The Silent Bonds of War: Stefan Sigurdson and Dori Benjaminson

Let there be no doubt. If you were on a tug on the North Basin, in the heavy seas of a ripping Norwester, with a motor in trouble, you’d want Dori Benjaminson with you. Dori spent most of his time in his mechanic shop beside the small store on Sigurdson Island at Berens River, in the summer, or Catfish Creek in the fall, working to get the outboard motors going again. He’d go in every day to give Dad the list of parts for the next day’s call. Or, just as often, he’d march into the office scowling and grumbling about the young native guys taking the covers off the outboard motors, which exposed the motors to water in a blow and triggered mechanical failures. They couldn’t hot-rod up a car, so they wanted to soup up their outboards. Dori spotted them like a hawk as they roared past the island on their way to the fishing grounds.

Catfish Creek in the late fall in the 1950’s -Catfish Creek 1979, a picture taken by a famous photographer wildlife photographer, my great  friend, the late Robert Taylor  

Catfish Creek in the late fall in the 1950’s

Dad knew how vital good mechanics were on Lake Winnipeg, for if the motors weren’t running, there would be no fishing. It was that simple. Dori was a genius with motors. He could lay on his back in a hold full of greasy water and coax a marine diesel motor back to life with ingenuity and baling wire, no matter how hard it was blowing or how tough the going. Four years as a tank mechanic on the Allied front lines taught him all he needed to know about working under pressure on any kind of engine.

Catfish Creek 1979,a picture taken by a famous photographer wildlife photographer, my great friend , the late Robert Taylor

Catfish Creek 1979,a picture taken by a famous photographer wildlife photographer, my great friend , the late Robert Taylor

Not surprisingly, Dori had come back from the Second World War “shell-shocked,” as people called it back then. Part of that language of war, like ordinances for powerful bombs or theatres for bloody battlefields. Now, we know it  and treat it as “post-traumatic stress syndrome.”In Dori’s days, it was just passed over with a word that I only later came to fully understand. Dad spent three years on a corvette in the North Atlantic on convoy duty sailing out of St Johns and Halifax. Dad was lucky enough to return from the North Atlantic intact in body and mind. Dori hadn’t been so lucky. Corvettes were like floating tin cans compared to the ships of today, we’re like tanks on water flanking the vessels carrying troops and supplies protecting them from the U Boats that infested the waters of the Atlantic. The pictures I share in the Postscript below tell a story as words could never do.

Sigurdsson

Stefan and Sylvia Sigurdson, catfish Greek, 1946

Never did I ever hear a word pass between them about the war years, much less reminisce about them. Certainly, Dad seldom talked about his years, other than to say that life on board was not like that portrayed in the American war movies. He did in later years talk about how surprised he was at the humble life and poverty of the people of St Johns. Mom’s signal that the meals had not been all that appetising on board when she watched Dad pour gobs of ketchup over every meal, leaving her with the disquieting feeling that there was something wrong with her cooking. Slowly Dad was weaned of ketchup, but never to complete abstinence. He reminisced as tattoos started to reappear how thankful he was that he had sobered up enough in a long line to get a tattoo in St Johns that he got out of the line as he was about to go in. He would have hated a tattoo; it was not his style to draw attention to himself.

Sylvia sitting in the doorway of the small mechanic's shop, with Elmer and Kay Briem, and a young Dodi back from the war beside Mom.

Sylvia sitting in the doorway of the small mechanic’s shop, with Elmer and Kay Briem, and a young Dodi back from the war beside Mom.

Whenever someone started calling Dori out, Dad would defend him with an angry edge: “Where in the hell can you find a man who can do what that man can do no matter how impossible the situation?” And that would end that. Dad and Dori spent most of their lives together. Dad could get mighty angry with Dori, but abandoning him was never an option. As I grew older, I came to understand the silent but special bond between these two very different men, each unwaveringly loyal to the other.

mom

Sylvia Sigurdson, 1946 Catfish Creek

Mom, without ever talking about it understood viscerally what bonded them together. Mom and Dad were married in May 1946. That fall, Dad went back to life on Lake Winnipeg, the only life he had ever wanted. They spent the first fall of their married life together at Catfish Creek. The mathematics is irrefutable, that is where I was conceived. Dori, as he was for many years to follow, was the mechanic at the station, then a  young  diminutive, handsome young man The pictures below are a window into their lives and times at Catfish Creek

Dad on leave with his Uncle and later Partner SR.  

