By: Bill Coultas

We were chilled, tired and hungry. And it seemed like we were going nowhere fast. Was it our long, wet hair I wondered. In those days long hair was a turn off for a lot people.

It was 1968 and my brother Bob and I hitched to Montreal. To us it was a big adventure. We were never off the island before.

We had it pretty easy going up. Hitched a ride from North Sydney right to Montreal. Lucky us.

But now we were on our way back to Newfoundland standing just outside Moncton. It was a light rain most of the day but it now started to pour in earnest. We were feeling miserable and were not sure where to go from here. Then I remembered that Mom gave us a list of people we could call. My brother checked his knapsack. He nobbled down through his knapsack and soon came up with a crumbled piece of paper with a list of names and numbers on it. Sure enough there was a number for our cousin Rita. She lived in Moncton. We looked around and within eyesight there was a phone booth. We quickly found a quarter to make the call.

We were in luck and soon cousin Rita answered. I told her who I was and that I was here, just outside of Moncton with Bob. She asked what we were doing outside of Moncton. I said we were hitch hiking back to Newfoundland but we were stuck at the turnoff from the TCH. I wondered if we could sleep at her place that night. She readily agreed. But her husband Ed was at work and she would order a cab to pick us up. The cab quickly arrived and we were on our way.

Soon we were knocking on her door. She graciously welcomed us and in no time we were having a bowl of soup and a cup of tea.

Half way through our meal I could hear someone at the front door. It must be Ed. Rita went out to meet him. There was a muffled conversation out in the hallway. When Ed came into the kitchen we hesitantly shook hands. He was a short, sinewy, pale looking man. You could tell he was pretty drawn and tired. His slight body frame hunched forward making him look a lot older than he was. But his eyes were bright and searching. He then excused himself, saying it was a long day and he simply had to go to bed.

On the way to his bedroom he let out a cough. A phlemy kind of cough. Cousin Rita’s face tightened. I took no great notice of her reaction or his cough at the time but it was a harbinger of things to come.

Soon we were saying our goodnights and were steered into the spare room where we thankfully slept in a warm, dry bed.

When we woke up the next morning Ed was gone to work. Rita cooked us up a fine breakfast. Then she offered to show us around Moncton driving us here and there showing us the sights. We had a grand time catching up. In the midst of the conversation she said that Ed was a member of the Moncton Flying Club and that if we wanted to stay an extra night he would take us to the club that night.

Sure enough we were happy to stay another night and true to his word he drove us to the Moncton Flying Club.

In the early evening he drove us to the Moncton Flying Club. It was a bit uncomfortable at first but as it turned out there was an old classmate of mine by the name of Chuck who knew both myself and Bob. That helped both of us to relax a bit.

A lot of things on our trip were eye openers. The wild traffic in Montreal, the subway, the old part of town. It was all new and exciting. But as the evening rolled on at the Flying Club, the stories that these pilots spun became the highlight of our trip. We were totally fascinated with all the stories these fellow small plane pilots had to spin. Chuck told a story of running out of fuel and having to land on the TCH, filling up at a gas station and taking off again. Another fellow told about a time he had punctured a tire while landing. His plane careened all over the place before coming to a stop in a wooded area. As the conversation continued I remembered about another classmate who always talked about wanting to fly an airplane. I asked Chuck if he remembered Gerry White and how Gerry was always nattering on about flying a plane. As it turned out Gerry attended the Moncton Flying School and graduated with high marks. Gerry found work out in British Columbia but was later killed in a plane crash in the interior of the province. Another pilot, another story. Albeit a very sad one.

There were lots more stories. We were wide eyed.

It was another world.

An exciting one. One of risking taking, adventure and death. I felt like I was in the middle of a movie.

The night ended at around eleven and on the way home Ed told us that he had his own plane and that he would take us up for a ride the next day if we wanted to. I can remember saying that’s great but at the same time feeling apprehensive at the thought of going up in plane.

The next day was clear and sunny. Ed drove us out to a hangar where he showed us his airplane.

Now I didn’t know a lot about planes but looking at Ed’s was like comparing a Volkswagon Bug to a high end Mercedes Benz. And Ed’s wasn’t the Mercedes.

Soon we took off and we were gawking all around us but mostly at the view below. It was beautiful to us and it was obvious that Ed loved it too even though I’m sure he had seen this aerial landscape many times before.

Just as we were getting comfortable with the whole trip Ed decided to put some excitement into the flight. He took out his pack of cigarettes and laid it on the plane’s dashboard. And then, without a warning, he let the plane descend quickly. Bob and I caught our breaths. As we were descending dramatically we essentially became weightless.

