SERVICE SECOND TO NONE Chapter 17: SNOWBIRDS 1st TOUR

CH 17 –SNOWBIRDS 1st TOUR  (SEP 1983-DEC 1984)

We had a long four-day car ride across the Trans-Canada Highway South, which was a hundred miles from the American border. It expanded more than three thousand miles stretching coast to coast between Newfoundland to British Columbia. The changing scenery from province to province was quite noticeable. First we drove through Ontario with all the beautiful forests and lakes, next Manitoba with many farms and small towns, and finally onto Saskatchewan with its’ flat fields of wheat, canola, and grain elevators. Dean and I needed the drive to cool down and recover from family interference and the beautiful summer landscape did just that. Moose Jaw was a small city with thirty-five thousand people. For its size it had many amenities but still had a small town charm especially the downtown main street shops and park as well as a large urban park and conservation area that the Moose Jaw River ran through and included a small zoo.

Dean had rented us a second floor one bedroom apartment with a balcony in the north-west end of the city in a newer, high-end neighborhood. It had a small tennis court beside it which interested Dean because he played tennis a lot in Trenton. On weekends during the day and the odd weekday night Dean and I would walk in pretty Crescent Park downtown and talk about marriage, how many children we wanted, and future dreams we shared. I thought to get married in the park would be perfect. There was a large amphitheater with benched seats and a waterfall beside it. In front of the stage was a winding man-made creek with several decorative pedestrian bridges that allowed people passage. And there were ducks, geese, and swans meandering in the water. The fowl had made permanent nests on the small islands along the creek that they populated.

Dean worked in 2nd Line Maintenance on the hangar line where they fixed all the planes that the student pilots flew. He connected with another corporal in the section who was a few years younger than he was but who like himself was from Montreal and was the same trade as he was. I hit it off right away with Don and his common-law girlfriend Lorrie too, they were so friendly and suddenly we socialized with them regularly. Every Friday and Saturday night, long weekends, and holidays they’d come over and we’d talk, order in pizza or get burger, and play a card games. The only complaint that I had was that Don wanted to get on the Snowbird Team just like Dean, which was also another reason they connected, but it monopolized the conversation all the time. Dean was just as much to blame for the shop talk though.

In November Dean took me out to supper in an old two-story house renovated into a restaurant. Downstairs was more casual but the food, service, and environment on both floors were excellent. We dined upstairs where there were black and white checker marble floors it was definitely the fancy area. I dressed in my black and white silk jumpsuit with the bare back which we joked incidentally matched the floor and Dean proposed to me and gave me a promise ring. Dean told me he wanted to get married in the Catholic Church on the base, I preferred not to but he was an altar boy when he was young so it meant a lot to him.

Just because Dean was posted to Moose Jaw it didn’t by any means ensure him a position on the Snowbirds. Like everyone else he would have to apply and only top mechanics and pilots were chosen. The Snowbirds team was a nine plane aerobatics formation representing Canada. One pilot and one mechanic flew together in transit and the technician repaired their assigned plane on the road, for the two-year tour. When Dean received the top performance report in maintenance from his boss, it earned him an interview in the fall and he was chosen for the team. There was a huge celebration held in honor of the new team members, understandably a no wives invited event, and I expected Dean to come home drunk but not as bad as he was. Dean was dropped off smashed, stumbling, slurring, and throwing up. I was a little angry and upset, but took a deep breath and told myself this was a special occasion for Dean, and that he wouldn’t drink that much again. Boy was I wrong.

The first thing Dean had to do when he was chosen for the team was to get fitted for all his new uniforms; he was like a kid in a candy shop. When I saw Dean in a flight suit he strode confidently and looked quite handsome indeed. When the Snowbirds’ advertising material came back from the printers my main interest was in the pamphlets which gave the team’s tour dates and locations. I noticed the tour started in April with practices in Comox, B.C. and ended in late September and looking at the periods of time they were home on average it was only for two to three days. We put the schedule up on the fridge so I could keep track of when he was coming home. I worried if Dean would let it all go to his head, but I shrugged off the feeling with the justification that anyone would be excited to have their name and picture in print, myself included.

At the beginning of April every year, the Snowbirds held a Family Appreciation Day where they did a show, cooked a barbecue, and had a hangar dance. The tour started and I had no job or driver’s licence so I was definitely stranded, but I did have Don and Lorrie to keep me company, or so I thought. The minute Dean left for Comox Don and Lorrie disappeared, and then when Dean was back they suddenly reappeared. The second I heard the Snowbirds buzz over Moose Jaw the phone rang and it was Don asking me to get Dean to call him when he got home. Dean was only home a few days in-between lags, he had to work those days, he had piles of laundry, and we needed time alone but Don and Lorrie came over anyways and Dean would talk about all the details of the trip. After a few times I told Dean how I felt but he said Don was just excited and wanted to be on the team too. If that wasn’t bad enough although the pilots got to go home the minute they landed the technician’s had to stay behind for hours doing repairs, sometimes getting home as late as 10 p.m. It was an unexpected curve ball when he got home I thought I’d see Dean within the hour but in reality I barely saw him at all. And it wasn’t just the separation but Dean had been acting a bit agitated and seemed angry at me all the time. As time passed I wondered if he stayed at work so late to avoid me and when he did get home he said he was too tired to talk and practically went straight to bed. He acted cold and distant when he normally liked to hug and cuddle. I never felt so isolated with no education, no job, no real friends I would stand on the balcony crying and wishing I hadn’t agreed to the Snowbird saga.

