Friday, November 30, 2012

Mr. B

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When I was eight my heroes were Lassie and The Lone Ranger. That was before I met Joe Bonikowsky.

There wasn’t much to do in our little town. During the summer, I tagged along with my brothers doing whatever they did. That usually amounted to hanging around the drug store or the A & W, playing baseball or swimming in the river. In the winter, we donned skates or snowshoes. I tried to imitate Dave, Danny, Frank and Jimmy, but since I was the youngest, there were some activities which earned me the, “wait until you’re older” thing — including joining the local hockey team.

The undersized team bore the oversized name of: “The Temagami Timber Wolves.” Dad and I went to every practice and to all the games to cheer the boys on. Archrivals, Latchford and Haileybury killed us on the ice, but nobody in the crowd yelled as loudly as we did.

I first met Mr. Bonikowsky at the rink. He was an old man then. Of course, everyone is old when you are nine. He’d worked in the bush for most of his life, cutting trees and hauling logs. Now, he did odd jobs at the rink. He must have slept there because no matter what time of the day or night, Joe Bonikowsky was always around; changing light bulbs, repairing the wooden benches we warmed during the practices and games, or picking up Juicy Fruit wrappers and empty root beer cans.

Sometimes Dad couldn’t get away to watch my brothers play. I’d go to the rink by myself, and Mr. B would often come and sit beside me. He never said much. I didn’t either, but he seemed to know how much I wanted to be on the ice playing hockey, not just watching it, or cheering on my team.

Then when I turned ten, I got my big break. The Temagami Timber Wolves ran out of players. Like I said, Temagami is a REALLY small town. The season had just begun and the right-winger recruited from the Reserve took a check into the boards and broke his wrist. The coach didn’t have any choice but to let me try out. He wasn’t happy about it; neither were the rest of the kids, including my brothers. However, faced with the possibility of losing an entire season and the long-awaited chance at revenge against the other teams from the neighbouring towns, they swallowed their objections. Mom was in shock, imagining my broken body carried out on a stretcher. Even Dad was a little worried.

But I made it. All those winters playing street hockey with my brothers was paying off.

Coach called the house with the news. I was to start in Saturday’s game against the Haileybury Hurricanes. I was thrilled — and suddenly terrified.

On Friday afternoon, I walked over to the rink. No one was there except Mr. Bonikowsky. He was throwing sand around the front entrance. The snow there had melted and then frozen and it was slippery.

“Gonna play tomorrow, eh?”



Was it that obvious? I had grabbed a star, didn’t know exactly what to do with it, and hoped it wouldn’t show.

“A little.”

“Don’t worry.”

“Everyone thinks I’ll fail.”

“You won’t.”

“How do you know?”

“Gotta have faith.”

“In God?”

I went to Sunday School, but we never talked in class about God’s interest in hockey. I figured He was more concerned with Saturday night baths — you know, “cleanliness is next to godliness” — than Saturday’s Hockey Night In Canada game on television.

“Wouldn’t hurt none. But you gotta have faith in you too.”

“Do you have faith in me?”


He seemed to sense my doubts so he added:

“You’ll see tomorrow.”

The next night I waddled to the rink behind my brothers. I’d put all my gear on at home. The boards thumped underneath my skates as I made my way down the hall past the home team’s dressing room. Then I saw it. To the left of the dressing room there had been a broom closet. The buckets, brooms, and cleaning cloths were gone, leaving a wooden bench and a peg nailed to the wall. The sign “Cleaning Supplies” was missing from the door. Replacing it, written in crude but large letters was: “Helen’s Dressing Room.”

Mr. B. had proven his faith in me. The first girl to play in the area’s juvenile hockey league was here to stay, and I had a champion.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sweet Song of Crow

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It was as though I were able to read their thoughts—though they were not thinking about the sudden appearance of this shadow. A sea of transparent faces with clear eyes like tunnels leading back into crystal minds, looked beyond me as if I were not there.

Some were winged creatures, awesome in their physical presence, yet unaware of that very grandeur. Others, whose features would have inspired fear in another world, were now marvelously benign. However, they had no time for me. They too looked beyond me, fully focused, eyes bright, and faces glowing. A multitude, those who seemed like me, but weren’t, glowed in white robes, which might have outshone the sun in their whiteness—if there had been a sun. They too, looked beyond me, adoration written indelibly on their faces.

Every eye centered on the Throne.

