The photographs of water bombers fighting the horrendous Ft. McMurray conflagration of 2016 invoked a sudden wash of memories having to do with two of the great Canadian cultural institutions that I had the good fortune to be involved with and a bizarre set of circumstances that led from a burned out forest to a literary heritage.
The first great cultural institution was The Littlest Hobo TV series. I directed 44 of those over five seasons in the early 1980s as a young filmmaker learning his chops and building up his bag of cinematic tricks. All the crew was pretty young as well so we ended up having a tremendous time together shooting the show out in small-town rural Ontario over the warm summer months. Rarely has such wholesome family entertainment been created by such a collection of sex- and drug-crazed reprobates. At one of our wrap parties at an isolated hotel, I woke up the next morning in bed with five people, all of whom I’d had some kind of sex with.
Hobo was great fun to make — a new story with a new cast every week in a new situation set in a new environment. Lots of action. Many tremendous actors to work with — classic old Hollywood pros like Keenan Wynn, John Carradine, Henry Gibson, Patrick MacNee, James MacArthur and the cream of Canadian talent from Lynne Griffin to Jim Henshaw to Sean McCann and Karen Kain. Out in the woods on a sunny day, telling a tale. The crew called it the story of “A dog who traveled around from town to town paying off crew mortgages.” We had no idea back then how good we had it.
We were shooting a two-part episode with the SARTECHS at Trenton Air Force Base. These Search and Rescue Technicians were the guys that flew missions looking for the wreckage of missing aircraft out in the wilds or ships in trouble at sea, then parachuted in to rescue the survivors or collect the remains. Our story was about a small plane crash in some remote hinterland and was both a drama with the survivors and a procedural about the SARTECHs search and rescue operation.
The Air Force gave us tremendous support – the free use of big Buffalo search aircraft and Huey and Chinook rescue helicopters, numerous parachute jumps and the run of the Trenton base. For me as director, it was like Orson Welles’ description of a film set being the best electric train a boy could have. We did lots of aerial shooting and excellent action with the SARTECHs rappelling out of helicopters or hitting a precise mark in their glider parachutes. It turned out to be one of our best shows ever.
I was much taken with the 8 or 10 SARTECHs we were working with. They were all long term enlistments and pretty well all Sargeants, you know, the guys the Officers go to to find out what is going on or what they should do. They seemed to me like a bunch of John Ford cavalry picture heroes — deadly serious about their work but tremendous fun after hours, boisterous and full of jokes. I was so impressed that I wanted to develop a movie script about them. Their lives and their work were certainly deserving of the big screen treatment so after the Hobo season ended, I went back to Trenton and spent many enjoyable, well lubricated evenings interviewing them on tape, pumping them for all their best stories.
They had many epic adventures to relate and many amazing tales to tell. How they generally chuted into plane crash sites up North with heavy gauge shotguns because they often had to fight off huge Grizzly bears who were taking possession of the human remains. How a climber who fell down a mountain side was usually stripped naked by his clothes being ripped off by small obstructions. How to airlift survivors off a blazing, sinking ship in an Atlantic gale. The strange things that cause plane crashes, like the pilot getting a raisin stuck in his throat and choking to death at 6000 feet.
But the most incredible story was about being called to the site of a major forest fire in BC by the firefighters, after the flames had been largely extinguished. They were led into the heart of the burned out woods, the ash still smoking and small brush fires still being put out. The lead firefighter came to a stop and pointed up at the top of a blackened cedar tree and there, 40 feet up, impaled in the branches was a fully accoutered frogman — wet suit, dive mask, scuba tank and one flipper — dead of course, and all scorched and roasted by the fire and the steam. Sgt. Kelly said it was probably the most surreal thing he’d ever seen and that’s saying a great deal, based on some of the other experiences he told me.
