Finding Francine

If you’ve read the posting on “Flying Weightless” then you’ll understand the connection to this one.  Briefly, in 2009 I flew to Las Vegas to take a ride on G-Force One, the craft that flies vertical parabolas to induce weightlessness on the 40-odd passengers and crew inside.   It was the adventure of a lifetime, and this story is an ongoing spinoff.

When the Zero Gravity passengers gathered for a pre-flight breakfast, I worked my way around the room putting temporary tattoos on peoples’ hands, showing the logo of the Canadian Centennial of Powered Flight.  It was an excellent excuse to introduce myself to people and start a conversation, as well as an opportunity to illustrate to people from all over the world that Canadians don’t live in igloos any more.  I got the tattoos from the Canadian Forces tent at the Klondike Days fairgrounds in Edmonton.  I wanted to visit the display, but I’d recently broken my foot and didn’t want to limp for miles looking for it, so I checked out the on-line map.  Nothing there.  I phoned the exhibition grounds office, they didn’t know for sure where it was.  I went to the web site, and found nothing there either, so I shot off a quick note to the webmaster to see if there was any help available.

What followed was a series of emails that surprised me.  The name on the home page wasn’t the webmaster, but the Brigadier General in charge of the Air Force contribution to the Centennial.  Oops.  The General was exceedingly co-operative and immediately asked Captain Harding to provide me with some help.  Captain Harding emailed a Lieutenant located in Alberta to find out where the display was, and he emailed back that he’d know in an hour.  Less than an hour later he had the directions for Captain Harding, who relayed all this to me.  I took a taxi to the north entrance of the fairgrounds and walked straight into the Canadian Forces displays.  I’m so impressed with the co-operation and alacrity of the Air Force!

I went to the Air Force tent and bought a few souvenirs (the tank top hasn’t fit for years now and is long gone), played with a flight simulator for a bit, and struck up a conversation with the airman in attendance. When I asked for stickers, he gave me a big handful with the event logo on them, as well as a handful of Air Force temporary tattoos, and pencils.  He said it was the last day and there were still a lot left, so I could have all I needed.  Another airman made sure I got a pen as well.  Off I went, all loaded up, and stopped at the Alberta Aviation Museum, which already had a lot of Centennial material at the front desk.  I found a couple of empty baskets and filled them with freebie stickers and tattoos, which pleased the ladies at the desk.  I took the rest home and counted out enough to cover everybody at the G-Force One flight, then pocketed the remainder for handing out.  Amazingly few people knew about the Centennial.  I hadn’t heard anything until the radio ran a blurb about the only flyable Lancaster bomber coming to Edmonton and landing at the aviation museum later that day.  I went straight there and waited for the big moment, which was a deeply thrilling event.

I parked in the lot out front, and every time somebody vacated a space closer to the tarmac I moved up and into that space.  Inside of an hour I was parked with my nose right up against the fence — no better view anywhere in the airport.  I had no camera with me, though, and phoned a couple of friends to see if they wanted to join me and bring their cameras.  No luck.  I sat on the hood of my car and made friends with a man on my left, who was as anxious as I was to see the Lanc.  In time we were joined by a young fellow on the right, who asksed if he could put his pop bottles down in the shade of my car … I said if he wanted he could put them in the cooler I had in the back seat, which he did.  In the course of conversation it turned out he’d just been to Nanton, where a Lancaster was being rebuilt in their Bomber Command Museum and he had a bunch of pictures on his digital camera to share with us.   We stood on the hood and fender of my car so we could see over the chain link, and we were looking through the barbed wires on top, which I held apart so he could take pictures of the Lancaster as it landed and as it sat on the tarmac afterward.  I gave him my email address and not only did he send me copies of his Nanton pictures, he sent me the pictures he took of that day’s Lanc landing.  Great souvenirs.

A few weeks later I was in Las Vegas at the Zero Gravity breakfast, sticking temporary tattoos on people.  The flight suit had lots of pockets so I used one for tattoos, one for wet wipes to moisten the tattoos, and one for garbage … a very efficient system if I do say so myself.  The flight was a triumph of fascination over fear, and I disembarked knowing I wasn’t going to travel on the frightened flyers program any longer.  Before I left the hotel I had written a note to Captain Harding, describing the events of the last few weeks, and expressing my appreciation for the co-operation of the Air Force.  The reply was signed “Francine” which s how I found out my captain was a lady.  She advised me that she had posted my letter to the website blog so members of the forces could read for themselves how their work impacts civilians. Thus began our ongoing correspondence which is still running today.  I told her about the great success in spreading the word about the Centennial, and how exceedingly helpful it was to have small freebies to hand out.  A couple of weeks later there arrived at the post office a whole carton of SWAG (Stuff We All Get) for this very purpose — temporary tattoos, an assortment of stickers, pencils, rulers, aircraft trading cards, etc. and for me, a die-cast model of Hawk One (a separate story).  I talked up the Centennial at every opportunity and handed out swag to kids and grown kids everywhere I went.  I’m certain there are hundreds of people who might otherwise never have known about the event.

