Now & Then: Eric Helmer

Eric (far left) learning the ropes while with the Boy Scouts.

Eric Helmer

Eric Karl Helmer is a charming, self-made man. He portrays a quiet strength that still resonates of past successes, achievements reached at both a financial and a personal level. He lives modestly in Manitowaning, in a two-storey solid brick home beside the apartment building he still owns. As the writer approaches, he stands at his side entry, ringing two small Tibetan chimes, attached by a cord. “This brings all three of my cats back to the house.” We stand and wait while two felines emerge, squeeze by us, and disappear into the house. “Sometimes my shy cat will not come if there is a stranger about.” After a few minutes, the search for the wary cat is temporarily halted and we enter the house, sit at the kitchen table and Eric’s story slowly emerges. 

“My dad, Karl Theodor Helmer, born in 1906, left his hometown of Metzingen, Germany in a bit of a hurry. As a fun-loving bon vivant, he had burned a few bridges and was hopeful of a new life in Canada. He sailed from Bremerhaven in April 1929 with one contact name in Kirkland Lake, his cello and $100. He wound up on Pier 13 in Halifax just prior to the stock market crash and the Great Depression. He moved to Kingston where he played cello in pit orchestras for the silent movies. As a machinist, he found work at A. Worthington, building steam locomotives for Canadian National Railways.” 

“He found a boarding house owned by Alma and Heinrich Webber. They had a pretty daughter, Mary Anne (Betty). During the depression years and before the time of unions, layoffs were common at A. Worthington. Karl was single at the time, so he was one of the earliest to be laid off. In 1934, the Webber’s daughter, Betty, became Karl’s bride.”

“Karl had heard about good job prospects at Kirkland Lake where much gold had been found in 1911 and he had a contact person. After the wedding, Karl and Betty went north to the Macassa Gold Mines where he soon became superintendent of the machine shop. I was the first born of five sons, on December 4, 1936 in Kirkland Lake,” Eric adds. “I have had some profitable businesses in the past, but I would like to share that my brothers have reached higher levels of success in their own chosen professions.”

“Brother Paul, born in 1938, is the family historian. He was also a child piano prodigy, starting at age five. When Paul was eight, we were still living in Kirkland Lake, but the tide was changing.” The CEO of the Robert Simpson Company, Edgar Burton, had heard Paul play and offered to pay for train trips to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Dad also promised Paul if he could play all three movements of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ by memory he would give him $100.” Paul achieved this a bit later, at age 11, and he got the $100, despite a few little errors. 

“To get to Toronto we would take him to the train in Swastika and a family friend, Hans Froberg, a German geologist, would get him to the Royal Conservatory and back to the train.” At home, brother Paul recalls “the whole family gathering around the piano singing ‘Cherry Ripe’ with Eric’s soprano voice bringing tears to one’s eyes. Father was on the cello, Terry the violin, and Paul on piano. Local concerts boasted their participation.”

Betty and Karl

“Later in his career, Paul studied two years at Columbia University and became a professor of music at McGill University in Montreal, where he still lives today. He was winning awards at the same level as Glenn Gould,” Eric injects. “His son Sebastian is a classical violinist today. One of his daughters, Stephanie, was a heart surgeon in Florida. She once saved youngest brother Ricky’s life. He had fallen off a ladder and was in an induced coma to prevent him from removing lifesaving lines. The doctors felt they couldn’t operate. Stephanie called from Miami and convinced them that the required surgery was frequently done and normally successful in Florida. The reluctant doctors subsequently operated and saved his life.”

“Third son Terry was a classical violinist and a founding member of the popular Orford String Quartet. He and Paul performed as a violin and piano duo in many locations including Massey Hall, a concert for which Terry had borrowed a Stradivarius. Terry lives in the restored old Westwood Grist Mill, built in 1840 in that town. He is a Renaissance man of the 20th Century,” Eric concludes, as he reveals a heavy pewter mask made by his brother.” It is the face of a Danish wood nymph. Terry’s wife Katherine had also been endowed with an artistic spirit, as a painter and illustrator of books. She died recently.”

“Fourth son Mark, of Calgary, is a professional engineer with two tickets, one for electrical and another for mechanical engineering. He worked for many years at Precision Drilling in Alberta, drilling oil wells and here at Domtar. He was also well-versed with the cello. Today he is a gentleman farmer. The fifth and youngest son, Ricky, is a self-employed electrician who lives in Richmond Hill with his three sons.”

“We were living on the Macassa Gold Mine property, one of six mines, and it’s still in operation today. During the war years, dad was well respected, despite his being German. He developed a grinder that gave extended life to drilling bits and brought in two diesel generators for backup power. Mecassa was where I first met Marilyn Stephenson (now Marilyn Wohlberg). Her dad was the superintendent for the mill. Today she also lives in Manitowaning about the same distance away from my house as back then.”

