3: “I’ll just go back fishing in Hecla”

As I was writing Vikings on a Prairie Ocean, several pieces that I had written as fictionalized accounts based on historical facts did not find their way into the final manuscript and I now publish them on this web site as a mini-series sequel.

David Tomasson was a special man. It is often said that the window into a person is through their eyes; David’s heart and soul spoke through his voice, and face. He spoke the Hecla magic with its own special style – with a directness, an openness, an honesty- delivered in an unforgettable energetic rhythmic lilt.

I last saw him this fall at Brian and Lyla Thorarinson’s 50th wedding anniversary. He had been in an epic battle with cancer for what had then become years. As he struggled to reach the podium, it was clear this was a battle he was soon to lose, and shortly into the New Year, the end came. But with the mike in his hand, he was the same charismatic David drawing you inside his magnetic personality with unforgettable wit and wisdom.

With the studied timing of the great raconteur that he was, he looked about the room intensely, and then straight at Brian.” Brian is a courageous man…to give me a microphone at a time like this. But I am up here now, and there’s not much he can do. Isn’t that right Brian”… a grin then exploded from his face, and then that infectious rolling laugh. A menacing glare came next. Brian’s face whitened, and from some distance, knowing Brian as well as I do since boyhood I could hear him thinking out loud “what the hell is he going to say now!” Then with a flourish, and a somber look,” but Lyla is here with him, today, so maybe, just maybe I should ease off a little.” Hahhhhh….. Brian! “And the big grin returned, the blood came back into Brian’s face , and after some soft jabs about a lifetime as Brian’s “moving man” went onto deliver a moving tribute in only the way David could for his precious lifelong friends.

When we later spoke, he began as he always did…. “Glenn it’s DAMN good to see you here. And you were ABLE to make that Riverton Lions Reunion last night. I hear there was a big crowd. But what’s up with YOU? Tell me everything that’s new” . Seeing David was always like having a blanket of warmth and energy thrown over you . Countless times I meant to call David after that last visit. My great regret was that I did not, but I can share this little piece I wrote a few years ago after a visit I made to his home in Hecla the year after he first became ill.

As I approached David’s place, I could see three or four guys sitting around in the front yard having a visit and a beer. It was a nice sunny day, and that seemed like a reasonable thing to be doing. I called ahead: “Good to see you, David.”

“Well Jeeeeezez, is this Glenn? Is it ever good to see you!” David boomed out. “How are things going for you Glenn?”

“Everything’s good, David. Solving problems where I can, and creating them when I can’t find anything to solve. More importantly, how are you? I hear that you’ve been having a rough time.”

“Well, yeah, it’s been quite a time here with the doctors, but I’m good now. I should be around for a long time yet, they tell me. This damn cancer though got into my kidney. I knew there was something going on with all the bleeding but they didn’t think there was much to it until I put my foot down and told them these clots could not possibly be normal,” David explained.

“No that sure doesn’t sound like any picnic,” I came back, still trying to absorb the seriousness of what David was describing.

“Anyway, they finally got to the bottom of it and operated. It hadn’t spread out of the kidney, so I’m a lucky man. That was a month ago. I’m feeling good, all healed up now. They’ve given me a clean bill of health, and I’m feeling better every day. So that’s that,” he said matter of factly, but I sensed the relief in him and that a few weeks earlier things might not have sounded quite the same. He had lost a lot of weight.

“Open Glenn a beer, for God’s sakes, boys,” David commanded, and I knew there would be no choice on that, not that it was difficult to persuade me.

His dear friend Craig Jones went into the house to get me the beer. As he handed it over it was impossible not to think of Craig’s father, Binnie, and his Uncle Harold, first cousins of my Mom, who along with Manni Jonasson drowned late one fall crossing the narrows from the mainland to the island. Within a decade a causeway provided a land bridge over which they could have crossed safely, but back in those days it was a ferry. At break-up and freeze-up travelers to and from the island were left to their own devices, which in this case involved pushing a yawl over the treacherous snow covered ice.

Their loss was a deep and terrible blow to the spirit and people of Hecla, struggling to survive on an ever more difficult fishery in the 50s and watching the island’s population diminish. More and more would leave over the next decade, ending in the expropriation of most of the privately held properties to make way for a provincial park. The expropriation proved to be a messy affair and hurt feelings persisted for years. Thirty years later the wisdom of this decision would be revisited, and to breathe life back into the park the descendants of the Hecla families have been allowed to reacquire property on the island. So Hecla is remerging in a different way, and in a different time, but on that open shoreline looking out into Lake Winnipeg, David and Craig keep the old ways alive.

David was living on the homestead that had been in the family since his great great grandfather Helgi arrived in Hecla together in the fall of 1876. Much later I would learn that my great great grandfather Sigurdur Erlendson and Helgi had become friends on the journey from Iceland, and they had rowed to the island in late October together to plant their roots in a new land. Within days a deep snow covered the land with starvation and smallpox breathing down their necks. Their story is one of remarkable resilience.

