Pop Freeze and the Falandahorns (Part Two)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic
The Iditarod. Adventures in the famous Alaskan race, on...and off the trail.

Submitted: May 11, 2011

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Submitted: May 11, 2011

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At his side, then, fell a shadow. When he came to, he recognized it to be a woman. A very foreign, yet beautiful woman. She was older, although he found itdifficult to predict her age, and her silvery hair flowed long. She did possess the deep wrinkles of age, but they rather became her as ‘care lines’ rather than blemishes. Her presence was almost immediately and strangely comforting.

“Shhh,” She said, resting her hand on his shoulder. “Qavar.” And the soothing Yupik word was repeated many times over in the days ahead during his recuperation under this glowing woman’s loving care. Aana, as he was to call her, rarely left his side for long, yet gave him the space he needed. If he was in pain, he need only to call out, and in moments, around the single corner of the small abode, he would first hear her beads, and then see her checkered shawl as she came to his rescue. She said little, little more than that soothing qavar, and seemed to simply, dutifully, tend to his frostbite, and hypothermia, and, to what he would later learn, were several broken ribs, mended by his wearing of a bizarre cast made from what appeared to be animal tusks.

With her slow, gracious hand nursing him, he came to trust each method she employed, be it limb elevation, odd concoctions she administered for him to drink down or even for skin salve. By the third day, he felt he was regaining strength and tried to sit up, but her docile bedside manner as she smiled and shook her head suggested otherwise. “Qavar.” What a strange, little place the igloo was. He wished he could get beyond the eerie, candlelit glow, get up and look around a bit, but he was under doctor’s orders, after all. For the time being, anyway, he figured it most wise to just do as he was told, and rest.

 

The dog team of Pop the Yupik and his boy Kangilajuq slid into Nome three days after the conclusion of the Iditarod race. It was a cumbersome distance, and for much of it the duo followed in the tracks of race mushers. The man and his boy were not strangers to civilization; simply less comfortable in it, and they knew their first order of business, to feel less like fish out of water, was to locate a bilingual interpreter to convey to this family the situation of their loved one. Nu Nu Tuk Johnson was just such a man.  Pop picked him up, of all places, at the Nome Visitors and Convention Bureau.

After flashing the credentials of Bob Falandahorn to the receptionist, who knew the hotel in which family of Iditarod contenders were staying, a second man came forth with interest from behind the counter, and stole a glance. “cama-i,” said he to the Yupik and offered his hand. He seemed to be of Inuit descent, probably Northwest Inupiat, Pop guessed, tall, thin, with dark complexion. After glancing out the window to see the hitched dog team, he hollered a name: “Leon!”  They waited there a few moments until the aforementioned stepped into the lobby. He looked strikingly similar to Nu Nu Tuk, and Pop and Kangilajuq took him to probably be a brother.  Nu Nu Tuk whispered something to the man, motioning all the while toward the window. Then, in the Yupik, he continued to tell the old man and his boy to ‘come with me.’

“We shall find a shelter for your dogs,” he continued in the Yupik, “my brother has kennels behind his house.” And as they walked outside, he proceeded to ask the old man about the nature of his plight.

The Hotel Nome Sweet Home was not far from the Visitors Center. In it, they would find the family of Bob Falandahorn on the third floor, room 301. After a gentle rapping, it was Flip who answered the door. “Mom, Mom, there’s some people at the door!”

She came hurriedly, clumsily, a nervous wreck, holding on to her boy’s shoulder in the face of the three strangers.

“Are yew thee wive of Bob Felondahorn?” Nu Nu Tuk tried.

“Yes, yes. Is he Okay? What’s happened? Are you the police?” her hands were shaking uncontrollably, she was nearly hysterical.

“Not Pooleese. Please sit. I explain.”

And so he explained, in broken English, what his client had told him, how her husband had been found miles off course under a snow bank barely alive. How the severity of his trauma would likely take at least a month of healing time, and that he would not have survived the trip to Nome.

“But who’s taking care of him? I want to know?” the fire in her voice now could have melted the sheet of ice on the hotel window.

Nu Nu Tuk met the eyes of his client, and then of the woman. “Man beeside me is an Yupik Eskimo. Goes by name of ‘Pop.’ His wife a healer. Best in land.”

The thought didn’t exactly soothe her irritability.

“When time right, Pop brother, Oomachom-ee deliver husband,” Nu Nu Tuk finished.

“Oh my God,” was all she could think to say.

Nu Nu Tuk, Pop, and the boy shared the room next door. Cathy Falandahorn wondered how anybody could be so close and yet so far. She simply could not warm up to these strange men, and they stayed away from her. But the children played. She thought it interesting, staring out the window at her Flip tossing snowballs at that little Yupik boy, how kids could break down all social barriers. In the days ahead, Cathy Falandhorn moved closer and closer to that room across the hall that was yet so far away.