My Guide took my arm and led me closer. If you pressed me, I’d say He took me to the front, but in fact there was no front. The presence of the Enthroned One was everywhere. Every space, no matter how seemingly far away, was as though it were only a step from the dais.

To describe what I saw would be like catching the wind in a bottle: it ceases to be what it is as soon as it is touched by human craft. The One who occupied the Throne glowed as though every jewel in the universe had shed its brilliance as an offering in an ultimate act of worship.

I was suddenly aware of the sound. The air vibrated. Music, of which a pale imitation had been my only experience until this moment, soared around me. It was not brash. It did not fill my head with itself; rather it carried me directly into the glow of its Object. My friends would tell you, for they are here somewhere in this audience, that my voice resembles that of a crow. Nevertheless, in this place, my fully sanctified mouth, with a most melodious caw, echoed the words of the hymn being sung.

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”

“You are worthy, our Lord and God to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”

A hand reached out from the midst of the brightness of the Throne. It held a scroll, tightly closed. Surrounded by such open, transparent purity, it seemed an aberration. What would dare to be closed against Majesty? I wept. One of the humankind leaned toward me and smiled:

“Don’t weep. There is no need. The Worthy One will open the scroll.”

My faltering human vision cleared and I saw the Lamb. He took the scroll and I knew Him. With those around me, I sang the song of redeeming blood and redeemed men.

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

Encouraged by knowing that He had taken the name of one of theirs, to exalt His own, I heard the creatures from whom I had borrowed my own voice, add their cry to the song. From the earth, the skies, the seas, their worship resonated through the heavens.

“ … praise … honor … glory … power, for ever and ever!” The voice, which the serpent had lost in long-ago Eden, returned one more to Creation.

I needed no pen to record the sights and sounds. What was not permanently engraved on my soul would defy even the best-honed descriptive skills of a more accomplished writer than I am. My Guide stayed close, perhaps knowing that I would have stayed forever if I had been able. Soon, very soon, my turn would come and I would bask again in the glory of the Enthroned One, in the presence of the Lamb, with the Guide at my elbow.

The sun is less bright as it sets behind the now-tarnished beauty of my island prison. Until I can sing again with perfect pitch in the chorus of heaven before the Throne of the Majesty on High, I will caw as best I can:

“Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

No human ear will hear the discordant notes, but God will know their intent, and be pleased.

Revelation 4:8, 11; 5:12, 13; 7:12

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bubbles, Bathtubs and Rubber Duckies

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Les allowed his body to slide forward and his head to fall back.

There were seven seas to sail. He felt the waves gently tickle his toes, enticing him to come and explore. Bubbles rose, exploding on his cheek: A whale perhaps, blowing a welcome? A pod of dolphins to accompany him on his journey? He wiggled, and his world wiggled back, caressing and calling; calling and caressing.

But wait; an ocean of another ilk reached out for him with a scent not of salt, but of sweet. This time it was the smell of hibiscus and roses. A garden floated before his eyes, bubbles transforming into a haze of dandelions gone to seed floating upwards, seeking new horizons and uninhabited islands of verdant green. As the waves wrapped loving arms around him, so did the perfume of dancing girls in grass skirts. Odd though, that they should all bear a vague resemblance to his mother.

He could not linger long in this tropical paradise. There were other worlds awaiting him, other lives to live. Everest beckoned, reaching down with icy fingers. He felt its chill in the air and did not flinch. The Russian Steppes and the Great Wall of China called. No tour bus for him; he would arrive with due pomp and ceremony as the leader of the free world coming to bring order out of disorder. Yes, there were enemies out there preparing to meet their fate at his hand. A new Patton was on the march.

A vision of water fowl on a pond of frothy blue came to mind, awaking in him his artistic self. He’d become a great painter; no, a writer. Any fool could throw brushfuls of paint at a canvass and call it art. Writing was pure and exact. Surely a blank page waited somewhere begging for his ready pen. An audience hungered for the great novel written in his mind, possessed by his heart, but not yet released through his hands. Neither Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Donne nor Grace Livingston Hill would ever be able to hold a candle to his literary genius.

A less esoteric note rang out; one that was music to the ears of the financial world. The bell would not ring on Wall Street to signal the end of a business day without his permission. The markets hung on his decisions, rose and fell at his command. He was the cog around which the wheel turned, and that wheel would crush poverty and inequality wherever they chose to lurk.

And medical science? He would discover the cure for the dreaded big “C”, banish HIV, Bird Flu and West Nile. Every hepatitis in the alphabet would be stomped out under the boot of his needle and pill. No one would ever suffer the heartbreak of psoriasis again.

