Puk-U Happy Birthday
Not long after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the US I was hired by Brandon University to teach courses for four months in their remote classroom in Northern Manitoba at Pukatawagan First Nation. I would fly in for 10 days and fly home for 5 -- and teach a class of 30 adults all day.
I got off to a shaky start at Winnipeg International Airport. The diligent Security squad confiscated my mom's key chain with tiny pocket knife which had sentimental value -- she had died just a few weeks before. I was then threatened with arrest when they caught me taking photos in the secure area -- I like to document everything with photos.
My guitar and I arrived safely at the BU mobile home digs assigned to me, but there was no sign of my huge duffle bag full of clothes and frozen food. I ain't no chef, so Sue-On had lovingly prepared a 10-days worth of frozen Chinese dishes that were ready to cook in my rice cooker each day. But. . . my luggage was misdirected to Churchill, where it sat in cool storage for a few days.
When my duffel bag, full of partially thawed food, finally arrived -- on my birthday -- Sue-On phoned to suggest that I cook it all up before it spoiled. I spent many hours cooking up batches and packing the dishes in my fridge. Temperatures suddenly dropped to 40 below that evening and my phone, which was also my pipeline to the school's satellite Internet service, went dead. All of Sue-On's attempts to reach me via phone and e-mail were unsuccessful. Her imagination ran wild and she had horrific visions of me slumped over my computer with the phone knocked off the hook -- a victim of food poisoning. She tried frantically to reach me all evening and phoned every few hours through a sleepless night.
Wanted by the RCMP
Meanwhile, up in Puk, I was unaware of Sue-On's panic and I was determined to celebrate my birthday, somehow. Since I couldn't contact Sue-On by phone and the Internet was down, I spent the evening preparing lessons on my laptop and cooking food packets in my rice cooker. For entertainment I strummed my Yamaha acoustic and tried to do some songwriting.
In early morning she finally got through to the Puk RCMP detachment. She had no address or description of where the University mobile home was located -- only that my BU classroom was in the school. Since I hadn't yet been assigned the code for the school alarm system, I couldn't get into my office to use the still-active school phone or Internet until doors opened next morning.
I was about to contact Sue-On when two RCMP officers knocked on my office door. "Are you Professor Hillman?" "Your wife is trying to contact you." I arose from the dead to communicate with my worried mate. Things could only get better in this teaching job so far from home . . . and they did. It proved to be a fine experience, which led to me being taken on soon after as a full-time professor on the Brandon University campus -- with my own office and two computer classrooms of 50 computers.
There are very few vehicles in Pukatawagan so nearly everyone walked. . . and walked. . . and walked. This First Nations settlement is strung out along a single road which parallels the Churchill river. My daily walks to the University classroom in the ultra-modern K-12 school and to the Hudson Bay and Co-Op Trading posts took me over many miles each day, usually in very frigid weather. I had been warned to carry a stick to beat off the stray dogs on these walks. In fact, a major event in Puk is an annual dog shoot which culls out the many stray dogs. These dogs were often a nuisance and even got into any garbage I put out, so I'd throw the bags of refuse up onto the roof to await the irregular pickup by the garbage man.
One break I had from the walkin' was the day one of my students picked me up in his truck and took me on a long trip along the winter ice road over the Churchill River. People in Puk look forward to the rivers and lakes freezing over because the plows can then open a route over the ice all the way south to The Pas. This year the severe freeze-up held off until January and a truckload of my students had a near tragic experience on this road a few weeks before I arrived. Their crewcab truck hit a thin spot in the ice and started to break through. Five of them crawled out through the truck's windows in time to see the vehicle sink to the bottom of the river. They would return in the spring to drag it out. One of the songs I wrote that came out of these experiences was the "Pukatawalkin' Blues."
The Hollywood Sign . . . North
I had about 30 adult students in my BU Communications and Journalism classes in Pukatawagan and a number of them had been winners in a recent Puk talent contest. The prize was a recording contract with Winnipeg's Sunshine Records for a Puk compilation CD. It was great fun mixing music in with my classes and jamming with some of the artists who had appeared on this CD. I even did guest guitar and vocals with a local band at a dance in the community centre.
