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.


“Do you remember when you had hair?”

It was awhile ago for most of us. But those were the days. The 1950s. Hey, hey. We were hot. Drapes, as wide at the knee as possible, as tight at the cuff as possible. A chain looping down from our pocket. For awhile, a high waist, like a high, high waist. Like any higher and it was going to be under our armpits. Tailor made. These pants didn’t come off any rack. I had a blue pair and a black pair that had small white checks. Look out baby. This one hundred and fourteen pound teenager was ready to rock your heart.

What I didn’t have was good hair. No good hair, no girls.

Good hair, you don’t know what good hair was? Okay, today, standing in the checkout line behind a grocery cart filled with toilet paper, paper towels, bags of potatoes, there are all these guys with shiny pates, the glare army that could blind the Syrian charging down from the fold. They wouldn’t need to hold up their shields, just all bend over toward the sun and let their shiny scalps blind the enemy. It’s hard to believe but there was a time when some of those guys piling Metamusal, PeptoBismal, and denture glue onto the checkout counter had killer hair.

My hair was so curly, so kinky, so frizzy that even though my father barbered part time when he wasn’t commercial fishing he couldn’t do anything with it. He said, “It’s like mowing a lawn.”

Killer hair was the kind that you could cut short at the sides and leave long on top so it could be swept back over the head. Killer, killer hair was the kind you could pull forward into a big wave just above your forehead, the kind of wave a girl could surf on. The very, very best hair had a big surfer wave and two or three smaller waves behind it. Hair like this walked down the school corridor and you could hear the sweater sets, the barrettes, the pleated skirts, the bobby socks sighing. Some held onto each other so they wouldn’t sink to the floor in ecstasy.

There wasn’t many a three wave head of hair but there was one that played the guitar and by the end of grade twelve four of the sweater sets were pregnant. His hair could have started its own polygamous community. He’d seen a Tony Curtis movie and had got himself a duck’s ass haircut. He parted it on one side, combed the top over the other side, then combed the sides straight back so they met in the middle of the back of the head. Long, golden hair, swept back rakishly, teasingly falling forward in a wave cemented in place. Girls found his Greaser style irresistible. It’s a good thing some irate fathers had a chat with him or his hair would have deflowered the entire school.

·         Buzz it upShare on LinkedinShare via MySpaceshare via RedditShare with StumblersShare on technoratiTumblr itTweet about itBuzz it upSubscribe to the comments on this postCombs were big. We all had combs. You never went anywhere without a comb. There was no point in combing my hair. It was like combing a Brillo pad but I carried a comb anyway. It was a small black comb that fit into my back pocket. The killer hair guys didn’t carry just any comb. They had the kind that folded together then, at the flic of a wrist, snapped open like a switch blade. It took practice. They’d be standing in a circle at the front of the school holding court, reach into their pocket, pull out their comb, snap it open, then run it casually through their hair.

There were fads, of course. There was the flat top. Long, long on the sides, held up by adolescent ears. The top like a brush cut. It didn’t last. Somewhere, in someone’s photo albums there are embarrassing pictures of this haircut.

Even though the crew cuts had disappeared except for ex-service types, neat and tidy was in. We’d all been militarized during the 40s. At school, we lined up, held our left arm out to the shoulder of the person next to us then, on command, turned left and marched into the school. Up the stairs, into the classrooms. When the war ended, there were a lot of disappointed teachers. The schools functioned much more smoothly when it was all hup hup, eyes right, stand when spoken to, we’re getting you ready to become cannon fodder on the front lines. If the war had lasted much longer, they’d have had us saluting the teachers. There were some of us the teachers hoped would become cannon fodder. Us being guys with bad hair.

 Good hair was sleek. Good hair was shiny. Good hair was tidy. Good  hair had Byrlcreem. At noon hours, the radio was boisterous with an ad that sang, “Brylcreem, a little dab with do ya.” Nobody called it a pomade. A pomade was for sissy guys. These guys were tough. Some guys thought more was better. They glistened. Once they got their hair plastered in place with a tube of Brylcreem it was staying in place. I remember wondering if Brylcreem was made with petroleum products and since nearly everyone was smoking—free cigarettes had been given to servicemen, great product advertising, everyone in the movies smoked, there was a campaign to get everyone smoking, there were even practice cigarettes made out of licorce—would one of the guys suddenly have his hair go up in flames when he was lighting up?

Of course, there was the part. Right? Or left? Or, in my case, nowhere at all. A lot of guys experimented with the part. One even tried it down the centre. It looked like he’d been hit by an axe. I was part-disadvantaged. I couldn’t come to school with a part in a different place and excite both interest and comment. Discussions about parts could last all through the noon hour. If a girl talked breathlessly about a guy’s part, he knew she was his.

Maybe it’s the economy but my barber tells me highly styled, slicked back hair is making something of a come back. Too late for me, like most of the pompadours, duck tales, flat tops, my hair has joined the cult of the tonsure, the inherent, genetic drive toward monasticism. When I gather with my friends nowadays, I think of our lost hair and with it the excitement and promise of romance, love, sex, replaced by a group of guys that look like they should be wearing monk’s robes to go with their fringe. If I could, I’d warn the young men of today that all the pomades, all the gels, all the dollars spent on hair artists will shortly go the way of the widow’s peak, the advancing crown, the shiny pate. But it wouldn’t do any good. They’d have to stop looking in the mirror to listen.