My name is "Leonard" and my job today was to put a smile on your faces before you read on...
Boy, was I some glad to see the last two weeks done and over with. They were more eventful than I bargained for and I guess the high levels of anxiety associated with them brought the old nemesis back visiting. When he says that I can’t handle it, I have to admit that my friend the psychologist might be on to something. It’s not that I can’t take stress, it’s just that it has real negative effects on my system and when I go into “survival” mode, I’m not exactly the most amiable individual. Let’s revisit and have an overview look of what transpired and how it played havoc with my inner self .
Well, there was “the finishing in time” of the extension on the barn. It needed to be complete for “Alaska” and the arrival of the new pups. Then there was the crappy “between season” weather. All that good training that the team and I had put in, would it be going to waste? The purchase of that new snowmobile didn’t necessarily have a positive impact. I had been struggling with this idea all summer and had now made the plunge. Now I had a brand new “Skandik” to groom my trails but was worried if it would be worth the investment. Then last weekend, we get the phone call from Winnipeg, Manitoba. My poor blind brother-in-law has to find the courage to inform us that his soon to be spouse has just passed away. While Fran is trying to comfort him, I’m watching the news where they’re announcing that three more Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. Oh, how I could feel the “pressure cooker” on the verge of popping its top. Then to add insult to injury, I walk to the barn only to find out that two new born puppies had not survived the unexpected Sub-Zero weather. Lying there outside by the door of the doghouse, they were there, these two little lifeless bodies. Picking up these tiny tikes, I was going to check if there was something to do but by their stiffness, it was clear that they were dead. I examined them very closely and could not initially figure out what happened. Alaska came out, still wanting to protect these babies and questioning what I was going to do with them. She tried to put one in her mouth so to bring it back inside but I pulled away. “Sorry my girl, these two are gone.” I told her while petting her under the chin. “Now, how many are left in here?” I asked her. I reached in and patted around the premises but couldn’t feel anything and had drawn the conclusion that the nest was empty. All that previous excitement of the prospect of having new puppies had just been shattered and here I was full of sadness and disappointment. Holding the two “four day old babies”, I started looking for clues as to possibly identify what might have happened. Well, one thing was for sure, one was missing its tail. From the looks of it, the male must have been born, coming out in a breached position and the mother must have tugged on it to accidentally cut it off. As for the little female, I couldn’t comprehend what had transpired as she looked like she had all her parts. I was feeling sorry for them and was overpowered by this somehow familiar guilty trip. I was again wondering if I should have gotten involved in this affair or minding my own business was the right thing to do. Decisions, decisions, what should one have done? After sitting there in that tight corner of her kennel for the better part of half an hour, I had concocted a plan as to how I would dispose of the remains. On that note, I managed to erect my cramped stiff body in an upright position and headed out. I was gently putting the two babies in my parka pocket when all of a sudden, I heard this again “peep peep” sound. Surprised to hear it, I pulled them out of there, questioning if I had been wrong with my initial assessment. No, these two little guys were surely gone. So where was it coming from? This noise soon changed to a loud “crying baby” sound and it was definitely coming from “Alaska’s” doghouse. I again crawled on my “fours” and reached inside. I could feel the mother’s body and while making my way across her abdomen, I located a lump that just didn’t belong. Although it had quieted down, this thing was moving and just not part of her anatomy. “Hey Girl,” I said as if I was asking her permission to touch her there, “Are you holding out on me.” “Do you think I could look at what you got there?” She didn’t seem to mind so I again felt for the curious package. Once I homed in on the warm lump again, I ever so gently disturbed it from its meal and brought him out. Yes, here he was this little fat white fur ball of a character. With its eyes still closed shut, he was not impressed and was moaning to go back to the comfort and warmth of his mother’s belly. “Hold on there, big fella. I just want to see who I’m dealing with.” Yup, this male had survived and when I compared his size to the one of his siblings, it was