Dean quickly made close connections with several team members in particular two of the technicians Jean Luc and Paul because they were from Montreal like Dean was, and they were friendly, down to earth guys. Jean Luc had just been chosen for the team at the same time as Dean so they’d be together for two years while Paul was in the second and last year of his tour. Jean Luc’s wife Donna was moody and a bit of a snob so I found it hard to connect with her. We had supper with them a couple of times but I felt it was uncomfortable the way she nagged Jean Luc. Paul’s common-law girl Arlene on the other hand was really down to earth. We went over to their place and met their four children, not all were Paul’s. Dean warned me that they lived in a trailer park just like he had with a buddy in Trenton, but that this one wasn’t as nice, it was a little run-down.

Dean explained that every year there were a number of “wife show-sites” which were pre-approved air show locations that the wives could attend. The problem was the cost of airfare to get there.  This year’s show-sites for wives were: Salinas, California; Minot, North Dakota; and Reno, Nevada. Air-fare to California was too costly for Dean and I to shell out as it was for most of the ground crew wives even though of course the hotels and food were paid for. Most of the pilot wives had the time and money to go lucky them. But Minot, North Dakota was within driving distance the problem was that I didn’t have a driver’s license. Dean took the car to the hangar every trip so I was stranded but finally there was a reason to get it and he had to give me the car. So I studied the driver’s manual and easily passed the written portion. The actual driving test was nerve wrecking and a lot harder. I never took any driver’s education classes it was optional and too costly so I practiced with Dean in our neighborhood in the snow. Obviously I failed the first time because I drove too slow, was close to the road lines, and couldn’t parallel park. But knowing my weak areas I drove around the neighborhood a little more and took the test a second time and surprisingly I passed much to Dean and my disbelief; we had a good laugh about it.

The first wife show site was Minot North Dakota and since I now had my license I drove there with Donna which was a big adventure because I didn’t have very many hours behind the wheel. It wasn’t long before we arrived in the small town of Minot and its one very fancy hotel. Dean and Jean Luc were waiting in the lobby for us and took us to our rooms to get ready for the show and tent party afterwards. Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate and it rained a lot so the Snowbirds had to do a short low show. Just when they finished it began to pour. Donna and I ran for the tent and had a drink while we waited for Dean and Jean Luc. The shower made it cold and muddy in the tent. Of course the pilots arrived at the party first because they didn’t have to tow the planes into the hangars like the technicians did. By the time the guys arrived Donna and I were both drunk. There was karaoke and Dean and I sang Islands in the Stream by Kenny Rodgers and Dolly Parton. Then afterwards I did a solo song titled My D-i-v-o-r-c-e which made the guys laugh but Dean pouted and asked if I was trying to tell him something, maybe unconsciously I was.  The Snowbirds were only there for one day and they were flying out in the morning. We all had a late night and groaned when we had to get up early. I barely had a chance to say goodbye to Dean. It wasn’t the best trip by any stretch of the imagination and I was left feeling depressed and exhausted when I got home.

Now that I had my license I drove Dean to the hangar to see him off for another lag. He told me the pilot’s wife and kids always were present for their departure because many of them didn’t work. It took about forty-five boring minutes before the planes taxied down the tarmac. We all waved goodbye of course and then the females dispersed. It was all so melodramatic; I wanted to roll my eyes. I dropped him off several times but I never stayed again. His ego swelled like the rest of the guys because the Snowbird members were treated like rock-stars with banquets, ceremonies, and presentations held in their honor and giving interviews and presentations. They stayed at the most expensive hotels, were always given courtesy cars for their entire stay and had a police escort to the airport for the show. People especially women flung themselves at the Snowbirds wanting their autograph, although I couldn’t understand why, they weren’t actual celebrities. I quickly saw why being on the Snowbirds would go to their head and why the base personnel called them prima-donnas; they were treated like royalty! It was impossible for the team members not to become conceited.

I knew Dean had always been career driven; the military bred its members to strive for excellence. In Trenton he put in long hours on shift work and took his job very seriously. Even then he played the political game and socialized with co-workers and bosses at beer calls and parties. But the Snowbirds fueled his desire to be professional to the extreme, so much so that I became secondary in his life, actually third. First was work, second were work socials, and third was me. Between his need to prove himself, his changing attitude, and the time away our relationship was strained. Even when he was home, Dean was tired and temperamental making me feel like I was walking on thin ice all the time; trying not to set him off. I often cried myself to sleep when he was gone, feeling that Dean was slipping away from me.

