When Knowledge Came with a Knock

Encyclopedias, a cultural icon of the 20th century, were in almost every home. With the post-millennial generation, they silently slipped into obscurity and the dustbin of history.

Encyclopedias touched our lives in many ways, whether it was to complete an assignment as a student, resolve an argument, remembering the salesman’s pitch or as a curiosity piece as the century came to an end.

“What does the encyclopedia say?,” has now become “Google it.” Across our computer screen streams a blistering array of information from a bewildering number of possible sources. Technology has delivered us much. But its dark underside is becoming ever clearer.

Facts and evidence and opinion have become blurred and, in some cases, interchangeable. Support for almost every position can be found. The internet has made it possible for everyone to become an expert, or a journalist in their own mind and brand those who are with allegations of “fake news” and “alternate facts.” Support for almost every position can be found, “You got your facts, I got mine.” Facts become guns.

Information not so long ago assumed to be a means to enlighten and unite. It’s now a tool to distract and divide. Who and what we can ‘trust’ is eroding; truth is being put on trial.

What lessons can we learn from simpler but not distant times to sharpen our understanding of what we have gained and lost today, to guide us for tomorrow? What can stories from our many years of our relationships with encyclopedias teach us?

Here is my story in the hopes that it will inspire others to share their untold stories, and an invitation to add your own thoughts and stories to this one.

With the first sight of the Hamlet, children started running from every direction across the island towards the dock. Nothing could have been further from their minds than the stern visage of Queen Victoria, the commemoration of whose birthday was the reason for the holiday weekend. Nor was the sight of old Jon Erickson behind the wheel the cause of such exuberance. Icecream was the precious cargo they were after, always on board this first trip of the year after the ice had left the lake after a long winter. The Hamlet on the horizon also signaled an exciting weekend of fun and games with picnics, sports, events, and dances. This was the big community send-off to all the men about to leave for the more remote fishing stations to the north as another season was soon to begin. By August they would return, and then north again for two more months as the fall winds turned the page to September. Winter fishing followed, but that usually was from much closer to home.

As the children scrambled over each other down the dock, they suddenly stopped dead in their tracks. Rather than the expected tubs of ice cream, they encountered a stranger, few and far between on the island, disembarking awkwardly from the boat. He was tall and gangly, wearing an oversized baggy grey suit. He stood at the edge of the dock, shaking off his sea legs and looking bewildered as if mystified at having been suddenly dropped into an alien land. Jon and a young boy struggled to unload a huge black suitcase, cumbersome and heavy, judging by the look on Jon and his son Steinni’s face as they struggled to push it up from the deck to the dock.

Using both hands, his arms crossed lopsidedly over to his side, the stranger made his way up the rough wooden timber dock through the throng of gawking kids. He walked up to an imposing red building on the shore alongside the dock. He put the suitcase down and stopped. He looked inside and saw three men dressed in green rubber suits standing over makeshift tables of painted plywood, cutting the heads off an endless stream of fish, slitting the belly, and pushing the slimy guts down through a small triangular hole in the middle of the table into the topless gas drums below. On the other side of the shed were several men folding what he knew to be fishing nets that he had seen pictures of into big wooden trays. They were engaged in a lively conversation as they worked in a language which he had never heard, but he found the rhythmic lilt pleasing to his ears.

He watched, entranced, for a few moments, and then continued up the incline leading to the narrow gravel road that made its way along the shoreline in both directions, past tidy yards and well-kept houses standing simply and elegantly on the fields looking out onto the lake. He was used to dusty prairie towns, and there were not many where he hadn’t been. There was a surprising charm to this place. He had read about villages like this in the Maritimes but never knew such places existed in Manitoba. It was a beautiful, sunny day but the soft breeze had a crispness coming off the still frigid waters of the lake. For him, back in the heyday of the twenties, when business was booming in every prairie town, this would have been the end of the earth. But now he was at the end of his rope.

It was 1933. First the Depression, then the drought, had throttled the thrill of the twenties and brought on the dirty thirties. The thirst for knowledge had died like the crops, and money for books had given way to every last penny to survive. So for this travelling salesman, it was time to search out new territory, and new places. Small and remote as it might be, these were desperate times. But people needed to eat, and the lake was still producing fish. This meant money, and when he heard of the locals’ reputation for loving books, this seemed like the best place, possibly the only place, on earth at this time to try to sell his wares, or so he hoped. He had boarded the train in Winnipeg, found his way to Riverton, tracked down the mail boat and dreamed of making his fortune selling the Book of Knowledge to the Icelanders on Hecla Island.

Door-to-door salesmen coming round on their missions to sell Singer Sewing Machines, Electrolux Vacuums, Watkins medical products and disinfectants and soaps, and encyclopaedias were still very much a part of the world when I was a boy. As a youngster, I recall vividly the suited salesman showing up at the door, spreading the books out across the living room, and preaching what was in effect a Sermon from the Mount on the parents’ obligation to educate their children for the world ahead with a subtext never far from the surface — a life of guilt and regret if you failed to embrace this opportunity to equip your children with the tools to work with the big tough world out there. They might as well have just come out and said it: “If your kids don’t succeed in life, you’ll only have yourself to blame.”

There weren’t many prairie towns untouched by the sermon. Recently, at a friend’s cottage, I noticed a small case containing books looking not unlike those I had so often see in my childhood. I opened the front volume “The World Book organized in Story and Pictures, signed S. Millgard, 1927”. My friend Bev Briscoe explained that this precious family heirloom was now in her careful custody still in the case her dad had made as a shop student in high school. They had been the prized possession of her grandmother, acquired when she was a teacher in Hamiota Manitoba, a small southern Manitoba village, not unlike Riverton where I grew up. That was 1927; now it was 1933. Hamiota was thirsty for water; water was everywhere in Hecla.