The CD tracks received much play on CBC and the NCI (Native Communications, Inc.) radio networks, which broadcast across much of the north. Many of the network broadcasts were relayed from the local station which also played a few hours of local programing. I took numerous hikes up to the station which is perched at the top of the famous Pukatawagan escarpment. This escarpment is well-known, as it has sort of put Puk "on the map." Years back some industrious people painted the word 'PUKATAWAGAN' in huge letters across the steep rock face. It is known by the locals as their Hollywood sign -- and there is quite a resemblance in a rugged sort of way.
The cliff has achieved some notoriety, however. Many disturbed people have committed suicide by leaping off the rocks to their deaths -- an event that happens all too regularly. There were a half dozen such deaths during my four-month stay in the community and some of my classes were interrupted by wakes held in the victims' memory. These ceremonies were rather evenly divided between those holding traditional native beliefs and those who still showed the influence of the long line of Catholic missionaries, who have preached in the community for many decades.
The Pukatawagan Song Hits the Charts!
The most played song featured in the Pukatawagan Original Song Winners CD was the Pukatawagan Song by Sidney Castel. Sidney was a colourful Puk native and was a regular visitor to the school and the health centre where he loved to do volunteer work. The school had an unused Bear Pit amphitheatre that I cleared out and used to hold many of my classes featuring presentations, music and improv by my students. Sidney's son was in my classes and through him we coaxed Sidney, Sr. to join me in a guitar pull in front of the students.
Sidney had performed in many pubs across the North over the years and had many fascinating stories to share with the class. One real crowd pleaser was his telling of the reason he no longer owned a guitar. His wife kabonged him over the head with it during one of their tiffs. During our sessions in the Bear Pit we swapped a surprisingly eclectic mix of songs, but the most popular, of course, was his Pukatawagan Song -- a really off-the-wall and unexpected hit that had attracted both embarrassed and proud fans of the ditty.
I have a number of photos of this event which are displayed on my Website. Sidney's song has been posted on Youtube many times and amusingly, the photos chosen to accompany the video are ones of Sidney and myself that were taken in the Bear Pit. Sadly, Sidney Castel was found dead a few months after our school gig. He was 68.
Bobby Curtola or Bust
Around the time I was teaching Brandon University courses up North in Pukatawagan, Canadian pop idol Bobby Curtola moved to Brandon, where he sank roots for a few years. During that time we got together many times, chatting over Sue-On's home-cooked meals. Since two of Bobby's back-up bands from the '60s had been from Brandon: our Dovermen and The Challengers (renamed the Martells while on tour), we planned a "Sock Hop Reunion" Show at Brandon's Keystone Centre.
My students in Puk heard all the radio promos and all 30 of them started to raise money to attend the show and see their old prof in action. They held money-making events: fish derbies, bake sales, garage sales, raffles, etc. I sweetened the pot by giving them 30 complimentary show tickets courtesy of Bobby.
On the day of the show they took "The Bullet," a slow train to The Pas (spring weather had made the winter roads impassable). At The Pas they crowded into vans to complete the trip south to Brandon. The show was a sell-out and it was a treat to see my Puk friends reelin' and rockin' near the front of the stage all night. Our original band members, Warren and John flew in for the reunion gig and my jam buddy Doug Matthews played keys. Sue-On rounded out our sound by joining us on congas and vocals.
I had to make the trip home from Puk a few days earlier for press and radio interviews and to help with the planning, but ran into a major problem. A blizzard hit. My teaching stint at Puk had just ended and I had to get home. All flights out of Puk were cancelled. A few of us managed to talk a daring pilot into flying us into the teeth of the storm to reach The Pas for a connecting flight where the weather had cleared a bit. The Pas has two airports and after a white-knuckle flight we landed at the one miles from where the departing plane was waiting for me.
I hired a cab to rush me over to the other airport. The obliging cabbie broke all speed limits to get to the waiting plane. We slid to a slippery stop in front of the terminal and I jumped out just as a hose broke under the hood of the taxi. I left the poor driver scratching his head, while standing in a billowing cloud of steam and swirling snow. A few minutes later we were in the air and headed for home. Goodbye Puk -- Thanks for the great memories and friendships.
BACK TO THE PUK CONTENTS PAGE
HILLMAN MAIN PAGE