The pack of Export “A” cigarettes floated in the air. So did my sunglasses. They slipped out of my top shirt pocket.

We were heading down fast too. So I grabbed my glasses. And then I grabbed my armrest. I looked over at my brother and he too had a fine set of white knuckles. Then Ed pointed to the floating packet of cigarettes. He zipped the plane forward. When the cigarettes hovered over his shirt pocket, he casually tipped the packet on its end and pulled up on the joystick. The plane went upwards and the package of cigarettes deftly slipped into his top shirt pocket.

Ed laughed at our discomfort. We smiled but it was forced. I was thinking what’s next. Is he going to walk out on the wing and ask me to steer while he did a jig? But that didn’t happen and soon the plane landed. Ed was happy but we were just glad to be on solid ground.

The next morning, after some heartfelt hugs, we were back on the Trans Canada hitchhiking back to St. John’s.

Eventually we made it back to Newfoundland. Mom and Dad were pretty glad to see us when we arrived. I’m sure our Mother thought she’d never see us again. Mom felt it was too risky letting us go like that. It had its potential dangers no doubt. It was our first major youthful adventure and now it was exciting recounting it all especially our stay in Moncton.

But early one morning, about three weeks after our return, the phone rang. Mom passed it to me with a quizzical look.

It turned out to be my cousin Rita.

She had some bad news.

She said that Ed was dying from cancer and that he had about three weeks to live.

I found it hard to believe and I didn’t know how to react to this awful news. I said to Rita that Ed looked tired but good when we were there. He hardly looked like he was dying.

She said he knew about his cancer. All she knew was that he was sick but nothing he couldn’t handle. She said he covered it up and proceeded as if normal as long as he could. I asked her to let us know when they arrived in St. John’s and we would visit him in hospital.

I hung up the phone in quiet disbelief. I told Mom and Bob. To be honest I really didn’t quite know how to react. Anytime I had come face to face with death up to this point in my life it was different, like death was wrapped up in a nice little package. Grand parents died but they were supposed to die. They were old. It was natural. But this business was abrupt, unexpected and unrehearsed. I struggled, trying to figure out how to deal with it. It turned out that we never received a call to arrange a hospital visit. On a bright sunny day a car hauled up in front of our house. A door opened and a pole was set up just outside the car door. Then slowly Ed’s head appeared, almost like an apparition. He was in his pyjamas. An intravenous bag was attached to the pole and bent over he hobbled towards our front door. We were all a bit nervous but Ed’s wide smile put us all at ease. He came into out living room and sat down and started talking. He looked at me and Bob and said, “ You know, when you came to my house that night I didn’t like the look of you both. I didn’t much like your long hair.”

I was surprised because he covered that up pretty well. But it seems Ed was full of surprises.

He obviously kept a lot inside. Then he said that he wanted to hear some of that long haired music that his religion wouldn’t allow him to listen too. As it happened The Beatles’ White Album had just been released so we put that on the record player. Not a word was said as three songs filled the living room air. Back in the USSR, Dear Prudence and Glass Onion.

“That was beautiful music’ Ed said . “I just never knew.” He was then quiet for a bit. We all got wrapped up in his solitude. We all felt his meditative silence. It hung over us all, like a raised judge’s gavel.

“I am a little bit mad right now.” he said. “My religion wouldn’t allow me to listen to that kind of music.” But he sighed, shrugged, stood up and headed for the front door. Before he left I remember giving him a hug.

It was a heavy hug. A desperate hug. A long hug.

He squeezed my arm and I squeezed his. The door opened and he headed for the sidewalk. He bent himself into the car. Rita tried to get his intravenous pole into the back seat of the car but it just wouldn’t fit for some reason. Rita ended up laying it across the back seat with the upper end sticking out of the opened window.

As the car headed out the road, the curved part of the pole stuck out of the opened window. It looked like a convoluted goodbye.

Then they were gone. There was that silence again. I looked around and I could see Mom crying. I put my arm around her. As I did I could clearly see the imprint of Ed’s fingers on my forearm.

Rita told me later that Ed hated the idea of dying in the hospital. But on his last day of life he stubbornly sat up on his bed holding desperately on to the intravenous pole. Then he lay down sideways and died. Rita lifted up his legs, pulled down his eyelids and covered him with a blanket.

He was gone. But his hug would stay forever.

Published in SALTSCAPES magazine – Halifax, NS