He looked behind him and saw the boy from the boat, struggling up the incline with two unwieldy canvass bags, over his back In front of him he saw a store, Hecla General Store, with a small sign “Royal Mail Canada” nailed to the front. He got to the juncture of the road. Should he go right or left? Had he stood there fifty years before, he would likely have been met by a kindly man speaking a strange language. He would have introduced himself as Sigurdur Erlendson, my great-great-grandfather who had been one of the original settlers on the island, no doubt pointed to an old shack beside the mill, where he and his family had spent their first winter in this country upon his arrival in 1876.

To the north, the visitor saw a picturesque little church, glistening white in the summer sun. There was what looked like a newly built house just up the road beyond it. He decided he would begin his visit to the island there. Soon he was standing at the door. He knocked. He was greeted warmly. He introduced himself. He explained his mission. He was invited in for coffee. He soon learned he was in the home of Malli and Villa Brynjolfson. He had never encountered such names before. He asked them to spell them out as he dutifully filled out a form attached to the clipboard he pulled from his bag. Soon he was engaged in a vigorous discussion about anything and everything with one of the most engaging characters he had ever met on the many journeys that had taken him into many kitchens in many places.

This was not going to be an easy sale. He was grilled for what seemed like hours on everything imaginable. His host had many views and many questions. What did he think was the biggest cause of wars? What was causing the drought? When he was unable to offer any answers, his host confronted him with:” Will these books be able to answer these questions”? The stranger extolled on the hot brown bread and butter with his coffee. That brought out another question “Do you eat white bread? “ The host pursued the point, energetically offering his opinion that it was white because of a ‘chemical scrub” and that chemicals would be the ruin of us all. His wife, Villa, challenged him” Where do you get all this information from Malli” adding in a sarcastic tone that she often baked white bread and had never seen him turn it down. His host seemed to be confusing the fact that it was the books that were the source of all knowledge, not him. He persisted sensing this was all a prelude to the sale he could already sniff like the sweet smell of baking bread that filled the room. The questions continued.“ Who are these people who wrote this? “Yet, at the end of it all, he finally concluded his first sale on the island. The stranger left, no doubt with boundless enthusiasm at the prospect of selling a set of books in every home. He was off to a good start.

My Afi was a learned man, not as the term is conventionally understood but in the purest sense of this ancient recognition. His formal schooling ended in grade two — not long, but long enough to inspire an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a relentless passion for debate that he wrapped in deep life experience as a boy who quickly had become a man. Afi’s portal into the world of book learning had arrived unexpectedly with the stranger’s arrival this day. Perhaps Afi received some inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount, but I doubt it. He had his own mission in mind, and while the dollars were few and every dollar counted, to this fisherman hungry to feed his mind, those books were no less basic than food or clothes. The pleasure he took in owning those books repaid him many times for any sacrifices they entailed.

The Book of Knowledge

The Book of Knowledge

But to the best of Mom’s knowledge, the only set the stranger sold on the island at the time was to Afi. That did not constrain their use. The Eggertson boys, lived next door, avid readers and good students. One at a time, each returned before another made its way, they made their way across the yards. Knowing how important they were to Afi made it all the more important to handle them with utmost care. Their mother prepared a special cloth carrying bag.

As a boy, I remember well the arrival of the encyclopedia salesman to our door. Mom listened respectfully to the Sermon but like her dad, made her own mind up. Not one but two encyclopedias would enter our home in Riverton. First, it was the World Book, and then the mighty Encyclopedia Britannica no doubt named to remind us that the empire was lord and master not only over the lands and seas but over knowledge itself. Britannia’s imprint was everywhere, even on the very waters surrounding Hecla. Lake Winnipeg was a key transportation artery through which the commercial empire based on the beaver fur and oil of Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson Bay held sway through the mighty trading monopoly granted by the British Crown to manage its dominion over the vast lands in the heartland of a vast continent for two and a half centuries, Then it was York boats traveling the lake, now it was the likes of the Hamlet, countless fishing freighters, and fishing boats heading up and down the lake to the fishing grounds to the North, and the communities of indigenous people and Icelandic settlers along the lake.

But as the world is want to do, things change quickly. On that peaceful day, who could have foreseen the terror that was to come, and that it would extend its deadly reach to this remote place? Who could have ever expected that within six years, Britannia would be on its knees locked in deadly combat on its home ground that threatened its very survival? Can you imagine the disbelief that would have accompanied the suggestion that within ten years, young Ed Eggertson would be in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, captured after parachuting to the ground as a navigator in the Canadian Airforce? Or that the young man who had helped the stranger unload his heavy suitcase, Jon’s son Steinni, now in the Royal Canadian Navy, would miraculously survive hours in the bloody waters of Dunkirk on a landing barge? And many other young men from Hecla would be engaged in a distant war in Europe, some to never return. Not even, I think, the geniuses who had compiled the Book of Knowledge organized systematically by the letters of the alphabet, ants to Alexander the Great, burns to Bohemia, cuticles to Canada and so it went letter by letter dancing across the alphabet foresaw the horrors ahead, but I suspect Afi may have been less reticent. He had a prescient nose with a sixth sense for a coming storm, whether a squall on the rugged expanse of Lake Winnipeg or stealthy threats like fertilizers seeping into the waterway making their way to the lake’s precious waters.


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