Old Wives’ Tales

The idea of old wives’ tales in Africa seems like a strange idea to me. Not the idea of a story that is mired in warning, exaggeration, and myth, but in the very description. Africa is not a place of old wives, but young widows. The median age in the democratic Congo is 17.4 years, and, barring disease, destruction, famine, or war, can expect to live to the ripe old age of 55. That age is, in the idea of western society, when some people think about packing in work for a condo on the back of a golf course, with a membership thrown in. That idea is also the driving force behind many contracted expats, and unfortunately my mention of wives’ tales involves them, as well as the widows.

I have heard some tall tales while living in Kinshasa. Some have been heresay, such as the story of the Russian IL-76 dumping 130 Congolese soldiers out the back. A heated argument of the troop contingent on board the plane arose to gunfire on the way back from Kisangani, and bullets on a pressurized airplane are not taken lightly. The Russian crew, pragmatists to say the least, put the nose in a high angle of attack, donned their oxygen masks, and dumped the cabin…with the cargo door open. Or so the story goes. At first it seemed unbelievable, but I have heard it recounted a few times. There is something almost legendary about this story. The idea of the poorly dressed soldiers tumbling out at 30,000 feet, their forest green uniforms lost against the backdrop of the everlasting jungle below them. I still have my reservations, but it’s a tall tale nonetheless.

Other times I have arrived at the site of another grand story just after it had happened. I was flying the day the LET-410 took off with the crocodile in his suitcase. The story that it had crashed had reached the UN aviation headquarters by the time we got back from a Gbadolite run, and people already knew that a crocodile had brought down the plane. A passenger had brought it onboard, and, being the African style of safety, people rushed the front, causing a load shift which took the poor plane down into the ouskirts of Kinshasa. This story had crediblility since the only two survivors were a passenger who recounted the harrowing incident, and the crocodile. I was saddened by the fact they had killed it after the crash; I thought surviving a crash like that, being stuck in a situation beyond your control, was worth a little hero worship.

Another one, the raid on Mbandaka, was another one I was fortunate enough to have missed by a few days. It begins simply enough.The locals had been angry about fishing rights, so they marched on the UN compound. Then it takes another course, a uniquely African yarn. The fishermen had brought their voodoo priestesses, and the Congolese army, having only AK-47’s against fishermen with black magic and machetes, chose the sensible option. They dropped their guns and ran. Panic ensued, and people scattered for the jungle as the newly armed fishermen, now carrying Army issued weaponry, proceeded to shoot up the compound. A South African pilot, with a bad case of gout, told his crew to go ahead and took refuge in a trailer. The details are hazy after that, but he was found shot, with some saying his hands were cut off and his throat sliced to make a point. I remember shaking my head and being skeptical, but I slowly came to realize that this is Africa, and the bucket of shells and blood on the containers proved evidence enough.

There are dozens of these stories, and they touch so close to home. They always involve air crew, usually, and it feels like there is an Angry Aviation God that demands sacrifice within the lush foliage, its eyes turned toward the sky, hungry for lives.

The saddest tale is the one that hits close to home for most of our crew. There was a CRJ-200 that parked near us. We were friendly with the crew, but they were our competition, and so fraternizing never really occurred. We all used to worry for them, as it seemed they were used to operating less maintenance heavy aircraft, and all of us talked as if one day, they might be offered up to that Congolese deity that has no mercy for small mistakes.

I was in Afghanistan when I heard one day, from a co-worker, that they had cartwheeled on the runway after failing to divert to their alternate after a thunderstorm refused to budge off of the airport. Windshear had caught them in the final 20 feet, and they broke up on the first third of the runway. There were three survivors. Our plane had the displeasure of landing ahead of the wreckage just minutes after, the burnt offering still smoldering on the runway.

The old wives in these are to the west and east of the Congo, sitting at home with a picture adorned with a black ribbon on the mantle, cautioning young pilots the price that sometimes is paid to see the dark corners of the world in an airplane.

Lost and Found

I don’t know why a capital city in the middle of Central Africa would have a go-kart track when it doesn’t even have an elevator, but there, buried in between the African foothills and clay shacks with burning garbage, there it was. When people think of third-world entertainment, usually a natural wonder, or maybe a tour through a tiny isolated village would come to mind. Bangui, however, was a different city.

