Coming back to Gimli


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I come to Gimli. That’s probably because my father died three years ago and my mother died last December.  My family is out at the Coast, my sister-in-law, my niece, my nephew. My daughter is on the island with her family and my son and his family are just across the border in the States. A ferry ride and an hour’s drive and I’m at their front door. Now that my parents are gone, will I come back every summer as I have done for fifty-one years?
I was brought up in Gimli. Did all those Gimli things. The Christmas concert at the Lutheran church, the orange and the bag of hard candy. Skating on the edge of Skorbahutch’s land where the railway spur and the track made a Y. Hunting rabbits in the brush piles. It took two of you. One to kick the brush pile, the other to shoot the rabbit that came running out. Skating on the outdoor rink, then indoors once the new rink was built. Curling. Lots of shouting by the skip and the sharp sound of the granite rocks hitting each other.
Hanging around Mary’s restaurant. Sitting in the booths eating hamburgers and chips, not those things in bags but home made French fries drenched in vinegar and salt. Playing the pinball machine beside the front door, trying to get an edge by lifting it a little only to have it flash TILT. Later, sneaking into the pool room through the back door to shoot pea pool and snooker.
Struggling through snow up to my knees to deliver The Winnipeg Free Press. I hated collection day because every time I went into a house to collect the money and give out the ticket that proved the subscriber had paid, my glasses fogged up. Solid white. It was like going from a freezer into a sauna at some places, then back into the freezer.
I went to all the hockey games I could afford and when I had an extra quarter, I watched cartoons and News of the World and feature films in Greenberg’s theatre on Second Avenue.
Fished on the outside of the dock for perch and swam in the harbour. There weren’t a lot of boats in those days and the water was still clean. I didn’t swim much because I was afraid of the water. Sometimes we went to the little dock and the other guys, the ones who loved the water, would dive all the way to the bottom and bring up stones to prove they’d been there.
But what is it that brings us back from far places? When we left school there weren’t many opportunities in Gimli. Some already had a plan, a goal or, like me, no plan, no goal, but grandparents in the city who wanted me to be something other than a laborer on the highway or a fisherman. Nowadays, it’s okay to be a fisherman but in those days my father would often fish for two months and come home owing more money than when he started. A lot of fishermen lived in shanties. Now, they live in mansions.
We went off to learn how to dress different, talk different, have different manners, think different, sneak our way into being pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, that sort of thing. I say sneak because a friend of mine told me that even though he had a Phd. and was the head of a university department, he kept waiting for someone to turn up and reveal that he was a fraud. I know how he felt. When I was at the university, I kept waiting for someone to stop me in the hallway and say “What are you doing here?”
We were all imposters of one kind or another, pretending we weren’t just small town kids who snuck in the back door.
Maybe that’s partly why we come back to Gimli every summer. To be ourselves. To be the kid in the third seat in the window row in Miss Greenberg’s class. Or the best forward on the PeeWee hockey team or the best goalie for the Midgets. Or, maybe, just to be the kid who, after a good day’s fishing, goes home with fifteen golden perch on his string.
When I got married and had a couple of kids, we used to go once a summer to have tea with Miss Stefansson. Miss Stefansson was very special. She was educated, sophisticated, and completely and totally dedicated to her students. She never married. We told each other stories about why that was. Given the kind of person she was, it had to be some tragedy in her past. We thought maybe it was a fiancée killed in WWI. I and my wife and kids went there and she made tea and we told her about ourselves, what we were doing, what we hoped for. Her house is gone now but when I walk past there, it is still there in my mind’s eye and I can still see us standing at the door and she is letting us in for our annual cup of tea and I’m going to tell her about my successes so she’ll know that the trouble she took with me was worthwhile.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the memories. When I was in Iceland the first time, my host took me on a two day journey. He frequently stopped to point out places and explain why they were important. Sometimes it was just a rock but it was important because something important had happened there. Maybe Gimli is a bit like that. When I walk on the dock, a thousand earlier ghosts of myself walk with me. When I sit on the sand, I sit with endless overlapping memories of having sat there before.
