Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Unauthorized Autobiography: Chapter 2D

I thought I’d died and gone to hell. There I was, falling like a stone, trapped in that goddam bubble with the wind howling like the Devil’s wolves and not a friendly face in sight. Or an unfriendly one, for that matter. But there were the clouds, and the sun coming up, and the blue sky up above, and the water down below, so I began to think, ‘Well, this ain’t hell just yet, but it might be soon.’

Then we started to tumble, turning slowly, over and over. Blue sky. Blue water. Blue sky. Blue water. I was never much for religion, but I tell you, I started praying. Nothing like impending doom to focus your mind, boy. ‘Jesus H. Christ,’ I said, ‘You get me out of this and I promise I’ll never cheat again, at anything. I promise I’ll never smoke another cigar or take another drink. I’ll go to church every Sunday, any church you like, you just tell me which one and I’ll go there. I’ll never curse or swear again, I swear. I’ll be kind to dumb animals and women. I’ll call my mother once a week whether she likes it or not. Oh . . . and I promise I’ll name my first son Lancaster!’”

Naturally, by this point in the story, the air around my dad was a haze of blue smoke, and his throat was so dry from talking that he’d guzzle half a bottle of Carling’s Red Cap and call forth a manly belch before continuing.

And I kept every one of them promises, too,” he’d say with a wink. “Except maybe for the cheating part.

The good Lord musta been smiling on me that day, Lanc, because somehow the wind took hold of us, me and the little piece of airplane I called home, and we stopped tumbling and just sort of glided down onto the water. It was the softest crash landing I ever had. The tail piece hit the water first and there I was, floating upside down in my bubble. I unstrapped myself right quick, hit my head again goddammit, grabbed the nearest scrap of metal and smashed the glass. I stuck my head out of that turret, took the biggest gulp of salty sea air you can imagine, and hollered like a crazy man.”

Puffing on his cigar, Cuban when he could afford them, he looked like a steam engine getting ready to mount a steep incline. It mirrored his thoughts, I always supposed, upwards to the heavens he’d just tumbled from, towards God Almighty, and he was building up pressure to continue the story.

I was never right about that.

The truth is, I think I was half-crazy. Must have had a concussion or something from banging around in that turret like a jumping bean. My head hurt like hell. But I hollered. Don’t know what I expected, out there in the middle of Jonah’s own wet wilderness. The ass end of the plane was sinking. Not fast, mind you, but enough to make me nervous. So I prayed some more while I hollered.

And what do you know? Just as the water was lapping around my knees, what happens along but a German U-boat? ‘If that don’t beat all,’ I said to myself. She was bearing straight down on me, and I had a little moment of fear there. But then I saw the entire crew was on board and they were cheering!

They scooped me up and crowded around me, clapping me on the back, everyone talking at once, laughing as if it was the funniest thing in the world. ‘Der Teufel mit Flügel’n’ they called me. The Devil with Wings!

I fell on my knees and kissed their boots, I tell you. Then I gave them all cigarettes. The captain, Otto von Braunschweiger, took me inside that floating coffin, gave me some kind of hellish schnapps, and then he interrogated me.

It was the strangest interrogation, too. Of course, being a loyal Canadian, I wasn’t gonna tell him nothin’. Name, rank, and serial number. That was it. But he kept asking me, over and over and over, about herring of all things. ‘Do ze British haf pickled herring? Vhere do zey keep zem?’ He kept at me, never giving me a moment’s rest, for over a week, until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I’m ashamed to say I finally broke. Even so, I tried to feed him disinformation. I gave him the phone number of the St. John’s harbour police.

Well, he got right on that radio-telephone, ship-to-shore, and spoke to them. God knows what they thought of it all, but Captain Otto wasn’t taking ‘No’ for an answer. He ordered thirty-six cases of cod, and damned if he didn’t get them too! The middle of the night we rendezvous-ed with some old hulk of a steamer, the Flying Dutchman or some such, that gloomed up through the fog off the Grand Banks. Twenty minutes later, the cargo had been taken on, and five minutes after that we were diving to the bottom of the deep blue sea, making a beeline for the Fatherland.