When I first arrived in Bangui, it was inside a 737 belonging to Moroccan airlines. Its interior was reminiscent of the Golden Age of flying, with fluid pastel colours adorning the seats, and giant backed seats making up the majority of the cabin. The 1L door opened, the flight attendant still looking gracious in her red flight uniform, and the humidity and warmth spread over the cabin. After a surprisingly quick meeting with our UN rep, we were off in a 4runner, down the dark dirt roads of the capital city. Between the foliage, a giant lit up sign overlooking the town, its namesake lit up much like a post-apocalyptic Hollywood. It was at that moment I knew that Bangui would be far different from Kinshasa.

The Go-Kart track was found by a colleague at L’Escale, a tiny refuge for expats in a town otherwise devoid of creature comforts. We were having beers with some French businessmen, and asked about what there was to do. The golf course was out of town, cheap, but you played with cows and students studying under the trees, looking at you with wonderment, probably in wonder of who comes out in the noonday sun to shoot balls into holes.

There was also a riverboat ride along the River Ubangi, where we could go see a hippo among the fishing longboats along the river. Then, they mentioned the go-kart track. I was immediately hooked. For some reason. the juxtaposition of something that is such a niche market among the jungles and concrete shacks of Bangui struck me as ludicrous. Ludicrous  was what I was looking for.

There were four of us who ended up at the track, and it was surprising in the least. Fresh white paint, tires stacked in an orderly fashion around the sharp turns, and pristine karts lined up, like an F1 race in Bahrain. We were told that the mechanics were still working on the go-karts, but we could patiently wait in the bar and have a few drinks. We happily obliged, and three or four trente-trois later we were raring to go, the white tourists waiting to wreak destruction, havoc, and fun on each other. 

There is something to be said about the lost and found things in places that have been visited by suffering, collapse, war, and persecution. Streets crumble, sewer lines rot in entropy, the art of engineering and science regress, but certain things still survive, hibernating with a dangerous slow rhythm, waiting for people to use them again.

The track reminds me of a story one pilot had recounted to me. It was of a plane graveyard in Cote D’Ivoire. Sunbleached fuselages of old fighter jets littered the capital city airport, and occasionally some enterprising Africans would try and collect parts from them. One unlucky African managed to climb into a cockpit seat, and while fiddling with getting it out, activated the Soviet ejection device, designed to survive and work through years of misuse. It worked perfectly, save for the hangar roof situated over the airplane. He was found the next morning, hanging from the ceiling like a piece of modern art, and although I’m unsure, I still like to picture the ejection seat hanging with him, as if to say “I WORK! SEE!”. A gory poetic statement.

When they were finally ready, we headed off to the go-kart starting line, stumbling and laughing like drunks, which of course, we were. We drank with conviction, and we were ready to cause shit. By the sixth lap, the track so carefully constructed to replicate a professional racing circuit were completely ignored, and we smashed the go-karts into each other with inebriated glee. Fuck the consequences. There were none. This is Africa!

By the second time around the owner of the track, looking at us with disbelief, anger, and sorrow, finally called us in. We paid a little extra, a little sorry about the mess, and left him with his damaged goods, like lame horses who need to be put down.

This insanity is par for the course, whether it be enjoying a beer on a golf course as stray bullets fly by the clubhouse, or whether it’s destroying some proud man’s go-karts, painstakingly put together only to be destroyed and disrespected by the very people he probably thought would appreciate it the most. It’s a sad and maddening concept. It makes me wonder whether our belief in what Africa is just overpowers any progress. I reflect on the ebb and flow of simple things like basic entertainment, and wonder how much apathy it takes from us to ruin good little things hidden in the world.

It also makes me wonder if I should open up a theme park in Kabul. Now THAT would be entertaining.

Refugee

Who is a refugee?  A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.”

-Definition of a refugee according to http://www.unrefugees.org

There are no words to express the first encounter with a refugee.

I remember being on the plane in Bambari, Central African Republic. We were being briefed by the UN personnel there on the airport ramp, a blood red clay that was being encroached on by the tall grass around it. Giant termite hills dotted the landscape, and it was sweltering hot. Our crew was currently on a mission to relocate Darfur refugees from rebel held territory in the north of C.A.R., in a tiny village called Sam Ouandja. Located just miles from Darfur, it was home to over two thousand to three thousand refugees, and a deal had been struck with the rebels to move them in just under three weeks.