“An early embarrassing memory in Kirkland Lake had Terry, Paul and I all dressed up. I was three, garbed in a sailor outfit,” Eric recalls. “We were heading for the car, ready for an excursion. I soiled my pants, and this necessitated a short diversion. Occasionally we would head south to Kingston to visit mother’s family. This required the availability of extra tires because tire quality was generally poor, and the roads were equally dangerous. Tires would have to be changed at least once and often twice on route.”

“School was never my forte. Chronic daydreaming coupled with hormonal spikes had me contemplating the other sex disproportionately and made the academic world less compelling. However, I did have a crush on my French teacher and thus did noticeably better in French. I also worked part time at a gas station for 70 cents an hour and could admire the young ladies in their short skirts as I pumped their gas, washed their windshields, or checked their oil.” 

“The nickname, ‘nitric,’ the aftermath of an unfortunate lab experiment, followed me around in high school. I had tossed some pennies into a sink and poured nitric acid on them to see what would happen. The acid dissolved the pennies, giving off a lot of smoke, hence the label ‘nitric.’ Mercury was another compound of interest. It was popular in thermometers well before its toxic side-effects were known. Dad had a bottle of mercury and I used to rub the liquid on my favourite experimental target, pennies, to see the effect. It was also fun to see little beads of mercury roll about, held together by surface tension.”

Eric (far left) learning the ropes while with the Boy Scouts.

In 1952, father Karl felt the south might provide a better future for the boys and gold was down to $35 per ounce, so the family left Kirkland Lake and moved to Scarborough. Eric started high school and Paul was now much closer to the Royal Conservatory of Music. Karl worked for Johns-Manville until asbestos killed a fellow worker and he joined Quality Records. After retiring, Karl shared his record producing expertise as a consultant. 

“We still saw the Froberg family, from Kirkland Lake, now living in Rosedale. Hans’ dinner specialty was meatloaf adorned with egg. He was a capable geologist, a world traveller, a collector of rocks and articulate with a strong German accent. INCO later bought the rock collection from his wife, Hertha, for the museum for over a million dollars. Hertha also helped the Toronto museum, the ROM, purchase gems for their collections.”

“My dad didn’t want to visit Germany again, but he encouraged all his sons to go. Despite his reluctance to return, he became nostalgic when he fiddled with the dials of his short-wave radio and found distant and scratchy traditional German Christmas carols. Tears would well up in his eyes.”

“I was 17 after I finished high school, and a bit of a misfit, having defied the natural order of things. I think my dad asked his sister Pauline, who lived in Germany, to straighten me out to make me more like my brothers.” Eric got work in Metzingen at Wepuko, a machine shop and manufacturer of large pumps and high-pressure compressors, with 140 employees. “Aunt Pauline and another fellow were partners in the business. Nevertheless, for the first two months I was picking apples in a Helmer orchard, some of which was fermented to create powerful apple cider.”

(Left ot Right) Eric, Terry, Mark, Paul, Ricky (in front)

“About three months later, I wore out my welcome when I wrecked my aunt’s Mercedes while showing a buddy how not to drive around a corner. The car rolled but we were fine. It wasn’t long before I felt it was time to leave Germany, as my father had, so I came home. I was soon immersed in the same climate of post-high school wanderlust I had left a few months earlier. I realized that I could have stayed in Germany and later perhaps taken over my aunt’s business. However, I had something new on my resume. A friend helped me find Kinefco in Montreal. I became an assistant erector of complex industrial furnaces that shaped steel into coils for railway car springs slated for the manufacturer Canada Car.” 

“After two years, I moved to Toronto and found work at the Balkan restaurants. Yolande, the lady who owned them, took me on as a partner and jack of all trades, doing cleaning, waitering and purchasing. Dad visited, hoping to disengage me from Yolande who was 10 years older. He told her that ‘I was still wet behind the ears.’ I didn’t talk to him for 10 years. Eventually I married Yolande, and dad bought us a nice lunch as a peace offering. Yolande owned a squirrel monkey, two cats and a poodle. The marriage lasted about seven years when we both agreed to divorce.”

“In 1963, during a Canadian strike, I became a waiter at the busy Royal York Hotel. I made good money doing room service and serving in the Cascade Lounge. The tips were great. Salesmen in the lounge and characters like Madame von Poppenheim would ask for me. Madame was an escort arranger who liked gin and tonic, made with round ice cubes only. I had to go to the other side of the Royal York to find these for her.” Other organizations where Eric worked include Inglis, Ford, Massey Ferguson, as a production manager, and finally Canada Post. 

“In 1966, I met Ursula at the Balkan Restaurant. This marriage was an 18-year chapter in my life, and we had one son, Eric.” Eric Sr. was working for Canada Post. “In 1968, I came to Manitoulin for the first time for a holiday and stayed near South Baymouth. This was followed by several weekend trips to the Island. I also travelled to Germany a few times.” While in Metzingen, Wepuko gifted Eric with a brass plate from the 1500s. “I still have it.” The heavy plate looks impressively old. “I also discovered the Hugo Boss factory which produced garments at the time. Local women would get their wool from the factory and then knit cardigans to be sold by Boss. People needed at least two such cardigans; one for work and one for Sundays.”

