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Helmut Hus.

Courtesy of family

Helmut Hus: Globetrotter. Railroader. Polylinguist. Father. Born Sept. 14, 1935, in Hamburg, Germany; died May 3, 2021, in Nelson, B.C., from pancreatic cancer; aged 85.

Helmut grew up in war-torn Germany. As an eight-year-old, he saw his home destroyed and his baby sister killed in an Allied bombing raid – it affected him all his life. As a teenager looking for escape, he cycled extensively all over Europe. A chance encounter with a ship waiting in a canal lock and a request to come aboard would lead to years of travel as a merchant seaman.

Helmut made stopovers in China, then restricted to all foreigners except sailors. He lived in Japan. He was the honoured guest of a maharajah in southern India. He was arrested in Argentina as an alleged communist spy. When the policeman commandeered a taxi to take him in, it was occupied so they both sat on its roof. A similar situation occurred in Indonesia, where he was stuck in a rat-infested jail.

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In the late 1960s, he decided to immigrate to either Canada or Australia. When his ship docked into Prince Rupert, B.C., he signed off and stayed – Canada offered more opportunities to travel in North and South America. Helmut made his way via freight train and hitchhiking to Kitchener, Ont., where he found work in an electrical manufacturing shop. Some equipment needed to be escorted by rail to Calgary; Helmut promptly volunteered for the job.

He met his first wife in the late 1970s by advertising in the personal columns of the German newspapers. He asked her where she would like to live. Either Nelson or Victoria, she responded. Since Victoria was on an island, they rode a freight train from Montreal to the B.C. interior town of Nelson. While the marriage was unsuccessful, their son Tim, now an acclaimed country and western musician, said that his dad was an endless source of fun and adventure – they camped, hitchhiked, rode freight trains and drove around the province in an ancient van. On one occasion, he set up a “gold mine” in the basement of his office in town where they could look for gold.

Helmut had an aptitude for languages, honed by his travels. While hitchhiking in B.C., he astounded Japanese visitors who’d given him a ride by thanking them profusely in Japanese.

Helmut had a car but preferred not to use it, noting that self-propulsion and ride sharing were a more interesting mode of travel. Hitchhiking and riding freight trains were a lifelong passion, even in his later life. When his son was performing with Stompin’ Tom Connors in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Helmut crossed the country. Stompin’ Tom introduced him to the audience and pointed out he had come all the way from Nelson, riding the rails and hitchhiking, to hear his son play. It was a golden moment and they became close friends.

Occasionally, Helmut got caught by the railway police. When asked why he rode the rails, Helmut retorted, “Because there’s no passenger service!” At 77, he was stopped by U.S. border control where the rail line extends into the States. Begging forgiveness, pleading ignorance and noting he lived on a modest pension, Helmut was fined $50, or as he put it: “Train fare.”

Helmut enjoyed an uncluttered life – for years his possessions were what he could carry in his backpack. He lived across the lake from downtown Nelson and a favourite pastime was to go into town for a morning coffee – by canoe.

He had absolutely no regrets about his unusual life. While Helmut earned a diploma as a wireless specialist in Germany, he really considered himself an honoree from the school of hard knocks – and would repeat it all again in a heartbeat.

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As a final request, he asked that his ashes be distributed in boxcars travelling east and west so his remains could criss-cross the land and be carried to every corner of the country.

Dave Waddington is a long-time friend.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide

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