I was introduced there to a man named Ousmane, who spoke English,French, and Arabic quite well, and had been assigned to Sam Ouandja to help us with the movement. He was overseen by a fellow Canadian we had met the night before in one of Bangui’s serene, hidden French restaurants; I cannot remember his name, but he was an older gentleman who wore the third world on his face, but stoned up his heart to it a long time ago.

“These can be some sad places. The stink sometimes…” he recounted on the plane. This wasn’t his first time in a camp, and I began to get the picture.

Sam Ouandja is nothing more than a small African village hastily outfitted to fit Darfur refugees. As we sat on the ramp, a tattered blue UN flag served as cover for the staff as they prepared us for what lied ahead. We were to load as many people as we could, and bring them to Bambari. As I peered out over the ramp to those waiting, I was hit with wonder, with shame, with such empathy it is hard to describe.

I had followed the Darfur conflict before I came to Africa, but never expected to be on the edge of its front lines, and I wasn’t quite able to comprehend what had happened over here until I saw the lines of tired, stripped down faces in front of me. The ebony faces were drained, but full of a quiet dignity that were wrapped as elegantly as their clothes.

We loaded them onto the plane, the first experience for many. They sat on the seats, Ousmane and I going through, buckling seat belts, explaining how to hold the baby in the airplane, informing them of where to be sick. Their faces looked up in puzzlement, but my patience never wavered. These people left another home, a refugee again as they were pushed further into a country that wasn’t their own.

As they were loaded on, the captain and I would help fill our cargo hold. Rotten wood stools covered with rancid horse skin, some old crocs, various sacks covered with mites and fleas. I was never disgusted, but rather thankful as we loaded these on. The smell was almost unbearable, but the pride and concern coming from the front of the plane only echoed the investment in whatever items they had garnered over the years spent running away from Sudan.

The flights were two a day, and were filled with frustration and challenge. The refugees peed on the seats and on the floor. Babies coughed up crimson bubbles and spat them on the back of the seats. Bugs were rampant. It was a constant uphill battle, but for the first time on the continent it felt like we were actually helping people.

This continued on for three weeks, and the whole crew felt a sense of pride. We dealt with the good, the bad, and the ugly. The worst was when an infant died while waiting to be loaded onto the plane. The mother hid under a tree that lined the runway.

“The manifest ready?” I asked.

“Yep. Short two. Her baby didn’t make it.”

The #4 engine ran in the background. It dulled the senses and we got on board.

And so it went. So it goes. So was life until our final day on the mission. Things were fishy from the start. We had moved out our Canadian liaison the day before, which meant the camp was effectively shut down. All refugees had been moved, and this sparked the ire of the locals who were living under a tenuous agreement with the rebel army situated there.

Our last manifest was to pick up 75 bags of rice that had been left. We all discussed this as being a bad move, but agreed that it wouldn’t take long, and that at the very least we’d be on the ground fifteen minutes.

What we didn’t know is that as we lifted off the ground in Bangui, destination Sam Ouandja, that the IMC, or International Medical Corps, the organization on the ground in Sam Ouandja, had pulled out their stationed ambulance that morning. A riot had developed, and we were none the wiser. The spark was lit, and the rice soon became the fire.

When we landed, things felt immediately wrong. Ousmane came up to us in a tense mood, but I continued on as normal. Most of the rice had been piled up a few metres from the plane, and a throng of Africans sat near, waiting. Some yelling from the villagers could be heard, and I was opening up the cargo door as it all began to happen.

The number 3 engine started to spool up. I started to hear yelling from the other side when I could hear yelling over it. Our rebel “guards” began to confront the villagers, whose voices started to escalate.

I began to load the rice. That’s when the truck appeared with the last shipment. The crowd became like a group of sharks in a feeding frenzy.

This is the first time I’ve written about this. I’ve buried it in my head since the next parts sometimes give me terrors at night, always wondering how close we came to being in a much worse situation. And I think of Ousmane on the ramp. But I need to get it down, even if it’s hazy, if only to state what happened as I saw it.

I loaded the rice, and the captain grabbed me and told me to get “on the plane NOW!”. The urgency in his voice raised. He motioned to our FO to spool number two. I grabbed my camera, and started to take photos. I don’t know why that was my first reaction, but I needed to get some of this down, if only just to justify that it happened. The rice started to move on board from our help on the ground. The crowd started to approach the airplane. A tug of war began. The rebels moved in. They pushed their Ak-47’s into the chests, and the agitation grew. I heard the captain say “Fuck this. Forget the rice. We’re out of here.”

