Uncle Harry was a character.
Born and raised in Welland, Ontario, during his eighty five plus years, Uncle Harry was a husband, father, grandfather, musician, soldier, police officer, fisherman, friend, uncle and of course, a character. He lived each day of his life as if it might be his last, and encouraged those around him to do the same.
My first, of what were to be many encounters with Uncle Harry, was on one of those Christmas visits every kid had to endure, as we were dragged off to visit family and friends that were only seen, or heard from during the holidays. I always dreaded those visits, and clearly remember my dad literally shoving me through the door into Uncle Harry’s small house, and after recovering my balance, staring wide eyed at the scene that greeted me.
While we did our share of decorating, Uncle Harry and his wife Ruth took it to an entirely new level, because everything – and I mean everything in his home was covered with Christmas decorations. Chairs, lamps, tables and even the cat - nothing escaped his festive touch. It was unique, and it had character – just like him. Once greetings were exchanged, out came the scotch and the fishing pictures, and I would listen intently to all of those great stories about previous trips “up north,” while sipping on my ginger ale.
It became readily apparent that if there was any mischief afoot on these fishing trips, Uncle Harry was, if not the architect, certainly a willing participant.
There were legendary tales, such as the one where my Uncle Sid’s false teeth somehow found their way into the mouth of a long dead ground hog, and Sid’s reaction when he woke up and found the little critter lying on the pillow next to him, smiling sweetly.
Then there was the hanging of Harold, “Baldy” Ball – The Right Honourable Judge Harry presiding, who was charged with and subsequently convicted of having entered a frozen fish into the weekly fishing contest.
The accused was found guilty, notwithstanding his very reasonable explanation that the fish was slightly frozen because he had caught it in the deepest, coldest part of the lake. He went on to explain that while to the untrained eye, it may have resembled an Atlantic Salmon in some respects, it was in fact the little known, and rarely seen “Cisco Salmon.”
Further evidence was called, that revealed the “Cisco Salmon” might well have been resting in a local police constable’s freezer, prior to finding its way onto Baldy’s stringer. Uncle Harry summarily pronounced sentence, by kicking the chair out from under the accused who, to save time in the event of a guilty verdict, already had the noose placed around his neck.
As everyone knows, fishing can be hard work. Deciding they needed a break, the boys headed off to a dance in the local village one Friday night.
Being short on funds, my uncle Jack convinced the dance organizers that he, together with his entourage – which of course included Uncle Harry – were world champion square dance callers, and would happily show off their stuff to the large Friday night crowd - provided they could enter at no charge, and were supplied with a complimentary drink or two.
As they were not about to let the fact they had never been to a square dance get in the way of having a good time, when invited to the stage to call the first dance, they started things off by leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of Oh Canada. While the crowd, being a patriotic lot, was singing enthusiastically at the top of their lungs, they beat a hasty retreat, just managing to escape with their skins intact.
That took balls, and character.
After years of hearing those stories, and many others, I was finally invited to accompany them on the annual fishing trip. I really had no idea what to expect, but Uncle Harry, who was always in top form during these outings, did not disappoint. We had endless stories and jokes – another couple of hangings – a parade (more on this later), and in each instance Uncle Harry was at the centre of it all.
During my first trip north, once we turned off the main highway and onto the dirt road that would take us to the lodge, Uncle Harry halted our four vehicle convoy, and suggested a break would be in order because we had at least thirty miles of rough road ahead.
He warned us we would have to cross raging streams on rickety old wooden bridges, and fend off both wild animals and hostile natives, in our attempt to reach the safety of the lodge.
Cold beer miraculously appeared out of the trunk of his car, and we drank, chatted, stretched our legs, and otherwise prepared ourselves in anticipation of the long, dangerous journey ahead. Once back in our cars, Uncle Harry gave the signal for our convoy to move out, and we hadn’t been driving for more than two minutes, before the lodge appeared around the first bend of the road. We could all hear him laughing as we pulled up to our cabin, and my only hope was that the fish would be as easily fooled.
You may be getting the impression that precious little fishing took place during these outings – and while it would be fair to say that the “social component” took precedence over most things - we did catch our share of fish – including Uncle Harry who, when it came right down to it, loved to fish, and was pretty good at it.
His tackle box was always a source of amazement to me, because unlike the rest of us,who had boxes with little compartments – each with its own lure – Uncle Harry had a “ball” of tackle. Each year the “ball” would grow larger, and so would the amount of time it took him to extract a hook, or some other bit of tackle.