But how could he be so remiss, so selfish? The physical world was his to have and to hold, but it wasn’t about him, was it? Devils and darkness demanded his attention as well. He must preach and teach and win. Churches needed founding, missions cried out for his leadership and largesse, the dry wells of theological education begged priming. He’d be the leader of the church militant — a combination of Billy Graham, Billy Sunday with a liberal twist of “Billy” of Orange.

Yes, it was time to take charge, to regain control, to be that special man among ordinary men.

It was time …

“Les, would you please get out of the bathtub! I need you to take Genghis Khan for a walk. He’s standing out here in the hallway with his legs crossed! And don’t forget the pooper-scooper this time!”

… to get back to real life.

The rubber duck sprung a leak, flipped over on its back, slipped beneath the scummy surface of the now cool water and took its final dive to the bottom of the bathtub. One lone bubble escaped and floated free. Perhaps it was a sign that there was still a chance that a walk with old GK would be the means of bringing to life one tiny part of Les’s dream. Maybe he’d meet a beautiful Chinese girl walking a Pekinese?

Friday, November 9, 2012


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On that cold winter’s morn in nineteen hundred and seventeen, no red flag waved above the stacks of the Mont Blanc. There was nothing to warn the innocent in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that she was a floating bomb filled to the gunnels with, among other nasties, some 400,000 pounds of TNT.

The absence of the flag was a safety precaution. The German u-boats prowling the Atlantic would have no way of identifying her as a carrier of such deadly, or such an important cargo. Perhaps in their search for more impressive prey, they would leave this little rust-bucket alone as she sailed with her convoy to battle-weary Europe.

Except for one stretch of water, called “The Narrows” which connected the outer harbour and the Atlantic with the Bedford Basin, Halifax Harbour was ideal as a launch point for the dozens of ships that came and went from the war zone. Troop ships, cargo vessels and munitions carriers like the Monte Blanc were a common sight.

Vincent Coleman, like thousands of other Haligonians, went off to work that morning in December with absolutely no inkling of what was soon to happen. He settled down to his work as dispatcher at the Richmond Railway Yards not far from the harbour. Soldiers, sailors and the materiel of war, as well as trains carrying ordinary passengers, poured into Halifax from all over Canada and the United States. The responsibility rested heavily on his shoulders.

“Hey,Vince, how’s the wife and kids?”

Intercolonial Railway’s chief office clerk, William Lovet stepped into the office just minutes behind Coleman.

“Little one’s got the sniffles; you know what it’s like in winter. As for the rest, everybody’s fine. You?”

“Lookin’ forward to Christmas.” Bill hung up his coat and set to work.

It was 7:30 a.m. At the entrance to the narrows, the anti-submarine nets had been lowered and the Mont Blanc’s captain, Aimé Le Médec, began his slow passage into Bedford Basin.

But in the habour, a Norwegian freighter, the Imo, was as anxious to get out of Halifax as Mont Blanc was to get in. She was riding high, in passage to New York to pick up relief supplies. She stayed to port extending the common, though illegal, courtesy to incoming vessels of using the starboard channel that was closer to the docks.

The two vessels exchanged signals and whistles to indicate their intentions, but confusion won the day and just before 9:00 a.m., Imo sliced into the Monte Blanc. The Imo reversed engines, and as she pulled away, fire broke out on the Mont Blanc.

Captain Le Médec, knowing what his ship carried, immediately ordered his crew to abandon ship. They screamed out warnings to anyone who might hear. Few understood since they were shouting in French.

The Mont Blanc drifted toward the harbour, coming to rest against one of the docks. She was burning profusely now and the spectacle attracted a huge crowd of excited school children, workers, and passers-by, along with local firefighters.

A stone white face, mouth gaping and eyes wide, appeared in the doorway of Vince Coleman’s office at the Richmond Yards.

“Run, run for your lives! She’s gonna blow!” The sailor’s garbled tale was clear enough to convince William and Vince that they needed to get as far away as possible, as quickly as possible. They were out the door when Coleman slid to a stop and turned back.

“Vince, what are you doing? We have to go. Now.”

“I can’t. There are passenger trains due any moment. I have to stop them.”

“Don’t be crazy, man. You have a wife and kids. If you stay …”

“You go. I’ll be right behind you.”

At 9:04:35 a.m., Mont Blanc disintegrated in a flash of light, sending up a pillar of smoke the likes of which would not be seen until the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima almost thirty years later. The better part of northern Halifax was leveled; almost two thousand people lost their lives.