It was at that moment we all realized we might be in a much worse situation. A mob situation is a frightening thing, especially a mob who are starving, poor, and no strangers to violence. The rebels started getting skittish, and came on board, their rifles level. They began to demand money and rice for their services. We pushed them off, told them to keep the rice, and we started to go. We motioned for Ousmane, but he was far in the crows, becoming surrounded. He looked back, and I won’t forget his face. He was determined to stay. I wish I could say what he was thinking, but there was resolve and sadness painted on his face. The engines started to rev up, I heard a gunshot, and pulled on the heavy Dash 7 door. We closed it and I took to securing the cabin. The AME we had with us put his foot on the door, and the crowd jeered and chased the plane. Some of the crew had said they had rocks in their hands, and it only took one to keep the plane there at the mercy of the crowd. The adrenaline pumped, I secured the cargo nets as we lined up and shot off, flying low to gain speed and get away from the scene below. I never looked out to see what was happening as we left. I had the best intentions of seeing if I could see Ousmane from the air, but knew better than to look down to an image I may not want to see.

The cabin was a mess. Rice was everywhere, and I doubted the urgency and danger until I saw the other help we had pulled out. Their faces an ashen grey, they recounted the story of the ambulance and the terror of being at the mercy of the crowd.

When we landed in Bangui, our UN handler was pissed. We only got half the rice, and “made a mess of the situation”. We ignored him, and went back to the hotel to grab a beer and decompress. Then the anger hit.

The next day the blame began, and the bureaucracy of the UN showed itself in flying colours. Excuses were made, and the onus was put on the crew for escalating the situation. No inquiries were made, and my report of hearing shots fired were dismissed as idiocy. When we asked about Ousmane, the only response we received was “Fuck Ousmane.”

We spent the rest of our time partying in Bangui, and I left Ousmane in the back of my head, but the guilt set in. We had left him, and even though he had wanted to stay, I was eaten by it. I had felt helpless and disillusioned before by feeling helpless in my role, but Ousmane only reflected the lack of resolve in myself. We never received any further info about him, and to this day I still wonder what occurred after we left him on that ramp. I haven’t looked into it further, afraid of what I might find.

I quoted the definition of refugee at the beginning of this post because I thought it was relevant. Not only to those we helped, or those we left behind, but to myself as well. I’m not comparing myself to the plight of those who were in Darfur; that would be insulting and a disservice to their strength of character, of their resilience.

Rather, I refer to the part that says they cannot return home, or are afraid to do so. I feel like a refugee from myself sometimes, in many facets. After Afghanistan I had a hard time relating to life back home. Traffic lights, paved roads, rules and regulations, everyday conversation. These were distant things, trivial, unimportant. I felt wound up, a spring, ready to pop. I wanted to get back to Africa. I wanted to get back to someplace that made sense to me now. At the same time, I didn’t want to return to my thoughts, my own sense of feeling. I felt like a border had been closed in myself, and I was committing an inquisition on myself. I took a long walk away from myself, and only recently have begun the journey back to discover what’s been left behind after being in conflict with my conscience for so long.

I started this blog as therapy, to talk about things overseas in personal but objective way. I wanted to express the frustration, the beauty, the feeling of what seems commonplace now. It’s been a road map back to dealing with dilemmas inside myself, and the path back home is starting to be clear, and the demons are now by the wayside.

They say you can’t go home again, and that’s true. But, as I’ve learned from Africa, home is a place where you’re fine with yourself. I saw it in the eyes of those refugees, and I saw it in the eyes of Ousmane on that ramp. I hope I can do enough to get back.

Deportation

The travel from Schipol Airport, for the serious traveller, is an experience often like purgatory. You arrive in Amsterdam, and the cover of thick fog over the flatland is usually there to greet you. The stillness as your plane touches down reminds you that you are only halfway there.

The Dutch know how to make a stopover traveler feel welcome. Hot showers, fresh baguettes, and beer available whatever time you feel like it, and drinking while making the 18 hour trip to Kinshasa became a professional sport. There are things offered in the airport that don’t cost money. For me it was a brief respite going south to Africa, and as I slipped into the smoking room I looked around at the other members of our cancerous group, and surveyed each with the same questions, a mental interview on superficial terms.  Where did they come from? What were they doing? Why did they flick their cigarette constantly? Were they running from something  Smuggling something? Most of the time it ended up being stories of visiting relatives at home, or just on business. The alluring and pungent smell of the tobaccos of the world came together in that room, and I felt connected to different areas I’ve never been to or will be able to go to. I always liked to empathize with strangers in airports. The hurried frenzy and boiling emotions always pique something in myself, and I would find myself riding the moods of my fellow airport companions.

