Priorities of 1944: Variety Review

Ephemera

Jim Anderson calls them ephemera. They’re the kind of thing people throw away after a play or musical event. And, yet, programs, program notes, cast lists, summaries, advertisements are important because they are often the only record we have of past events, the only record of who participated, who supported these events.

When my cousin, Dilla Narfason, showed me “Priorities of 1944 Variety Revue” sponsored by the Gimli Women’s Institute, I was immediately curious. I was held a the Parish Hall, the very Parish Hall where we held our school drama night and where I danced in a circle dressed as an elf. It, the revue, not my being an elf, was held on Monday, the eleventh day of September nineteen hundred and forty four. It was produced by Mrs. W. H. Zimmerman. We know, or at least can guess, that Mrs. Zimmerman was married to W. Harry Zimmerman. Harry, if I may be so bold, has an ad in the program in which he encourages fathers to invest in a policy for their sons’ educations. No word of any daughters. The illustration is of a father handing his son a golf club. Don’t be incensed. It was, after all, 1944, one year before the end of WWI. Harry was representative of Great-West Life

Dilla was a teenager at the time. She and her friends attended the revue. I expect it was a big event. Famous stars from the city coming to perform, stars that people heard on the radio every day. After the event was over, Dilla’s friends dared her to go up to the front and ask the performers for their signatures. She did and the result is a program covered with autographs.

The variety show was supported with a whole page ad from Armstrong Gimli Fisheries which resided at 807 Great West Permanent Building. Phone numbers were still short: 93 047.

In 1944 C. B. Johnson operated Gimli Photo and Dr. K. I. Johnson was one of the local Physicians and Surgeons. Gimli Garage provided a taxicab service at all times. You could phone them at 23.

Greenberg’s coffee bar provided light lunches and H. P. Tergesen was the local general merchant. Tergesen’s is still around seventy years later but the Gimli Bowling Alley on First Avenue is long gone. I have fond memories of it. It was a steady summer source of income because I spent my evenings setting up pins.

T. Eaton Co is long gone. So is Lakeside Trading Co. Harold Bjarnason operated United Stores Ltd, a general store, with deliveries made. I remember those deliveries because Harold Bjarnason, the younger, was a friend of mine in high school and I sometimes went with him delivering groceries from the store’s panel van. I had an accident in that van because of distracted driving. I was distracted by a very attractive girl so much so that I was kissing her and driving at the same time. I ran into the rear fender of a truck parked on the road.

H. R. Tergesen was the local druggist and Dr. F. E. Scribner had come to town. Dr. Frank’s wife, Margaret, was Icelandic but he was of German background and there were rumours that he was a spy. WWII had been going on since 1939 and there were prison camps all across Canada filled with men whose only crime was their name or nationality. The war effort had recruited everyone in defence of Canada. Dr. Frank became our family doctor and friend. G. H. Thorkelson was jeweller and watchmaker. The Marlborough Hotel took an ad even though it was in Winnipeg. A lot of Icelanders stayed there. It was a favorite of my father’s.

The Hotel Como’s proprietor, H. Dougloski promised friendly and courteous accommodation. The Como was located directly across from the train station where the Co-op gas station is now. Manitoba Hydro promises to share the fruits of “our labour”. They were probably better liked then than now.

Grey Goose Bus Lines took a full page ad. Buses in those days were packed. Few people owned cars and the airport was thick with young men traveling back and forth to Winnipeg. I know. Although I was a little kid, I was shipped by bus to Winnipeg on a regular basis, mother to grandmother, grandmother back to mother. The buses were so packed that the driver put folding seats in the aisle.

Dr. A. B. Ingimundson was the dentist and Arnason’s Dairy promised milk from government tested cows. Einarson’s Dairy promised pure, wholesome milk. Was this a suggestion that someone might be providing unwholesome milk?

Brown’s Bread from Selkirk must have sold bread to the local stores because they have an ad. There’s an ad from a Dr. and Mrs. M. Rady. They are a complete mystery. Dominion Business College has an ad and you can tell local fishermen sell fish to Independent fish Co. on Sherbrooke Street.

The Dutch Grill, and I felt clever because I knew about the Dutch Grill. Anne Chudd had told me how they started a café and how she made pies for the OBU (One Big Union) camp just north of Gimli. Then they moved to Centre and Third as the Dutch Grill Central Bakery and bus depot. John Chudd was the proprietor as well as being a blacksmith and, later, a Chrysler dealer and garage owner. Insurance was provided by Anna M. Jonasson. If you wanted a meal you could go to the Gimli Café on First Avenue. They provided hot meals and lunches all day. Gimli Transfer also rented out cottages and provided ice and wood. And, if that wasn’t enough, they also provided taxicab service that was courteous and prompt.

Keystone Fisheries was big. Along with Perfection Net & Twine Company they took a full page ad. They “extend our congratulations on your splendid achievements and accomplishments in the War effort. We sincerely hope that permanent Peace will soon be restored, with complete Vicotray.”

Mrs. Zimmerman was a powerhouse with good social connections. She got Monty Halparin (Monty Hall) from CKRC to be the master of ceremonies. She got Jean and Joyce Salel, the popular juvenile entertainers to come, along with Audrey Gardiner, the Personality Girl, along with Ed. Winnick, CKY Baritone plus the Whistling Billy Mack. There was the “Manitoba Quartette” and CBC concert pianist Beatrice Robinson from Montreal.

There was the Great Haldane, a magician, comedy tumblers, “Boogie Woogie” with Bernard Golsdoff plus Jean Ramsay, Manitoba’s “Snow White” There was a trumpet Solo by Gail Hall and a dance by Gladys Forrester, Canada’s leading dance exponent. It all ended with Harold Green CBC orchestra leader at the piano.

This was a family project because the stage manager was W. Harry Zimmerman and the producer was Mrs. W. Harry Zimmerman.

Which leads to the question who was Mrs. W. Harry Zimmerman? Cousin Dilla said, “She has to have been a local Icelandic girl.” She picked up the phone and confirmed yes, she was Icelandic, her mother and father lived on third avenue two doors down from the Benson house. The Benson House in those days was on the corner of third beside the artesian well where Moscow Gunna hung around handing out propaganda pamphlets from a shopping bag. Our source thought Mrs. Z’s first name was Elsabet, so Betty, but we were unable to unearth her family name or her parents’ names.

1944. There is still a year to go before WWII is over. The town is jammed with air force personnel being trained to go overseas and defeat the Axis. The Gimli Women’s Institute is raising money for the war effort. This revue is a big operation for a small town. However, the co-presidents of the Institute, Mrs. H. R. Tergesen and Mrs. N. Stevens, representing the upper end of the retail and fishing business are quite capable of getting out an audience. It sounds like it was a fun evening but it also was a serious cause.

(If anyone can identify Mrs. Zimmerman, I’d appreciate an email or a phone call, 204-642-7235.) or a message on my blog.

 

Desperate Manitobans

032They’ve survived the coldest winter since 1889. The temperatures plunged to minus fifty. It was colder than Siberia. Snow drifted until it covered windows. They could hear the houses cracking and creaking as the cold squeezed the joints. Ice formed on the lake until it was six feet deep. Winter began early and didn’t end until spring was nearly summer. People stood at windows and stared longingly at the sky, hoping for a peek at the sun.

They survived. After all, they are Manitobans. They still remember stories told by earlier generations of climbing out of two storey windows onto snow drifts, of driving in trenches of snow ten feet high, of cattle frozen to death standing up in the fields. Like the bears, they hunkered down, became drowsy in front of television sets, watched a life time of rented movies, raised the birth rate in the coming fall, dreamed of green grass and stood longingly in front of store displays of flower and vegetable seeds. They nurtured geraniums in pots. Summer will come, they whispered to their children as they put them to bed.

