Always an Updraft — a writer remembers

A BRIEFING

I feel like a tour guide who is preparing travellers for the journey ahead, not to build up their anticipation or to dampen their enthusiasm, but simply to give them some sense of their mode of travel and the terrain they’ll be traversing.

These are my recollections of some of the people, places, and events I have encountered during the course of a generously long life. And because memory is an ever-present companion, I have chosen present tense narrative as our mode of travel. The fact that my career has been that of a freelance writer merely gives a rather unpredictable structure to much of the terrain travelled. Some is geographical, ranging from Canada’s sub-Arctic to Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and even southern Ontario. Other ground trod has been less physical; it includes the bizarre worlds of documentary film, television drama, television public affairs, stage drama, literature, and, alas, newspaper journalism.

But where does the journey begin? I cannot ignore family, parents, or even ancestors. Memory is ancestral. It reaches back beyond birth. Parental memories are handed down and absorbed, and become part of who we are. Family attitudes, too, shape our attitudes. Perhaps I can illustrate. Regress with me for a moment.

I’m just a youngster. It’s a summer night at Stoney Lake, in central Ontario’s cottage country, and an enormous thunderstorm is underway. Mother calls from the living room to my brothers and me.

“You must be awake. Come and join us.”

Mother and Dad have the window drapes open and are sitting watching the spectacle. The thunder alone is awesome. It comes in great rolling waves, interspersed with nearby explosions that shake the cottage and assault the eardrums. The lightning is almost constant, and turbulent white-crested waves hurl themselves against the Precambrian rock of tree-studded islands that flicker in and out of ragged silhouette. The scene and the noise are apocalyptic. Armageddon is on tour.

“Come and sit with us,” says Mother, calmly. “We wouldn’t want you to miss anything so beautiful.”

That moment, etched in memory, must surely have conditioned my reaction, years later, to a spectacularly turbulent night on the waters of Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where I will, eventually, take you.

I don’t intend to analyse further, except to say that life is an accumulation of experiences, and that each of them, however seemingly isolated, must play a part in shaping us. This means, paradoxically, that we are never fully formed. Each of us, no matter how old, is a work in progress. For that reason I will let this narrative flow more or less chronologically. I say “more or less” because the actual chaos of a freelance life must yield to the structural requirements of the writer’s craft. Whether you as reader wish to grow with the flow or dip in at random is your choice.

You will recognize some of the people we encounter, such as John George Diefenbaker, mischievous former prime minister of Canada, and Ian Fleming, who turned a birdwatcher into James Bond, and Dr. Robert McClure, who, according to Patrick Watson, was “the last of the Christians.” You have probably never heard of Senhor Paulino Ngonga Liahuca, Angolan witchdoctor’s apprentice turned pastor, or of Dr. Kin Ho Wang, who fought black foot disease with a bone saw in Taiwan, but they too inhabit real terrain in memory.

There are others who are vivid in memory but whose names elude me. One such is a lobsterman. I recall sitting beside him on a grassy hillside overlooking Northumberland Strait on the west side of Nova Scotia’s beautiful Cape Breton Island.

It is late spring. The little port of Pleasant Bay is spread out before and below us. Far offshore, near the horizon but clearly visible, lies an icefield.

I am intrigued by the gentle inflection of my companion’s Cape Breton accent. The word “ice” comes out as oice, somehow softer, less brittle. But that is misleading. At this time of year, in the lobster season, the presence of oice is a most menacing phenomenon. The oice appears to be receding, but a few days ago it came close inshore and cleaned out an entire season’s set of lobster traps. The men are now repairing old traps and buying and building more, but for the time being they hesitate to put them out. If they do not, they will be financially ruined. If they do, and the oice returns, they will be even further in debt. These are the days before adequate social safety nets.

I ask my companion what he thinks of it all.

“Oh,” comes the answer, quietly, softly, “we been burned out, flooded out, blowed out—now we be oiced out. We be all right.”

His kind are worth recalling.

I don’t have the same warm recollection of a certain bush pilot who tried to give me a heart attack. The scene is as clear now in memory as it was starkly vivid then.

I have been to Bella Bella on the coast of British Columbia and am flying inland across the Coastal Range of the Rocky Mountains. I’m up front with the pilot. The plane, a small float-equipped Cessna, is heading directly at the upper face of a great, bald mountain. The pilot appears to be unconcerned. I estimate the top of the approaching rock wall to be at least a hundred feet higher than we’re now flying.

“What’s our ceiling?” I ask, desperately trying to sound merely curious.

“We’re at it,” the pilot says, nonchalantly, as he glances away to one side, apparently intrigued by the view.

The Cessna is not a fast plane, but even so that towering rock impediment is approaching at a remarkable speed. I tell myself to have faith in the pilot. This is not a car, where I’m probably as adequate a driver as the next guy and might seize control. I decide the pilot is having me on and will peel away at the last minute. He does not.

Just before we fly into oblivion, a miracle happens. The pilot has not moved the stick or flexed a foot, but the little plane rises as though on a hoist and soars over the top of old baldy. I could lean out and strike a match on the bare rock.

The pilot chuckles. “There’s always an updraft.”

“Always?”

“So far.”

Yeah. Well, maybe. But in a way my own life has been like that. Relying on the updraft. Often I have been absolutely broke—flat, with no way to pay the mortgage—waiting for the phone to ring, for a producer to offer a film assignment, or a director to say he likes a play, or a publisher to accept a manuscript. The phone has been my updraft.

And let’s be honest. I’m not writing this, nor are you reading it, because either of us has any illusions about my being some icon of CanLit, or CanFilm, or any of the other Cans. I’m just a survivor. But I must admit it’s been a good life. Happy, challenging, fulfilling. Sweetheart of a wife—pretty, supportive, loving, gentle, tough as nails. Great sons. Good friends. Travel. I’ve seldom regretted being freelance, and I recommend it, not so much as a way of making a living, but as a state of being. Maybe some younger dreamers out there will read and take heart. Throw off the yoke of corporate drudgery and strike out into the creative unknown. Of course, the unknown they will face is not the same as the one that faced me. So rapid is the pace of change that my account should be taken for what it is, not a guide book for the present but personal recollections of a bygone era.

If you’re still with me, let’s go journeying.

(Excerpt from Always an Updraft — a writer remembers, Copyright© Munroe Scott 2005)

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