I sat there as a small child with my mother. I sat there later when I was old enough to come with boys my own age. I sat there as an adolescent with adolescent friends. I sat there with my wife. Then we sat there with our kids. A later, much later, I sat there with my grandkids.
Sometimes, I say to people, “This happened here.” Or “That happened there.” But often I don’t tell anyone except myself. This is where I kissed a girl for the first time. Here is where we had our dances and we wore drapes and the girls wore poodle skirts and a scarf around their neck and we danced slow dances close together. The guys who were cool popped their collars and, if they could afford it, wore leather jackets. Here is where we spent lazy summer afternoons playing baseball. Here….
The community hall is gone now but it was there that we danced to music made for teenagers, music that scared some adults but not my parents. They were so young they thought the beat was great. Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Buddy Holly. Here is where we rocked and rolled. It was in Harold Bjarnason’s parent’s living room lying on the floor, watching TV that we saw Elvis sing with his hips cut off at the waist so we wouldn’t be driven into a sexual frenzy by his moving hips.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. The memories are sharp, there are so many of them. The ages of the memories are all mixed up. The sound of a machine gun firing at the Gimli airbase when they had air force day. The hard, metallic, brutal sound of it. The sand around the target kicking up in spurts, the brass casings flying away from the gun, glinting in the sunlight. Being helped into a cockpit of a plane and sitting there imagining myself flying through the sky. Stopping a game of tin can cricket to watch a Harvard trainer diving down, straight down until it disappeared behind some trees. The game was on this piece of boulevard.It’s here we watched someone die.
Maybe a life is more than the present or maybe it can be more than the present. If you are lucky, that is. There are, after all, those who disappear. They never come back or they come back for a day or two if someone dies, then they’re gone again. They live in the two dimensional world of the present. History makes life three dimensional, a world of overlapping sights and sounds and smells and feelings. If you’re lucky. If you walk down the street where you lived and it is all right for the remembered past and the present to become one.

The Adolescent in Me

In the 1950s it was Ford Fairlanes, big motors, ducktail haircuts, drapes (pants that were as wide at the knee as possible and as tight at the ankle as your foot would allow), Buddy Holly, and when he died, the hard piano of Little Richard and soon after, Elvis Presley. In those days Elvis still had two names.
We necked with the girls in our high school classes, girls in jeans so tight that only putting them on, then sitting in a bathtub of hot water would shrink them that tight, girls with long, bouncy hair, wearing angora sweaters that showed off their new breasts. We double dated, necking in the front seat, the back seat, turning the cars into passion pits, steaming up the windows on cold winter nights. Gas was cheap, three gallons for a dollar and even though odd jobs didn’t pay much, we could always scrape together enough for a few gallons of gas to cruise the main street, then keep the motor running when we parked at the beach.
There was muscle in those Fords. I hungered for one a co-worker owned that he’d chopped and customized. It was so low to the road, you couldn’t drive it on anything but smooth city roads, but it looked dangerous even when it was parked. I couldn’t afford the seven hundred dollars. Some years later, I bought my first car. All I could afford was a Ford, second hand, maybe fifth hand, its posts welded because it had been rolled and the roof had collapsed. By that time I was going to university and money was tight. On weekends, I and my friends packed into it, three to the front seat, five to the back, no seat belts in those days, and headed home for the weekends. Sixty miles over icy roads, through blowing snow, air so cold it froze your flesh in a minute but we had faith. The miles rolled away as we passed through lonely looking villages, often no more than three or four houses and a store. The windows were squares of light in the darkness. We’d smash through the growing drifts, snow flying over the windshield.
Sometimes, black ice spun us in circles so that we ended up in a snow bank. We shovelled, we pushed, I rocked the car until we were back onto the highway, kicked the snow off our boots, smacked snow off our pants, crammed back into the car and eased into the darkness. The car was heavy, solid, enclosed us against the winter and fear.