Spring has come and gone. It’s been a spring of dark clouds, cold rain, late melting snow, the kind of spring in the days when local farmers grew their own food, caused nightmares of a hungry winter to come.

Summer is here and desperation is everywhere. It’s in the farmers’ eyes, farmers who can’t seed their fields, farmers who have seeded their fields, fields that are now underwater. It’s in the wearing of shorts and rubber boots and determinedly eating an ice cream in spite of the rain while wading through puddles.

Manitobans are defiant. There were three women in bikinis lying in deck chairs at the hotel outdoor pool. In spite of the wind, in spite of the rain, in spite of the ominous clouds. I kept waiting for them to start singing “We will overcome.” One of them was so hopeful that she was rubbing on suntan lotion.

The guy who rents bicycles, tricycles, quadracycles was animatedly explaining to a father, mother and two children the advantages of seeing the town under pedal power. The father kept looking skeptically at the dirty grey clouds. Rain started and ruined he salesman’s pitch. However, Manitobans wouldn’t have called it rain. Rain here has to reach a certain level of drops per square foot before it is considered rain. This would be considered a gentle sprinkle. I remember my mother saying to me, get out there and deliver your newspapers and me saying, “In that?” and her saying, “That’s nothing. It’s just a little sprinkle.” I thought it warranted the building of an ark.

It is dispiriting to watch a man eating a soft ice cream cone dipped in chocolate in the rain. Especially when he’s wearing bright tartan shorts and a lemon yellow golf shirt. He has a determined, bulldog look. He is not seeing, feeling or acknowledging the rain. I think he should move under a canopy before the cone gets soggy.

Is there any sight sadder than a beach with hardly anyone on it? Beaches are not complete without people lying on blankets and towels, gamboling in the waves, playing with brightly colored balls, flirting, squealing, building sand castles. Today, five determined souls were wading about the shore. They couldn’t be locals, I thought. We were taught by our mothers that black clouds often harbored lightening and lightening is attracted to the highest object on a flat surface such as a lake. I kept waiting for a lightning bolt to turn them into lightning rods. However, they had come to the beach to frolic in the water and frolic they were going to do, lightning or no lightning.

When the sky was sprinkling and a bit of wind was blowing, everyone disappeared. In a few minutes, the sun shone through a hole in the clouds. People reappeared like magic, a cascade of brightly colored clothes, lots of bare skin searching for vitamin D. They weren’t there and then they were there. The hole in the clouds closed but people sitting at sidewalk tables at Kris the Fish refused to go inside. They kept eating their pickerel fillets and French fries. I thought, good for them, although, personally, I don’t like my French fries sodden with anything except vinegar and lots of salt.

I love Gimli. I admire Manitobans. They ignore the bad stuff and celebrate the smallest moment of sunshine in their lives. That’s what got their ancestors through the horrors of being a pioneer in the swamps and on the lake in winter. They live on hope. Tomorrow will be better they say before they fall asleep. And it will, unless it isn’t, but then the day after will be better and it will. Summer will come and be celebrated. The garden will grow, people will get a suntan, grain will ripen, fish will willingly swim into the net, and next winter can’t possibly be as bad as last year’s.

Viking Feast

headtableA Midsummer Night’s Feast

I risked attending the Viking feast in Gimli. It is the New Iceland Heritage Museum’s annual fund raiding gala. I wasn’t sure it was being held in the Lakeview Hotel but about twenty feet from the door, I could smell the Icelandic hardfish and I knew I was in the right place. Sure enough, just inside the door of the banquet room, there was a large platter of flat bread and another of dried fish. On the way to the feast, I stopped in Tergesen’s and bought a Viking helmet . I thought there would have been a forest of viking helmets but I was the only male in the audience with appropriate head gear. Good thing I didn’t go full bore and turn up with a sword, battle axe, and chain mail. I think the lack of Viking helmets was because the audience was older, respectable, could afford forty-five dollars for a ticket, five bucks for cutlery, ten bucks for the silent auction, twenty bucks for booze. That’s eighty bucks and if you are twenty years old and making minimum wage that’s more than a day’s wages. You are more likely to be serving the food than eating it.

We were told there was the danger of trolls appearing so I bought a rune stone. There also were rune stones on the tables. The stones came from the local beach. I thought back to some of the trolls I worked with over the years and wished I’d thought to paint runes on stones from Gimli beach to protect myself.

The evening began with the blowing of a horn. We had a welcome in verse to the village by the Skald (Nick Burdey), remarks by Jarl Ragnar of the Red (Dean Bjornson), toast to the Jarl by Torgeir, the Swedish right hand of the Jarl (Terry Vezina), lots of Skols,(the two best were to Tammy Axelsson and to the kitchen wenches), the Warrior Bard who was sabotaged by the musical equipment when he went do his barding (Ari Jakobson), the Spa Kona (Helga Malis) who every so often rose to pronounce wise Viking sayings. I opted to pay for a knife, fork and spoon. I guess I could have drunk my soup from the bowl, eaten my potato and carrot and ribs with my hands, which would have been more authentic, but terribly messy so I ponied up a couple of bucks to eat like the English.

As part of the entertainment, there was an airing of grievances, the funniest one being the grievance registered to the MP of the area because Edmonton has direct flights to Iceland and the trip from Winnipeg to Edmonton is too long. The request was that the MP ask Parliament to get rid of Saskatchewan to make the trip shorter. There was also a settling of accounts and the risk of having to wear the Viking helmet of shame, a helmet with large horns decorated with flowers. I must say that Bill Barlow made a great Troll even though his nose kept falling off. I couldn’t eat the dessert of Ponnukokur or the rocky troll bits that were sponsored by Gimli Super A Foods. It is obvious from the program that that the Vikings plundered many local businesses so they could have their feast. I won some of the plunder in the silent auction and now have a box full of attractive items from Amma’s Kitchen. Once the feast was over, people donned Viking costumes to wear for photographs.

The Valkyrie disses Laxness

 

laxness4image

Hulga turned up at my door looking like a Valkyrie. Five foot six maybe, brunette hair going gray, eyes like flashing lights and a tightness of the skin under her nose that presaged unpleasant things to come. If Valdi was now close to 90, his daughter would be around fifty four.

If I remembered correctly, he said Mary had their daughter a year after they got married. There wasn’t any hanky panky wtih Mary in the hay before the trip to the altar. Given Valdi’s predilection for hot babes, I was surprised but he’d explained it by saying that after he’d gone to the drugstore six times to ask Mary for help in locating items, she’d said yes to going with him to the local Icelandic dinner and dance but she was not going with him to his hayloft or the back of his pickup truck or to his bedroom. He had a reputation. She said if he wasn’t serious to quit wasting her time because she had lots of other offers.

She was, Valdi told me, gorgeous, fantastic, and while she worked there, the drug store had an unusual number of single men and some married ones wanting her help and advice. She mostly played it straight, never indicating there might be any ulterior motive in their wanting to know where the toothpaste was shelved. Stunning, voluptuous, he said, and he put his hands out as if to cup them around her breasts.

“Was she smart?” I asked.

“Smart? Smart! I wasn’t’ interested in smart. Do you think a bee asks if a flower is smart? Do you think a buck chasing a doe across the field wants the doe to take an IQ test?”

“She wasn’t interested unless you were serious, if you were serious, you could end up living with her for the rest of your life. What if she was as dumb as a post?”