And that’s where I spent the rest of the war. In a POW camp. And somehow I was famous there too as The Devil with Wings. I heard that Captain Otto became Vice-Admiral Otto and tried to further his career by promoting a plan to surround Australia. And when the Americans came to liberate us, they’d heard of me too, and I nearly got court-martialed for trading with the enemy.

But it all worked out in the end, and I came home to the welcoming arms of the family. And here I am now, and here you are, my first-born, and I named you Lancaster, just like I said I would, in honour of that Blankity-Lanc that gave me such a soft landing in the old North Sea.”

Dad, that’s the goofiest story I ever heard,” I would say.

Don’t sass your old man,” he’d say, tapping the side of his nose. “That’s my story and I’m stuck with it.”

He’d lean back in his chair, stretch his legs out, and gulp the rest of his beer.

That’s my story. And I’m stuck with it.”

No, Dad, that’s your story and I’m stuck with it.

✈ ✈ ✈

Digg! diigo it

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Unauthorized Autobiography: Chapter 2C

The spell of piety having been broken, Gunnar would continue.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the noise, the lights. And the smell! Red hot metal and gunpowder, boy. You fire four 303's for any length of time and you’re gonna smell gunpowder and hot metal, enough to burn the hairs right out of your nose. Here, look!”

At this point Gunnar tilted his head back to show me. Of course, I’d have to scrunch down and lean forward to peer up his nose. Sure enough, there was not a single nose hair to be seen.

It was a helluva thing,” he said. “I never stopped firing except to reload and those birds just kept buzzing around us like angry hornets. Suddenly the plane shook! It was like we stopped in midair. There was a tremendous crash and my radio went dead. I said to myself, ‘I gotta get the hell outta here!’. Problem was, my turret was turned, so the exit was closed off. No problem, right? Just turn the turret back to centre and climb out. Except that the turret was jammed. Or non-functional, as they say in the tech biz. Whatever shut down the radio also blew the hydraulics to hell. I was stuck in there but good!”

That was my cue to say, “What did you do then?”

I screamed bloody murder, that’s what I did. I started to kick at the plexiglass, until I hurt my foot and realized that was no good. I did everything I could think of, short of setting off a grenade. Finally I was too exhausted to move. The guns were still working but I didn’t bother with them. Didn’t care anymore. The Schmitts were all over us, even more now that we were damaged. I just didn’t care.”

Gunnar always stopped here for a minute to let that feeling of desperate indifference sink in. He’d sit with his eyes closed, shaking his head slowly, or if he was standing, his gaze would wander off into the distance as if he were transported back to the event.

Then, drawing in his breath, he would say, “It’s a damn miracle I didn’t get my ass shot off, sittin’ there twiddling my thumbs while a dozen or more bandits zipped in and out. We were sitting ducks, plain and simple. And having a hell of a ride. The old bird was shaking like a drunk with the DT’s.

Suddenly there was a huge explosion. BOOM!

I always jumped in my seat here, mainly out of a sense of duty. I mean, the old man was going to all the trouble of telling his life-altering story . . . again . . . and the least I could do was supply the proper reactions.

I’ve never quite figured out what happened. They must have hit a fuel tank. Anyway, the blast knocked me silly for a spell, and when I came to, I took a look around and realized I was all by myself.”

But you were already all by yourself.”

No, Lanc. I mean I was all by myself! Just me and the turret and a piece of the tail section. The rest of the plane was gone!

Digg! diigo it

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Unauthorized Autobiography: Chapter 2B

But I should let him tell the story in his own words, as he told it to me.

Lanc,” he would say, “Did I ever tell you how you got your name?”

You mean ‘Laurence’?” I would ask innocently.

Nah, ya little twerp . . . Lancaster!”

Yes, dad, you’ve been telling me once a week since I was four.”

How old are ya now?’


Well, it’s time I told you the real reason, then.”

I think it’s possible the war affected not only his bowel movements but also his short term memory. He invariably told the same story. Sometimes the details changed. Over the years the tale became more embroidered as dad honed his dramatic skills.

Back in ‘fourty-four,” he’d say, “I was a tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber.”

Yes, dad, I know.”

Gunner Gunnar they called me, so good they named me twice. I was a hell of a shot, boy. You know the term ‘hotshot’? They invented it when they saw me. Tweny-five kills to my credit. In the first week.