The hardest thing about most airport hubs is watching the deportations. They are usually African, and I’ve always had the bad luck of having them on my plane. I say this not out of inconvenience at having someone check my emotional guilt, rather that I might feel too much for the man in washed out clothes sitting across from me. There is always a scene. It plays out like this:

You are already seated, usually in the back. You hear a commotion at the front of the plane, in between the giant overhead bags that the Congolese bring back from the shops and stores of the first world, and then the cries begin. The other passengers begin to start a murmur, and it builds as you realize the moaning is coming your way. They are always seated in the aisle next to you, and as the deportee comes into view you see he is flanked by two very austere immigration police. Dressed in vests and full regalia, they drag the man as if he was going to death row, which isn’t too far from the truth.

The face of the victim is what burns in my brain. It isn’t his French cries of his impending death and imprisonment, or the plea of his children, who are often residents, that he is leaving behind. It is the look of a man bargaining with hope. He turns to both guards as they seat him, pleading mercy, compassion, justice. His words in French are eloquent and desperate. The customs officers ignore his pleas, and then the thrashing begins. The cries of “Mon DIEU” echo through like some tragic African opera. It’s at this moment the same thing always happens. The officers restrain with force, the cries muffle, and then a surprising turnaround happens. The guards whisper gently for him to calm down, they shush him as a nursemaid would an infant, and by this time the doors are closed and the plane is beginning the push back  The cries of “Let him go!” in Congolese have become the odd din in the cabin, and resignation sets in. I cannot turn away. I look at the weathered maroon hands clinging in cuffs to the front of the seat, and my mind turns to a slave thrown back into the cargo hold after being free for so long. His head bends down and a slow whimpering begins.

The reality is that this man will be in prison and probably die there. The Democratic Republic of Congo is known to question all deportees back to their country, and are labelled as criminals. The jail in Kinshasa can barely hold the name, and these men, for all their crying, bear their fate well for the rest of the flight. The last meal is always served with a wedge of cheese, and I remember the way each one carefully sliced it, as if treasuring some moment the rest of us forgot.

Whenever I tell these stories of indifference, of negligence by our own society, to these people who have escaped a hard life and chosen to be part of ours, that we owe it, illegal or not, to not damn them to a life of imprisonment or death based on the fact that they technically have done nothing wrong in their home country. These men are marked like Cain, and die like Abel.

The rest of the flight is usually quiet. When we deplane at Ndjili airport, I always make sure I beat the deportee out the door. I can’t bear to look at their face on landing. I’ve seen death before, but I can’t stand to look at it in the form of an immigration slip.

On the way back from tour, as I’m boarding the delft blue plane again, I look down at the Sahara, black and rolling under the starlight, and think of those men sitting in the seat I am in now. I drift to their thoughts and dreams, their sacrifices to make it this far, and the hope and opportunity they carry with them in their baggage. I think of those men and become sad. Then I turn on the TV and forget them. They are the unloved, the unwanted, the ill advised and the short straw. They are quickly forgotten in a country the world tries to forget is there. That is the tragedy of Africa in my eyes.

The Boys I Mean

“The boys i mean are not refined
They go with girls who buck and bite
They do not give a fuck for luck
They hump them thirteen times a night
One hangs a hat upon her tit
One carves a cross on her behind
They do not give a shit for wit
The boys i mean are not refined
They come with girls who bite and buck
Who cannot read and cannot write
Who laugh like they would fall apart
And masturbate with dynamite
The boys i mean are not refined
They cannot chat of that and this
They do not give a fart for art
They kill like you would take a piss
They speak whatever’s on their mind
They do whatever’s in their pants
The boys i mean are not refined
They shake the mountains when they dance”

ee cummings, The Boys I Mean

An American soldier overseas is a bit confusing at first. My first encounter was at a rooftop pool party at the Belgian Embassy in Kinshasa. The embassy was a tiny little colonial apartment hidden away between the diplomatic quarter of Kinshasa, a quiet little remnant of what Kin la Belle used to be before garbage and refuse poured down the streets, shards of glass lined the compounds, and squatters huts piled up like strewn tin cans over the jungle landscape. It was well put together, and the Belgians, along with some help from some Canadian foreign service workers, had gotten a large group of expats drinking. I can’t remember how we ended up there, but a mish mash of Western faces dotted the roof as we all slowly got drunk and whittled our time away in the DRC.