“You think too much,” he said, and shook his head. “No wonder you are single.”

“Separated.”

“Are you spending any time in your wife’s bed?”

“No,” I replied somewhat testily.

“Single. Have you got a girlfriend?”

“If I had a girlfriend, I wouldn’t have time to come to visit you and to do research for my book.”

“There is more to life than writing a book.”

“Once is enough. “

“I didn’t give up farming just because sometimes my crop got hailed out.”

Anyway, the result of Mary’s agreeing to hanky pank once they were married was standing in front of me. Librarians were supposed to be modest, self-effacing, quiet. She said, in a loud voice, angrily, “You could have killed my father. You lame brained idiot. Taking a man in a wheelchair into the countryside in winter.”

I was torn. I was embarrassed that everyone on my floor could hear her because she was in the hallway. She would be muted by if she were in my apartment but I wasn’t sure that I wanted her in my apartment. She settled the question by brushing past me. If I hadn’t stepped aside, she’d have knocked me over.  Head down ready for a head butt, shoulders braced, she reminded me of nothing so much as a snowplough. She stopped at the end of the short hallway, now that she’d charged past me, not sure where to go.

I didn’t offer her a seat. Not that it would have mattered. If she’d wanted to sit, she’d have sat. “You, you,” she said, exasperated, jabbing an index finger at me, “how dare you? I don’t know what you think you are doing but whatever it is, quit. Quit pestering my father. I’ve told the people at the nursing home, you are not allowed to see him.”

“I’m just doing research,” I said but I might as well not have said anything.

She clasped and unclasped her hands and I thought she was going to take a run at me. I looked to the side to see if I could grab a cushion off the couch so I could fend her off without hitting her. It was an IKEA couch. It didn’t have any cushions. It had a futon that folded up and down depending on whether one was sitting on it or lying down on it.

“Research! What kind of research? Two idiots in a van on a country side road in December. Taking a ninety year old man on a Skidoo.”

“That wasn’t me,” I protested.

“Don’t deny it. If you hadn’t decided to take him exploring this wouldn’t have happened. Who do you think your are, the Franklin Expedition?”

“Laxness,” I said in my own defence. “He called me. He said…”

She cut me off with a look of fury. “Laxness. I don’t want to  hear any more about Laxness. A two bit writer from a country so small that it’s not even the size of a suburb.”

“You’re Icelandic.” I was outraged. Iceland may have a small population but it punches way over its weight.

“I am not.” She pointed her finger at me again and pressed her lips together. “I am fourth generation Canadian. I was born in Canada. I don’t even make vinarterta.”

There are some things you can say and some things you can’t. Vinarterta is to people of Icelandic descent what peroghis are to Ukrainians. Vinarterta is a seven layered prune torte that is a symbol of all things Icelandic. Well, not Icelandic in the sense of Iceland today. In Iceland, they’d quit making, forgot what it was, but in the Icelandic Canadian communities, it was revered. No social occasion could be a success without it. Even men learned to make it. There were vinarterta baking bees. Vinarterta were auctioned off at fund raisers. No good hostess would consider serving coffee without a plateful of sliced vinarterta.

I restrained myself. After all, she was Valdi’s daughter. “That’s your loss,” I said. “Would you like some coffee and kliener?”

“Kliener,” she yelled as if I’d stuck her with a sharp object. I backed up. “Kleiner. Icelandic donuts. Is that all you  people think about are your stomachs? Grossly overweight, potbellied vinarterta, kleiner, rullupylsa gobblers.”

“I’m not overweight,” I said sharply.

She looked me up and down and found nothing to approve of. “You’re young. You’ll soon by like all the others. A few more vinartertas and no one will be able to tell you from a seal.”

“I run every day. I go to the gym twice a week. You aren’t exactly slim.”

She was used to dishing it out. She obviously didn’t spend much time looking in the mirror. Her fury had undone her hair so it had started to stick out in places.  He face turned purple at my mention of her not being slim.

“You will not get the farm. You will not trick a poor old man with dementia into signing over everything he owns.”

I didn’t know which I was more enraged about, the describing Valdi as a poor old man with dementia or me as a horrible person trying to take advantage of him.

Even though she was old enough to be my mother, I shouted, “Out. That does it. Out.” And I stepped toward her and put my hands in front of me as if to push her. I didn’t touch her but she backed up and once I got her moving, I kept her moving . She kept trying to say something but her rage made her sputter and I kept shouting out, out and pushed forward until she turned around and fled out the door. In the hallway, she stopped, turned around to face me.

“I’ll go to the police,” she yelled. “Elder abuse.”

I shut the door and locked it. Then I fell onto the couch. I had no allies. Valdi had a granddaughter but she was in Saskatchewan at university. If she was like her aunt, there was no point asking for her help. I realized that my heart was beating faster than usual. I felt like I’d just survived an accident. His daughter was wicked, he’d warned me, but I’d thought he exaggerated. Hell on wheels, he’d said, the devil in bloomers, although she didn’t appear to be the bloomers type.

This book I was working on was important. It was my path to freedom. I had been teaching high school for eleven years. My hair was thinning and my nerves were frayed. No discipline was allowed and everyone got passing grades. If students complained, they got an A. The principal had recently explained that even if a student turned in no work, they still should pass the course. He’d taken down the large framed picture where our top students were honored. There were to be no distinctions made because distinctions hurt people’s feelings. However, he didn’t mind making distinctions among the teachers. It wasn’t do your own thing there, like come late, don’t bother to teach a class, be rude. If he’d had his way, we’d have lined up outside the front door every morning and kissed the students’ asses as they wandered in. Since some were still wandering in half way through the morning, we would have needed knee pads.

The book. The portal to a better life. There might be the opportunity to teach non-fiction at a local college but a scrapbook of articles wasn’t enough. It was good. But I needed a book. A book would bring the program prestige. It would give me credibility. A friend of mine taught in the English department there and acted as my spy. He fed me inside information. He was a nerd, had hair that always looked frightened, wore a suit jacket that was two sizes too big but which he’d got for a great price on sale, pants that folded over his shoes but they hadn’t hired him as a fashion statement. He had a book of short stories and a novel published. They were with a local publisher but that didn’t matter. It gave him the bona fides. People took his pronouncements seriously.

Instead of thirty hours a week of teaching with classes of thirty to thirty-five students, it was impossible to know for sure how many students in a class because students wandered in and out at will and the class lists were always being changed as the students shopped for the most entertaining teacher. The male students gravitated to classes given by young, attractive female teachers. They did not describe their classes as Chemistry or Physics or English but as Hot, Hotter and Hottest. They were at the age where they followed their dicks everywhere. Some of those who were in a relationship necked with their girlfriends at the back of the room. The girls were into their friendships. Packs of them rotated in and out of the washroom, putting on makeup, gossiping, smoking some dope. When going past you needed industrial earmuffs to protect your hearing from all the squealing.

I was trying to teach Pride and Prejudice, the humor of it, the intricate structure, the themes, the different kinds of marriages demonstrated and some blonde with too much makeup, her hair bright green, no bra and platform shoes that looked like stilts, raised her hand and said, “Mr. Kristjansson (that’s me) do you think Elizabeth was frigid?”

I’d resorted to pills. White pills, then blue pills, then white pills again. One before I left in the morning, one at noon and one before I went to bed at night. On a really bad day when someone threw a television through a window because he’d learned his girlfriend was getting it on with one of his friends, I took a pill right then and there. These kids drove Porches, Mercedes, the kind of cars the teachers couldn’t afford. They wouldn’t go to a college. They were destined for university. They were destined to become CEOs, political leaders.