I once asked him if there were things living in his tackle ball, to which he replied, “Why don’t you untangle it and see?”
He always had a come - back.
To demonstrate his skill as a fisherman, one evening after dinner, Uncle Harry announced that he and his son Allan, were going to spend the entire night fishing a spot located about six miles from the lodge.
Seeing the puzzled look on our faces, he explained that he had it on good authority that Walleye bite best after dark, and while the spot he had in mind usually produced some fish during the day, just imagine the results if you fished it after dark.
So we bid them farewell, and off they went, loaded down with ten dozen worms, twelve beers, four sandwiches, a thermos of coffee and a bottle of rye. Just after pushing off from the dock, Uncle Harry told us that if they were not back “at the crack of dawn,” we were to immediately send out a search party, because with all the fish they were going to catch loaded into the boat, their motor might not be able to handle the strain.
About two hours after they left a wicked cold front moved in.
The sky was black, the wind was howling, rain was coming down in sheets and the thermometer dropped to below fifty degrees. Although there was no way they could have made it back under those conditions, we were not all that worried about Uncle Harry – after all he did have a full bottle of rye with him.
The next morning at daybreak, we could hear the faint sound of an outboard motor. While peering out of the cabin windows, we saw what could only be described as two drowned rats, slowly making their way towards our cabin. As they stood just inside the door dripping, I did a quick inventory of their stock of provisions, and found the worms to be largely intact, together with the four sandwiches and thermos of coffee. The beer and rye were nowhere to be found.
Once they changed clothes and warmed up, Uncle Harry filled us in on their ordeal over a cup of hot coffee, to which a generous quantity of spiced rum had been added for medicinal purposes.
The evening started off well enough, at least weather wise, but it was not too long before the cold front caught up to them. While Allan slept like a baby in the bottom of the boat as the storm raged on, Uncle Harry remained wide-awake.
He spent the entire night listening to the wolves howl, and staying on guard against all manner of things that go “bump in the night,” he could hear moving around in the forest. Someone asked if they should borrow the camp wheelbarrow, to unload all the fish that must surely be in his boat, to which Uncle Harry immediately replied, “I think I’ll have another cup of coffee, and don’t forget the rum.”
They say that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and Uncle Harry took this very much to heart, because you never forgot the first time you met him.
One of my favourite stories involved a first time meeting between Uncle Harry and my friend Gary.
Each year we would catch worms in anticipation of heading north. Uncle Harry’s job was to count the worms – baptise and name them – feed and clothe them – see that they got regular exercise and otherwise ensure that they arrived in top, fish catching condition.
One year upon our arrival, Uncle Harry decided to conduct a condition audit of the worms that were in his care. This consisted of doing a final count, and making proper and appropriately solemn arrangements for those that had passed away while in transit. To conduct his audit, Uncle Harry spread them out, all over our cabin’s kitchen table. It certainly made for an interesting scene as some of the more active ones charged off the table, and on to the floor.
It also added a rather distinct odour to the room.
When Gary arrived, he announced that he had about 300 worms to contribute to our bait supply, at which point Uncle Harry - who was on the floor rounding up the escapees - stood up and with full military bearing, and informed Gary, in no uncertain terms, that he would conduct an official count, and that for his sake, they had better be all present and accounted for.
Needless to say, the scene that greeted Gary – hundreds of worms all over our kitchen table and floor, the overpowering smell, and to top it off, being addressed like a lowly private, is a story he still tells to this day. He once told me that his first thoughts were, “Who the %*&##$ is this guy?” and “what have I just got myself into?
As well as keeping everyone in stitches with his jokes and stories, Uncle Harry designed, and presided over all the “official” and ceremonial events that would take place throughout the week. These would include conducting numerous trials, which invariably resulted in a hanging and/or dunking, a parade, a Gong Show, the blessing of the boats, and his annual magic show, where he would show unsuspecting lodge guests how to turn an onion into a peach. This involved a Spanish onion wrapped up in a towel, and you really had to see that one to believe it.
You could be put on trial by Uncle Harry for a variety of reasons, such as playing the same ace four times during one euchre hand, making a false entry into the weekly fishing contest, or just by being in the wrong place, at the wrong time on a rainy day, when the boys were in need of some entertainment. Upon conviction -I don’t ever recall anyone being acquitted - you would either be hung from the rafters, or given a dunking in the lake.
You did not want to screw with the Right Honourable, Mr. Justice Harry.
One of the first acts of business for Uncle Harry upon arrival in camp, was the blessing of the boats.
