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GOODBYE, AL essay
by Richard L. Provencher
3/31/2008 / Short Stories
Memory lingers like an earwig, lurking in some dark corner of my mind. I can't seem to forget you Al, not even after all these years.
Remember Allong years ago? You and your wife, Jo-Anne stood with me in this wind. In a few hours our flight from Toronto's Malton Airport would hurl us northwards to Moosonee, on James Bay.
In my memory I still see you in a parka, with tufts of blond hair sticking out. And your cherubic face with a smile that could melt any problem.
We waited for our journey to begin, a five hundred mile plane ride to Timmins, then a car trip to Cochrane, followed by a seven-hour rail ride into bush country.
You were fresh from Ranger school in Dorset, Ontario and Forestry Technicians were in great demand. So you applied for a position with the Ontario Government and were accepted.
"Larry," you said, "Cochrane, North Bay and Kapuskasing are calling me. I've never been there before. And I want to see it all."
Not only that Al, the hunting and fishing opportunities really hooked you. "I want to knock off some of those Canada geese," you said.
You, your wife and I became close friends a few weeks before at a government services meeting on University Avenue. I had been selected as the new Social Assistance Officer for the same area.
We were happy to be working together, though in different capacities.
Some said Moosonee was an isolated collection of tents and small homes about 200 miles north of Cochrane by rail. It was an unorganized village comprised of muskeg and fierce wind.
All it had to boast about was an RCAF radar station and about 500 Cree natives.
New development was sweeping across the western part of James Bay. And we were determined to be a part of it.
Remember how it all began, Al?
Saturday morning awakened everyone as October's angry wind rushed in thunderous claps down the Moose River. And small craft bumped noisily against wooden docks.
Community spirit meant hurrying from warm homes into a muddy main street. Fighting sheets of sleet and rain working our way to the docks was a chore.
A dozen Rupert House canoes were already sunk or half filled with water, and created an awful mess. After straightening them out, we headed to our own homes for a little rest.
A short while later my landlord's 16-foot Peterborough outboard had broken loose, then blown up-river where pounding waves threatened to sink it.
Dressed in a rain suit you were gulping coffee along with Tom, our Postmaster friend, when I barged into your home at 8 AM.
"Al! Quick! Can you help me get Patterson's boat? It might smash up against the shore. We have to do something."
I could see your wife Jo-Anne had given up trying to sleep with all this commotion. Although anxiously awaiting the birth of your first child, she was preparing breakfast. "Want to join us Larry?" she asked.
With you Al, there was no hesitation as you shouted, "Sure, let's go. We'll eat later, hon." You were a real friend and didn't waste time making a decision. We charged into the cold drizzle, barely able to speak, our faces like a wet blanket.
"I see it," you said, as your binoculars placed the boat a quarter of a mile away. You always were a man of few words.
"It would be stupid to go after it in this storm," Tom said.
We all agreed, watching the boat settle firmly on the far shore. Al, you were almost psychic when you said, "Falling in that water this time of year? Well, you wouldn't last too long."
It was a shivering thought, looking at those foamy waves.
Before heading back we fastened down three other boats. And moved eight drums of gasoline from the shifting, twisting dock. Then dragged onto shore, a Rupert House Canoe half filled with water.
Bone tired, we returned to the aroma of bacon and eggs.
"I hope you guys have a good appetite!" Jo-Anne cheerfully shouted as we rushed the table.
"With lots of toast and coffee," we added.
Our conversation turned to hunting. "This is supposed to be my day to patrol the water around Ellis Island," you said.
"Two Native Cree Assistant Forest Rangers use a cabin there, and checked the area regularly for poachers. But it's their day off."
This is one of the great resting grounds for Canada's and Blue Geese on the western side of James Bay. The island is actually comprised of a series of mud flats with very little foliage growing on its surface. It made an excellent Game Preserve for thousands of geese, allowing them to rest from nearby heavily hunted territories.
But, you couldn't wait until the weather safely permitted a Ranger patrol. Even though you understood the dangers of storm and tides, you wanted to make sure everyone was fine.
Stretches of water from Moosonee to James Bay appear placid. And great rifts of sand dunes can be seen at low tide. However, when the tide returns, the water is replenished with increasing swiftness.