Laxness would give me an edge. There would be other contenders for this job, if and when it was advertised. There were other people writing non-fiction books. None of them would have a chapter on a Nobel Prize winner. Maybe, just maybe, because of the connection, the book would get translated into Icelandic. That would carry clout, would draw admiring glances, would promote sales. I would have published in a foreign language.

I sometimes lay on my bed at night fantasizing about the book being accepted. “Mr. Kristjansson, this is a brilliant book. We have a contract all made up. We’ll start looking for co-publishers right away.” Sometimes this fantasy publisher would say “immediately” instead of “right away.” I saw myself receiving an award and me, modestly, accepting it. I saw myself teaching fifteen hours a week to workshops of fifteen students who wanted to learn to write, who chose to be in the class. Sometimes, I stared at the ceiling and said out loud, as if God needed things said out loud, “It’s not so much to ask.”

I wished I hadn’t got off on the wrong foot with Valdi’s daughter, Hulga or Ulga. I wasn’t sure of her name. When I’d mentioned Laxness, she’d reacted. That meant she knew who he was, she had heard stories about him. Maybe if, in a few days, I called her to apologize, to say I was sorry, that I had no idea the road would be so bad, maybe I could sneak out of her what she had heard about Laxness. I should not, I told myself, think of her as Valdi’s daughter but as a source.  Writers did absurd things to get information from their sources.  They flattered, they bribed, they eavesdropped, they manipulated. I cringed and blushed with embarrassment. I stared at the ceiling and thought about how badly I wanted to change jobs.

When I went to the nursing home, Valdi said, “Hell on Wheels.” His adventure had perked him up. He was using a walker. He’d refused to use a walker until now. It was, he said, the humiliation of being old. It was a step down from a cane, even from the wheelchair. He was making compromises, something he wasn’t good at, but when you want something badly enough, you made deals with the devil. He figured if he could use the walker, he could go back to the farm once the snow was gone. His walker needed to be taller so he didn’t have to bend over it.

“It’s got moveable feet,” I said. “Sit down.”

I turned the walker upside down. There were holes in the legs and pins that fitted into the holes. I pushed the pin in, moved the leg down as far as it would go, then did the same with the other three legs.  I gave him back the walker and he was able to stand up straight.

“Thanks,” he said. That made me suspicious. He had a hard time saying thanks. If I did something for him, it was usually acknowledged with a grunt.

“She thinks I’m sucking up to you so you’ll sign your property over to me. I’ll get your bank accounts. The whole shmear.”

“Not a chance,” he said. “You’ve got a job. Even if your wife ran you through the wringer, you’ve got a paycheck coming in every month. Work ten months and get paid for twelve.”

“The payment,” I said, “is for ten months work. We just agreed to spread it over twelve months because some people aren’t good at saving and come July and August, they have no money.”

“Nobody paid me when I didn’t work,” he said, then he veered back to his daughter. “I know Mary didn’t cheat on me so either the devil slipped into bed during the night or Ulga is  a throwback to some earlier ancestor.”

“I’m not trying to get your farm or your money. I teach school. I write. I’ve been asking you to help me with information. Do you want that information to die when you kick the bucket?”

I had him there. He’d heard that I was working on a book about the area and had contacted me. He was a Wickipedia of the Interlake, that vast area in Manitoba between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba. Much of it was marginal land. A lot was swamp that grew nothing but cattails. There were sections of good soil deposited by the glaciers as they melted. They also left behind stones, vast fields of stones that had to be picked up and moved to the side of a field so they wouldn’t dull or break a plough. The job was never ending. A field was cleared and the next winter, the frost would force up more stones so the whole job would have to be done again. Every farm had piles of stones, brought from who knows what distance. Every person who’d grown up in the area had stone boat stories, endless days of following a horse or a tractor pulling a wooden sled onto which they put stones. A lot of these stones, pink, white, grey, red, black, were boulders requiring two people to lift them. Lifting stones was like a hard-labour sentence for some unknown crime. As soon as they were old enough, most of the kids fled to the city.

Valdi had parceled out his information. He knew about families, about feuds, about scandals, about deals, about crimes, about triumphs, about love affairs. He hadn’t written it down. It was all in his large head  with its shaggy white hair. He knew about Laxness. He had the inside dope. I’d realized, after a time, that he was torn. On the one hand, he didn’t want to reveal any secrets but on the other hand he was afraid that he’d die and no one would ever  know the passion and the pain that had existed in these isolated places.

We were having coffee in the dining room. Coffee and cookies or cake were available all day long. A lot of the residents were Icelandic and Icelanders were notoriously addicted to their coffee. Coffee came to Iceland in 1703. It was as much part of their self-image as vinarterta. I’d brought a plate of cookies to the table, filled two cups, found a metal creamer with some cream left in it, and set it down in between us. In the hallway, some of the residents were bowling. An attendant had set up pins in the hallway and another was helping individuals to roll a ball down the hallway to knock down the pins. It was a good nursing home. The staff worked hard at keeping the residents entertained. They hugged them a lot.

“She said I mustn’t visit you,” I said. “She told the staff I’m not to bother you.”

“I’m still all here,” he said. “When I’m not, I want you to take me to the harbour and push me down a loading chute. Drowning’s not a bad way to go.” He was, I knew, more afraid of that, of becoming like many of the residents, no longer knowing where they were, or who they were. There was a woman in the home whom he’d admired for her writing. She’d been a historian. She walked up and down the halls holding onto a book she’d written. When he’d say hello to her, she’d say, “I’m carrying this book around but I don’t know why.” She was always cold and even in summer, she wore a red toque. No one ever came to see her. His large hand enclosed the coffee cup in front of him. He had a mug in his room that held two cups of coffee but we’d forgotten it. I thought he might tighten his hand and crush the cup. Instead, he took his hand away and picked up the cup between his thumb and index finger and raised his pinky in mock politeness. “You come whenever you want. She’s not my keeper.”

 

 

 

Robert Kristjanson

When we used to talk about “those tough old buggers” fishing on Lake Winnipeg, we were talking about my father’s generation. They were the kind of guys who fished before there were power augers. They chiseled holes through four feet of ice with a needle bar. And did it again and again as they cut holes for nets. They went out on Lake Winnipeg when it was -30 and no one had heard of wind chill. It was just bloody cold.

They pulled nets out of those holes with mittened hands and when the mittens froze solid, they went into their caboose, threw the mittens into a pan of hot water simmering on a tin stove, pulled them out and put them on and went back to taking fish out of the mesh. Tough, tough as they come.

They pulled nets, they set nets, they rode back to shore with boxes of fish frozen solid, let them warm up, then cleaned them, packed them, got them ready to ship. Somewhere in there, they ate breakfasts that would kill office workers, ate loaves of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pie, cake, anything with lots of calories, wolfed down supper and swirled down everything with pots of coffee. Some of them were legendary.

Today, it is easier and safer. Better equipment, warmer clothes. But it is neither safe, nor warm. They go out on thin ice to get that best first catch. Cracks open up. Blizzards appear from nowhere. Guts and brains. They have to have guts or they’d go find something else to do. Brains because without them, they’d lose limbs and lives.

One of the best known of those tough old buggers is Robert Kristjanson. He’s a bit of a showman, a good talker, a dedicated champion of Lake Winnipeg, a terrific fisherman. He got some recognition for all that lately. Here’s a copy from the Interlake Enterprise.

Robert T. Kristjanson still going strong at age 80

 

Written by Bill Buckels, Lake Winnipeg Commercial Fisher

By the time most people reach their 80s, they usually have long retired. But retiring seems to be the last thing on Gimli fisherman Robert Kristjanson’s mind as he prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday.

