The Navigator


Illustration by Sergio Membrillas

Illustration by Sergio Membrillas

He caught pneumonia and nearly died. It was 1972. The Summit Series year. But he wasn’t a hockey fan, hadn’t watched a single game, not even when the television was set up in the cafeteria for students and staff. He stayed in his classroom and marked papers, prepared equipment for the next day’s labs: tested Bunsen burners, portioned out magnesium ribbon, counted protective eyeglasses and thermal gloves and long-handled tongs to make certain there were enough to go around; if not, he would have to demonstrate the brilliance of the magnesium burn himself at the front of the room—a poor substitute for experience.

On the twenty-eighth of September, Paul Henderson scored the big goal. Exactly one month later, three days before Halloween, he caught the chill that would settle like a puddle in his lungs. It was after a swim. The same swim he took every morning in the cold waters of Lake Ontario, off a nameless point north of the town of Grimsby, where he lived in a cedar-shingled A-frame house—or rather, three intersecting A-frames he’d built himself over the span of a decade. He had bought the property in the autumn of 1948, and lived the first three years in a metal-sided caravan with a jury-rigged wood stove. The land, four and a half acres, was bisected by a small creek that fed into the lake. The part to the east of the small creek had once been a cherry orchard, Bing and Rainier. In the springtime, the trees that remained still blossomed.

The pneumonia had begun with a cough, followed by a fever and shortness of breath, though nothing was certain until the pains in his chest. In early November, he was hospitalized. When his condition worsened, he received fluids intravenously and oxygen through a mask. Adenovirus, it was decided. For a stretch of several days, his pulse weakened and his consciousness wavered. He said later that it was like drowning in his thoughts, in his memories: he rambled, delirious, spoke to his mother, long dead, and talked about the war and a man named Snow. His sister was called. She drove from Ottawa. By the time she arrived, he had regained some of his strength and was able to sit up in bed, propped by pillows, and comfort her fears. The doctors forbade his swimming in the lake afterward. He was told that if he felt the need to swim, he should think about getting himself a pool. His sister made him promise that he would.

He hired a company from nearby Lincoln. The first week of March, they sent someone around who discovered that he’d already marked off an area, a flat patch of soggy ground twenty-five feet by fifteen, just out the back door of the house. It was a less than ideal place to put a pool. The overhanging sugar maples would steal the sun, he was told, and with it the warmth, and if the leaves weren’t constantly skimmed they would clog the filter and burn out the pump motor. A spot farther away from the house was suggested. But he said he didn’t mind skimming leaves. As for the warmth of the sun, he said to go ahead and install a heater. The excavator arrived the first week of April.

Most of this I know from his sister. She told it afterward when my wife and I went to visit. We had tea in the small solarium off the kitchen. It was a room that I remembered cluttered with books, home to a large model of the passenger ferry SS Canadiana in a glass display case. But when we were there for tea, it was clean and well ordered, and the ferry boat was gone. I can’t be sure how much of his life his sister imagined, what gaps in it she filled herself, because I’ve imagined much of it, too.

His name was Walter Ehrlich. He was close to eighty when I first met him and, apart from those wintry days when the weather made it impossible, he had swum in his pool every morning for more than thirty years.

He was tall, well over six feet, with a full head of white hair parted in the middle like Carl Sandburg’s. It had been sandy brown in his younger years; I’ve seen so in photographs. I was struck by his height—I’d never known a man that old to be that tall—but also by the openness of his smile: it was beguiling. Cherubic, innocent, inviting, foolish even.

He had a passion for ballrooms. As a youth—and this he told me himself—he would travel the towns and smaller cities along the shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, marking off in a marbled notebook all of the pavilions and dance halls he’d visited, from the Pyranon in Chatham and the Stork Club in Port Stanley to the Jubilee in Oshawa. His favourite was the lakeside ballroom at the amusement park at Crystal Beach. There he’d danced to Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, and to Glenn Miller, whose plane was lost over the English Channel in 1944 when Walter Ehrlich was stationed at Middleton St. George in County Durham.