Later it turned out that there was another centennial coming up — the Canadian Navy was turning 100, and due to her experience with the Air Force Centennial, Captain Francine was being transferred to help coordinate the many events attached to that.  Along the way there was a promotion, so she became Major Francine in my correspondence.  I practically begged her to let me help out somehow, any way at all, and I ended up proofreading the website in 2010.  My plans for that summer were to take my motor home across Canada, and there was a carton of swag to take with me, and I spread the word as before.

After a couple of days in Halifax I decided to watch the ______________ where the Queen inspects the Fleet from a cruiser and all the ships are lined up in neat rows for her to sail past while the crews cheer.  This took place in __________ Bay and I had an excellent view from the side of the highway.  I don’t recall how she heard about me, but a reporter for CBC Radio met me down there and interviewed me for the next morning’s radio program.

I pre-ordered tickets for the Nova Scotia International Tattoo in Halifax, but when I got there Major F. phoned and asked if I could come early on Tattoo day.  One of the gentlemen in the organization that put on the Tattoo had heard the interview and wanted to meet me, so I was going to join her and the higher-ups in the reception room before the show.  Wow!  That meant I couldn’t wear jeans, so I phoned the lady I’d watched the Fleet _____________ with and asked her where could I get a pair of dress pants, and she suggested Sears — perfect, I could find that.

So the next day I was as dressed as I could be and showed up at the Civic Centre in Halifax and got swept upstairs by a nice young lieutenant.  Suddenly there she was, Major Francine Harding in her gorgeous uniform, looking terrific — we finally got to meet each other!  Big hugs, hurried introductions to the gentleman who had liked me on the radio, and I was placed in the care of another officer so I wouldn’t have to stand around all by myself.  Francine had work to do at the Tattoo, so she gave me a ticket to a gold seat and found me a lieutenant to sit with me for the show.  (This lieutenant was a very pretty young woman, and it turned out the Naval Centennial postage stamp bore her image.)  We had a fine time, loved the show, enjoyed a glass of wine during the intermission, and I got a copy of the VIP program autographed by everyone I’d met.  After the show I had a drink with Francine and we arranged to meet the next day for lunch and get to know each other.

We did that — I had my very first prime rib hamburger, and we had two or three delicious drinks to wash it down.  Francine gave me her Navy coin, virtually a medallion in a plastic case, which went back hundreds of years in Navy history.  Apparently Naval officers would give money to their crewmen who had done good work on a mission, and that evolved into beautifully crafted, important and treasured mementos.  I’m keeping mine forever.  After lunch we walked back to the Civic Centre and she loaded me up with several more bags of swag for the rest of my trip.

Swag got me some interesting encounters.  Whenever I’d board a plane (especially if I was wearing my flight suit) I’d hand the head flight attendant enough stickers and such to distribute to the cabin crew, then I’d raise my voice and ask if I could give some to the pilots as well.  They always heard me and called me into the cockpit to receive their freebies and the little lecture that went with them.  One captain even came to my seat afterwards and gave me a set of wings … he felt it only fair to trade something and that was all he had.  When I was driving through the northeastern United States I’d stop at toll booths and give the attendant enough swag for all his kids, and often would get waved through instead of being charged the road toll.  A Mountie in New Brunswick followed me for a while on the highway and turned into the same gas station I did … I was afraid I’d done something stupid on the road, so I grabbed some of my best swag and trotted over to his patrol car.  He had a kid, so our conversation never got around to my driving skills at all.  A woman on the desk at an aviation museum in Philadelphia wanted a Navy lanyard like mine, and if I gave her one she’d get her husband to give me a turn on the flight simulator … he flew me along Captain Sullenberger’s route down the Hudson River and happily crashed the airliner into New York City.

So that’s the story of how I found Francine, who has turned into a good friend with whom I occasionally exchange emails.  Like I said, I’m keeping the coin, and there’s no swag left except a few brochures which I’ll whittle down to one of each.  Some souvenirs are harder to part with than others.  I probably won’t be able to part with the autographed Tattoo program.

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