Dad on leave with his Uncle and later Partner SR.

Dori was short, wiry and tough, and tough-looking when I knew him. Strangely, he looked bigger than he was. Dori was grumpy at the best of times. He was Dad’s man, there was no doubt about that, as Uncle Steve, his older partner,  reminded Dad whenever Dori was on a “tear” (shorthand for a long drunk). There were plenty of those; Dori was never one to restrict his partying to social events. When the spirit moved him, or the fire inside was eating him up, Dori could start a lonely party quickly, and once he started he was relentless until he burned down like a wick on a candle. He lived with demons that tormented him in ways hard to fathom, but the fact that he was a good man was never in question.

Dori Benjaminson 1960’s

Dori Benjaminson 1960’s

Dori didn’t do much drinking at the station over the months he was there. There was work to be done. He did his real binging down south. Nevertheless, he slipped on occasion, and in the summer season when they were in Berens River he made his way to Ma Kemp’s Log Cabin Inn, just above the mouth of the magnificent river that winds its way across the Canadian Shield from Norther Ontario where the river meets the mouth. The motors in the shop would go lonely for a day or two while Dori built up his own head of steam. Eventually, he’d come rolling to a stop back in his bunk (hopefully), or else Dad, by no quite grumpy,  would go and find him.

On one occasion, Dori was on the move with an amorous friend he had met upriver. When he arrived at the station he was on a ripsnorter, and the fact that the generator was out and the electrical equipment down was insignificant to him at that point. Dad had to plead with Dori, not quite on his knees but nearly so, to get his act together and fix the generator so they could get the ice machines going before the fish spoiled. Dori slowed down long enough to get out his tools and go to work. Even dead drunk and crazy, there was no piece of mechanical equipment Dori Benjaminson couldn’t get going.

Dori usually took a winter holiday, but not to the sunny south. He preferred the Safari Room of the Leland Hotel in Winnipeg, a once-glamorous lady who had lost her appeal to the rich and famous over the years, and a new neighbour moved in across the street, the Winnipeg Police Station. Here Dori took over a “luxury suite” on the second floor for the winter. Finding Dori and sobering him up as part of the ritual of getting ready for each season. Usually, Dori went north on the tug as it left for the season, except for the odd year when he was angry with Dad for something and took off instead with Tom Rasminsky to repair bush planes up north. One way or the other, Dori was always back for the next season or the next year.

Back in Riverton, Dori often showed up at the back door of the house for a visit. Whether Dad was home or not was of little concern to Dori; Mom was no less tolerant of his carryings-on. There was fear in Dori’s voice one night when he came to the door.

“I’m having a heart attack, Sylvia,” I heard him say as I stood behind Mom.

“What makes you say that, Dori?” Mom replied. “Is it because you walked over here in the cold?” She was right to be sceptical because Dori was three sheets to the wind.

“This arm … and my hand … they’re ice cold. Feel them.”

Mom recalls my helpful three-year-old interjection: “Why don’t you put a mitt on if your hand is cold?”

Mom tried to reason with Dori, but reason had no place with him that night. He announced that he was heading to the river. This would be the end of him, he told us solemnly. “You’ll never see me again in this life,” he said. And with that, he trudged off in the blackness of the cold fall night towards the river.

Mom had seen Dori in all types of crazy situations, but this had become alarming. Dad was away, so she phoned over to Afi SV’s. She was hoping that for a change he wasn’t off at a job site. Fortunately, she reached him, and moments later he was at the back door. Mom pointed him in the right direction. He plunged into the pitch-black marsh along the river, probably expecting to find Dori with a beer in his hand somewhere in the field sitting on the beer case. When Dori was on a drunk, he usually carried two “24’s” as each cardboard box of 24 bottles as it was commonly known. One day I asked him innocently, “Dori, why do you have two cases of beer? Isn’t one enough?”