This past year on the lake hasn’t been much different than most other years for Robert T., (known as “Bobby” by his family and fellow commercial fishermen). After fishing on the ice all last winter, Robert T. (again) fished every day through both the spring and fall open water seasons still in his boat by himself.

As the fall fishing season reached its end this year, the weather turned bitter cold, and the snow storms started north of Hecla in the Kristjanson family’s fishing grounds. His son Chris and his grandsons Trevor and Devon had “pulled-up” the day before; Robert T. was the last to leave.

We had one clear day, so “Bobby” decided it was time for his whitefish boat (the Lady Roberta) to return to Gimli Harbour for the winter (he sleeps on the boat and not back in Gimli when fishing is on).
(read more by going on line to the Interlake Enterprise).

Islendingadagurinn 125

viking ship

Islendingadagurinn, The Icelandic Celebration, The Icelandic Festival, The Gimli Pickerel Party

There’s Christmas. There’s Easter. There’s Thanksgiving. However, none of those days, for those of us who grew up in Gimli, Manitoba, are as important as the first weekend in August. That’s when the holiday with the unpronounceable name, Islendingadagurinn happens. Part of the charm of this celebration has been its wickedly long Icelandic name. An Icelandic Celebration, an Icelandic Festival, a Gimli Pickerel Party don’t have the same cachet. I mean, how do you beat answering the question what are you doing on the long weekend with “I’m going to Islendingadagurinn.”?

This year is going to be the 125th anniversary of Islendingadagurinn. My great grandfather went to Islendingadagurinn, my grandfather went to Islendingadagurinn, my father went to Islendingadagurinn and I went to Islendingadagurinn. Not calling this celebration Islendingadagurinn is like sawing the horns off the Viking statue that stands on guard over Gimli. His helmet may not be authentic because of the horns but so what, no real Vikings landed on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in 1875. Our ancestors did. They were sheep farmers, fishermen, indentured servants, people driven out of Iceland by weather, politics and poverty. However, a statue of a sheep farmer doesn’t have the same impact as a Viking with a horned helmet. If the Viking had any sense of branding they’d have put horns on their helmets.

Gimli, when I grew up there in the 1940s and 1950s, was Icelandic to the core. Yes, there were other ethnic groups represented: Ukrainian, German, Polish, Aboriginal, Scots, English, Irish, the odd Dane but the town was Icelandic. They dominated the local politics. They dominated the business community. They were the social elite. Even small Manitoba towns have social elites. Icelandic was spoken in stores, in church, in homes. The Viking with horns hadn’t been built yet. He wasn’t yet needed to remind us of who we were.

In the 40s, Islendingadagurinn was mostly a family affair. It was mostly about those local people who had moved away, coming back to touch base with coffee and kleiner and vinarterta. And mom and dad and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins. People of Icelandic descent are big on family relationships. They can drink four pots of coffee while discussing how they’re all related to everyone else at the kitchen table.

Islendingadagurinn grew. People used to come down on the train, then cars became more available and people drove from near and far. Like from Winnipeg and Brandon and even Edmonton and Calgary. They came from other small communities in Manitoba’s Interlake. The parade which, at first, was some cars decorated with colored ribbon and signs announcing local politicians as passengers added the Shriners. The Shriners brought color, music, entertainment, turned the parade into a spectacle worthy of a city instead of a small Manitoba town. That, in turn, attracted bigger and better floats. The parade now is an event not to be missed.

As more people came to share in the Icelandic experience, more events needed to be created for them. The visitors were no longer just relatives enjoying a visit and a beer. There were the usual races, the speeches by the Fjallkona (the queen of the mountain), by distinguished visitors from Iceland but when people pour into town by the thousands, you’ve got to find something for them to do. That meant beer gardens, fish filleting competitions, knocking each other off poles over the water in the harbour, making sand castles, hosting a Viking village (I love the Viking village), creating a heritage display and sale at the local park, having pancake breakfasts, supplying Icelandic dainties. It all takes hundreds of volunteers. Volunteers work all year long to put on a four day festival. If they get any reward at all, it might be having lunch en mass with some Icelandic dignitary.

Along with the volunteers, local businesses pony up money to pay for musical concerts. They often pony up a lot of money because the concerts are by top notch professionals.

It’s ironic, in a way, that the year of Islendingadagurinn’s 125 anniversary, there is a problem with financing. I guess there’s always been a problem because there’s no way of charging all those thousands of people who come to have an Icelandic experience. Here, on Vancouver Island, we have the Saanichton Fair. It’s a knockout agricultural fair. However, it takes place in the country on fenced in grounds. You pay at the gate for the day or for the weekend. No one minds. We all line up and push our money through the ticket seller’s window and get our hand stamped. We all know that events have to be financed.

To me, although I left Gimli in 1957 to go to university and have lived away ever since, coming back in the summers, Islendingadagurinn is Gimli. It’s Gimli’s heart. It’s Gimli’s identity. But it is more than that, otherwise, it would just be a small town festival. It’s at the heart of the Icelandic North American community. It’s a public expression of who we are.

I write from half a continent away at a time when the Gimli park is deep in snow, the temperature hovers around -35, the choice of Gimli as a place to create New Iceland, is highly questionable, but the snow will melt, the air will warm, summer will come.

Many of us will travel great distances to participate in Islendingadagurinn, even though it may be called something else. For those of us raised in Gimli, the celebration will always be Islendingadagurinn. The Icelandic flags and the Fjallkona in her robes representing the Icelandic landscape will always be with us.

It has taken tremendous dedication and hard work to preserve this celebration of our history and culture for 125 years. I hope that those who have taken on the task today find a way to finance Islendingadagurinn for another 125.

The Roads Home

SONY DSC
There is no road in the world more important than the road home.

When I was young, I spent a lot of time in Winnipeg with my grandparents but I always knew that the day would come when my grandmother would take me to the bus station and put me on the bus. The bus would back out of its stall and there’d be the smell of exhaust and the soft, bristle feel of the blue bus seats.

In those days, WWII was still on or just finished and a military mentally had, over six years of war, seeped into every aspect of our lives. Bus drivers were like Sergeant Majors, making everyone line up in January cold outside the bus, taking our tickets at the bus door, letting us onto the bus one at a time. It didn’t matter how cold it was, how hard the wind blew, how little a kid was or how many kids a woman had with her.

Few people had cars in those days and we were packed into bus. Sometimes, the driver had to set up camp stools in the centre aisle.

I always tried to get a window seat. I sat there, my nose pressed to the cold glass, my breath frosting the glass, taking pictures in my head, memorizing the landmarks of the road home so that if, some day, I had to return home on my own, I’d know the way. In winter, the ride was scary, the bus wheels crunched over frozen ice and snow, the streets of Winnipeg were piled high with ploughed snow, even in early afternoon, the sky was dark, clouds pressed down, snow drifted before the wind.

We stopped, from time to time, to pick up passengers who were huddled against anything that would shelter them from the wind. The door would open with a whoosh, people would stamp their feet on the steps to break off the clinging snow, the driver would have gone outside so he could put their suitcases and boxes into the luggage compartment under the bus, then he’d get on and the door would swing shut with another great whoosh, the motor would rev up and we’d pull away from the curb.

There were city lights, house lights, commercial building windows, but then as we reached the edge of the city, we plunged into darkness. The snow drifted more heavily, the houses were further and further apart, the graveyards were filled with drifts with only the tops of the monuments showing, fences were barely visible, houses appeared in window lit clusters, the houses of strangers who might or might not, if you knocked on their door needing help, open them.