As I grew older, like many people, I bought foreign cars. They were the flavour of the day. I didn’t give any thought to what was going to happen to North American companies and North Amerian jobs. It was time to get a new vehicle and since I still make the trip from Victoria to Gimli, Manitoba every year, no matter what the weather—thirty hours of travelling–I bought a Ford Escape.
I drove it to Manitoba in my usual three days. Revelstoke, Swift Current, Gimli –but something about the car, it’s bigness, its ease of driving, its comfort, maybe its reminder of my adolesence seduced me, kept me at the wheel. The Saturday I left, the sky was the colour of faded denim, not a cloud in sight, the highway a roll of black tape leading west, the countryside was turning golden with flashes of red. The towns and cities rolled by. Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie, Brandon, Regina, Swift Current. It’s easy, when you can see the horizon in every direction, to feel like you’re not moving. I had to keep checking my speedometer. Now and again, a car would pass me like a bullet.
I usually stop in Swift Current but the sky was blue, the air soft, the roads dry. I drove to Medicine Hat, ate at Wendy’s, fell asleep in a Comfort Inn, the next morning, just after dawn turned the sky red, then pink, I ate two boiled eggs, and was back on the highway. I always stop for a tall cappuccino at Starbucks in Calgary. The barista there said, “Good choice. I love making these.” There was a pretty blond in a white dress and cowboy boots sitting on the curb drinking coffee and waiting for her cowboy.
After Calgary, the golden larches began, spectacular yellow trees covering the hills. Banff slid by. The driving was easy, the Ford Escape felt safe, held the highway. I remembered my old Ford, the heft of it, the way it stuck to the road. I nudged the speed limit but cars still went past me so fast that I never saw them come, heard them and felt a blast of air, then they were out of sight. How fast, I wondered, and I thought of my high school friend Robert, the teenage king of the speed with his Fairlane in the 1950s. Fast was never fast enough.
All was good until the BC border but then the rain started. Traffic slowed. The highway to Golden is easy now, improved, made good. The highway from Golden takes care, attention with tight turns and snow tunnels. At Revelstoke, there was gas and more coffee and I thought of staying the night but I could feel the pull of home. The Escape was easy to drive, didn’t threaten to hydroplane on the wet pavement. The rain had eased to a steady drizzle. Then there was the climb out of Kamloops onto the Coquihalla. The Coquihalla is mountain top high. The steady drizzle turned into slashing rain, high, gusting winds, mist. The traffic didn’t slow.Cars ahead of me would suddenly disappear in patches of rain and mist. I prayed that no one would decide to slow down or stop. I kept to the slow lane, cursing drivers who didn’t have their lights on. There was a white van with no lights that kept disappearing and even when I could see it, it was like a ghost.
I’d planned on spending the night at Hope but when I reached the exit, the clock told me that I could still make the last ferry at Tsawwassen. It had started to get dark and the traffic, now that I was back on Hwy 1, was heavy but it moved like a steady river of yellow and red light until I was able to swing off onto Hwy 10. I missed most of the red stop lights but got lost at the intersection on Hwy 99 south and ended up driving toward White Rock. I managed to get turned around and the highway driving, in spite of the rain, was good and I knew, from experience, where the turnoff to Hwy 17 and the ferry terminal would be.
I left Gimli at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning and I reached the ticket booth at the ferry terminal at 8:18 Sunday night. There was still time to buy a dish of chocolate gelati in the ferry terminal. It wasn’t much of a supper but anything is better than ferry food.
I was home at just after 11:00 p.m. The house smelled good, smelled right, everything was as I left it, even the cup of coffee I forgot except now the coffee has dried to a dark stain.
I checked my mail, then my email, I thought I’m okay, I’m fine but then I realized that as I was sitting at the computer, the house felt like it was moving, swaying slightly. I went to bed. I was looking forward to sleeping in, to eating a breakfast of yogurt with ripe figs from my fig tree. Even the rediscovered adolescent inside me looked forward to that.