Dori fired back, “Can’t you figure that one out on your own?”

“They must be heavy to carry. Why not drink one, and then go get another?”

“Do you know anything?” Dori replied without hesitation. “You need one to sit on and the other to drink from.” I guess he had a point.

It wasn’t unreasonable to expect to find Dori drinking in the field. But not this time. Afi found him lying in the water beside the river. He pulled Dori from the marsh and marched him out of there. Dori spent the night on a bed in Afi’s basement. He had reached a height of agony that needed no further words, only sleep. To be sure, there would be disgust at his antics, but no irreversible critical judgments. That wasn’t Afi’s nature, nor was it Mom or Dad’s. Dori was Dori.

Dori was still in Riverton one December. He usually would have made his way into Winnipeg after the season or headed out on some other job, but not this year. He was sleeping in the basement room at our place every night. He’d come up to spin his tales while Mom worked in the kitchen in the evening. She sometimes laughingly recalls how she was writing cards one such night and signing them “from Stefan, Sylvia and family,” and almost found herself adding “and Dori.”

He would usually make a flourishing entry into the beer parlour at the Sandy Bar in Riverton proclaiming in a boisterous voice his arrival –“Dodi B” (phonetically) is here – as he looked for a welcoming table, never in short supply. When Dodi B got rolling, a couple of the Berens River dames kept a close eye on him. One was Ma Kemp. Catfish was twenty miles south of Berens River, Crossing those open waters in the late fall for a visit to Ma was not in the cards. By the time Dori got south he was mighty thirsty Typically loaded to the gills with fish, equipment, supplies and men, Dori and Dad would arrive home on the JR Spear, often in a snowstorm on Halloween Night. I would be down at the Hnausa Dock, greeting as a boy, and working as a young man, too unload at the Hnausa Dock where my great grandfather had established the family fish business in 1890, and the dock followed in 1895. The Gimli dock was completed 5 years later.

Catfish Creek , late fall after an early snowstorm.

Catfish Creek, late fall after an early snowstorm.

The relationship between Dad and Dori was something special. If you only knew that they were friends and nothing else you would find it surprising for they were very different people. Dori was like a mirror through which to see my Dad. Dad was not judgmental, he was profoundly accepting of people’s strengths and foibles. He was unswervingly loyal, constantly vigilant not to betray someone in a way they who could see as hurtful. And no less my Mom. Mom could see the humour in some of Dori’s antics, but never to belittle the man. Dad was less inclined to see the humour in them. Let’s not kid ourselves. Dad could get plenty disgusted with Dori, but it was an anger that blew over like a squall.

Dad brought back only a few pictures from his time on the corvettes. Amongst his photos were these remarkable shots. Today they hang in the George Derby Center for Veterans in Burnaby where dad spent the last 18 months of his life. They had never seen pictures like it. I share them here. They tell a story by themselves.

 

1 Comment

  • Baldi Johannesson Posted 20th June 2020 5:26 pm

    I knew Dori well. He was a frequent drinking companion of my uncles….and as rough and tough and hard to handle as they were, they paled in comparison to Dori. Dori reminded me of the Loony Tunes character The Tasmanian Devil, with a bit of Yosemite Sam thrown in for good measure. As a kid I found him fascinating…..I sat with him countless times in the Leland….buying him draft, for he would blow through his bankroll within days of reaching Winnipeg. But he was not a mooch….if finances were reversed he would have reciprocated. My brother Rick and I went to his funeral at chapel by the Health Sciences Center …..the only others I recognized were our uncles, Baldi and Norman, and cousin Doreen Renaud. The rest I am assuming where his relatives from Winnipeg. We then made the trip to Brookside cemetery where he was laid to rest Soldiers Field. I consider myself very lucky to have known him… And every Remembrance Day I think of Little Dori.

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