During a freak winter storm in January 1982, the old clapboard garage that stood on the east bank of the small creek was struck by lightning and burned down. He had it rebuilt with a second storey. From the outside, it was nondescript: cinder block and vinyl siding, with a steeply pitched metal roof to keep the snow from settling. But inside and at the top of an unpainted staircase, he’d reimagined that passion from his youth. He called it the Rainbow Room. It had a wooden floor sprung for dancing, and a mirror ball suspended from the vaulted ceiling. At the far end were tall windows curtained in heavy maroon, and an area carpeted in softer shades, with a cocktail table, two leather club chairs, and a chenille sofa. Along the length of one wall, framed Toulouse-Lautrec prints: Aristide Bruant, Moulin Rouge, Jane Avril. Along the other, photographs of swing greats: Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Basie, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb. He played records by these and others, invited friends to come and dance. He liked to lead, liked elaborate steps. He favoured the carioca, but few could manage it, so it was mostly the balboa and the lindy. He’d never married.

He was close with my father-in-law. They met when he came to the restaurant my wife’s family owned. He was a nuisance to the waitresses, got them to stop and talk, my wife’s older sister, too, who at fifteen served as the hostess; orders backed up on the line, customers waited at the door to be seated. My father-in-law, quick tempered, came out of the kitchen in his cook’s whites, demanded to know why he was bothering the staff. He said he was going to Greece, to Delphi, and had heard that my father-in-law was born in a village nearby, and could he tell him something about it.

There is a photograph of my wife. She is a child—eight years old, maybe nine. She is on the stony beach at the mouth of the little creek that bisects the property. Walter Ehrlich is with her. They are both bent at the waist, searching the shingle. They are hunting for fossils.

The first time I stood on that beach with the two of them, they talked about that picture. He remembered it as well as she did, and as if to prove the authenticity of their remembrance he stooped down and picked up a stone and showed me the delicate half-shell impression of a pelecypod. A close relative of the scallop, he explained, but not as complex in its structure, from the Paleozoic era.

It wasn’t then but an earlier visit, maybe even my first, that we stood on the low deck at the front of the house, the deck that looked out over the lake. The trees had been cut back for a better view. In the clearness of that day, we could see across to Toronto, shimmering, pinned like a butterfly to the horizon by the CN Tower. We were interrupted by a noise, deep throated but far away. He stopped and stared out over the water, told us to listen, to wait for it. Then, a moment later, he pointed. There, he said, and asked if we saw it, too, a tiny smudge, a flaw in the pale firmament. The sound growled on, menacing, lupine, until slowly the aircraft revealed itself: wings, engines, twin tails, blacked-out belly. It banked low, and we could read the markings. A Lancaster Mk. X, he told us—heavy bomber, payload of 22,000 pounds, room enough for a pilot and six crewmen: flight engineer, navigator, wireless operator, bomb aimer, mid-upper and rear gunners. Walter Ehrlich had been a navigator and sat, he told us, at a cramped little table in the rear of the cockpit and often relied on dead reckoning to guide a flight home.

The flight that day came out of Mount Hope, near Hamilton, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at John C. Munro International Airport. It was routine, the monthly member ride for museum patrons. He knew the schedule. There were B-25 Mitchell and DC-3 flights, too, but the only plane that interested Walter Ehrlich, the only one he would come out onto the deck to watch, was the Lancaster.

During the war, he practically had to beg to be sent overseas. Four times his request was turned down. After he’d finished top of his class at No. 1 Air Navigation School at RCAF Station Rivers, he was kept on as an instructor. Fellow classmates, men of lesser skill, shepherded Halifaxes and Wellingtons out of Croft and Leeming, Skipton-on-Swale and Dishforth, while he flew over Brandon and Portage la Prairie and sometimes as far east as Kenora.

