Smoke Jumping Gave Me the Chance to Fly
That’s the simple one word reply James Tomkins, better known as Smokey, has when asked what advice he would give to young people starting out today.
When Tomkins was starting out on his colourful life, he admits school wasn’t that important, often skipping it.
The youngest of 21 children, Tomkins grew up in Grouard, a small hamlet in northern Alberta within Big Lakes County.
“My mother always had a sewing machine and I was always playing on it. My dad was always away because he was a supervisor with the Métis Nation of Alberta in those days and I would skip school. My mother spent 16 years in school and all she learned was the Latin prayers so school was not important.”
When he was a teenager, an older brother, Frank, worked as a smokejumper.
Tomkins remembers quizzing Frank about his day asking, “’How does it feel? What do you do? Were you scared?’ He said, ‘Would you like to be a smokejumper?’ And I said, ‘Sure I would. It’s an adventure.’
“So I joined the smokejumpers.”
He lied about his age to get in because jumpers had to be at least 18. It was April 1953 and Tomkins was 17.
Based out of Lac la Ronge, Saskatchewan, Tomkins enjoyed his time parachuting into forest fires.
“I only made two fire jumps, but I made 22 parachute jumps altogether. Lots of times, you could land near the fire rather than jump into the fire. We would fly overhead to take a look then land by the lake and walk in to put that sucker out.”
Working as a smoke jumper for two summers, hence the nickname Smokey, Tomkins joined the Canadian Forces on September 8, 1954, originally joining to learn how to be a parachute rigger.
“I loved it, especially the maintenance part.”
The plan was that after three years, he’d have his trade and go back smoke jumping, but life had a different plan.
In his second term in the army, he fell in love with Linda whom he met through a blind date. She was the first of three loves Tomkins has had in his life.
Economics dictated he remain in the forces.
“I had the best deal of my life with her.
“We were married for 17 years, but I was still a kid.”
He was married to Claire for another 17 years.
His next love was Patsy.
Tomkins has five children: Lisa and Sandra who live in Fort McMurray plus Sharon and Sheila. Son James lives with Tomkins as his helper.
With no education, “I bluffed my way through the army. I even went to the air supply school. That’s where you load these big air crafts to parachute out of.”
The best tool of his trade was a slide rule.
“You had to measure how much fuel was in the plane, how far you’re going, how big a load, how many personnel and the weight. So then you’d know where the centre of gravity was to put the load into the aircraft. Not too far forward, not too far back.”
At one point during his military career, he was in Germany.
“When the war was over, the Allies had an Occupational Force there in case these guys were to rise up again. After a while, the threat was Communism so they wanted to have a force ready there. Germany was sort of a buffer so they wanted to keep troops handy.”
Back on Canadian soil, he remembers that in 1970 there was going to be a world freefall competition and Canada wanted to enter a team.
“We didn’t have any skydivers in the army, but we had people like me who were jumping from individual clubs and so they called us together. There was 20 of us and they brought us into Edmonton and we were going to train for this competition. I wouldn’t have made it because I wasn’t a good jumper. I jumped because I just liked to fly.”
However, he would never know if he’d make it as he shattered his ankle on one jump and that was it. He had 356 jumps during his years in the army.
While he was listening to the interns and doctor discuss his injury, he realized that if he didn’t have jumping or the army, he was in trouble without an education.
“The minute I got out of the hospital with crutches, I went to the Victoria Composite High School to register for night school in Edmonton.”
When he was tested to gauge his education level, he was told he was somewhere between Grade 0 and Grade 7.
Because of that, he was told the school couldn’t accept him.
“I said, ‘You will accept me because I’m paying for it and I want to go to school.’
Well he said, ‘You’re wasting money.’
“‘It’s my money,’” was Tomkins’ reply.
He recalls failing everything the first year, but after four tries, he finally earned his GED in 1975.
He was just over 40.
His next step was to attend Keyano College to earn his business administration certificate.
“After three years, I got a certificate. It’s funny when you have that certificate, your wages just seem to shoot up,” he mused.
When he left the Canadian Forces after 22 years, Tomkins found his way to Fort McMurray the first time in 1975, working for the Métis Nation of Alberta.
In 1977, he went to work at Syncrude Canada.
Tomkins recalls a tri party agreement between Syncrude, the federal government and local First Nations. Under the 10-year program, Indigenous peoples were trained and hired by Syncrude.
“And that was my job. I was one of the recruiters.”
Tomkins said he also taught cross-cultural awareness courses to Syncrude employees.
“We had to tell these white people what makes the Indigenous tick and how you can accept them.”
He figures word got around about these courses and he had an offer from a mining company in B.C. then it was off to Quebec City, Ontario and Saskatchewan.
He left Syncrude and said good-bye to Fort McMurray in 1985.
While teaching these courses across Canada, Tomkins recalls a federal government representative heard one of his sessions and “went back to Ottawa and says, ‘You’ve got to hire that guy.’
“So, on January, 5 1985, I moved to Ottawa with a new job and I stayed there for 10 years. I retired in 1995.”
Of all the milestones in Tomkins’ life, there is one he is the most proud of: Feb. 4, 2018 marked the 50th anniversary since he’s had a drink.
He will admit he was quite a drinker.
“Alcohol had the best of me,” he acknowledges. “I started to do crazy things and I said that’s enough.”
When Patsy passed away in 2004, the couple had been living out east. With nothing to hold him there, he started a trek west with the thought of ending up somewhere in B.C.
When he arrived in Fort McMurray to visit his daughters, he was told he was staying and Sharon moved him into a house she owned across from the Legion in Waterways.
He enjoyed the close proximity to the Legion – he’s been a member since 1954 – as he could ride his scooter to travel the short distance. Tomkins called Waterways home until the May 2016 evacuation. Now Westlock is home for the 83-year-old.
A year before his retirement, Tomkins was told he had prostate cancer, but he didn’t believe the doctor.
“I don’t know why. I just didn’t believe him.”
He went on living as usual and had no issues until this past August, when Tomkins admits he wasn’t feeling too well. A visit to the doctor revealed the cancer had spread.
Visiting an oncologist, Tomkins was given a prescription for medical marijuana when he said he didn’t have anything for pain.
He didn’t want chemotherapy.
“I saw my wife (Patsy) in chemo and poor girl, she suffered.”
Besides, “they told me chemo won’t help me. They told me radiation won’t help me, but the doctor said, ‘We’ll give you some pills and you should live another three and a half years.’
“I was happy to hear that. That’ll make me 87.”