Donning his ceremonial robes, which consisted of an old blanket, and a hat with a stuffed Beaver perched on top, Uncle Harry would gather up his vial of 40 proof “holy” water, and then make his way out onto the dock, accompanied by a hand selected honour guard. Selection for Uncle Harry’s personal honour guard, was based solely on your ability to keep him upright and dry, as by this time he had been liberally sampling the “holy” water, to assure its purity and worthiness for the task at hand.
Once in position to administer the blessing, he would utter the sacred words, “dominoes abiscos,” while making the sign of the cross, and then an appropriate amount of the holy elixir would be sprinkled onto our boats – or at least in their general direction - thereby assuring many fish and safe journeys for all, throughout the week.
At one time the lodge operated a small licensed hotel where we, along with most of the other lodge guests, would gather on the last night of the week. Uncle Harry would always put on a stellar performance by leading the customers in song, telling jokes, and turning a whole bushel of onions into peaches. It did not take long for word to get out throughout the area that Uncle Harry’s “Gong Show,” as he called it, would be taking place on Friday night. In fact the lodge owner, not being one to miss an opportunity to generate a bit of extra revenue, would put up posters announcing the show in the local general store, and at the Provincial Park just a few kilometres away.
When Friday night rolled around, the place was packed to the point where you could not squeeze another person in there with a shoehorn. The show would go on for hours, with Uncle Harry acting as master of ceremonies, introducing various performers, who would show up with musical instruments, sing songs and tell jokes - but at the end of the day they came for one reason, and that was to see Uncle Harry.
“Shrove” Tuesday, as Uncle Harry liked to call it, was always an interesting experience, because that was when Uncle Harry would make his “famous” beer pancakes.
Several bottles of beer, or to be precise, ale, were opened on Monday evening, to be used in the preparation of the feast to come. The next morning, usually at about 5 am, Uncle Harry would begin his preparations, and by 5:10 we were all out of bed, because of the noise being made by the banging and clanging of numerous pots and pans and the whir of his little hand blender.
By the time he was finished, most of the kitchen, and all of Uncle Harry would be covered with pancake mix, beer and eggs,. You did not want to be on kitchen detail that morning.
The highlight of the morning was when Uncle Harry would test the griddle to see if it was hot enough to begin cooking. While most people would sprinkle a few drops of water onto the griddle, and then listen for the tell tale hiss and pop – not Uncle Harry. With great flourish, Uncle Harry would spit directly onto the griddle, and the size and consistency of his test offering would be roughly the same as one of the pancakes.
I always made a point of being second, or third in line to be served.
No week would be complete without Uncle Harry’s parade.
Each year on Friday evening, either before our weekly fish fry or on the way over to the hotel to get the Gong Show started, Uncle Harry would lead our group, and anyone else who cared to join in, on a parade around the camp. Parade headgear could be anything from kitchen pots to Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets, and musical instruments included various cooking utensils, oven grates, and anything else that could be used to make a racket. Marching in formation, or in a straight line was of course optional.
The expressions on the faces of those folks who had never witnessed this spectacle was nothing short of extraordinary, but in no time at all Uncle Harry had pretty much every guest in camp, marching in step right behind him.
I hope that by now you’ve got a good picture of Uncle Harry's unique zest for, and approach to life, but in closing I wanted to see if I could find one particular story, or vignette that would truly capture the essence of his character.
The one that perhaps best defines Uncle Harry, took place on one of those perfectly still evenings, when our boats, together with just about every other boat from the lodge, were clustered in a small bay, where the fish had been biting for most of the day. There was not a ripple on the water, and any sound that was made, could be heard clearly for what seemed like miles. I was fishing with my dad – otherwise known as “Baldy” – and Uncle Harry was in another boat about fifty yards away.
The conversation went something like this:
Uncle Harry – “Baldy”
Baldy – “What do you want Harry?”
Uncle Harry – “You know Baldy; you're the luckiest man in the world.”
Baldy – after a considerable pause, knowing that he was being set up for something – “Why is that, Harry?”
Uncle Harry – “Because you can kiss my ass, and I can’t.”
The laughter, foot stomping, coughing and wheezing echoed across the lake for the better part of an hour. There was not a dry eye in any of the boats, and just as soon as it would calm down, someone would start laughing again, and we would all join in. It was just so perfect, and so Uncle Harry.
We miss you Uncle Harry - you were a real character by any definition, and perhaps most importantly - truly one of a kind.