miss while I’m ­deployed.

That night, after everyone heads to bed, I realize just how much I ask of my family, how much they go through when I’m not here, and how much they give of themselves to support the life I have chosen. What does a child think when he’s talking to his father on the other side of the world, trying to explain his report card or how he’s hurt his foot playing soccer, or describing his first trophy? Sharing milestones in a child’s life by phone or email, and sometimes with pictures, just isn’t the same as sharing them in person. It’s hard to console a hurt little boy over the phone, and have him understand that you’re not there to make him feel better because you have a job to do helping other people. I’m not sure the boys understand when I tell them that, and every time I return, it seems that they have grown a little farther away from me than when I left ­them.

With only a couple of weeks left at home, I spend as much time with Nathalie and the boys as possible. We play ­mini-­putt and dodge ball, barbecue all the time and visit the beach. Nathalie and I spend our alone time in the evening talking, making plans for the future, watching movies or walking the dog. This is only Nathalie’s second tour as a military spouse, and she amazes me with her strength and steadfastness, especially since most of her friends’ husbands will not be deploying with me this time, making it harder for her, reminding her every day she sees them that I am gone and they are still ­here.

Nathalie finally asks me one night what she and the boys would do if something happened to me in Afghanistan. Being the person that I am, her question doesn’t really bother me, but I know from the tears welling up in her eyes that this is something she has been thinking about and keeping inside for a long while. I try to give her the normal answer–“Don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen”–but she cuts me off and asks, “But what if something does, what do we do?” Really, how is anyone supposed to answer that kind of question? I remind her that she is a strong girl, and would have to be strong for the boys, and that after a while, although it wouldn’t be the same, life would move on for them. Lots of people do it, and have done it, but I reassure her again that nothing is going to happen and that in five to six months it will all be over with and I will be on my way home again. I don’t think it is a question that really needs an answer, just Nathalie trying to tell me her fears and worries. She tearfully reminds me, “Don’t do anything stupid, and don’t be a hero,” before closing her eyes to ­sleep

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Water in Between
Excerpt

In August of 1994, I bought a twenty-year-old ferro-cement ketch on the coast of British Columbia. I did this in an effort to distract myself--at the time I was so absorbed in self-pity my eyes were crossed. I had been wandering around marinas sorrowfully leaning my head against dock pilings and losing my train of thought; I had the demeanor of an aging milk cow with the scours. People who met me thought I was either drunk or deranged. The most immediate cause of all this was a woman half a continent away who had been headed further for months. My sadness at our parting was histrionically out of proportion to anything that could have been justified by events.

I spent weeks chain-smoking and staring at the ground. At the time I was working as a doctor at a summer camp for Canadian army cadets in the B.C. Interior. It was an absurd job and I made an absurd picture, shuffling around the dusty parade grounds, hands in pockets, sighing grandly and ignoring the columns of pubescent boys and girls marching stiffly past me. I was twenty-nine and had been out of the army myself for only a year.

That summer, many Canadian medical officers were being sent to Rwanda and Bosnia. The army had always provided a doctor for the camp, but now they were short-staffed, which is how I had come to be there. When they called to ask me to fill in, I was working up in the Arctic, on the coast of Hudson Bay. It was late June, and so cold that even the river ice hadn't broken yet. The sea pack was solid to the horizon. I said yes without even thinking.

At the time I was drifting and had been since the previous summer--ever since leaving the army. I had been in Winnipeg, on my way to the job in the Arctic, when I met her. There was a week of slow suppers and long, delicious conversation. This was earlier in the winter and she was gentle, very beautiful and a little melancholic, and I was entranced by her. When it came time for me to fly north, we made imprecise plans about how we would meet. We agreed to call and write often. I started work at a small hospital on the shore of Hudson Bay. My second day there, an old man became very sick and needed to be transferred to the intensive care unit in Winnipeg. I volunteered to accompany him. I called her from the airport. After leaving the hospital I took a cab straight to her house.

During the time I was up in the Arctic, we telephoned one another almost daily but avoided the question of whether I should move to the city or she should move up there. It was an obvious but awkward issue. Part of the delight we took in seeing one another was the intermittency of our contact. As if that made our visits more potent, rather than, with increasing time and distance, less and less. It is a banal and familiar circumstance. Among soldiers, or the nurses in the Arctic, it is a cliche.

Then the army phoned, with this job in British Columbia. I would be just as far from Winnipeg, working there. Off I went.

About a month after I arrived at the summer camp she came out to visit me. We stayed together in a resort near the army base with the memorable name of Teddy Bear Lodge. There were small cabins with televisions and a swing set for children. The mountains rose up all around, and across the highway from our cabin was a long, deep lake. We tried to swim there but it wasn't possible. It was much too cold.

Before this we had only had the hurried, lip-biting, kiss-filled visits in Winnipeg when I had come down on the air ambulance. The Teddy Bear Lodge got our hopes up, but in the sustained company of the other, we each forgot two-thirds of the words we knew. After two weeks she went home. Saying goodbye at the bus terminal, we didn't confront the issue.

A month later, she telephoned me at work to tell me about the man she had met. She told me his name and apologized. She subsequently married him and they now have a baby daughter. Our mutual friends tell me that she is happier than they've ever seen her. Her graciousness and kindness in our limited intimacy only made my anguish more potent and my feeling of victimhood more laughable. To feel unentitled to your self-pity about triples it.

My roommate at the summer camp became alarmed and embarrassed as he watched me involute into a black and anguished puddle of self-obsessed sorrow. It felt ridiculous even at the time. I was tearing my clothes over one of the most abbreviated love affairs I'd ever had; it made no sense. If I went back to the city she lived in, which I had lived in before the army, I thought that I would drown. In the army, desperate for distraction, I had daydreamed about sailing on the ocean. I was from Manitoba; I knew nothing about sailing and had never been on the ocean in a little boat of any sort.

I found myself standing on a dock in Genoa Bay, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, in the company of a sixty-year-old man with a whiskey nose the size and color of a bruised and overripe beet. His name was Peter Ericson and he owned a sailboat brokerage, but his consuming passion seemed to be the promulgation of his theory that the Pacific Islands and most of the New World had been colonized by an ancient Scandinavian seafaring culture that revered magnetic fields. And maybe herring.

Before Ericson would even let me see his boats he had showed me his publications in the local Boat Journal. These were supposed to be advertisements for his business, but in fact they were long rants on the forgotten nobility of the Great White Gods, the Vikings, who journeyed forth in the ancient mists to show the less savvy races just how it was done. But the ghosts of the Norse sailor-folk could rest easy now, for Ericson had figured it out. And was bound to inform the world. Or, at any rate, me.

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Born to Walk

Born to Walk

The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act
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