Food and alcohol was abundant at these mandatory functions. As a sign of the times in the eighties too much alcohol was consumed and driving was involved but no more than the ordinary public. Still, it was Dean I cared about and I hated hearing the guys tell stories and laugh about how drunk they were. I cringed when Dean laughed about team members who were driving while drunk and that all they had to do was give the cop who pulled them over, Snowbirds stickers, pins, and other memorabilia then they were sent on their way. I couldn’t fathom a cop doing that but it was the eighties and drinking and driving wasn’t viewed in the same light as it is today. Regardless, I shook my head at societies disregard for its’ own safety. I was secretly mad at Dean and disappointed that he took it all so lightly. Or did he? On the few occasions I brought it up he tore my head off. So like everything else that set him off, which seemed like everything these days, I dropped it knowing one day there would be an unfortunate accident. The guys pushed the boundaries, and someone would pay for it; I just hoped Dean wouldn’t be one of them.

When the guys were away the wives held some social events like “tea”. Of all the girls only me and Arlene weren’t married, so we really felt out-of-place when the wives gathered. The team leader’s wife stopped to make small talk with us like about Dean and my wedding plans, but for the majority of the time Arlene and I were outcasts. Many of the women complained about their husbands being away so much and them not being around for the children or to help with the household. I had to wonder what they were thinking. We all knew what we were getting into or did we? Saying you’re supportive and then living with actually having to struggle for so long without your partner was a totally different reality. It was really hard. There were also a lot of rumors floating around about their husbands and what happen on the road. Did you hear that so-and-so came home and found his clothes outside on the lawn because his wife found out he cheated on her? And it was the other way around too. Did you see so-and-so leaving the club with that guy the other night, drunk out of her mind? A symptom of long distant relationships was extra-marital affairs and whether you worked in the civilian or military sector, every-one was vulnerable. My heart sank as for a brief second I wondered if Dean cheated on me because he was so angry and moody all the time, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe he would. Although I had received several calls for Dean from a girl who refused to leave her name or a message.

It was the end of Dean’s first year on the Snowbirds, and all did not bode well. In October half the team left and there was a large party to welcome the newcomers and say goodbye to members that were leaving. I was particularly sad to see Paul and Arlene leave; they were so down to earth. Jean Luc and Donna stayed for the second year and a new couple James and Valerie seemed to click in with us right away. At the function it was expected that the partners, pilot and technician exchange fifty dollar gifts for each other and their wives also. It choked Dean and me up that we had to spend fifty dollars on a man he could barely stand and fifty dollars on a woman I had met once and never talked to again, but we had no choice. The best thing about the party was that we met Dean’s new pilot Stan and his wife Olivia from Toronto. They seemed a little stiff to me but Dean looked happy and all I could hope for was that the guys would get along for the season.

The team held a Halloween party in the Snowbird lounge. It was hosted by a beer representative Jasper who always provided the Snowbirds with the brew for all their functions. Parties at the lounge were always a big drunk. Dean acted as a tour guide showing me all the pilot and ground crew lithographs from each year. There were also keys from cities, plaques, and other things from their fans. Two large podiums displayed photo albums showing pictures and newspaper clips of other years. That was just the hallway! The lounge had leather couches, dark wood coffee tables, and a large bar that had the team emblem carved into the front of it. The whole place seemed fancy, stuffy like a men`s club even though I had never been in one before. Dean mingled easily while I sat on the couch feeling awkward. This was Dean’s crowd not mine. They were his friends and co-workers. I politely said hi to the guys and tried to make small talk but what do you say to a complete stranger? I sat with Valerie for a while but she was bitchy, maybe she felt uneasy too, and she seemed less than impressed with the boisterous drunks stumbling around. Valerie got in a fight with James, demanding that they leave. I had to agree with James though, this was a special initiation for him and he had to, wanted to stay. It wouldn’t go over well with the guys much less the boss if he took off earlier because his wife told him too, even I knew that.

The Christmas holidays brought lots of parties mostly with the Snowbirds. Dean’s new pilot Stan and his wife Olivia invited us over for a fondue so he could get to know Dean a bit better before they paired up as pilot and technician for the upcoming year. There was a boiling pot of oil for the meat, cheese for the vegetables and chocolate for the fruit, I loved it! After we ate Olivia made some very strong Bailey’s Irish coffees that I declined but Dean said yes to. Dean didn’t realize how strong they were until it hit him and he dropped a tray of Snowbirds slides we were about to watch. He ran for the bathroom and threw up. We called the night short and I drove home while Dean held the car door open and puke again, good thing I had my license. I had noticed that Dean couldn’t handle liquor very well, despite his claims otherwise. Since Dean became a Snowbird he partied hard with the rest of them which meant excessive drinking.

With only the first year finished I balked at the thought of having to endure the second, I didn’t know if I could hang on or if Dean and I would crash and burn like several couples already had due to infidelity but in our case it would be due to his negative behaviour. I looked at the promise ring he had given me and wondered if he still loved me and wanted to get married.

[1] Runway

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