obvious that in their short lifespan, they had not mastered the art of feeding. Compared to him, they were skinny, anemic and way smaller. It had become apparent that although the cold might have been the final blow, the poor things had most likely starved to death. Had I been cruel to let things run their course or should I have taken over the maternal duties. In this instance, I wasn’t too sure where the line had to be drawn. I had seen so many occasions where humans had meddled with nature that I knew that the latter option was one to be less considered. I was reminded of this every time myself and the dogs went for a walk on the “puppy trail” around the property. Ducks would swim alongside us on the river, waiting for a handout. As you see, in the summer, cottagers think it’s cute to give bread to the baby ducklings. These little quackers don’t know the difference and they get used to this routine. Consequently, they don’t learn to fend for themselves and once the summer folks are gone, us permanent residents are stuck with the chore of feeding them. There was a classic example of that earlier that morning when I let the dogs out. Here was this stupid mallard, just sitting there on the ice, its back facing a blistering north wind with its head clutched under his left wing. He heard us coming so alerted to our presence. “Good Morning, Merlin” I greeted him. “Now, don’t you just regret your decision of not going south for the winter?” “Quack, quack” he rebutted. He didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about as he repeated the same thing every day. It was just his way to get some attention and remind whoever that he needed to be fed. I know it wasn’t right but the harm had been done way before I got involved, so guess what? I gave him his “daily bread”.
It was almost 0900 hrs, that Saturday and the undaunted task had still not been performed. It had been close to three months and to tell you the truth I hadn’t missed it one single bit. What was most ironical about the “lull in the action” was that it directly corresponded with the Canadian elections held in November. From what I could gather, our present Prime Minister was one “smart cookie”, a bit arrogant if you ask me but I was sure that the “non dying” of soldiers could be somehow directly linked to some order received from the “Ivory Tower”. Hell, the way I saw it, he didn’t want to take a chance of losing his elections by having attention drawn to the symbolic number of 100 casualties. This would make this war even more unpopular with the general public so why take a chance. Was I the only one that could see through this smoke screen. No, there had to others. Some might insist that I could be wrong with my analysis but for some reason, I doubted it. Hadn’t they completely blacked out the news broadcast of that kidnapped reporter. By pure coincidence, was she not abducted during that same election period. Come on folks, this might be a good time to wake up and smell the coffee. We were being manipulated and this had been going on for what now, close to seven (7) years. Had they just not showed us that if there is a political will, people don’t necessarily need to die. Then again, who was I to criticize. I’m just an old “brain fried” soldier that has rebelled and turned his back on this fucked up system, we call a “Democracy”. I knew I was real bitter that morning but let’s face it, what we’re looking at has no democratic values, not one single bit. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m probably the most loyal and patriotic individual that you’ll ever meet on the street. I believe in what Canada has stood for and this for ages. We are a peace loving nation that has always managed to rise to the occasion and shine, by helping our neighbor. This crazy killing of the so-called militants is not our style. Of course, I agree that if someone is trying to kill me, I’ll defend myself but what do you expect. Let’s put the shoe on the other foot and see how we would react. Let’s just imagine that the “Talibans” decided to cross the Pacific and try to invade and take over the Alberta “Tar Sands”. Wouldn’t we want to defend our livelihoods. I think that we would. And you know what, we would probably be twice as nasty and most likely even deadlier. Whether we like or not, we’re part of a huge puppet show where the “masters”, a rich spoiled kid from Texas is playing a world domination game with his rich Arab friend. Call it what you want, at the end of the day, that’s what it is. I have a solution to this present world situation. Put these two spoiled brats in a ring and let them duke it out. Winner takes all the marbles. I’m sure that none of them has got the “balls” to go one single round. But then again, picture this tall skinny white bearded fellow standing there dragging his dialysis machine around with one arm and trying to fight with the other. Quite the “ultimate fight” that would be.