On Tuesday you returned from patrol. "All hunters and guides accounted for, Larry," you said.
In spite of downed tents and ruined provisions, morale at various hunting camps was excellent. A warm sun that afternoon cheered everyone up.
Wednesday morning reminded me there were only three days to go before our own hunting trip. You and Tom had promised me a goose-hunting expedition I'd never forget, since I had never fired at one.
Al, I remember looking out my office window that day. You and Tom were passing by, a large goose hanging from the crook of your arm.
"Hey! Don't forget. I want one too!" I shouted through my window.
"Right," you answered. "We went out for an hour this morning and got just the one. Nice, eh?"
You waved the blue goose back and forth Al, its long neck flopping limply. You gave me that famous grin of yours. It was a trademark I got to know from the many nights of chess we played.
"You'll get your turn Larry," you said, heading up the street to the Post Office.
A busy afternoon at the Social Services Administration Office seemed to pass quickly. I was about to leave the building, when three Native trappers came looking for you. They were to be re-assigned new areas, since you were in charge of trapping for the District.
After phoning around I found out from the Deputy-Chief Ranger you had been called away unexpectedly to replace a sick ranger on Ellis Island. You were expected back this evening and he said they'd be contacted.
I assured them if they missed the plane they could take the next flight out three days later. In the meantime the Social Services Department could provide them with board and lodging, if needed.
Al, you always said I should be caring. Just like you, eh?
Thursday began with a beautiful sunshiny morning lasting until approximately 11 AM. Tom's phone call shocked me.
"Larry! Al didn't come back from patrol last night! And his empty boat was found beached on Turtle Island this morning."
"Cripes," I said. "That's ten miles downstream from Ellis Island."
"Lands and Forests have two aircraft searching for him. They're putting together a land rescue team this afternoon. Hey Larry, you still there?"
Al, I was at a loss for words. My first thoughts were of Jo-Anne and the baby on the way.
"Don't worry," Tom continued. "You know Al. He's one of the best outdoorsmen in this part of the country. I'm sure he's OK."
Words finally came. "Where are you?" I asked.
"At the Post Office," Tom answered. "How about dropping over to Bill's Snack Bar? See if there's any more news."
"Okay!" I said. "Give me five minutes!" By the time I arrived, about fifteen people were crowded inside the ten-seat restaurant. And the Deputy-Chief Ranger was there.
"Quiet!" he shouted. "Listen here!" Thumping his fist on the table got everyone's attention. "As far as we know, Al's alright. Two more helicopters are making a sweep. Several boats are also searching the shoreline for any tracks. If we need more help we'll contact some of you."
A few minutes later he was pushing open the door.
Tom and I went over to see our friend Corporal Pete. He was in charge of the Ontario Provincial Police Detachment for the District. We filled coffee cups and sat quietly in his office.
"You know some of the details by now," Pete began. "Al was expected back last evening. His patrol duties at Ellis Island ended at four in the afternoon. One of the Assistant Rangers said Al wanted to try and knock off a few geese around Turtle Island, before returning home.
"He sure loved hunting," Pete added.
The rest of us nodded numbly.
Pete continued, "There was no further word until Mr. Sackenay discovered Al's Rupert House canoe beached on the shore. He towed the canoe to the main dock exactly as he found it. In it was a pair of mitts, half a box of 12 gauge shells and 30 feet of coiled rope in the bow. Only Al's shotgun was missing."
We listened to every detail, shaking our heads, trying to make sense of these facts.
"Something the others don't know," Pete said quietly. "Fellows, the throttle on Al's 10 horsepower motor was at the 'Slow' position. And there were 5 gallons of gas in the tank. I'm afraid for Al," he said, bowing his head.
Tom and I sat in silence, the full impact of his words settling like a dark cloud. Did our friend fall from his boat holding onto his prized shotgun? If so, the cold waters of the Moose River claimed another life.
Anyone tumbling fully clothed into the frigid water meant certain death. Al, you had voiced the same thoughts yourself just three days before.
That night, friends and neighbors came silently, to see Jo-Anne. They tried to provide comfort and hope.