I’ll tell you what, though. I hated climbing into that rat trap. It was colder than a polar bear’s butt. Scared the bejesus out of me every single night, too. When you’re in the tail, the first guy the bandits are shootin’ at is you. And there ain’t nowhere to run to except maybe the front of the plane, and if you do that the captain’s gonna smack you upside your head and tell you to get the hell back to your post.”

So that’s how I got my name? The captain punched you in the head and the first thing you thought of was, ‘I’m going to name my boy Lanc?’”


About then was when he would cuff me on the ear.

Pay attention, son. I’m tellin’ ya the family history here. I was in the last week of my hitch, believe it or not. A night raid on ****. We got a late start because the weather had been miserable all day and only started to clear at sundown.

Yeah, the bomb run was routine, if you can call a bomb run routine. It’s a crazy thing, if you think about it. You set off in the dead of night loaded with enough TNT to blow you to hell one atom at a time. You fly half the night gettin’ stiff and sore from nothin’ to do but worry and pray. See these grey hairs? One raid per night is how I got them.”

Listening to the old man tell the story was an exercise in patience. Just as I was about to urge him to get to the point, he would say, “Hold on to your shorts, Lanc, I’m just gettin’ warmed up.

It happened on the way home. We were flying high, I tell you. The bombardier had made a direct hit on a chocolate factory disguised as a military target and we were celebrating the inevitable victory of the Allies. Without chocolate, the Krauts were nothing, you know.

But it was late, already, and we were racing the dawn all the way. About twenty miles out to sea, the sun popped over the horizon. Blood red she was, and a sign of no good if there ever was one. I crossed myself and said a prayer to St. Christopher, the sonofabitch. We had a long way to go and it would be broad daylight before we caught sight of old Mother England.

The captain got on the intercom and said, ‘Gunner Gunnar, you keep your eyes peeled, now, fer them Nazi bastards. I got bangers and beans waitin’ fer me at the mess hall and I don’t want to miss out.’

“‘Yes, sir, captain, sir,’ I said, but my knees were knockin’, I don’t mind telling you. And sure enough, what do I see a few minutes later? A whole messa Schmitts, that’s what we called ‘em, Messaschmitts, you know, one was a Schmitt and more than one was a messa Schmitts. Anyway, these birds came screaming like banshees out of the east, straight out of the sun, seemed like hundreds of them, and I damn near shit my drawers!”

By now, my old man was warmed up and no mistake. He’d be standing, face flushed, gesticulating, and bouncing on both feet. He would stretch his arm out and point at the imaginary sun, squinting as if he were blinded by the dazzling light, and hunch his shoulders as he ducked the bullets.

Holy shit! Cap’n, bandits at three o’clock!” he’d shout. “We’re in for it now!”

Then he would straighten up and fix me with a sombre expression.

It seemed like the whole plane shuddered when I yelled. The next few minutes were like the funhouse at the midway. Just as I was about to fire, the squadron split off in two, fanning up and out, gaining altitude. Next thing I knew that messa Schmitts was bearing down on us from above with all guns blazing.

The noise was like nothin’ I ever heard before. And the tail turret of a Lancaster ain’t no quiet day at the beach to begin with. Guns blasting, explosions, the roar of engines as the Schmitts buzzed past us. Lights flashing, sparks, smoke so thick you could chew it.

Our buddies off to the left, flying Sir Lancelot, got hit. A plume of smoke poured out of the front of the plane. From where I was, I could see orange flames licking at the engines. She went into a dive and began to spin. No one got out of that plane, Lanc.”

Here, overcome by emotion, he would stop for a moment with his head down and his eyes closed, pondering the fiery fate of Sir Lancelot’s crew.

Were they your friends, Dad?”

Hell no!” he would say, “They were sonsabitches. The bombardier was the worst goddam cheater at poker I ever met!”

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Unauthorized Autobiography: Chapter 2A

My father’s Christian name was Gunnar. Can you put “Gunnar” and “Christian” together in the same sentence? You might think Gunnar would be worshipping at the altar of Odin, wailing with the Valkyries, or thundering through the skies at the heels of Thor.

In a way, that’s just what he did.

At the age of eighteen, 1943, Gunnar enlisted in the RCAF, possibly to avoid a paternity suit. After a short, sharp basic training he was assigned to Bomber Command.

Is it possible for your name to affect the course of your life? Listen to this.