Anyway, that was their problems. I had two taskings for today and they were quite simple. First, I needed to walk to “Ciment Hill” and literally climb its icy peak. It’s not that it’s high but the rainy/snow weather that we were receiving during December had caused it to be slippery and treacherous to the point where cleats would have come in handy. The steps I had initially installed to work the flag were now under 97 bags of cement and almost non-existent. Where once stood large pine logs, now sat a huge glob of gray concrete.
Finally finding some good footing while holding to the post, I gazed upwards at my old tattered flag. This old friend had served me well over the years and had accompanied me to three different continents, traveling to Africa and Europe only to then return to North America. Here at the lodges it had been an Ambassador for the fallen troops of Afghanistan but now and this with just one look, one could tell that it was way overdue to be retired. Fran had kept it going by sewing it together more than a few times but now it looked more like a rag than a flag. Oh sure, I had received a “government” replacement from a father whose son was in the “Sand Box” last summer but had refused to hoist it up as the old one was not finished with the job at hand. However, this morning, it would be lowered at half-mast for the last time. It was tired and had done more than its share of the heavy lifting. The dreaded “One Hundred Dead Soldiers” mark had been reached and as I had promised it and myself, it would be the time for the “Changing of the Guards”. However, what the flag didn’t know was that it would be headed on a final mission to Afghanistan in Mar 09. See, this young private came visiting “Ciment Hill” last July with his proud retired military grandfather. A real “Ghung Ho” type, he’s third generation infantryman and honestly believes that he must uphold the family tradition of being the finest soldier seen in the Canadian Forces. Before leaving, I will give him this particular flag with the strict instructions that he must categorically bring it back to me after his tour of duty. Considering that he still calls me “Adjudant” and snaps to attention whenever he talks to me, maybe just maybe, it might just give him that additional incentive to come back home safely. Plus, considering that his grandfather served 32 years and is well connected with the “Vandoos”, he will be carrying an envelope signed by this gentleman’s hand and addressed to the “CO” on the ground at the time. Somehow, it would get done and the “Maple Leaf” would find its way to fly its colors over there and tell the boys not to give up hope because somebody still cared about them. I might be going on a limb on this one but what the hell, it can’t hurt to try, can it?
When it slid down the length of the pole and rubbed against my face, I took a moment to think what that day had brought to me. Death, death and more death. With an audience of two, those being “Moska” standing at the base of the hill and the “Kid” sitting at attention at his post area, it wasn’t much of a ceremony but to me it was important that it be done right. I was saying goodbye to a sister-in-law that I never had the chance to meet, two dogs that never got a chance to run like the wind and most importantly, three more fellow soldiers. Taking time, making sure that this sacred piece of cloth did not touch the ground, I folded it neatly while balling my eyes out. Without an exaggeration, if I had been pouring the three prescribed cement bags at that moment, I could have supplied the water to set it with the tears that were rolling down my cheeks. They just kept coming and coming.
I heard the sound of boots on crunchy snow, coming from behind and recognized the shuffle to belong to my right-hand man “Richard”. Not wanting him to know that I was crying, I swallowed hard and buried these emotions back deep inside me and put my “tough guy” game face back on. This was a private thing and life had to go on. Knowing that these “half-mast rituals were most important to me, he didn’t crack his usual jokes or say anything sarcastic. He just stood there, waiting for me to speak. “So, what have you got on the agenda?” I finally managed to say. “I was thinking that maybe I’d clean the wood shop and make kindling.” he replied. “Sounds like a plan. I’m gone mushing.” I rebutted.