The soldier was a cut out stereotype from Fort Hood. Assigned to the embassy at Avenue des Aviateurs, he had every look of an American who was a fish out of water, and even though we were just drunk Canadian contractors (known to behave like Russians but speak English), I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

His talk was mostly about back home, about his dislike of the Congo (too hot, not like Kansas) his love of country (Bush wasn’t all that bad) and his naive sense of what they were doing there (America always lends a hand). If this had been my only meeting of soldiers overseas, I might have left with a neutral opinion, hearing so many stories of why America has the reputation it does. Unfortunately, the bar slid as my time continued. I excused myself, hoping for better conversation with a girl in a red dress from the state department, while I left him to be preyed upon by two British Marines just itching to throw him off the balcony. Why? Well, he was an American soldier, and I soon learned why this seemed like a good idea.

Kinshasa is a place for parties. On a weekend, if the timing is right, you hop from embassy to embassy, grabbing a drink here, saying hello to an ambassador there, and maybe sneaking a 40 oz of vodka for the ride home from the grinning bartender. One such party, at the British consulate, I had my first taste of that true Yankee pride.

Two guys happened to wander over to our table, dressed for Long Beach in the Bas Congo. Two of our female flight attendants were out for the night, and subtlety didn’t seem to be their strong point.

“Who’re the girls?”

“Pardon?”

“Hey. I’m roger. We’re American. AFRICOM. Who’re the girls?”

Heavy handed was half of it. They walked like they owned the world, and proceeded to alienate us one by one with macho stories of African subjugation (Oh yeah. We like training these guys. Shitty fighters. Don’t think Africans were ever good at fighting) thinly veiled as commentary. It only turned for the worse when they said it was a “shit posting” and were hoping to get onto something else soon. Needless to say, they didn’t fare well. The girls ignored them, they called them stuck up, and then left to pursue the wives of elder diplomats, eager for anything they could get their hands on.

I never believed in American arrogance overseas, or why they failed to make any dent in Africa. Was it slavery? Was it old cold war mentality? Or was it simply just ignorance? The Chinese were here building roads, making bridges, fixing infrastructure. America came in unmarked Dash 8’s with black suits and mirror shades, and offered nothing more than the chance to be friends with the big dog, throwing scraps and taking everything. Everything seemed out of sync, as if the military had no idea what its top half was doing, and everything was running amok. I still can’t verbalize it. It’s as disjointed as a large African city, dysfunction running through the ranks until the whole thing is a hot mess.

To sum it up, I hope to never see an American posted on active duty again. There’s a raw edge, a mark of mild stupidity, and a scary amount of tunnel vision that goes along with the digital camouflage that still makes my hair stand on end thinking about it.

I was walking the boardwalk in Kandahar 24 hours before I was set to go home in Afghanistan. I had spent the morning watching the live press conference by Obama saying Osama was killed. The drone that oversaw the operation quietly took off while I was fast asleep in my container, the runway a scant 500m from where I was. I could not wait to get the hell out of dodge. I walked the boardwalk for the last time, coffee in hand, overhearing conversations. A group of West Virginian reservists were by the coffee shop, and I stopped for a cigarette. Captain’s bars on all 3.

“Did you hear we got that sand nigger last night?”

“Damn straight. Bet he was dead ages ago.”

“Well we got one nigger, now all we gotta do is get that nigger in the white house.”

I tossed my smoke and walked away briskly.

These are the men watching over you. These are the people who represent you overseas. These are who you send over as the real ambassadors. Sleep tight America.

3 Years.

I used to write with a determined ferocity, so convinced that my words on paper would be an outlet for whatever frustration or passion that leaked out of myself and lay on the page as a testament to my thoughts.

I have to say that changed three years ago, give or take a few days. December 7,2009. I was filled with a new hope, a new adventure. I was staying up in North Bay, preparing for my role with Voyageur overseas in Sudan. I had found out my posting, and was bursting with naive pride at my new situation. I immediately phoned my father.