It seems the generals couldn’t resist the delicious irony of my father’s name. They made him a tail gunner. And so it was that a few short weeks after his eighteenth birthday, Gunnar Keiler found himself hurtling over the English Channel, hanging on for dear life out the ass end of a Lancaster bomber.

The Lancasters had a rear turret, the kind that rotated to let the gunner swing his four 303 machine guns in a wide arc. God forgive me, I can’t help it, but the turret looked like a turd squeezing out the bird’s rear end. And for the next year or so my father climbed into the belly of the old Lanc, stumbled to the rear, folded himself into the cramped perspex cage, and spent the rest of the night squeezing his own cheeks together for fear of fouling his nest while the Allies defecated on the interior of Europe.

And my mother always said how she was attracted to his tight buns.

So. Lancaster. Lanc, for short. The crew even gave their plane a name, Blankity-Lanc, and painted a growling mouth on the nose with symbols representing cusswords pouring out of it. Like this: ♯★ ‼&*. The Commander was unhappy about it ... too much American influence ... and put them on bread and stale water for a week, but he let them keep it.

As my dad used to say, “A good thing never lasts.” Neither tight buns nor the ecstasies of war. Gunnar’s tightly-clenched career came to a crashing end one morning over the North Sea.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Unauthorized Autobiography: Chapter 1B

What we want is the whole truth and nothing but the truth, no? Or at least as much of it as a lie can reveal.

My middle name, for example, has attracted attention since my first day of school at Our Lady of the Divided Nuns Roman Catholic Prep School and Wine Cellar.

By then, I’d already had five years in which to become confused. Laurence Larry Lanc. Same thing, only different. Which one was I? The answer to that depended on what day it was, who I was with, what clothes I wore, what I ate for lunch. Mythical kids who tossed marbles on the dusty sidewalk around the corner from Murray’s Grocery called me Hairy Larry, not so much because it rhymed, which kids always like to do, but because I was already growing hair on my chest. It had something to do with eating burnt toast, I think. At least, that’s what my mother told me whenever she burned the toast.

On the first day of school ... Divided Nuns making a habit of themselves ... both my father and mother escorted me into the classroom. That alone was enough to cause a sensation. But then my father had to go and say, “‘Bye, Lanc, be a good boy.” Little did he know he had condemned me to a life of crime. Before I sat down I could hear the tittering.

Lanc! Lanc the Plank! Lanc Stank!”

Lanc the Wank!” (An epithet I could never let pass without inflicting a black eye, usually on myself.)

Where in God’s tattered creation did that name come from?

Let me tell you.

α α α

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Unauthorized Autobiography: Chapter 1

Everything I’m going to tell you is the truth. Except for what I just said.

Don’t let that put you off, though. People read lies every day. They build their lives around them, act on them, make a living with them, carry them to the grave. I like to carry mine in my back pocket, next to the credit card (a lie about how much I’m worth) and the birth certificate (a lie about my true identity).

The credit card is platinum. It has a limit of $100,000. I bought it for fifty bucks from Nickie at the Hammer Hotel in Arnprior. (It wasn’t really Arnprior. I just like the sound of it.)

The card is worthless now, anyway. I barely managed to escape from Eaton’s Yorkdale when I tried to buy a leather sofa with it and sent alarm bells blasting through the telephone wires all the way from Downtown Data Central because they finally figured out that Mustafa McKeown, the name on the card, was made up and had been ringing up bogus bills all over Ontario.

I keep the card anyway, when my keepers let me. I fondle it now and then, like a talisman, a memory of better, wilder days. I used it once to break into my hell-hole apartment when I had locked myself out. I might use it one day to break out of this hell-hole, the All-Pervading, Infinitely-Intrusive, Mind-Sucking Yoni School for Wayward Poets.

My birth certificate reads:

Name: Keiler, Laurence Lancaster (Larry to you, Lanc to my dear departed dad.)

Date of Birth: August 07, 1954

Place of Birth: Berlin, Ontario

Date of Registration: August 27, 1954

All true, as far as it goes, but not nearly as complete as it seems. Partial truths are almost as bad as lies. Politicians and priests through the ages have misled their trusting flocks with incomplete but authoritative solutions to the problems of the world ... and the otherworld.

Monday, December 18, 2006