They say you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than in the case of Charlene Fisher.
Fisher, 27, is typical in some ways of so many other young women in Rainy River District. She was born and raised in Emo, attending Donald Young School and Fort Frances High School before completing her final year of high school in Thunder Bay.
Like many other farm kids, she was active in 4-H and, along with her father, Emo Coun. Ken Fisher, began showing animals at the annual Emo fair from the time she was a little girl.
But unlike the other competitors this year at the fair, she has travelled a long way to get here.
Since April, Fisher has been living in Los Angeles, moving there from Calgary so she can take her training as a helicopter pilot. Her journey to Tinseltown took a long, circuitous route.
After graduating high school, Fisher attended the University of Brandon in Manitoba, where she studied piano for two years. But she eventually quit and moved to Calgary to take up what promised to be a lucrative position with a clothing company.
But something happened on the way to Stampede City.
“Before I even hit Calgary, the offices were closed and company went under,” Fisher recalled Saturday at the farm while helping her dad prepare the two Charolais heifers they will be showing at the Emo fair this weekend.
“So I made the best of it and went back to school—this time in travel.”
Fisher attended school for 18 months and was hired as a flight attendant by a western-based airline after graduating.
She worked for the airline for another 18 months, but then a change in policy resulted in a potentially life-threatening situation—the airline began to serve nuts as snacks.
Fisher has a severe allergy to many kinds of nuts, as well as shellfish and bee stings. Consequently, she is never found without a life-saving Epi-Pen nearby.
This simple device is carried by many people who, like Fisher, face the risk of anaphylactic shock when exposed to certain substances. The user simply pulls the cap off the pen and jabs the needle into their thigh.
The needle injects a dose of synthetic adrenaline, which stops the allergic reaction.
However, since an ounce of prevention trumps any amount of cure, Fisher was forced to remove herself from the environment two years ago and rethink her life’s goals.
But by now, she was in love with flying, so the next decision was pretty simple. “If I can’t be a flight attendant, then I’ll fly ’em [airplanes],” she reasoned.
Of course, flight training, especially helicopter training, is very expensive, so Fisher decided to shop around. She found it actually was much cheaper to take her training in California than in Alberta—despite the higher cost of living there and the exchange rate.
So in April, she moved to L.A. and began training.
She shares an apartment right across the road from Los Angeles International Airport and has a view of the main runway right from her window.
She now has completed about two-thirds of the 90 hours she will need for her combined private fixed-wing and helicopter licences. On July 19, she took that first major step when she soloed for the first time in a helicopter.
“It was scary—probably one of the most alone things in your entire life,” she recalled.
Her first solo flight was a simple takeoff, hover, and a couple of turns before she landed.
On her next flight, Fisher was allowed to fly in the traffic pattern. But it was the first one that made the biggest impression because it was followed by an old ritual that apparently is practised in flying schools all over the world.
When her instructor came up to her after that flight, he produced a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut off the back of her shirt and then signed it. She has kept that piece of material.
Fisher said this is a ritual that goes back to the early days of flying when most trainers were tandem two-seaters where the instructor sat behind the student.
“In those days, the instructor would tug on your shirt to get your attention because the cockpit was noisy and they didn’t have headsets,” she explained.
“By cutting the shirt, it means ‘you don’t need me any more.’”
But she will need instruction for some time yet. Although Fisher will be flying solo more from now on, there still is some advanced training ahead.
Furthermore, she has not yet soloed in a fixed-wing aircraft. That, she said, is scheduled for early next month.
Her final check ride in the helicopter is scheduled for Sept. 7 while her fixed-wing test probably will be at the end of September.
In the meantime, the sights and sounds of Los Angeles are proving to be an eye-opening experience for Fisher. Needless to say, it was an entirely different world that greeted her when she arrived.
“There’s too many people,” she remarked. “They are either really nice or they want nothing to do with you.”
However, southern California does offer certain advantages, especially for flight training.
“I loved the climate,” Fisher enthused. “The flying is amazing. When you’re flying down Venice Beach or over the Queen Mary, you just can’t beat that.”
One of the things that surprised her was the ethnic diversity she found. One might expect a tall, attractive blonde woman to fit right into the Hollywood stereotype, but what Fisher found was somewhat different.
Most of people she encountered every day were black, Asian, Latino, or mixed race. “I’m a minority there, being a blonde female,” she noted. “I felt very much like a minority.”
But she has friends. Her two male roommates are well-connected and minor celebrities in their own right. Because of that, Fisher had an opportunity to sample the glamorous side of Hollywood last month when they took her to a party at the Los Angeles Playboy Club.
“It was a little different from Emo,” she laughed.
In fact, the party was a formal affair put on by former NBA great Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who threw the party as part of his AIDS research campaign.
“He [Johnson] looks really good,” Fisher recalled. “He was very courteous and when he found out I was from Canada, I got lots of smiles.”
Also present at the party was NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell, who posed with Johnson for a photo for Fisher.
Fisher said one eventually gets used to seeing celebrities on the street and accepts them as part of the landscape. The entire experience has enriched her life, although she has no intention of staying there once she completes her training.
“It’s nice to get outside of Emo to experience that kind of multi-cultural environment,” Fisher observed.
But once she’s finished, she will be heading back to Calgary to look for work.
She will need a total of 150 hours to get her commercial licence, but having completed the first step, she intends to get a job and replenish her bank account, which has taken quite a beating since her U.S. papers prohibit her from working while in the States.
“They’ll let me spend money, not earn it,” she remarked.
She noted since 9/11, foreign students taking flight training in the U.S. are under constant scrutiny. She even had to notify authorities of her plans to come to Emo for two weeks to ensure she would be able to go back next week.
When she returns to Calgary in the fall, she intends to work for a while as a flight attendant again—this time for a small charter airline—and save her money.
When she has enough to complete her training, she intends to head back to California.
But what about after that?
Fisher said she has a connection with someone who owns and operates helicopters in northern Alberta servicing the oil rigs there. She says the hours are long and the location is isolated, but until she has accumulated at least 1,000 hours, the cushy jobs will remain out of reach.
Ultimately, Fisher would like to fly medical transports, police helicopters, or perhaps even do traffic reports for a TV or radio station.
But no matter where she is, there always will be that connection with Emo.
“I’ll come back every year to visit and show cattle,” Fisher vowed. “It’s part of our bonding time.”
In addition to the fair, Fisher also makes a point of coming home for Christmas. As well, her mother, Evelyn, usually finds a way to pop out to visit her for a few days every spring no matter where she is.
In addition to showing her own cattle, Fisher also likes to help out the youngsters who are learning the ropes. She said she can’t see any of that ever changing.
“I’ll always do that,” she explained. “I’ll always love Emo. It’s a pretty special place.
“It’s where I grew up, it’s where my roots are.”