My friend Henry Ness was born in 1903 in the mining town of Bankhead, Alberta, located about 10 minutes outside of Banff and now owned only by the past. His father was a gunsmith and his mother a hard and predictable pioneer woman. They had moved to Canada from Norway only a few years before. Henry's father worked in the mine. He also fixed guns and loaded ammunition for hunters, trappers, explorers and the North West Mounted Police.|
Too young to go to the big war, and too old for the one that followed, Henry counted himself lucky all his days. He looked after his older brother Albert, who had returned from Vimy wounded, until he died in 1975.
Henry started working for The Alberta Power Company at the age of 17. He worked at the hydro stations and helped build some of the new hydroelectric dams to supply power to the growing west. He earned his journeymen electrician papers there and, at the age of 35, started the first electrical contracting business in Banff National Park, Henry's Electric. His small but rapidly growing enterprise was involved in some of the landmark construction projects in the park, including the wiring and lighting of the Banff Spring Hotel for year round operation.
His brown trucks, emblazoned with two golden bolts of lightning, became a familiar sight in town. He was who you called when the lights went off, if you were building an addition, or a new hotel. By all accounts he did good work. Never in a hurry, he charged by the job, not the hour. Some of his lights are shining from that big hotel right now.
In the year 1925, Henry met and married Liza, a strong minded, hard willed, predictable, and religious woman, like his mother. She did the books.
They remained married, as was the practice then, and had two daughters. Henry loved them dearly and never openly wished for a son.
In 1972 Henry's wife died of cancer at the age of 67. Henry never stopped being her husband. He sold Henry's Electric to one of his employees and retired. "Long overdue", said his girls.
In 1981 Henry decided to do the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope. The marathon collects money for cancer research, and a restless Henry thought this would be a fitting tribute to his late wife. In the years that followed Henry became the biggest individual fundraiser for the marathon in Canada.
Every year he could be seen walking along Banff Ave, his cane swinging, his artificial hip no doubt protesting, collecting donations. He would consistently raise ten to fifteen thousand dollars in sponsorships. On the day of the walk/run he would arrive with bags of money and cheques in the hands of his grandkids, his walking shoes on, and his cane sporting a shine.
I first met Henry in my in-between years. I had been booted out of the armed forces and med school and was looking for the next thing. Although I had known of him for many years, I had never really met him until I dated one of his granddaughters. He arranged a job for me at Henry's Electric, which despite having been bought and sold twice since his ownership, still carried his name on the door, and his word was as good a resume as you could have. I began my electrical training with Henry's battered tool pouch on my waist. I suspect I learned as much from that leather bag as I did from the journeymen I apprenticed under.
We went into the cane making business together in 1995. I had just returned from University and was once again between things. He gave me a place to stay and something to fill my time. From his old, gnarled, big knuckled hands, I learned how to turn a lathe, use a band saw, and set fine brass inlay the way his father had first taught him on the barrels of old, used up Winchesters. I will remember his hands until I die.
The cane making business was really only a hobby for both of us. I learned skills that are hard to learn today. I hope he got some sense of passing on the skills that had served him well. I never asked and he never said.
This is what I learned from my friend Henry Ness:
-Never twist a band saw when it's cuttin'. You’ll break the blade.
-Always twist your wire before putting on your marrettes. Only shady SOB's and do-it-yourselfers just screw 'em on.
-Its OK to sneak out the basement window now and again to have a beer and whiskey with the boys. Just brush with baking soda when you get home so your wife don't catch ya.
-How to compost.
-On Sundays, "What the Jake?!?" is as good as "What the Fuck?!?"
-You can learn more that matters from your local weekly newspaper than you can from some Toronto national daily.
-Write everything down or yer liable to forget it. "Oh yeah sure, your young and smart as whip now, gimme 40 yrs ya bastard."
Henry was old but never aged. He never stopped sparkling. He thought teenagers were terrific, and wanted a pair of baggy jeans. His daughters wouldn't let him. He laughed at the skateboarders and shook his head. "Ain't that just somethin'", he would say as they scooted around us on the crowed streets. "Zooooom". I wanted to teach him about the internet and he seemed interested, but we never quite got around to it.
We would sit on the back porch of his house drinking bottles of Kokanee beer and he would tell me stories. Like the time when he was chased by a bear up a utility pole, or when, as a kid on a dare from his friends, he had stuck his head into the tent of 'Wild' Bill Peyto, one of the original mountain men who opened up the Canadian Rockies, and allegedly crazier than a bagged lynx.
His house was one of the oldest in town, a small bungalow you wouldn't look twice at, sitting in the middle of town on some of the most valuable real estate in Canada. At least once a month someone would offer him real money for that land and he would just tell 'em, "I ain't dead yet. Call me then.", and then give them his 'crazy old coot laugh', reserved for stuffy young people, whom he counted as anyone under 80.
Well, time caught him, like he knew it would, surrounded by friends and family from all over the country and beyond.
We buried Henry last week and half the town showed.
Louis Trono and his Band of Renown played. Louis is the last of the Bankhead boys now, and has been playing his trombone at the Banff Springs for about 60 years. They played some of Henry's old favourites like In the mood and Sentimental Journey. We laughed some and told stories. We drank some, and I'm sure a few of the old-timers brushed with bi-carb before bed.
There were no tears because there was no tragedy in that life. A good one I figure. I guess he taught me that too.
I'm writing this down so I won't forget it in 40 years.
Bye old friend. Zooooom.