My father was a man of extreme emotion, of unbridled wonder mixed with the burden of regret. He had been a merchant seaman in his youth, and had traveled the world twice over. He had docked in Caribbean ports and bought bananas from African longboats off the coast of Cote D’Ivoire. He had drifted through the harbours of Hong Kong and Mumbai, and told these stories in passing through my childhood. I grew up with a sense of excitement and danger at the unknown, and secretly harboured my own ambitions at seeing the dark corners of the world, or what was left of them.

His response was unexpected at the time. I understand it now, but the anger from me was still there.

“It’s a bum job and you’ll get yourself killed. You’re an idiot.”

I hung up after a few charged words, and left it alone. Here was a man who was both tempered and sensitive, but the only face I got from him was a condescending dismissal. We spoke few words until the day I left. I was convinced that this was out of some fatherly protection, and that I would come back, hardened and battle scarred from the third world, and we would sit down for a pint and discuss things on an even keel after my first tour.

Life never works out how you plan it.

The night before I left, I sat downstairs, everything packed up and ready to leave. I heard the yell of my mother, a hysterical sound not usually heard from such a stoic woman. I came, and saw my father hunched over, his arm slung around her in the kitchen. Seconds past before I realized he had a heart attack. We sat him in the chair in our living room, and I grabbed his hand, his skin pallid, his hand colder than an icebox.

His eyes seemed fearful, like a man being pushed over a tall ledge into a raging river.

“I don’t want to die.”

Laboured breathing. I gripped his hand as his breathing lessened. His big hand stayed calm. Then a final look.

“I love you all,” he said.

The eyes emptied out, and he rolled back. It had been two minutes since I had come up the stairs.

I got him on the ground, his stomach already emptying out, and went to work on my father. I remember rolling him on his side and trying to remove the fluid from his airways. Then I checked his pulse, rolled him onto his back, opened his airway and started compressions. I later remembered my mother screaming for me to help him, to do something, but at the time it was only “30 and 2″ “30 and 2″.

It was somewhere around the 4th round of compressions that I felt his ribs break, feeling horrified but remembering that this was the way it worked. I kept breathing into his mouth, and the smell of onion, something I guessed he had eaten earlier in the day, kept coming up. I remember looking into his eyes, hoping for some sign of life, a flicker or a view into the man who thirty minutes before I could hear laughing from the basement. Nothing. I knew he was dead just before the paramedics arrived.

I sat in the kitchen, my arms folded out onto the linoleum, hearing my mother bargaining with the paramedics, who were taking their time. Why not? It had been ten minutes since the call was made, and no signs of life could be seen.

“he’s a strong man, a survivor,” she said.

I remember the first police officer on the scene was a friend from high school. She looked stern in her uniform, from a family of police, and I hugged her awkwardly, as if it was some sort of thing I needed to do.

After that it goes a bit dark. The official death called at the hospital. The cigarettes outside. The quiet drive home. I remember thinking that I could still catch that plane to Africa tomorrow, somehow shake all of this off as a bad dream. Maybe it was the flight attendant coming back to me. Back to the shouted commands.

“STAND UP. LEAVE EVERYTHING BEHIND”
G
Three weeks later I was in Africa, glad to be away but knowing that I was like a wounded animal, limping along, my actions routine, my conversation small and distant. I was a sound reel out of sync. All I cared about was that I was away.

I haven’t written about my father’s death until now. I haven’t put down any of the feelings I had because I had put up a wall the moment I felt I had failed. I’m beginning to only come to grips with the fact that this came from me stepping up to life, challenging my father to see me as a peer. This involves pushing him away. Ill timing complicated the situation. He died, and I was left feeling responsible for a family who, in truth, didn’t need anyone to look after them.

It’s been 3 years now, and I see the changes and the full circle I had to make. I had dark times and some enlightening moments, but still with a iron cast over myself. Time heals all wounds, and I’ve had to take the long route just to get here. I’m finally comfortable talking about it, and it’s a step.

At night, especially in the hum of a dispatch office, waiting for the day to start, I’m left alone with thoughts; left with ideas of what that beer might have been like, what our stories might have been. On most days, however, I’m left with a sense of pride of my father, with both his failures and his humanity. I miss him, I remember him, and I smile. I remember his enthusiasm for words, and I’d think he’d like me to write again, even the dark and unsettling parts.

I love you dad. Thanks for helping me get this out.