“So what’s his name, honey?” She finally asked Flip one morning for breakfast.

“Oh, you couldn’t pronounce it, Mom. I call him Kan-Kan.”

“Just be careful around him, okay. He seems alright, but don’t let him lead you down a path you know is wrong.”

“Kan-Kan wouldn’t do that, Mom. He really wouldn’t.” And so their play continued, and just when Mom got the nerve to knock on that beckoning door across the hall, there was no one home.

 

Pop the Yupik had taken a little trek for fish, and in so doing, caught more than he had bargained for. He had been spear-fishing for dinner in a stream that happened to be near a delivery dock. There, probably a hundred yards to his left, three men, all dressed in bright orange coats, could be heard squabbling on board a small vessel. From what he could discern, it was about whether or not to proceed on a King Crab hunt despite being short a man. Throughout the argument, Pop minded his business, wading slowly, finally, spotting dinner, quickly, deftly, spearing his prey. He must have caught the attention of the men when he lifted the catch out of the water, because all talk had stopped.

Finally: “Hey you! Come here a minute. I wonder if I could talk to you for a second!” Monte Marmer, Captain of the vessel North Star didn’t know it yet, but he had just found the answer to his problem. He had found his replacement, and a fine catch all his own.

“Don’t think he talks English, Cap,” one of the deckhands astutely observed.

“As long as he talks crab, that’s all I care about,” Marmer said, rubbing his long, scraggly reddish beard. Trying to articulate with gestures, the captain pointed to the vessel, himself and crew and to one of the crab pots on deck. “Interested? Our last hunt of the year. One week?”

But before he knew it, the Yupik’s hand was in his own, shaking it. “All right. Men, lets get this rig untied. Jasper, you bait the first crab pot. Lets not waste any more time.”

Alaskan King Crab fishing, let it be known, is among the world’s harshest, most dangerous jobs. Aside from the inclement weather, there are dangers associated with the sheer weight of the pots, each one well over a ton when full of crabs, mishaps with the hydraulics used to lift and submerge them are common, and a precarious nature to the work exists that goes with a constant pressure to meet quantity and quality expectations, or else.

Pop earned his stripes on the second day out. Deckhand Marzetti had just finished baiting the pot with herring, and Jasper was going to toss the buoy when Pop caught his arm. The old Yupik was shaking his head and pointing over yonder in an off-course area of the sea. The strange old man was then giving the O.K. signal with his fingers.

“Come on, old man. What the hell’s wrong with where we are?” the ship was starting to toss and turn a bit. Some dark clouds were on the horizon. “We’re looking at a Cummulonimbus, and you wanna change the course. Are you…”

But Pop pointed more sternly, and then rubbed his stomach.

“All right. I’ll suggest it to the Cap, but you’ll never get your wish.”

He got his wish, and the ultimate result two days later, was six pots, each teaming with no less than 300 prime golden king crabs each. By weeks end they had no trouble meeting and exceeding their quota, and, returning to port, the only thing they had really lost was the strange little man that didn’t speak English.

“Best damn crabber I’ve ever worked with,” boasted Captain Marmer, and he handed him his business card. “You ever want to come back, you know where to find me.”

On his trek back to Nome Sweet Home, dusk now, the damn crabber was greeted with even more excitement. The thing had come out of nowhere––blind-siding him, but he spun the spear around when he felt the hot breath on his cheek, and heard the painful howling just as soon as the gray wolf was skewered. That had been too close. Way too close. He fell down to catch his breath as he watched the thing twitch and finally expire.  From his parka, he pulled free his large knife. He was exhausted. This would be where he would spend the night. He’d make a fire on one side of him, and cut the wolf carcass up for warmth. Doing so, and finally drifting to sleep in the rugged tundra, the wolf carcass had given him another idea, an idea that followed him into sleep.

Next morning, he sat down beside the carcass of the wolf, pulled free his buck knife, and proceeded to sharpen it with a nearby rock. Once finished, in deft, quick motions, he began the peculiar process of shaving off the glorious whitish-gray coat (the blood-free parts excluded of course) of the beast before him. Once he gathered an enormous amount of the fur, he continued his process by separating the top-coat hair from the undercoat. He was only interested in keeping the undercoat. Finally, he rolled large chunks of the scraped fur and placed them carefully into his pack. Rested now, he headed back to the hotel. His brother and the stranger would no doubt be arriving before too many more days. Making his way, thirty minutes later, down the third floor corridor of the hotel, the bedraggled old man stopped momentarily at 301. He was going to rap on the door, but something stopped him. Perhaps it was the stranger that had just passed him. “Daaamn! Ever heard of a shower, dude. Might want to look into it!” So, making the turn to his adjoining room, he found his key, opened the door to his empty place­­­­­­­­­­­­(he wondered where Nu Nu Tuk and the boy were, probably out on the town) and proceeded to take that much needed shower.

