When mem­ory takes flight

Northern Pen - - Front page - Bob Wake­ham Bob Wake­ham has spent more than 40 years as a jour­nal­ist in New­found­land and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwake­ham@nl.rogers.com

It may be a symp­tom com­mon to the geri­atric set, the 65plus crowd, but I find of late my mem­ory neu­rons are in al­most con­stant over­drive, di­rect­ing me to the high­way of nos­tal­gia with even the slight­est provo­ca­tion.

It could be I’m liv­ing in the past, the swing down mem­ory lane that used to drive me cracked when forced to fake in­ter­est as a young fella and some old-timer was bend­ing my ear.

Any­way, I’m there now (in old­timer mode, I mean), and sim­ply em­brace these free seats on the New­found­land time ma­chine when­ever they hap­pen along.

This par­tic­u­lar week, for in­stance, as I watched, with much guilt, parts of the wed­ding of the bad boy of the Roy­als and his Blist tele­vi­sion ac­tress, I be­gan to rec­ol­lect when the Queen vis­ited Gan­der, and we were forced to stand on the road near our school, wav­ing Union Jacks. Liz and Phil whipped by us so quickly it was im­pos­si­ble to tell just who was in that car, the first one most of us had ever seen with the top down. Later we were told, per­haps by a Catholic provo­ca­teur try­ing to stir up some home­spun big­otry, that our vis­i­tors from across the pond had ac­tu­ally stopped for a few min­utes in front of the “Amal­ga­mated School” so the Protes­tants, the “blacks,” could fawn over their non-Catholic he­roes.

But it was the amaz­ing video shown the other even­ing of a wa­ter-bomber fly­ing (or lum­ber­ing along) a cou­ple of hundred feet above the ground in New Har­bour that re­ally en­gaged my mem­ory bank, prompt­ing rec­ol­lec­tions of my own flights on iden­ti­cal air­craft, and of other ae­rial ad­ven­tures that seemed to oc­cur with reg­u­lar­ity dur­ing my ac­tive jour­nal­is­tic days, a time when fear was rarely part of my makeup, when I lived con­stantly on the edge, on and off the job (or per­haps when I was just a sucker for pun­ish­ment).

I ac­tu­ally took two trips on a wa­ter-bomber, the first with The Even­ing Telegram back in the mid ’70s, when the news­room boss, Bill Kelly, asked at the morn­ing editorial meet­ing for a vol­un­teer to write a story on the planes and their crews. I jumped at the chance, ig­nit­ing laugh­ter and re­lief from my col­leagues, none of whom wished to fly in a Sec­ond World War vin­tage air­craft that made its liv­ing “scoop­ing” wa­ter off New­found­land lakes and drop­ping its cargo on for­est fires.

There was no fire, and the flight was a train­ing ex­er­cise, but that didn’t di­min­ish the near ter­ror I felt while strapped tightly in my seat, just be­hind the pi­lot and copi­lot.

It was like be­ing in­side a gi­gan­tic skim­ming stone as the crew brought the bomber down on Paddy’s Pond, al­low­ing it to bounce (for want of a bet­ter word) along the sur­face, suck­ing up wa­ter into its tanks, and mak­ing sure the en­gines were at the pre­cise speed re­quired to do their job; it was akin to be­ing part of a crash land­ing that was averted at the last sec­ond.

When the “scoop” was con­cluded (and I had re­as­sured my­self I had not had a non­sched­uled bowel move­ment), and we headed up­wards in what I thought to be a dra­matic an­gle, I climbed closer to the two crew­men and shouted (you could barely hear your­self think above the roar of the en­gines) that they had put me in panic mode for a few anx­ious min­utes.

“Well, wait till we drop it,” one of them laughed.

And sure enough, when the mon­strous load of wa­ter left the plane, the dra­matic loss in weight forced the plane to rise straight up, like an el­e­va­tor, at a gut-churn­ing and sud­den rate of speed.

For­ever the masochist, I vol­un­teered to do the same sort of piece for CBC “Here and Now” a few years later, this time with cam­era­man Keith Whalen and sound­man Al Crocker shar­ing the flight and the fright.

On an­other oc­ca­sion, back in my news­pa­per days, I vol­un­teered to be a pas­sen­ger aboard a search and res­cue Buf­falo air­craft as it flew the coast­line look­ing for a miss­ing long­liner, fly­ing for nine hours about 500 feet above the ocean in what the crew la­belled a “coast crawl.”

The Buf­falo be­haved like a kite as the crew fought to keep it un­der con­trol, and it was nerve-rack­ing. In fact, after spot­ting the flight en­gi­neer and one of the pi­lots throw­ing up, I ig­nored my ma­cho ef­forts to keep my break­fast down and fol­lowed suit, as did the pho­tog­ra­pher on the trip, Bill Coul­tas. There was some gal­lows hu­mour on my part that forced Bill to join the up­chuck party, but I’ll spare you the graphic de­tails.

There was also an abun­dance of hairy he­li­copter trips dur­ing my days as a re­porter — fly­ing, for ex­am­ple, through a bliz­zard, the view oblit­er­ated at nu­mer­ous times by white­outs from Bishop’s Falls to Cor­ner Brook dur­ing an elec­tion cam­paign.

Some of those chop­per rides were ex­hil­a­rat­ing — one in par­tic­u­lar I made with cam­era­man Ty Evans and sound tech­ni­cian Ar­lene Dil­lon at Sa­glek Bay, Labrador, a flight that in­cluded a cou­ple of hours along the coast­line with one of the doors re­moved to sup­ply a bet­ter van­tage point for the shoot. It seemed as if you could just reach out and touch the cliffs and the crash­ing waves be­low.

The adrenalin flowed.

On that same trip, we landed atop one of Sa­glek’s mag­nif­i­cent moun­tains, climbed out and qui­etly ate our lunch, try­ing to com­pre­hend the stun­ning, sur­real set­ting.

The mem­o­ries abound of such flights, some scary, oth­ers thrilling, all of them await­ing an oc­ca­sion when those Skip­per Bob rec­ol­lec­tion neu­rons de­cide to kick in.

Lucky you.

Or not.

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