The road to Selkirk led through Lockport, a marker past, then Selkirk itself with its looming brick mental hospital. From there the farmer’s fields, the uncultivated forest, were swept by wind, covered by a frozen sea of drifting snow. The trees stood up like iron. We turned away from the highway to places like Dunnotor, stopping to let people off at Ponemah, Winnipeg Beach. Cold had shrunk the houses, snow had buried them. People took their suitcases and boxes and disappeared into the darkness over roads whose sides were piled high with ploughed snow.

Home was closer now. If anything terrible happened, if the bus broke down, if I got off at the wrong place, I was closer to home. It would be easier to find my way. We stopped at crossroads where people climbed down and disappeared. Seats now were empty. There was the sign for the Lutheran summer camp, then the sweep of marsh and beyond it, Lake Winnipeg. Then there was the hospital and the turn onto Centre, the wheels squealing on the dry snow and there, my head bobbing, my eyes searching, was my mother large in her winter coat, waiting.

I had to hold onto the safety bar climbing down the steps and had to jump from the last one onto the packed snow. “How was the trip?” she always asked. “Fine,” I always said but there, behind my eyes, was every landmark that would lead me home, just in case.

I traveled that road from Gimli to Winnipeg endless, countless times and when I turned sixteen and got a summer job in Winnipeg, on weekends, lonely in a city where I had no friends, I took the bus to the city’s edge and put out my thumb. I rode in cars, in trucks, in the back of trucks, on motorcycles, each ride taking me past landmarks I knew by heart. Sometimes two rides did the trick but other times, it might be six and
I might walk for long stretches as the sun fell toward the west.

In later years, I traveled new roads home, from Riverton, Snow Lake, Pinawa, and then, in a crazy grab at a dream, graduate school in Iowa and back, along Highway 75, roads through hills covered in corn as far as the eye could see, down into Minnesota, around Minneapolis, through a landscape full of silos, through small towns with church spires, past houses that seemed they should be on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Down to a border with rituals I had not known and through a southwestern Manitoba I’d only heard of in school lessons.

And then, and then, the impossibility of four years in southern Missouri, its magnolia, redbud, persimmon blooms, its soft accents and watermelon fields and each year when the nights remained stifling hot, we went north, north to home, away from cherry coke and pecan pie, toward a remembered dream. We watched the landscape go by, sorgum fields, the pecan groves, the small farms of intricate, decaying houses, and then through Iowa again, hills and corn, and the lakes and forests of Minnesota. We knew when we arrived in Winnipeg and I began to count the landmarks of my childhood that our trip was nearly done. And, once again, we watched intently, calling out the markers that led us home and turned finally into Gimli and stopped in front of my parents’ home first for we knew there people were waiting, watching out the window for when we would appear. My mother first, scooping up the grandkids, hugging all of us and my father, trailing right behind.

We finally settled in Victoria, not planned, a five minute phone call, a loaded trailer, crossing through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Washington State, a road never to be traveled again, and now the road home was stretched, the sixty miles from Winnipeg to Gimli, turned into two hundred times that, every year the ferry across the ocean, over the Rockies, through Banff, the slow progress through the centre of Calgary, the big sky, the rolling hills, sometimes the antelope, Medicine Hat, Swift Current, Moosejaw, Brandon, always pointing home. I know these markers now as well as I did the ones of childhood from Winnipeg to Gimli. After thirty-eight years of driving home from the great West Coast and driving back, I need no map.

What is home? Nowadays, no one waits to greet me as I arrive. My parents rest with my brother and grandparents in the graveyard north of town. No hugs or news. No pot of tea upon the kitchen table, butter tarts or vinarterta. In the house where I grew up someone else lives now. Many of my high school classmates have spread across the world or died. Home, I think, is a place, a history, a familiarity, but most of all, people, open doors, intense interest in each other’s lives, happiness in reconnecting, perhaps the life we shared when life was at its most intense. Perhaps it’s just a habit for some of us, this coming home from distant places but in Islendingadagurinn, in the Gimli Park, at the foot of the Viking statue, on the dock, along the beach, eating fresh pickerel fillets, visiting those who have stayed, or returned to live, or to visit, I find evidence of that thing called home.

The Moveable Feast

cnristmas

After I was born, my father and mother and I took the bus to Winnipeg every December for Christmas. Then, when I was four, my brother joined us and the four of us made this perilous journey. We went to my mother’s parents’ house. At first we took the street car down Osborne then struggled through the snow along Walker to the small bungalow with the glassed in front porch. They sold that house and, briefly, bought a brick house on Stafford. My grandparents stayed there for only a couple of years while they had a house built a short distance away on Fleet.

We came with a few gifts, never anything extravagant, and under the Christmas tree with its bright lights and brightly colored decorations, there were gifts for us. Usually, hand knitted sweaters, vests, for my grandmother was a talented knitter and seamstress, maybe toy for each of us. One Christmas when we made this journey over the frozen countryside, the Winnipeg weather was bitterly cold with a sharp wind. We had to stand in the open waiting for a streetcar and nothing my parents did could keep us warm. My father and mother held us close, tried to protect us from the wind but our hands and feet became so cold, we cried. When we got to our stop, we still had a distance to go over sidewalks piled high with drifts.

My mother said to her parents, we can’t do this again with two little kids. You’ve got to come to Gimli. And, dutiful parents that they were, they gave up the tradition of Christmas dinner at their home.

Christmas to us, was more about people than it was about gifts. Like all children we enjoyed getting gifts but it was the decorating of the house, the smell of the prepatory baking, the cookies and cakes and pies, and then, on Christmas Eve, my grandparents arriving on the bus. My brother and I were glued to the window, kneeling on the couch, looking into the darkness for our grandfather in his wool overcoat and my grandmother in her Persian lamb. “They’re here. They’re here,” we’d announce and rush to the door. There is no feeling so great as the arrival of someone whom you know loves you and whom you love in return.

On Christmas day there would be all the preparations. Sometimes, other relatives would also have arrived on Christmas Eve and since we lived in a very small house with three tiny bedrooms, we gave over the bedrooms to the adults and thought it a great adventure to be able to sleep on the living room floor.

The transition to Christmas at my parents’ house went smoothly, although, I expect that it wasn’t without some regret that my grandmother no longer set her table and planned the most important meal of the year.

In their final years, my grandparents moved in with my parents. During those years, I had moved away, taking jobs, going to graduate school so Christmas was too far away for winter travel. Eventually, I got a job in Victoria, British Columbia and, once again, Christmas shifted, now with my parents coming to Victoria, with my sister in law and her children joining us, with neighbours from next door filling out our table. My nephew moved to Victoria and my niece moved Abbotsford and, when she retired, my sister-in-law moved to Victoria. My parents came for twenty-six Christmases.

During those years, it was my turn to host our Christmas Eve of gift giving and to have Christmas dinner. But then that changed as marriages took place, family members had to divide their time between our Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner and those of their spouses. Times have changed again. My children have children. I’m in my seventies, just as my grandparents were and just as my parents were when our Christmases changed location. Christmas now is at my daughter’s house. She and her husband make the Christmas meal, set out the table, greet us at the door. My son and his wife and two children come from Bellingham to join us.

Four generations of Christmas, in Winnipeg, Gimli, Victoria and Victoria again, four homes. We suffer from the modern disease, move-itis, not out of frivolity but because modern life demands we move to where we can find work. I found work at the University of Victoria. My children came with me. My niece and nephew and sister-in-law followed.