On that note, we mounted up and took off for the woods. Fresh air and exercise had always been a good cure to curb these PTSD episodes and this was one of these occasions where I needed to physically and mentally drain myself. There was a good layer of snow and this would be the first ride with the sled back in the trails of the “ZEC”. We paraded up the road and were cheered by tied-up barking dogs all the way up there. It was as if they knew what we were up to and were trying to convince me to bring them along. “Sorry boys and girls, the team and I have got some serious work ahead of us and we got no time to fool around. At the trail head, the “A” Team was hitched and ready to move out. Making sure that my precious cargo was still in my pocket, I called, “JR”, “Oumak”, ready?? This was the signal telling them to prepare for launch. When I felt the full strength of the team tugging on the gang line, I released my snug line and asked them to “uptrail”. Within thirty feet, I was back in my element gliding over this shiny new white carpet and heading out for a twenty (20) mile run. God it was great to be standing on those runners and again feel this freedom. For me this was what living was all about. We had gone for about two miles when I called for a “Haw” turn. The two leaders hesitated to turn left as this was not the usual trail. I had to stop the team and re-affirm that I wanted to go ‘Haw” down this till now unknown trail. “JR” looked back at me with this look on his face that said “Are you sure?”. “Yes “JR”, Haw trail.” On that note, he veered in the asked direction, dragging “Oumak” and the rest of the dogs with him. He didn’t know where he was going but trusted my judgment. He didn’t but I did. See in the summer, I take guests at “Baisley Lodges” for canoe rides up river to an area where a couple of bald eagles have a nest and this trail was taking us there. When we reached destination, I checked the skies and located them way above us, gliding and circling at a safe distance. I anchored the team to a fallen tree and made my way to the tree they call “home”. I kneeled down at the bottom of this huge white pine and looked towards the heavens. I asked for forgiveness for being so weak in this moment of despair and to apologize, offered a gift to the animal kingdom. With that said, I took my mittens off and retrieved the two little white dogs and layed them there on a spruce branch in plain view. See the way I figured things out, well maybe I should give the credit to a guy called “Einstein”, energy is never lost, it is just transformed. We take a spoonful of cod liver oil because the proteins found in that fish give us energy. If you spread the ashes of a cremated family member to the four winds, don’t these small particles eventually become nutrients to living things like plants and trees. So, what was wrong with this particular gesture. Nothing really. However small the contribution would be, these two tiny bodies would eventually make their way through the food chain and end up giving one particular “carnivore” the energy to continue living. Before getting up, I again looked up and told “Leonard” to take care of the two little “white angels”. Moments later, we were back on the road and headed out to familiar territories. The second part of this mission needed to be completed. I needed to vent and it would be done. When we got back to the truck after the 20 mile trek, two more observations had been noted. The dogs were in shape to take on any challenge sent their way this winter. As for the “musher”, well let’s just say that he remained the weakest link of the team. I was getting in shape but at 52 years old, I could tell that the body was just not what it used to be.
The exercise had done me good and that night although they came visiting, I dreamed that my mentor “Leonard” was by my side and taking care of business, not fighting but negotiating some kind of peace with my ghosts. Eight days later, when Cpl Thomas HAMILTON, Ptes John CURWIN and Justin JONES came to their dreadful untimely demise, the same protocol was implemented. That day I was back on the trail getting rid of some serious built-up rage and while running uphill trying to keep up with the team, I noticed the same two bald eagles in the distance playfully flying over their nest area. Seeing them casually frolic up there, a couple of things were running through my mind. First, the new addition to my expanding dog family was only twelve (12) days old and was hanging in there even through the thick and thin of this crazy weather pattern. I had now put all my hopes on his small shoulders, praying that he would carry the torch for the “Spirit Dogs”. At this stage of the game, this was not necessarily a given. As for his siblings, I was wishfully hoping that the “spirit of those dogs” had somehow found a way to continue their voyage. If all had worked according to plan, they had met up with these two birds of prey and were now safe up there in these heavens. Hell, they were probably looking down on us traveling down this trail and saying, “Hey guys, it’s us up here. Why should we run when we can fly?”
DEDICATED TO ALL OF YOU WHO WILL BE MISSING A LOVED ONE DURING THIS FESTIVE SEASON.
Merry Christmas to one and all.