Well, the story was reasonably easy to figure out, finally. This poor bastard had been scuba diving in one of the local lakes, had been scooped up by a Water Bomber skimming across the surface, taking on a fresh load and had then been dropped into the blaze itself on their fire-fighting bomb run.
I’ve thought many times over the years about this unlucky guy’s experience. There he was, placidly scubaing along. He would have started to hear a strange noise, suddenly building up to a gigantic roar and then, he would have been tumbled around in extreme turbulence. What the fuck!? Then, he would have found himself in complete darkness, encased in a great pool of water but on investigation, he would discover that he was entombed by steel walls above, below and all around. Did he figure out what was happening to him? There would be the muted rumble of the plane’s props but the water in the hold would be calm.
But then, suddenly — Light would begin to appear below him, the water would abruptly start to drain away and he would be swept out in a rush with it. He would find himself falling through the air from great height into a massive raging wild fire directly below.
One can only hope that it was all over for him quickly.
I’ve told this story many times over the years, usually as an example of the kind of freaky things that can happen to human beings. The sly Greek philosopher Heraclitus always said that it was the things that we could never think of that would do us in.
In the long run, the movie never happened. We wrote a decent script but had trouble getting the money together before another big project took us elsewhere. Every filmmaker’s epitaph should read “Films I Never Made.” Later, we did do another SARTECH script for the Danger Bay series and that turned into one of their most celebrated, most popular episodes, nominated for many awards.
Now, the 2nd great Canadian cultural institution. About the time we were working on the SARTECH movie script, I was having dinner at the Windsor Arms one night with the powerful producer Bill Marshall. Bill and I worked together over the years and he was always the best of company, funny and entertaining to pass an evening or a plane ride with. His signature line was “I give you my word as a Film Producer!”
At some point, a familiar looking, rumpled little guy passed by and stopped to talk with Bill. Bill invited him to join us. It was Mordecai Richler, considered by many — myself included — to be the greatest Canadian Novelist ever, despite claims by backers of Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies. I’d never met him before so it was a big thrill for me. I had all his books on the shelf at home. And loved them.
We three talked about all kinds of different subjects for hours, as we worked our way through a bottle or two of Chivas Regal. Mordecai was killer smart and the ironic black humor so on display in his writings was delivered in a quiet sardonic voice for private consumption at the table. At some point, I told them the SARTECH/Frogman story. I don’t remember their reaction but no doubt it was the general head shaking amazement that its telling usually provokes.
Jump Cut a decade or so later. I am shooting Outer Limits in Vancouver and have just done my Saturday morning book store run, the prize acquisition being the hot off the presses hardcover copy of Mordecai Richler’s latest (and sadly, last) novel, Barney’s Version. I dive right into it and spend most of the rainy weekend devouring it.
A key storyline in the novel is Barney being suspected of murder over the mysterious disappearance of his best friend, during a weekend up in the woods at the cottage. Barney always proclaims his innocence and eventually gets away with it because no corpse is ever found. Until of course, years later when a hiker in a new growth forest comes across charred human remains.
Yes, the strange sound that disturbed Barney’s post-lunch nap was a water bomber vacuuming up his friend who had gone for a dip, to eventually deposit him from height into a raging forest fire.
At first, I was shocked when I read this literary piracy denouement but then, I had to laugh. Yeah, Mordecai knew a good story when he heard it, made a note probably and when it didn’t show up elsewhere, he incorporated it as a major plot device for his new book. I resolved to give him some good-natured ribbing about stealing my material the next time I ran into him but alas, I never got the chance. Mordecai died a few years later.
But retrospectively, I am proud of my part in passing along this extraordinary tale from the SARTECHs to our greatest author to be recorded for posterity in his final novel. All human art begins with our ancestors sitting around telling stories, which then get passed on to the generations. So let it be with this one.
And anyhow, it makes for a good story too.
Editor’s note: This article was originally inspired by the magnificent photograph below, of a water bomber fighting a wildfire in Italy.
First published on The Legion of Decency.