By Wayne Brown

Whenever he answered the phone, I would always ask him right away, “So, was ist los?” Translated, it’s a question that asks, “What’s going on?” Somehow he thought that was a funny way to start a phone conversation.

Henry Unger in 2014 with some of his carvings. /LAURA KEIL

My friend Henry Unger was born in 1933. He was the first child, born on the family farm near Osnabrück, Germany, and named after his father. You don’t know how many times I tried to pronounce Heinrich properly. The thing is, the “ch” at the end is silent—but not really. Henry used to say there’s no such sound in English, but that didn’t stop me from trying and lousing it up repeatedly. “Don’t put your teeth together,” he would tell me, “Let the air flow through.”

Henry’s maternal grandparent’s owned and operated a grain mill near the family farm. It was a windmill. His earliest memory was of standing on his grandmother’s shoes while they danced to the music of a gramophone.
When Henry was 14, he began apprenticing as a woodworker. Henry would often deliver products the company made on his bicycle. I’ve heard tall tales about the delivery of a 4-poster bed with his bicycle, and there must be a grain of truth to it, because one afternoon he asked me to open and read a letter that had come in the mail. It was a letter from Germany. The owners of the bed were asking if he remembered delivering it with his bicycle!

No kidding.

When Henry immigrated to Canada, he settled in Drayton Valley, Alberta, married, and opened a construction company. It was a successful business with 15 or 16 employees. He built dozens of custom houses, stores and even a curling arena, but the two things he enjoyed most were always cabinet making and carving. Nothing Henry ever built was ordinary. He was a bonafide wood craftsman. An artist.

Eventually, Henry relocated to Valemount as a single parent of two daughters (they’re wonderful people, just like their Dad). After Henry built the Trading Post on Main street, we became close friends. Seeing us around so much led some people to believe I was his son. I’m not – I had wonderful parents of my own – but we were both OK with whatever people believed.

Celebrating our birthdays together quickly became traditional. We’re both November children and my wife, Annette, is also a November baby. So the three of us would go out on his birthday, since his was in the middle, and we’d have a feast. And even though I never, ever heard him swear, he’d always laugh whenever I said in my best German accent, “Hey, let’s go fuh coffee,” (Say that 3 times, fast.)

This past November we celebrated our birthdays together at Abernathy’s and 3 weeks later he died peacefully in his sleep. He was 87.

So was its los? Nothing, really, except that I’ll miss him.