Among the lost was Vincent Coleman.

Out of the reach of the shrapnel, glass and flying debris, trains idled. Vince had completed his mission by tapping out the crucial message: “Munitions ship on fire. Approaching Pier 6. Goodbye boys.” He had been just in time to save hundreds of lives, at the cost of his own.

When one man dies to save the living, we call him a hero. And rightly so. When one man dies to save the dead, we call Him a Saviour. —LS

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Der Kessel

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Author's Note: Remembrance Day is not far away. In honour of those who have given themselves to defending our freedom, today's post and next week's post will be stories from the war era.

By some miracle, the shed at the farthest end of the alley had survived the massive bombing raids. Everything else around had long since been reduced to rubble.

Sergei huddled inside, behind the door, waiting. It slowly opened, rusty hinges protesting loudly. He lunged at the intruder, the pain in his damaged leg temporarily pushed aside. Caught by surprise, the figure in tattered field gray, crashed to the dirt floor with Sergei on top of him. The old man blindly reached for the neck, and using every ounce of strength he had, squeezed. The man in uniform struggled weakly. His coalscuttle helmet rolled off to one side.

He’s only a boy, Sergei thought, like my Arkady. He stopped pressing. The youth was now unconscious, allowing the Russian the opportunity to search him unmolested.

No rifle, he noted. No gloves, no greatcoat, and the soles of his boots are worn through. The Germans had expected to take Stalingrad long before winter. They’d seriously underestimated their enemy.

Sergei pushed the door closed. The struggle had sapped his strength. He pulled enough from the little reserve he had left to grab a brick. The soldier was coming to, and the Russian wanted to be prepared, just in case.

The younger man, recovering his senses, propped himself up on one elbow, feeling his neck with his free hand.

“You speak German?”

“Ja, a little,” said Sergei. “How old are you?”

The youth hesitated for a fraction of a second before he replied, “Eighteen.”

The old man snorted, “Sie luegen.”

“Okay, sixteen,” admitted the boy.

“Where’s your rifle?”

The boy shrugged. “I threw it away,” he replied.

With that, as December 1942 gave way to January 1943, a strange alliance was cemented. The German boy-soldier was a deserter, although escape was unlikely. He was, after all, trapped in a city surrounded by the Russian army. He was desperate for the safety and warmth of the family that lay a lifetime away in Germany. Sergei, one of 10,000 Russians left in the devastated city, wouldn’t survive the winter in his condition without help. His wife, Viktoriya and their son, Arkady, were buried in the rubble at the head of the alley under what had once been their apartment block. Hans and Sergei needed each other.


“Here, have a cigarette,” Hans said, handing Sergei a stub that he had found. Foraging had become his regular routine in those dark days since the boy and the man had come to share the shack at the back of the alley.

“I don’t smoke,” said the old man.

“Take it anyway. It will warm you up.”

Hans had stripped every distinguishing mark from his uniform, and wrapped in the old man’s coat, wandered out each day to confiscate what he could to keep them alive.

“Some planes got through to Pitomnik.”

“More summer uniforms and black pepper?” The relief supplies for the German 6th Army had been less than impressive in those early months.

Hans laughed. “Better than that.” He dug into the deep pocket of the pea jacket and pulled out a can. The old man stirred the little fire that kept them from freezing to death, while Hans pried the lid off his treasure.

“Verdammt,” Hans muttered when he pinched his finger with the pliers.

“Don’t swear,” admonished Sergei.

“What? I can steal, but I can’t swear?”

Sergei grinned. “Stealing is useful, swearing is not. God forgave Rahab for lying to save lives, he’ll forgive you for stealing for the same reason.”

Hans didn’t believe much in God. The Fatherland was god; or so he’d been told. In spite of his circumstances, Sergei seemed to have an irrepressible faith. They’d argued a lot about it.

“How can you believe in God when your family is dead, your city destroyed, you’re starving and cold? What kind of God is that?”

“He’s the kind that sent a scared German boy stumbling into a shed to help keep a Russian, his enemy, alive.”


This vignette is fiction but the battle for Stalingrad between 1942 and 1943 was brutally real. Over two million people died. Life on the Russian Front was horrific. For the remnants of the German 6th Army, and the Russian civilians trapped in the pocket (kessel, literally cauldron), it was one step above hell. The wars that men begin out of greed and selfish ambition boast little compassion and even less morality, but perhaps, just perhaps, somewhere in their midst, a spark of humanity lights the darkness.