Genot “Winter Elk” Picor for The Storykeepers Project
Tommy Knockers was an old Welsh legend that was brought to North America by Welsh miners. Now, you might not have heard of Tommy Knockers ‘til now, but I’ll tell you who had. That was none other than Walt Disney himself, and it’s been said Tommy was the inspiration for the Seven Dwarfs of “Snow White.” —GP
Pipi was a quiet but jovial man. He was never one to boast or brag. His children and grandchildren gave him much joy in his twilight years. Pipi had earned the comforts of his now quiet, peaceful life in the little village above the straits. His family came to Michigan after having made their way across the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario, Canada when he was just a boy. The word was that good land for farming was cheap and abundant in Michigan. Pipi would tell of how his mother gave birth along the way to his brother and sister. His father would find work in the lumber camps to support the family during their slow and steady journey to the lake country.
His first name was Albert, but most people just called him “Pipi.” Pipi’s family finally settled near the town of Cheboygan, Michigan. He was proud of his time in the service of the United States Navy during the Great War and often told of his adventures to exotic ports-of-call from around the world. After he was discharged from the Navy, Pipi found work on the freighters that sailed the lakes in the summer season or in lumber camps during the winter months. Pipi also worked the copper mines in the Keweenaw for a time. It was steady work that paid well, but it could be dangerous.
One March afternoon, little Rosanne and her older sister Mary returned from school. Out in the straits, the ice was starting to crack and flow with the coming of spring. The children were eager to share their day with their grandparents, Mimi and Pipi.
“Sister Angelique taught us about St. Patrick,” said Rosanne. “Pipi, is it true there are no snakes in Ireland because St. Patrick chased them all into the sea?”
Pipi, who was carving a wooden figurine paused and thought for a moment.
“Hmmm, Je ne sais pas vraiment (I don’t really know). I never been to Irlande so I don’ say fo’ sure,” he replied.
Pipi frequently mixed his French with his English. The children, having heard both languages growing up in a French Canadian household among the “Yangeez (Yankees)” were skilled at spontaneous translation. Little Rosanne set down her books and sat next to Pipi at the table, intently watching his handiwork with a mocotaugan.
“I thought you might have been there when you were a sailor,” she said.
“No, no…I been tuh places where ‘dere was snakes, some of ‘dem duh ‘two-legged’ kine’!” chuckled Pipi.
“What does that mean?” asked the puzzled child. “Are there snakes with two legs?”
“Only in ‘dis place ‘dey call ‘New Orleans,’” muttered Pipi and he went back to working on his figurine.
Mimi, who was preparing pasties for supper entered into the conversation. “Albert, Ce n’est pas une histoire pour les enfants (Albert, that is not a story for children),” she warned softly. Pipi simply shook his head.
“Brother James played Irish music on his fiddle at morning Mass and Sister Angelique told us a story about ‘Lepricorns’ counting their gold at the end of the rainbow. Sister Angelique said there was no such thing as Lepricorns and that they are ‘super-stitchins.’”
Pipi now ceased his whittling and took a deep breath.
“I never tell you ‘bout Tommy Nackerz, so I guess ‘dis be a good time. ‘Den you kin decide if’n Tommy is uh ‘super-stitchin,’” said Pipi.
Mary, Rosanne’s older sister, who was helping Mimi in the kitchen became intrigued by the changing tone of Pipi’s voice. She joined Rosanne at Pipi’s table.
Brushing aside the curly wooden flakes that lay on the tabletop, he showed the children the beginnings of his whittled creation. It was an elfin figurine with a miner’s hat.
“’Dis here is goin’ to be Tommy Nackerz. I hear ‘bout Tommy when I work in ‘duh Keweenaw minin’ fo’ copper. I was jus’ young man at ‘duh time, an’ some miners from ‘dis place ‘dey call Wales ‘cross de ocean tole me all ‘bout him. ‘Dey come to work in ‘duh mines in ‘duh Keweenaw too, juss’ like me.”
“Funny ting, so many uh ‘dem miners got ‘duh las’ name ‘Jones,’ ‘dey give ‘demselves ‘nombre (number)’ after ‘dere lass’ name. ‘Dere was Jones Un, Jones Deux, Jones Trois an’ so on all ‘duh way up tuh Jones vignt-six (twenty-six)! All ‘doze Joneses ‘dey try tuh help me make my way.”
“One day, we was eatin’ lunch down in ‘duh mine an’ I see all ‘deez Joneses leavin’ a piece uh ‘dere pasty on a rock. I tink ‘diss tuh be ‘étrange (strange),’ so I aks ‘dem why ‘dey do ‘dat.”
“Jones Quinze (Fifteen) as I ‘member say ‘Dis is for Tommy Nackerz.’ Soze I aks him ‘Who be ‘diss Tommy Nackerz?”
