The Search for Ziggy Nowicki by Cole Nowicki
Zigmund Nowicki disappeared in 1961. I didn’t know Zigmund Nowicki existed until 2018. A great uncle whose name I’d never heard until a chance utterance around the dinner table while visiting Grande Prairie for my younger brother’s highschool graduation.
Oh, Ziggy? Grandpa had another brother. Where is he? No one really knows. He went missing.
And that was that. A mystery stated as fact that apparently required no further inquiry. I’d pick up more details as the months went on, prodding my parents. The prevailing story was that Ziggy worked up in Uranium City as a bus driver in the late 50s, early 60s, shuttling workers to-and-from the uranium mine each day. One weekend, about a year before my father was born, Ziggy went into the woods by himself and never came back.
When my parents were still together, my mother had asked her mother in-law, my grandma Georgette, about Ziggy. She got the same truncated story along with the directive to never bring it up around grandpa Ed. She never did. And from my understanding, no one else did either. Which makes sense. It’s not surprising that something or someone as mysterious and engaging as Ziggy would go unmentioned in our family. The Nowicki brand of stoicism is frustratingly strong. If you tell us that your appendix had just burst, but you’d prefer we don’t tell anyone, we won’t enjoy watching you go septic, but we won’t call an ambulance out of respect.
And for decades no one dug at this uncertainty, Ziggy. My grandparents had three more boys after my father. Eight grandchildren. They worked until retiring in their sixties; grandpa a heavy duty mechanic who sacrificed his knees to his profession, and grandma a school teacher in the age of yardstick discipline (grown men she taught thirty-years previous would take their hats off and look to the ground in deference as she passed while running errands around Lac La Biche).
All of this life happened without the mention of Ziggy’s.
I wasn’t the only one poking at the past. After some online sleuthing my sister Alessandra discovered Uranium City—The Last Boom Town, in the University of Alberta’s online library. Written by Ben McIntyre, the city’s first school teacher, the book details the history of Uranium City from, you know, boom, to its inevitable bust and transition into contemporary ghost town.
The Search for Ziggy Nowicki is chapter 36 in McIntyre’s book. Four pages dedicated to my great uncle’s disappearance. In those two spreads we learn that he was affable, beloved in the community. That when he went missing over 100 people scoured the woods looking for him. My grandpa Ed, at 28 years-old, went and searched for his younger brother for weeks but was unable to find him, a brutal northern Saskatchewan winter eventually turning him back.
The book tells how Ziggy brought his 8mm film camera with him into the woods and how a duo of prospectors, Sidney Hawker and Jim Wan, would eventually find it six-years after his initial disappearance. The camera placed neatly beside a backpack that held a couple rusted cans of beans, a .22 calibre rifle, and a hunting knife stained with blood and stuck with feathers. But that was all they found. No remains. The RCMP tried to develop the film in the camera but its exposure to a half-dozen winters had spoiled it. Any answers it held expired.
I visited the family farm in Lac La Biche this past Easter, where an uncle and aunt now live since my grandparents moved into assisted living. With the curiosity of some family members now piqued following my sister’s find, other bits of information collected over the years began to surface. Conspiracy theories. Another uncle who had worked up in Northern Saskatchewan recalled a conversation with a man on his crew who grew up in Uranium City and was a child when Ziggy went missing.
The city had whispered about the incident for years, he told my uncle, hinting that Zigmund’s end was of nefarious means—but the two were interrupted before the man could go into detail. Then there were the whispers within our family. One glowing, brazen rumour I heard through my sister, who heard it from my father, who had heard it over the years: Ziggy faked his own death and ran off.
Those theories were tantalizing and morbidly fun to think about, in the way conspiracies can be, but they were otherwise moot—we ultimately knew what happened. At the end of Ziggy’s chapter in The Last Boom Town, McIntyre reports that a few months after the discovery of Ziggy’s belongings, Sidney Hawker’s brother, Ashton, “found a human skull lying in the swampy area between Fold and Coe lakes.” Less than a mile from where my great uncle’s things were found. The RCMP returned and searched the area, finding more bones and a wrist watch later identified as Ziggy’s. With that evidence, the coroner declared him “legally dead… by misadventure, probably drowning.”
On the farm, in the old grain shed that now stores mostly junk, mice, and mice pellets; we piled around a dusty metal trunk containing all of Ziggy’s belongings gathered from Uranium City. In it was his shaving kit, stamps, and old newspapers. Expected things. Then there was the empty ring box and dozens of letters from a fiance, Arlene, that none of us had known about. The letters detailed her loneliness as Ziggy regularly “went away,” in one instance, on a solo vacation to Mexico. Arlene detailed her depression as she struggled to finish painting the kitchen cupboards. How she wouldn’t have been surprised if his family didn’t pick him, “Mr Big Shot,” (as she called him) up at the airport on his way back from vacation “since he’d disappointed them all so much.”
There were polaroids of who we assumed to be Arlene and a small child. Ziggy’s? No one knew. Amongst the letters were Ziggy’s old pay stubs, receipts, and notices from his employer that he owed them money. It was crowded in the shed as we poured over everything. We marvelled at all of the unknown becoming known. I opened a leather folder and the room went quiet. It was a life insurance policy, issued about a year before Ziggy’s disappearance.
We already had conspiratorial embers burning, but this was kindling and kerosene. Had Ziggy actually faked his own death? Run away? To Mexico?
Is this why our grandfather never talked about his missing brother? The wound being less about his death and more about the unknown. Is that why his mother, my great grandmother, worried until her last days that the bones in Ziggy’s grave were not her son’s?
There was only something here if we chose to believe it. If we wanted to rip off a half-century old scab and jump in. Would we tell grandpa Ed, immobile in assisted living, that we were looking into this? Things he’d likely already looked into decades ago. That he had spent weeks unsuccessfully looking for in the woods of Northern Saskatchewan. That he hadn’t spoken of since.
Under the life insurance policy was a clear glass bottle. My aunty picked it up, rubbed the dust from it and peered at the gold coloured powder inside as she tipped it from side to side, watching it slide. She wondered aloud what it was, the yellowcake uranium inches away from her face.
Cole Nowicki is a writer, producer and generally well-mannered person. He’s a writer for the Viceland television series Post Radical and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in places like Vice, McSweeney’s, Joyland, Maisonneuve, subTerrain, and more.He also produces and hosts fine., a monthly evening of storytelling and otherwise, in Vancouver, BC, where he recently completed a manuscript of essays, Laser Quit Smoking Massage. You can find him on twitter @colenowicki