(Copyright 2011 by Gary Spina)
When I arrived in Alaska for the first time, I had only a little over a hundred and fifty dollars — enough money for about five days of cheap lodging and maybe three days of meals. If there is such a thing as luck, it was with me when I went to apply for a job as a news writer at 630 KYAK radio. The job had already been filled, but station owner Bob Fleming and his wife Dolly ended up offering me a place to stay.
“You don’t even know me,” I said to Bob as I tried to understand what was happening.
“When I first came to Alaska,” Bob answered, “I had only twenty bucks in my pocket. A fellow named Charlie Cannon took me in – and later when I tried to pay him back he said, ‘No, just help the next guy along.’ And that’s all I’m doing.”
Of course, by then Bob Fleming was a millionaire. Bob has passed on now, but not before being inducted into the Alaska Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame. People said he was lucky, but I remember Bob smiling and saying, “It’s funny, the harder I work, the luckier I get.” Bob had literally built his own radio station with his own hands, eventually owning four “Big Country Radio” stations between Anchorage and Fairbanks. All his life, Bob had come up the hard way, and Bob’s hands were rough and strong.
“My Uncle Carnie would always say, ‘Take care of your hands,’” Bob would tell me.
It was Bob Fleming who taught me what little I know of panning for gold and prospecting in general. And Bob used to tell a story of an old friend of his, the president of a bank in Anchorage — I forget the old man’s name. The old banker was a prospecting buddy of Bob’s, and over the years the old guy had spent most of his weekends prospecting for gold in the Talkeetna Mountains. His old hands were rugged and hard, and he was not a man to be fooled with.
One day a strapping young man walked into the bank and put a gun in the face of the old banker demanding all the money in the safe. With one battered old fist, the old banker reached up and grabbed the man’s gun-hand and crushed down like a vise. He crushed down so hard he pretty near broke every bone in the gunman’s hand. By the time the police arrived, there wasn’t much they had to do to subdue the would-be robber.
I’ve wandered the North Country and half way around the world chasing stories to write, and I’ve known many men with rough, torn, and calloused hands – men who earned their living and made their way through life with their hands, with their backs, with their bellies filled with little more than desperation and resolve.
Some like Bob Fleming prospered. Some like “dog musher” Joe Redington you’ll find in the history books. Jack Arnold, Injun Johnny, Jim Larsen, and old “Crazy” are memories. All lived their personal story as rich or as lacking as the next.
They were good men, mostly, though I’m not saying that at times – desperate times, survival times – that one man’s valuables didn’t somehow find their way into another man’s poke. But I do know most of these men died poor because over the years they had given away more than they had taken. They were rough men, even dangerous men if you pushed them in that direction – but more times than not they gave freely and generously to others in need. And they gave because they understood need, and they understood how it was when the only things a man had left were his pride and his dignity.
And I guess I don’t give a fat rat’s ass how a preacher man might sort that out. I just hope that when times are hard and all seems hopeless, when a man’s soul feels hollow and empty inside, when all that’s left is for lonely men to fold their hands to pray – I just hope then that God takes a special look at the men whose hands are scarred and calloused and dirty.