Ernie Tomson, Dad – by Shaun Tomson
My dad didn’t like to talk about the shark attack. He wouldn’t directly evade the issue but he’d skirt around its edges with his own brand of humor. “The shark died of blood poisoning” or “I don’t know who got the bigger shock, me or the shark.” My mom said he experienced terrible nightmares, but we children never saw them. He was always smiling, totally un-selfconscious of the terrible scars the black fin’s teeth had left on his arm. He could find humor in any situation.
The attack happened in 1946, shortly after he had returned from the Second World War. He had been a tail gunner in American B25 Marauders flying for the SAAF beating off fighters with his twin 50-caliber Brownings and dropping 1,000-pound bombs on the Italians and Germans. After the attack he’d traveled to San Francisco for extensive surgery to attempt to regain the use of his right arm and had to undergo a series of skin grafts from his stomach. He’d tell us with a smile that the scars on his stomach were from ack-ack, anti-aircraft fire.
After the surgery he travelled to Hawaii to recuperate. He stayed in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and befriended the Kahanamoku clan – Duke had been his hero as a young boy and Dad fell in love with the Hawaiian culture and lifestyle. We were the only house in South Africa where shoes had to be left outside the front door. His love for Hawaii rubbed off on me and Duke became my hero as well. My barmitzvah present wasn’t the sheaf of stock certificates my class mates received but a trip to Hawaii, to the island that he loved.
He found a smile in any situation in life. He gave my sister Tracy a pumpkin for a birthday present. He’d been telling her for weeks that he was going to buy her a pumpkin, and when she opened the beautifully wrapped box, there it was and she burst into tears.
The longest-running pro contest in the world was the Gunston 500. My father and two friends, Max Wetteland and Ian McDonald conceived it in 1969, and he loved that event. First place for the Gunston was 500 rand, an enormous sum at the time, and I managed to make it all the way through to the semis when I was 13 years old. Four years later I was standing on the presentation stage with five other finalists in front of 20,000 people, as by then the Gunston had become one of the biggest sporting events in the country. My father was in the judges’ tower about 20 yards away. He was a spotter, calling the colors of the surfers as they stood up to assist the judges in their scoring. He’d stand behind the judges and I knew he could see the scores so he had a good idea of who had won. It had been a close final and I looked questioningly up at him for some form of assurance. He shook his head and gave me the Roman Emperor’s thumbs down. I was devastated until the results were announced a couple of minutes later – I’d won! He’d known all along but he wouldn’t let a great opportunity for a practical joke to slip by. Winning was important but not that important – he put life in perspective for me.
He’d just pulled through from the attack, after being in critical condition for some time. For years afterwards I’d have people come up to me on the beach: “You’re Ernie’s son. I helped pull your father in.” He told me that when he got hit the shark lifted him straight out of the water and dropped him back in, and with blood all around, the fear really set in. He was riding a little wooden surfboard. He said he’d never seen the ocean clear so fast. Men were scrambling up the pilings, shredding themselves on the mussels, so people thought that there were multiple attacks. Only one swimmer had the courage to pull him in. He was rushed to Addington Hospital on the beachfront and the doctors packed his arm in ice. It was blazing hot summer so when the hospital ran out of ice all the beach hotels would bring in ice. He’d been one of the country’s best swimmers and lifesavers and was training for the European games and Olympics. The shark bite ended his swimming career. He was 22 years old, a great athlete, and it had all come undone.
He had a deep love of the ocean and the beach life. One of my earliest memories are of the beach, going for a tiger tim. He’d talk in rhyming slang. The beach boys, like the Cockneys had their own language. A swim was a tiger, money was tom funny. The shark never kept him away from the water and he never kept us away.
I really miss him every day. The life force glowed from him like a fire. I got a phone call while competing in Australia that he was gone. No warning, just my mom on the other end saying how sorry she was.
A son measures his own mortality by his parents. I was young, strong, and invincible, never ever contemplating death. I’d phone him after every event, often telling him I hadn’t done so good and then busting him up with the news that I’d won. He loved me to win and I loved to tell him. After the Stubbies event in 1981, I hadn’t phoned home. I’d placed 5th and didn’t feel like talking about my poor performance. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye.
Many thanks to Shaun Tomson for text and images