Jones Quinze tell me Tommy Nackerz is a ‘nain (dwarf)’ who live in ‘duh mine. If’n he like you, he save you life before ‘duh mine come crashin’ down on you head. Tommy ‘frappe, frappe, frappe (knock, knock, knock)’ on duh wall firs’,” motioned Pipi on the wooden tabletop. “Dis is how he warn you trouble ‘bout to happen.”
Pipi’s voice took on a more somber tone.
“But if Tommy don’ like you, he make you life misery!”
Rosanne and Mary looked at each other, not knowing what to make of this story.
“How did Tommy get from Wales across the ocean to Keweenaw?” asked Mary, trying to trap Pipi in what she thought was a tall tale.
“Oh, Tommy, he live unner de’ groun’ so he go wherever he please I guess. At firs’ I tink ‘dey try to make fun uh me but den I see all duh Joneses leavin’ a piece uh ‘dere pasty.”
“Jones Neuf (Nine), he say tuh me, ‘Frenchy, you bess’ leave some pasty fo’ Tommy!’”
“Well, I look at Jones Neuf with squinty eyes an’ a waggin’ finger, an’ I say ‘Dere ain’ no such ‘ting as a Tommy Nackerz. You all jus’ makin’ fun uh me!’”
“What happened then?” asked Mary.
“Well, Jones Neuf try to shut me up. He say Tommy hear every’ting you say down here and it not good tuh talk ‘bout him. Jones Neuf whispers to me ‘Suit yer’self, but you’ see; Tommy come tuh visit you soon enough!’ Jones Neuf close his lunch bucket an’ go ’bout his business.”
“I finish eatin’ my pasty an’ get back tuh work. But duh story don’ end ‘dere, no sir. You see, Tommy mustuh’ hear me say ‘Dere ain’ no such ‘ting as Tommy Nackerz,’ because duh nex’ day I wake up and get dress.’ I lace up my boots an’ try to take a step…and some ‘ting happen. Tommy done put a spell on my boots!”
The girls sat straight and raised their eyebrows in surprise. Pipi stood up, his stiffened legs pushed the chair away from the table with a thump. He danced and shuffled across the floor as if he were possessed by some sinister demon. Pipi spun in whirlwind circles his arms out-stretched, wheeling and turning higher and higher, until like a balloon with all the air forced out at once, Pipi collapsed to the floor in a heap.
Rosanne and Mary rose from their seats, their faces aghast at the animated sight. Now suddenly, up on his knees, Pipi’s arms were thrust high above his head with splayed fingers reaching up toward the great beyond. The old man’s face was frozen in fear.
“I try to scream but I kin make no soun’! Den, it start all over again!”
And as sure as a pendulum swings back and forth on the old wall clock, Pipi sprang to his feet and repeated with great precision each step, shuffle and jump just as he had done moments before. Rosanne and Mary, who were now locked in a sisterly embrace, looked on in suspense. They were abruptly taken aback by Pipi’s sudden cessation.
Leaning forward Pipi’s blazing blue eyes glared straight into their angelic faces.
“It was ‘den I say ‘Tommy, dat’s enough now, arrêtez, arrêtez (stop, stop),” pleaded Pipi. “Tomorrow I leave you uh piece uh my pasty! I promise ‘dis to you on my dancin’ soul!”
The children were stunned! Behind them, Mimi’s body heaved as she tried to contain her laughter. Her watering eyes peered out from above her fingertips; her hands covering those dimpled cheeks and tightly pursed lips.
“So right ‘den, it all come to stop,” said Pipi, trying to catch his breath, “You kin say ‘dat’s super-stitchin’ but dat’s why I always leave some pasty fo’ Tommy Nackerz, even ‘doe I don’ work in no mine no more!”
The girls were speechless, still locked in each other’s arms.
Pipi brushed himself off, sat down and resumed his whittling as if nothing happened.
“You don’ forget what ol’ Pipi tells you girls.”
Mimi went back to work in the kitchen and the girls went about their household chores. Claire-Marie and Gilbert, the parents of Rosanne and Mary came home from work. Soon thereafter, homemade pasties and gravy were on the table. There was talk of Sister Angelique and Brother James, “Lepricorns” and “super-stitchins.” Pipi and Tommy Nackerz was saved for the very last story shared around the table that evening. As Blessed St. Patrick is my witness, when that meal was done, one left-over morsel sat on the plates of Pipi and those girls, just to be sure Tommy would be pleased if he was listening.
For Albert Trudeau
Pipi and the Story of Tommy Nackerz As Told By Genot “Winter Elk” Picor From “Stories that Mimi and Pipi Told” © Genot Picor. Published at Voyageur Heritage with Permission.