I would have preferred to have stayed in the town where I grew up but there were few jobs there. All across Canada, young people were faced with a similar situation. Leave because there are so few jobs, get an education, then find you can’t return home because the jobs you are qualified for don’t exist in the town from which you came.

In 1957 I did not want to be a barber and fisherman like my father, I didn’t want to work in the fish processing plant. The airport that had provided so many jobs was beginning a long decline. Graduate school led me to Iowa, then Missouri and, finally, Victoria. I was one of the tens of thousands of the working class who were getting an education and moving away from rural Manitoba. We got good salaries, benefits, working conditions, interesting work but, at most, we could return home for our summer vacation. Christmas (and Thanksgiving and Easter and New Years) would be in a distant place.

We celebrated with neighbours, with John and Joan and Tina Economides in Iowa, with Al and Connie Fenske and their sons in Missouri, with our next door neighbours, the Kendricks, and their three daughters in Victoria and reveled in the connection of the Kendricks to our family, for Graham had worked with and knew my favorite uncle in the air force and Graham’s wife, Betty, came from Manitoba. We take what pleasures we can from circumstance. Gene and Agnes Kline and their family became part of our celebrations. Wherever we went we gathered around us people with whom it was a pleasure to share Christmas.

In Victoria, I had that most important of all things, a good job. Even an excellent job. In a good place because Victoria is regarded as the garden capital of Canada and the first flowers bloom in my garden in January.

However, there is a cost to the opportunity created by urban life, by the massive migration to cities and the abandoning of rural Canada. In the Globe and Mail, Elizabeth Renzetti says “Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability to health problems, and even to suicide.”

When I grew up, I was surrounded by relatives, uncles and aunts, cousins of every description. They gave us a rich life. Loneliness hardly existed. No one sat alone at Christmas. The problem, if it was a problem, was how to fit everyone at the table, in the bedrooms, in our lives. My father visited relatives every Sunday, stopping briefly at the homes of his aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, all contained within one small town.

However, we are now scattered like seeds on a winter wind. Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, the United States, distant foreign countries.
Now, with Christmas approaching, I rake the stiff, bronze leaves of the Garry Oaks. There is no winter here to speak of. In the mornings, there is sometimes a hard frost that is gone by early afternoon. The rhododendrons stay green all winter but as Christmas approaches, I my thoughts turn to Gimli, to the gravel road that runs north from town, a fragment of the original pioneer road on which my great grandparents traveled in the late 1800s. The ruts will be frozen solid, immovable until those early spring thaws. As I walk along it, snow will be drifting through the poplar bush, across the road, and I’ll hold out my tongue to catch a few flakes. The clouds will be grey, low hanging and the light will be weak. I’ll walk past snow covered hay bales, past old farm equipment, houses with lit windows even though it is still day. I’ll walk as far as the graveyard and climb over the chain link fence, pick my way through the headstones until I find my grandparents’ graves, my parents’, my brothers’. There they lie together in frozen ground. I’ll stand there in the fading light and think about those many Christmases, the laughter, the conversation, the warmth, the friendships, the love, my grandmother bending down to kiss me Merry Christmas, my grandfather picking me up so he could hold me tight. The memories will warm me in the fading light.

Randy Bachman on Salt Spring

bachman
This is what success can look like.

The skies are covered in cloud. There’s a light rain. It’s the kind of day to stay home on Salt Spring Island and read a book in front of the wood stove. Instead, we’re traveling through the grey afternoon light, through the tunnel of fir trees and arbutus, past the roadside stands that have signs saying free range eggs for sale, some late season flowers in an odd assortment of jars, past trucks loaded with firewood and marked with a scrawled price on a piece of cardboard. A lot of the trees are bare.

The road is slick, has curves in it sharp enough that they need signs to warn people to slow down. By the time we reach the Fulford Hall, the light has disappeared. We thought we were early but the parking lot is full. Cars are parked along the road. We slow to a crawl because people are appearing from behind cars and sauntering across the road.

Inside the hall, we turn in our tickets, get our hands stamped with red ink. I stop to look at a guitar that is being auctioned off. It has been signed by Randy Bachman. There is a bowl of suckers for sale for a dollar apiece. They’ve very cleverly been named Lalipops instead of Lollipops. The play on words is because the evening is a benefit being put on to raise funds for Lali Formaggia, who was seriously injured in a plane crash. She was returning from a backpacking trip when the plane she was on struck a tree shortly after taking off. She survived but had a broken arm and third degree burns on her legs. Randy Bachman has generously agreed to do a one man two hour show similar to his Vinyl Café gig on the CBC. Forty-five friends of Lali have pitched in and volunteered to organize and promote the evening.

Outside the Fulford Hall there is a sign with black letters that advertise the event. Friday night and Saturday night. This is Saturday night and during a break between the two sets, we hear that we are lucky we came tonight. The Friday night crowd wasn’t as lively. This crowd is high energy. People are pouring in the door, their voices up half an octave with excitement, smiling is endemic. Waiting for the concert to begin, people are standing rather than sitting, there is a roar of conversation, people are flowing into and out of the kitchen area with pie and muffins.

A woman climbs on stage. The crowd sits down. She makes a few general comments about the show and introduces the special guest of the evening, Lali Formaggia. Lali has a strong accent, long blond hair and tells us about the plane crashing, her trying to crawl free, her legs being on fire and calling for help. Someone called John came to her rescue and pulled her away from the plane. She was two months in hospital and hasn’t been able to work and won’t be able to work for some time.

Randy Bachman comes in and the room is electric with anticipation and admiration. He has had a house on Salt Spring for a long time now. It’s made of rammed earth, cost millions to build and I know about it not because he is just down the road from JO’s place but because I saw it on a David Suzuki show. Rumour has it that his place is for sale but during the show, he said that he’ll be in Toronto for another year and a half and then he’ll be back in his garden on Salt Spring. You could feel a sense of relief. His being here makes people feel good.

There are people who are natural story tellers, who know how to engage an audience, who know where the emotional content of their narrative lies. Bachman has had a lifetime of learning to be the best of Canada’s story tellers. His stories about growing up in Winnipeg, playing locally, making repeated efforts to gain an audience, the crazy events that happen, the results of which are unplanned and unpredictable, touch an audience because they’re stories everyone can relate to. Yes, he may be more talented than any individual audience member, but he’s been subject to the crazy whims of fate and the vagaries of luck and circumstance. Like all of us in our own way. What isn’t in the stories is how he became a successful businessman in spite of being in a tough business where lying and deceit are the norm, where nearly everyone is out for himself and there is nothing bigger than the egos of the participants and yet has managed to keep a reputation for integrity. Somehow, through all the years of dealing with bar owners, concert promoters, producers, technicians, audiences, he’s managed to keep something of that enthusiastic beginner on the way to becoming The Guess Who and BTO (Bachman Turner Overdrive).

The audience is older. The average age is probably around sixty. There’s a lot of white hair and bald domes. There are some younger people and people with young children but the tickets are 55.00. It would be pretty steep for twenty somethings with two kids.

The audience is hungry to hear the stories about the songs they danced to when they were young. It is a night of entertainment and revelation. People are swept along as Bachman explains that he and the other band members had green cards that allowed them to work in the USA but that when they were going to Texas to play they were warned to turn around because those green cards also meant they could be drafted. That event resulted in the song American Woman and when Bachman explained that the song sold millions before radio stations figured out it was an anti-war song and that the American Woman wasn’t a rejected lover but the Statue of Liberty, that grey haired audience laughed with delight for they’d been around for the Vietnam War. No one had to give them a history lesson. They’d been there.