It was at Rivers that he learned to teach. Lessons on the vector methods and the standard quadratic formula, the manipulation and use of trigonometric functions, linear algebra, all delivered in drafty classrooms. But he liked astro-navigation best: introducing the bubble sextant and the concept of an artificial horizon, then getting the trainees into the twin-engined Anson with its Perspex top turret and having them read the stars.

He shipped out in late August 1943 aboard the SS Pollux, sister ship to the Castor, which had been sunk off the coast of Algeria nine months earlier. The convoy steamed its way across the North Atlantic and held its shape until the Irish coast, at which point some ships made for Larne and others for Liverpool; the Pollux entered the Firth of Clyde and anchored in the harbour at Greenock, where orders from 419 Bomber Squadron awaited Walter Ehrlich, advising him to proceed to the village of Dalton-on-Tees in Richmondshire and call at the Chequers Inn. There a pilot, Flying Officer Alexander Snow, met him. The two knew each other from their time at the manning depot in Toronto, where they were quartered together in a converted horse stall in a livestock barn on the CNE grounds. Snow—who visited Walter Ehrlich in his feverish dreams all those years later—had requested him as a replacement for a young navigator named Torrington from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, who died after he steered his motorbike through a hedgerow and into a stone fence.

There was a picture that hung in the upstairs hallway of Walter Ehrlich’s home, just outside the bedroom he’d decorated to look like a ship’s cabin. It was a photograph of the aircrew he flew with; it shows them just returned from a mission, their thirtieth. They are jubilant, crowded together on the tarmac, jostling one another. To the far left stands a twenty-four-year-old Walter Ehrlich. He peers over the heads of the others at Alex Snow, who remains perched in the open aft hatch of the aircraft. The two are smiling at each other, as if they realize that they’ve just managed to get away with something they were never meant to get away with.

The day the three of us stood on the deck and watched the restored Lancaster fly overhead, he brought the picture down to show us. We sat around the kitchen table, and he told stories about each of the men.

It was another five years before I saw that photo again. This time, I’d come to visit Walter Ehrlich on my own. It was a Saturday in early May. The clouds were heavy, dark—laden. But for all they threatened, there was a strange light, that soft yellow gloaming that catches everything, every fresh shoot of grass, every bud and blossom, every stone and bit of turned earth.

We drank coffee in the front room. A wall of windows faced the lake. He remembered, he told me, the same sort of light the day he heard about Glenn Miller’s plane going down. He had gone on leave with Alex Snow. Four days in the seaside town of Great Yarmouth, on the Norfolk coast. They had adjoining rooms in the Royal Hotel, overlooking the North Sea. It had been bitterly cold. The wind picked up sand from the beach and blew it about. You could feel the grit of it on your teeth. So that morning they’d walked inland instead, along the banks of the River Yare in the yellow glow. They returned to the hotel in time for lunch and ate in the dining room. The place was abuzz—like Chinese whispers, he said—and when they asked the girl who’d served their meal what the matter was, she told them about the bandleader. That night, they sat in the blacked-out Palm Court alongside members of the hotel staff and listened to records on a borrowed phonograph: Tuxedo Junction, Here We Go Again, Moon Dreams. Later, he and Alex Snow walked to the foot of the sectioned Britannia Pier, looked out toward the shuttered bulk of the Floral Hall Ballroom, and imagined it filled with music and dancing.

The week after they returned from Great Yarmouth, Alex Snow was killed. The Lancaster he was piloting crashed into the sea near Filey. It had suffered heavy damage in a nighttime raid over Berlin. He wasn’t meant to be flying; he had volunteered to replace a flight lieutenant whose appendix had burst. Afterwards, Walter Ehrlich said, it felt as if a part of him were missing, as if he’d had a limb cut off—like he was one of those fellows with his empty pant leg folded and pinned above the knee.

