My Vagntastic Life is the memoir of Quesnel's Vagn Nielsen. (Terry Groves publisher)

Quesnel’s Vagnatical storyteller writes autobiography

Vagn Nielsen releases his memoir at age 94

Vagn Nielsen will turn 95 as this summer ends, but he gave the whole area a birthday present in advance of that. The longtime Quesnel resident has published a memoir. When you’ve lived a life as long and busy as Nielsen’s, largely in one place, that’s actually a memoir of the whole community.

My Vagntastic Life is a look back from quite a height of time. He was heavily involved in the lumber industry, especially the mechanical side of it but also in management, including the arch of employee / co-owner / sale of Garner Brothers Caribou Ltd. sawmill.

Whatever the topic, he didn’t shy away from writing about the tough elements – fires, breakdowns, firing employees – as much as enthusing in the pleasant ones like inventions, innovations, evolutions in the mechanical world.

He was always that way – mechanically inclined and well above average on the handy scale. When he was just a kid, he used the discarded coil of a Model T Ford to ring the hole of the family outhouse, so when his father sat down to do his business, Nielsen touched the copper line to a battery and gave ol’ dad a different kind of business – with a jolt.

Family plays a large role in his narrative. As much as he was dedicated to his professional side, he dug into life with both hands and his favourite aptitudes were hunting and fishing. He was an avid traveller, and relished his connections to family and friends.

“My stepdaughter, Veda – I was married to her mother Marie – I would often tell her stories, short things that happened throughout my life, and she was after me. You’ve got to write it down, papa, or it’ll be lost. So one day I decided to start doing that,” Nielsen said. “I did it all on a tablet,” he said, poking one finger at a time. “We kept ‘er going along.”

He would send chapters to a relative who was a computer programmer by trade who had written two books of his own, Terry Groves. Groves would edit, including lists of questions that came to his mind as he was reading on which he wanted more information from Nielsen to flesh out the anecdote.

This was a lot of fun, not a chore, to Nielsen, who was a storyteller long before he started work on the book.

“I don’t know if it happens to all people, but I could see, from the time I was born, a clear vision, like a TV screen of what was happening. I just had to write from following that, all the way through. Just like reading it off of a screen and typing it,” Nielsen said.

His life was interesting to the point maybe everyone would watch it on a screen. The book never sinks into sensationalism; in fact it might, at times, be too matter-of-fact when more emotion could have been added.

When he recounts how his first wife Marion passed away of cancer, it comes out in a short, quiet, classy burst. Most of the prior pages had included her as much a partner in his business life as a mate in his family life. Together they had five children: Caroline, Sharon, Douglas, Evelyn and Signe. Marion was the chair of the Quesnel school board, and his pride in her is evident, as is his affection for his children.

“It was May 19, 1999 when I lost my best friend,” he wrote or Marion’s passing, quick, like the rip of a band-aid off a wound.

At the suggestion of Marion, and the encouragement of her own family, their good friend Marie became Vagn’s close and eventually inseparable companion. They married in 2003. She passed away in 2017, again cancer being the thief of a life-love. And again, the tragedy was clearly but quickly conveyed.

What never needed adding was detail. Nielsen could recount the names of movies he was watching, or the contents of lunch, as some stories unfolded. He commits a lot of pages to fishing and hunting trips, and to the extensive travels he went on with Marion, Marie, children, friends. He put many of life’s miles on his family recreational vehicles, boats, trips to Mexico where he resided awhile during retirement, and other locales.

“Oh, it was a great life,” he said.

“One thing I look back on is the freedom we had. I was packing a .22 to school (for hunting birds and small game for that night’s supper) when I was eight years old. We could do anything that we wanted,” he said, asserting that society now is over-regulated and demanding of too much certification. When he started out in the lumber industry, while still living in Alberta, “two men were working for me at the sawmill. I was registered with the WCB (Workers Compensation Board) of Alberta when I was 15. They never asked me how old I was, and I never told them.”

He was ambitious, but also innovative. As a kid, he discovered he could stun fish by shooting into a small pool of them, so he could scoop up a number of them at once. He then discovered that the family chickens would pick at the bodies, so if he left them just long enough “they would take 90 per cent of the scales off” before collecting them back before the pecking got into the flesh.

He also learned early that once salmon was in the jar for canning, you had to leave them in water at a rolling boil for 7.5 hours to complete the proper preparation.

All of this in the book was endlessly fascinating to the people who got to pre-read some of the chapters, especially Groves as editor, who was removed by culture and time from much of what Nielsen was describing from his early years.

“What the heck is a Swede saw?,” was one of the Groves’ questions. “I was cutting small trees for the small mill I had. He had in there that it was a cross-cut saw to fell the trees. I used a Swede saw. I went to Google, looked up different types of saws for cutting trees, and a whole bunch of them came up” so he could show Groves the difference. They are known as bow saws, European buck saws, and other names, these days. In this area, in the early- to mid-20th century, they were commonly called Swede saws.

The skidders, trucks, bulldozers, tree-falling techniques, the whole lumber industry became a lesson to the editor that got passed on to the reader.

“He said he found a life that he didn’t know existed. So we got along pretty good,” Nielsen said with one of his customary quick, bright laughs. “I owe him a great deal for his editing.”

His next birthday is Sept. 7 and already the Quesnel Museum is talking with him about a way to celebrate, because a book like this is not simply an autobiography, it is a blueprint of a bygone time that modern Quesnel is founded on.

My Vagntastic Life: A Life Extraordinaire is available now through Amazon.

Go to the Amazon ordering page RIGHT HERE

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READ MORE: Quesnel’s Friends of the Museum wants to hear sawmill stories

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