During the break between the two sets, a fellow got up and made the point of telling us that no money was being skimmed. That every cent collected would go to Lali. Then there were the draws for signed Randy Bachman posters. When we first arrived, after I’d found a seat, I’d gone back to buy three tickets on the guitar and the posters. Didn’t win so as we were leaving JO bought a poster for twenty dollars. Because she grew up in Winnipeg, Bachman has a musical place in the teenage heart of her youth.

The audience did a great ooohhhmmmm for a friend of Lali’s who spoke for a couple of minutes and thanked Bachman. It was a supreme Salt Spring moment. When the audience was asked to help out with a couple of songs, it did so with enthusiasm.

At the end, the audience stood up to applaud. That has become a meaningless, annoying habit Canadian audiences have got into. However, on this night, it was well deserved.

On the way back over the winding road, I smiled a lot. It had been a memorable night. I now knew the surprising impulse that replaced “white collar worker” with “taking care of business”. I knew about the pizza deliveryman who looked like Fidel Castro who went on to become a brilliantly successful musician. I woke up smiling the next morning. In spite of the clouds and the rain.

I’d watched a community come out to support one of its own who needed help. I’d watched a famous person who doesn’t need to help anyone, help someone who needed help. I saw some of the forty-five volunteers and the audience members who bought tickets, Lali pops and posters, who came together for a good cause. It used to be called being a community.

After my grandmother died at age thirty-two, my grandfather was bankrupt. My grandmother had been ill and needed private nursing for four years. All his savings had gone for housekeepers and nurses. He was a carpenter and, in the winter, he went fishing on Lake Winnipeg. They had four children. The community in Gimli, Manitoba, gathered together and held a fund raiser for him. Those are the community values we sometimes talk about with nostalgia. However, I felt as I sat in the audience listening to Randy Bachman, that there are places where those community values still exist.

The Persimmon Tree

persimmon
Interesting idea, culture.

We defend it, promote it, sometimes have riots over it, pass laws about, even go to war over it.

Our culture is, of course, superior to everyone else’s. Even though, in truth, most ethnic groups that have been in Canada any length of time usually know very little about the culture of the country they came from, often don’t speak the language except for a few pet words, know no more of their history than what they see in movies or see in travel brochures. That’s not to criticize anyone. It’s a normal process to become like the culture of the country in which you live. The past is past. And memories of the past are often not even accurate.

When I lived in Southern Missouri for four years, I lived in a world that had little connection to Gimli, Manitoba or Winnipeg or even Manitoba. It was for me and my family an exotic place filled with both pleasures and dangers.

There was no vinarterta but there were pecan pies. The pecans were grown locally and the pie makers usually shelled their own nuts.Pecans and pecan trees and pecan tree rustling were a big part of local lore.

We had watermelon picnics. Big watermelons. Huge watermelons. One cent a pound if I remember correctly. We stopped one afternoon at a zinc lined tank that held water, ice and watermelons and bought a watermelon that was sixty pounds. In Manitoba, my mother bought pieces of watermelon and divided it up amongst us. With sixty pounds of watermelon and four people there was no need to skimp and since the temperature was over a hundred and the humidity so high it felt like we were breathing water and sweat ran down our legs into our sandals, when we got home we dug right in. We knew it would be sweet because the farmer in overalls and a wide brimmed hat had a little device he had plunged into the watermelon and taken out a plug so we could taste it. No chance of getting a watermelon that tasted like a cucumber.

We were invited to parties where we all took turns cranking the handle to make home-made ice cream to eat with a variety of home baked cakes.

We arrived one hot, humid evening, having pulled a trailer all the way from Winnipeg. It took us three days and two nights and we were so tired we just threw blankets on the floor of our rented house and fell asleep.

We woke to the sound of a Manitoba blizzard racing through the hydro wires and the knocking of a lady neighbour with a apple pie she had made for us. Turned out there was no wind, it was as hot and humid as ever, with the heavy sweet smell of Rose of Sharon that grew as a hedge along the back lane. The intense humming were cicadas, millions of them in the grass, in the trees, hard bodied insects, the males of which were “singing” to attract a mate.

Mrs. Berry, she who brought us a pie, gave me a piece of local culture, immediately. She said that the caragana hedge that ran along the sidewalk needed to be cleaned out. The house had been empty for a number of months and paper and plastic and leaves had been caught at ground level. I’ll do that as soon as I can, I said and she replied, not with your hands, which was exactly what I would have done. Use a rake or a long stick. Rattle snakes like to lie in places like that. She also added that when we got up in the morning, I was to check that there were no snakes on the patio before I let the children out onto it. And to keep the screen door shut. Otherwise, we might have an unwelcome visitor. Snake lore. Sort of like knowing not to leave food on the picnic table at the fish camp on Lake Winnipeg. Otherwise, you might have a large, black unwelcome visitor. Lake Winnipeg bear lore.

We’d had to find Missouri on a map. We didn’t know anything about its history. Had to learn from the locals that it had been a border state in the civil war, that the city had been burned to the ground by union soldiers enraged by bushwhackers ambushing some of their compatriots. We had to learn that every family in town knew what side their great grandparents had supported, South or North.

We had to learn that even though it was the 1970s, this was a sundowner city. What’s that? I asked. “Blacks are okay in city limits during the day. Not after sundown,“ I was told. I was shocked but then I thought about how native people in Manitoba have often been treated.

There were small things. The most popular drink was Cherry Coke. I’d never heard of it. And I couldn’t ask for potato chips if I wanted French fries.

Although it sounds like stereotyping, there were dogs, coons, guns and mules. And coal towns where miners and their families lived until strip mining ripped out all the coal and left great gaping gashes in the land. Then, with no work, people moved and since most of the buildings were made of brick, the buildings sat in the Missouri heat until at least one town we regularly visited was bought by a single person who turned it into a furniture shopping mecca.

In the Icelandic Canadian community of Manitoba, poverty and the role of the fishing industry, the large American companies who exploited the fishermen, are all part of our culture. In Missouri it was the companies who came to strip away the coal, then leave wreckage behind.

There were, we found, talented musical instrument makers, local musicians and just as we often read and write about Riverton and the various groups who began there, there was local music.

There were revival meeting, especially in the spring. Hellfire and damnation preachers scaring the not-so-wicked into repenting and becoming reborn—at least for a few weeks.

There were the slow drawls and women in the local stores calling me “Honey”. There were wild persimmon trees. That’s what caused me to write this reminiscence. In Manitoba we searched out wild plums, raspberries, wild strawberries whose smell was the sweetest smell of summer, saskatoons and chokecherries.
persimmon tree Japan

In Missouri in the fall heat we saw trees covered in fruit that looked like small yellow tomatoes and when we asked were told these were persimmon trees. We did not know what to do with them so we left them on the trees. I regret not having asked because persimmons are eaten raw, are also cooked and used in baking. They are part of the local cooking and history and culture.

Today, these many years later, I ate a persimmon I’d bought at the local Chinese store. It was sweet, delicious and it made me think about my four years in a culture I loved but barely got to know. I canoed on one of the Ozark rivers, I taught for free in the basement of a bar in Kansas City, Mo., I saw a water moccasin on the road, I ate more pecan pie than is good for anyone’s blood sugar, I learned to shoot a pistol (badly) and I traveled through the night to a barn in the middle of nowhere to eat the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Most of these are small things. They are only connected by place. But that is the way culture is. It is a way of life much of which is governed by the landscape, by local resources, by history. It contains with it the good and the bad created by time and circumstance. The locals live it from the day they are born and they know a thousand thousand things. Those of us who come to it later never fully know the complexities of local culture but we can still be intrigued, interested, and do our best to understand.