A peeler with a heart of gold

Midwest HelicoptersI spent some time apprenticing for Midwest Helicopters in Winnipeg. Their hanger was an old World War II vintage building, with a thick wooden roof and huge sliding doors. It was one of those buildings such that if it ever caught fire, nothing would prevent it from burning to the ground.

Just down the tarmac and a short walk away was the Winnipeg Flying Club, where Bruce K. and I would occasionally attend the bar for lunch. Like me, Bruce was a lowly apprentice. Unlike me, he had more experience. Sometimes Ken Wilson would tag along, just for the amusement factor.

Lloyd Mackenzie was Midwest’s chief engineer. His hobby — when he wasn’t trying to keep Bruce and me out of trouble — was Samoyed dogs. When Bruce and I spent a little more time than absolutely necessary enjoying lunch at the Flying Club, Lloyd would walk out onto the tarmac in his white shop coat and pace back and forth with his hands on his hips, searching for the troublemakers. When we marched past him on our way back into the hanger, he always had a remark to make, but he never gave us hell – even though we deserved it.

The Winnipeg Curling Club on Ness wasn’t that far from the airport, and once we heard that they had strippers doing lunch-time matinees, it was like trying to chase flies away from a cesspool. The three of us – Bruce, Ken and myself – would pile into Ken’s orange Judge and head on over to spend an hour or so applauding the girls. Eventually some of the dancers came to recognize us as regulars.

There was this one rather large-breasted young thing who took a shine to us one afternoon, probably because we were flinging fives or tens her way – then an unheard of amount of money. Or, perhaps it was because of the huge, thick, dark-rimmed glasses that she didn’t wear while she was dancing. Well, on her afternoon break we talked this poor, innocent, little thing into accompanying the three of us over to the Flying Club to finish up her afternoon with a refreshing drink or two.

She regaled us with a story about working her way through school by “dancing”, which we all thought was a pretty good thing on her part. The afternoon progressed, and from the Flying Club window we could see Lloyd checking his watch and looking up and down the tarmac, but there was no way in hell that we were going to leave the little damsel in distress.

Finally I had to take a washroom break. When I returned from the swamp I caught sight of the poor girl’s huge naked breasts splayed out on the table. The silly thing had pulled up her sweater and flopped them out on a bet. After that little bit of exhibitionism, we figured that we had better get the hell out of there, so we high-tailed it with stripper in tow. Bruce and I tried to talk Ken into taking her to his place since it was the closest, but he wasn’t having any of that. His wife would have killed him if she found out.

With nowhere to go but back to work, we hustled the poor girl out the back door and across the parking lot to Ken’s Judge. The sound of her high-heels clickety-clacking on the asphalt brought smiles to our faces. When she stumbled she’d grab onto one of us, explaining that she’d never walked so far in the shoes she was wearing.

We didn’t doubt her.

Bruce was from Portage La Prairie. Later that summer Bruce and I and Bob P. got to drinking in the Portage Hotel on a fine sunny afternoon. We’d had a couple of beers each – nothing too extravagant. We were happy to be settling in to a long day of relaxing in the bar. For some reason, a fight ensued, and everyone in the bar got involved, including the women.

I never saw so many huge brown ashtrays, beer glasses and pitchers in full flight, and that was back in the day when they were all glass. In order to stay out of the line of fire we tipped over a couple of tables in a corner of the bar and hunkered down to watch the action from a safe vantage point and to dodge the flying glass. When we heard the sirens we jumped up and ran out the back door, barely making it outside before the paddy wagon rolled up. After witnessing that destruction, to this day I’ve never wanted to be in a bar when I thought a fight might break out.

Some years later the Portage Hotel burned to the ground and thus took one of my memories with it.

Bruce, then an apprentice engineer, later became an engineer, and then a flier. In 1978, while attempting to cross Knight Inlet during limited visibility, he piloted his Bell 206 into the cold deep waters. As far as I know, my old friend was never recovered.

Jim Hawes was an engineer with Midwest at the time we were all there. He’d shake his head at our crazy antics and give us all a huge grin when we cleared by Lloyd and finally got back to work. Jim would later go on to own Custom Helicopters in St. Andrews, Manitoba. Occasionally, if I’m riding east, I’ll stop in for a visit and we’ll have some laughs reminiscing over the old days.

Sadly, Jim has passed away. I will most definitely miss the laughs we used to have while reminiscing about some of our experiences with the characters we both knew so well. We always spoke kindly of them all, usually while wearing huge grins.

Courts of St. JamesDuring a lot of this, I was sharing a place with Doug McIntyre, a Transair 737 pilot who was originally from Thunder Bay. We were in the Courts of St. James where many of the Transair and Midwest staff congregated – often a party in itself. Occasionally Doug would show up at the Flying Club and hang from the log rafters during his more sober moments. Unfortunately, a few years later, the Winnipeg Flying Club burned to the ground and local airport history was the sadder for it.

Doug was himself caught up in a house fire when he went back into the burning building to check for friends who might still be inside. He didn’t come back out.

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