“I completed 20 years of perfect attendance at Canada Post, under the supervision of Randy Kitchener Smith. He psychoanalyzed with humour and could keep you laughing until your sides ached. He once camped on his plot at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. He later left the post office with a good retirement package, but he had pancreatic cancer. I brought him here a few times and we had breakfast together just before he died.” 

“When my dad passed away in 1982 in Scarborough, the Orford String Quartet performed Beethoven and a granddaughter, Christine, played a traditional German funeral hymn on trumpet. ‘So nimm den meine Hande’ (So, then take my hands). Mother died years later when she was about 96. Terry played at her funeral and all five sons carried the casket.”

“I was 75 when I retired from Canada Post as supervisor, in 2011. I could have stayed.”

“Two years earlier, while on Manitoulin, I had bought a trailer at Batman’s campsite. I liked coming to the Island. About this time, my dad was starting to fail a little. In mid-winter he took the car from Scarborough and drove all the way to North Bay. He was standing out in the freezing cold trying to open a locked gate on our old cottage road. It was getting dark and a passerby, Bud Schell, had noticed him still there an hour later so he called the police and mother got a call. ‘We have your husband, and he has considerable frostbite’.”

Little Eric with his parents in Kirkland Lake

“We got to know Bud and his wife Joanne. They visited Manitoulin. Joanne and her mother Myrt made folk art out of items like cans and saws and sold them on Manitoulin in space they rented from Calvin Pearson. I met John Ham from Manitowaning about 15 years ago when he got me a propeller for my boat. He mentioned he had an apartment for rent. I checked it out and bought the whole building. After moving into one apartment, I noticed the house next door, overgrown with trees and shrubs. It was barely visible and hadn’t been lived in for 10 years. It took me two years to buy it and it’s my home now.”

“Marilyn (Wohlberg), whom I met at the Mecassa mine, is still a neighbour here. She told me recently that my mother really helped her in those early years. Marilyn would come to our house to practice her music. Paul would play the piano. ‘Your mother encouraged me to move forward in the music industry.’ Here in Manitowaning, Marilyn has worked with the Burns Wharf Theatre. One of her sons, Kevin Closs, does a whimsical guitar version of ‘Oh Canada’ as an introduction for CBC Two. Kevin came to Manitowaning and participated in a fundraising concert for Burns Wharf Theatre.”

“Marilyn’s brother David used to be a good friend of brother my Terry. It was serendipitous that Terry happened to be here for the concert. After the performance, we came back to the house. Marilyn contacted her brother David in Alberta. He and Terry were happily able to catch up with all those years they hadn’t connected. It was a wonderful surprise for Terry.”

Eric uses Tibetan chimes to call the three cats.

“An important event in my life? Surviving car accidents. I have rolled a car three or four times and each time was able to walk away. As a teen we bought a few $35 clunkers and we would drive them into fields or challenge each other to get very near to old bridges or abandoned buildings.” 

“Favourite pets? Arco the Weimaraner dog, given to me by my first wife; he was an amazing creature. He had webbed feet and could climb up a ladder after me or bring home a quart of milk or a pound of butter. In the back of my ‘63 Oldsmobile, he was a chick magnet. Sadly, there was an altercation with a terrier over a female dog and the terrier was mortally injured, so sadly, I had to give him up to a family with a farm. I couldn’t trust him in an area with other dogs and people.”

“Favourite shows? Archie Bunker and David Attenborough documentaries.” 

“Strengths? Recalling lots of history, being a jack of all trades and building steel tables with tiles on top.” 

“Something I would like to do in the future? Visit Japan. This may not happen for me, but my son has tickets but with COVID he may not be able to use them.” 

“Has COVID made any significant change in your life? I see a change in attitude due to more isolation. People are more stressed. I am short with the cats sometimes, but otherwise my life is the same.” “Regrets? Being a bully to my younger brothers.” 

“Proud of? Making Grade 8 in the Royal Conservatory of Music.”

“These fine kitchen cupboards were designed and built by my neighbour Keith Nelson. He no longer builds these, but he feeds the birds here and knows all my cats. The scenery truly is spectacular here, and I am totally in love with the church ladies who put on such tremendous spreads for fundraisers or funerals. I tend to buy lots of stuff as you can see. All the tables in the house and drawers in this kitchen are full of stuff and old gadgets I have bought over the years. Manitoulin is ‘the’ place now. When you get to know things behind the scenes, you begin to feel that you are part of the cultural texture and you feel you belong. Here, you can stop in the middle of a street and talk to someone. Where else can you do that?”