Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Tragically Hip - Gord Downie

20 years ago when I was in my early-teens I took a trip across the country by myself. Looking back it doesn't seem like much - I flew from Winnipeg to Edmonton via Saskatoon, a 3-4 hour journey with layovers, but at the time it was a huge step towards independence for me. I was going to Edmonton to spend a month with my cousins during the summer. In truth, I was dropped off at one gate, shepherded by a flight attendant who was there to help underage passengers flying alone, and picked up by family on the other end. But for a kid who had never flown before, to do so alone when he was perfectly happy wiling away the hours on a computer screen in the basement, it felt like a huge, scary undertaking.

It was freedom, and it changed my life, though it took me another five years to realize it.

The flight was uneventful. Scary, thrilling, strange in the way that is common to airplanes and amusement rides. Funny how I became a fan of the former, and you couldn't pay me enough money to tolerate the latter. I wasn't the only unaccompanied minor on the plane, there was another kid seated with me as well who was a couple of years younger and it was his first flight too.

I guess I was visibly nervous, I was a shy kid to start with - not much for talking - and I expect I was probably white as a sheet, staring out the window at the tarmac as the rest of the plane boarded. As the plane began making its way to the takeoff strip, shuddering, pinging, whirring - all things unfamiliar to a novice traveler - a passenger in the row ahead of me turned to talk to us. I don't recall what he asked us, but I told him my name and that it was my first time flying, and we talked briefly in the way that strangers do while the plane was getting ready for takeoff.

As I said, the flight was uneventful for anyone who knew what to expect. Once we were in the air and on our way to Saskatoon, the nice guy in the row ahead of us asked us if we could give him a hand. He and his buddy were doing a crossword puzzle from the morning paper. I can't say that either of them were terribly adept at it, but I was a kid. I don't think I helped worth beans, but it was fun. My fellow underage passenger wasn't interested, but I remember poking my head over the top of the guy's seat and spent the better part of an hour working the puzzle with the two of them.

Before I knew it, we were descending into Saskatoon. At the gate, the two guys said goodbye and left with some other friends of theirs who were also on the flight, while I stayed aboard for the next leg of the journey to Edmonton.

After everyone who was getting off had done so, the flight attendant came back to check on us before more passengers got on. I gather she was a fan - she came over and asked us "Do you know who that was? That was the Tragically Hip!".

I was a kid, I didn't have any bloody idea who the Tragically Hip were. I had heard the name before, but I couldn't have named a single song they played. I was more amazed at my uncle's exclamation when I related the story to him that evening. He knew who The Hip were.

Fast-forward five years, I am 17 years old, just about to turn 18, sitting in my dorm room in Waterloo, Ontario - 2,000km from my home and family. I had just embarked upon the biggest, most exciting, most frightening journey of independence in my life since that flight to Edmonton... and I was feeling it pretty badly. That night, and more than a few nights after I would put on my headphones and turn on my favorite playlist, comforted by the familiar strains of songs I had listened to a thousand times before. Songs that spoke to me in some way, songs that sounded like home. I would fall asleep listening to Great Big Sea and The Tragically Hip, whose album I would never have picked up had it not been for an enthusiastic flight attendant.

This post was prompted by the news that Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip has cancer, treatable but terminal. My father-in-law was killed by the disease less than a year ago, so I can relate to some of the experiences his family is going through today. So I wanted to post this, my own personal experience with them.

So for Ahead by a Century, Membership, Thompson Girl, My Music at Work, and most importantly... Courage, thank you.