Each lead, no matter how improbable was immediately investigated.
Al, many persons believed you landed on one of the mud flats nearby. Then somehow lost your boat to the tide.
Possibly you were laying hurt somewhere, a victim of your own carelessness. That would have placed you in severe danger of Hypothermia. Temperatures the same night you went missing had dropped to freezing.
The third and fourth day of your disappearance was a very sad occasion in the community. It was noticeable in the way knots of people huddled quietly together on street corners.
Jo-Anne, expecting her baby any day, still felt you would somehow make it back. Unfortunately, Lands and Forests' officials had to face facts.
Your father and brother even came up from Buffalo, New York to be part of the search. Hour after hour they flew out in a rented helicopter scanning each tiny mud flat. Every pass over a slight ridge of land was accompanied with a silent prayer.
Then when hope was dashed without any sight of you, tears followed.
Al, your friends shared a terrible loss in the spirit of the Community. As a member of the Lion's Club, you often bragged about your love of the area and its people. We felt so lost. Our pal was missing.
Five days of fruitless searching meant everyone had to accept the fact you were gone. Even Jo-Anne had come full circle accepting this terrible tragedy. She decided to sell everything and return to the United States.
JoAnne left one afternoon by aircraft to Timmins and was the mother of a baby boy, a Canadian now, Al. He was meant to be a part of this great country. And I know you're really proud of that.
But she'll never forget Moosonee. Wherever she goes she'll remember this North Country, and the taste of James Bay salt in her mouth. In her dreams she'll hear the purr of an outboard, possibly yours, patrolling downstream.
She'll remember turkey shoot competitions and late nights at the Lions Club, making plans to help the natives. And memories of those long hour-waits for your return from Ranger patrol.
She'll even smile about hunting trips she went on. And watching you shake with boy-eagerness, finger squeezing the trigger of your pump action; another Canada goose for the table.
The little graveyard, filled with sleeping children is out of sight in the Native Village. Remember how you worried about those young kids growing up, Al? And if their frame shacks, or tents, were warm enough in the cold winter? And whether they were able to eat regular meals, without electricity?
There were many times you and Jo-Anne looked after foster kids. You wished they could stay longer when it was time to return them home. I know you looked forward to having your own child one day.
And now you have a son, my friend a Canadian son.
They've built modern houses in Moosonee, Al. An Educational Center along with new sewage lines for the village.
Ontario Housing has replaced all tents, and most of the remaining shacks. Imagine, Native families can now turn on taps for purified running water and warm electricity. Even indoor toilets have been installed.
Tourists continue to visit in large numbers by the Polar Bear Express train. They want to see the kind of country you helped develop, Al. Some of your old friends are here, waiting to help those outsiders who won't feel left out for very long.
I remember the day they found your body Al. It was two weeks after Jo-Anne left Moosonee. A Cree Native gathering firewood at Ellis Island saw you stretched out beside a log, as if you were asleep.
He told everyone you had a smile on your face.
The doctor said it was ironic. You must have passed away your last hours about a mile from where two Rangers slept in a warm cabin.
You must have fallen out of your boat, swam to shore and died that same night from exposure. Only your hip-waders were missing. Taking them off in your desperate situation must have drained your energy as you swam to shore.
Your body was shipped out three day's later to be buried in your hometown. Some of your friends were glad you were going back to familiar surroundings.
But I know better, Al.
You're still out there somewhere, squinting your sharp eyes, trying to make out the number of Canada's in that V-formation.
They're coming in low over the flats. Follow them, Al. Keep your head down. Don't make any sudden movement. Hold your breath. Lift and slowly sight along the barrel.
That's the stuff.
Take the leader out. And the rest will keep coming round and around, until you've bagged your limit.
So long Al, they're all yours.
* * *
Richard L. Provencher 2003
81 Queen Street, Unit 6, Truro, Nova Scoti
Canada B2N 2B2, Tel (902) 897-2344
Word Count = 2,500 for above story.
Richard enjoys writing poems; many of which have been published in Print and Online. He and his wife, Esther are also co-authors of stories and a print novel. They are "born again" Christians and very busy in their church, Abundant Life Victory International, in Bible Hill, Nova Scotia.
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