I felt a bit like that, too—an amputee. Three months earlier, we had lost our son, our baby boy. He was born with a hole in his heart that the ultrasound had missed. We had him for a day, and then he was gone.

Everything about him was so small—but not his death. It broke us. Though not in any way we might have expected; we did not shatter, but cracked. Our lives fractured. It seemed that the shape of things had altered, and whatever we’d once been we were no more. We no longer fit.

But I hadn’t gone to see Walter Ehrlich that day to tell him this. I understood—my wife and I both did—that what was done could not be undone; no amount of wishing would ever make that so. What we could not understand, what troubled us most at that time, was the matter of what we were meant to do next. My wife was certain he would know. She’d said so that morning as we lay in bed, her hand pressed softly to my cheek. Ask Walter, she said, he’ll know.

After we finished our coffee, and after the storm had come and gone—one of those short-lived springtime upsets that rumble and flash and drain the colour from the air—we walked the property. For a time, we stood on the stone beach near the mouth of the small creek. I remember how cruel the lake looked to me, and I couldn’t imagine wading into such unfriendly water. But for years Walter Ehrlich had done just that, every morning until it almost killed him. Then I found myself wondering what the sea off Filey was like, and I suspected that there was a resemblance.

By the time we reached the old orchard, what was left of the storm had cleared, and the sky was high and blue and pillared with white. Cumulus, cotton candy clouds, Walter Ehrlich called them. Stunning to look at but rotten to fly through, the drafts punishing enough to swat a plane from the sky. Cherry blossoms littered the ground around us. The hard rain had taken its toll. He said that was the trouble with beautiful things: they never lasted long enough.

Now, this isn’t what happened next, but I like to imagine that it is.

I like to imagine that after the orchard we go to the garage. And in the garage, we climb the unpainted staircase to the Rainbow Room. Once up there, I wait as Walter Ehrlich hunts through his ancient record collection, brittle shellac seventy-eights in plain paper wrappers. He selects his favourites, hums their melodies, and then passes them on to me to admire. After much consideration, he decides on Glenn Miller’s The Story of a Starry Night, which he takes over to the heavy grey, suitcase-style portable record player stencilled with the name of the high school he retired from twenty-odd years earlier. He slips the record from its sleeve and settles it on the turntable. The needle hisses as it finds the groove, and a wash of static stretches out, elongates, a ghost space that I fill with questions about regret—is there anything he wishes he had done differently, anything he would change if he could—and he looks at me, smiles, and says, I wish I could have danced with Alex that night at the Floral Hall Ballroom. Then the music comes, soft and low, the scratches in the record like instruments in the orchestra keeping time. And though I am hesitant, uncertain whether or not he will see it for what it is—which is a plea, a desperate need to be led—I offer to dance with him. He greets my clumsiness with that smile again, innocent and inviting and all the rest, and then he puts a hand on my shoulder and tells me that everything will be all right, and that one day I will feel whole again.

This, as I’ve said, is what I like to imagine, but it isn’t what actually happened. What actually happened was that after the orchard we went back to the house for a swim. I hadn’t brought any trunks, so he loaned me a pair. The same pair my father-in-law wore when he came for his weekly visit, every Tuesday for a dip in the pool followed by dinner: cucumber and tomato salad with feta, and a thick bean soup. The trunks were too big, so I cinched them tight at the waist and watched as Walter Ehrlich swam a few laps by himself and then floated on his back. He stared up at the emptying sky. The pool was fine, he said, but the lake was better. When I asked him why that was, he said that in the lake you could lose yourself and drift away, and sometimes that was just how it had to be. And I knew that was it, I knew that was the lesson. It was so simple, really. We are on our own, without a horizon to orient ourselves, or any stars to show us the way.

This appeared in the April 2014 issue.

Stephen Finucan wrote Foreigners, a short story collection, and The Fallen, a novel.

Sergio Membrillas has done artwork for The New Yorker, the New York Times, and the International Herald Tribune.

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