My connections with David had been more through my mother’s side of the family, and its deep connection to Hecla. David’s father had fought the expropriation of the land with everything in him, spending years in court. When he turned 75, the statute forbade the government from evicting him, so his father, always referred to as Helgi G. and his mother Helga could not be forced to leave the island, and the homestead remains today as it was since the beginning.

David was like a library of memories for me. Not only were our families interconnected over many generations, our careers had taken us to the same place, wearing very different shoes, but always finding ways to walk together. That included as successor “Kings of the Flee” market at the Icelandic Festival, a job I persuaded him to take over upon my “elevation to other roles. Preying upon the “Hecla obligation to make a contribution” the mighty Deputy Minister agreed to assume my crown which he wore with great majesty for several years. David had solid credentials and a big career. But to the end, at his core he was a son of Lake Winnipeg until his last day.

“Do you miss running the government?” I asked David.

“Not really, but you know, if they needed me back there, I could still teach those guys a thing or two.”

“Are you doing honest work out here at Hecla or are you just a tourist?” I asked playfully. He answered seriously.

“No, no, I always went out with Dad to lift the odd net, just to keep my hand in it you know. The other Deputies would always ask me what I would do when I left the legislature, and I told them “I’ll just go back fishing in Hecla. “

His expression turned somber. “Glenn, that was a bugger with Grimsi. He was a hell of a man. You guys spoke so nicely about him, you and Eric at the funeral. We’ll all miss him.” David spoke in such a kind way there was no doubt he was feeling the loss of Grimsi, my uncle like I was.

“You know, Glenn, I had a wonderful visit with him before he died. I felt so good about that. I was on my way to Arborg one morning, and thought I’d stop by the house in Riverton and invite him to come along. You know, we could have lunch together and some good company. So I went to the house and said, ‘Grimsi, I’m on my way to Arborg. Can you come with me for lunch and a visit?’”

“That sounds real good,” I injected. “I’m glad you were able to do that, David..”

“We had a good day. But you know Grimsi. ‘Well, David,’ he said to me, ‘I’m pretty busy these days.’ He said he didn’t know if he’d have the time to do that. “How could you be so busy, Grimsi?” I asked him. ‘What are you doing?’ I knew he’d been sick so I figured he was taking it pretty easy. The boys were dropping in on him from time to time to check up, so I had heard all about how he was coming along,” David explained.

“Grimsi was not an easy man to persuade,” I chipped in.

“Well that’s for sure. But I pushed on. ‘You couldn’t be that busy, could you Grimsi?’ ‘Well, you know there’s always something coming up,’ he told me. ‘Grimsi, you better just get your parka and come with me. We haven’t had a good visit for some time. You can get this done later. You’ll have lots of time when we get back. It’s only eleven. We’ll be back by two at the latest.’ Finally, Grimsi relented. ‘Well, okay David, I guess I can make some time and go over to Arborg with you.” And then his face lit up and he started up with that infectious rolling laugh.

I thought back to the hundreds of similar conversations I had with Grimsi over the years. He was one of the world’s great unsung heroes, the most decent of men, on a dragline building roads in the summer through swamps and a bombardier fishing on the ice every winter, but oh, he could be stubborn! Hearing David’s story brought Grimsi back to life just as if he were sitting there with us. I so appreciated the story, and the way he told it, that it will live for me not only as an enduring memory of Grimsi, but also of David’s remarkable ability to tell a story.

So it was with David. When he was the most senior Deputy Minister in the Manitoba Government, a position he occupied for almost ten years, I knew from other Deputy Ministers that he had made it well known that when they didn’t “want him around any longer” he would go back fishing. They laughed when they told me, but behind it I knew there was an unexpressed admiration for the man, and the consistency of who and what he was. And I knew that is exactly what would happen, and it did as he said it would. Lake Winnipeg never leaves your blood. In front of him was the Hecla dock, and it was from there he left to lift his nets every day he was on the lake, like he’d done so many years of his life with his dad. And close in to shore, those were the same waters where Sigurdur and Stefan had managed to get a net set through the ice that first cold January, that net that brought them a few whitefish that enabled them to survive that first winter in the old shack with the wind howling through and the smoke smothering them.

Binnie Sirgeirgeson, yet another of my Mom Sylvia’s cousins, left us a couple of years ago. Good friends but several years senior to David, Binnie had spent his life on Hecla as a fisherman. In his last decades he was the great host to visitors to the island, ushering them to the historical museum that he and Mom had worked so hard together to create, and his own museum of fishing artifacts, he educated and entertained with that Hecl’inger charm. David was the natural inheritor of the role, but that future was cut short. No doubt Craig has fallen under the influence of David and Binnie in the last years and is well groomed as the successor!

With David’s voice silenced an era has ended.To me, he will always stand in my memory as the last original son of Hecla.

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