 

They returned from town at about one o’clock, and the old Yupik could hear their voices through the walls. Mindless chatter, leading up to the American boy: “I don’t know. Think he’s back yet. He might ‘o just left us.”

“No, no,” said Nu Nu Tuk, “Hees brother is coming, yes? And beeside­­–I still have hees dawgs.”

“Well,” Cathy Falandahorn submitted, “I’ll just go downstairs and see if anyone has seen him check in or walk by. Kind of a distinct looking person, if you know what I mean. Don’t think they’d miss him.”

 

“Ooooh, smelled him before I saw him, to be quite honest with you,” said the woman behind the counter. “Yeah, the old guy came in around 11:30.  Was carrying a backpack with a spear coming out of it, dirty! Sweaty! I mean it was bad. Almost threw him out, but then one of our employees recognized him and was told to follow him and confront him about  taking a shower.”

“Oh, so you think he’s here now?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Yeah. Haven’t seen him come or go. I just hope he’s cleaned up a bit. We might start getting complaints from other floors.”

Wasting no time, Cathy Falandahorn took the elevator back to their rooms and made a B-line to the strange little man’s room. She still had some questions to ask him about her husband, and, some apologies to make about her evasive behavior toward him earlier. So this time, without hesitation, she rapped on the door. But again, this time, there was no answer. For three days it continued like that. “Just going to break the damn thing down,” she muttered. “Wait a minute. I wonder. I mean…

“Yeah that’s right Nu Nu,” she was telling the interpreter in the hall between their two rooms. “What if something’s wrong with him in there? I mean, what if he died or something?” Nu Nu Tuk took to laughing. “No, no, dear Englishwoman. Men like heem not die in cozy hotel room. Only die in nature.” But he began to knock. Again, no answer. They waited. Nothing. “Nu Nu Tuk check back a little while later.” And he winked at her.

That ‘little while’ was four hours later, and this time, during his solo attempt, there was a response, though the Yupik did not come to the door. The old man had just hollered “itiqpuq” which Nu Nu Tuk knew to mean ‘come in,’ or ‘enter.’ The door was actually open. Not quite sure what to expect after this 11-day absence, the translator somewhat tentatively crept in. “Pop? Everything all right?” he asked in the Yupik.

The old man seemed more than all right. He was sitting in an arm-chair in the corner by the window, his arms folded over a large, what appeared to be, hand stitched blanket. Beside him was a clunky-looking makeshift spindle and a bucket of soapy water.

“Pop, you’ve been…busy.”

The old man slowly folded the blanket. The work, Nu Nu Tuk noticed, was nothing short of extraordinary. The blanket was tan, outlined and accentuated with variations of X-like symbols and markings of a yarn that looked….

“Yarn from wolf-hair,” said he. “Hope she like etchings,” Pop continued in his language, “They denote peace and happiness.”

“She being….”

“Mrs. Cathy.”

Nu Nu Tuk smiled, clicked his cheek. “You old tiger.”

“Wolf,” corrected the elder.

 

When the presentation was made later that day, the two men walking into room 301, Cathy Falandahorn could not have been more thrilled, accepted the gift more open heartedly. After Nu Nu Tuk translated the blankets’ meaning of love and hope, even as Pop was still talking, the American girl embraced the little man. “Thank you so much Mr. Pop. I am more indebted to you than you know. Tell him I love it very much.”

Nu Nu Tuk did so and there was a pause as Flip and Kan-Kan gathered around the bed of the hotel room to join the group. “So, what’s your real name, Pop?” She wanted to know.

He then said something as Nu Nu Tuk listened.

“It’s not,” the interpreter began, “it’s not something you would be able to say easily. It would put your tongue in knots. Kangilajuq always called me Pop, and so this is what I go by.”

She then put her head down in a moment of seriousness. “Pop, I have one more question. Is my husband really going to be returning?”

After it was translated, the old man met it with silence. Then a string of Yupik words were spoken.

“Yes,  yes of course,” said Nu Nu Tuk. And her head lifted up. “He suspect him to arrive anytime now.”

 

The snow chariot of Oomachome–Lee, like the man, was a monstrously large thing, its cumbersome arrival in front of Nome Sweet Home the following morning unmistakable. Powered by 25 dogs, the roofed three-man sleigh featured a violet cloth overhang with dangling bells and a display of multi-colored, gaudy beads.

 “Mom, Mom! Dad’s here! Dad’s here!” wailed Flip, already up and dressed, looking out the window. Bob Falandahorn was in the back seat, covered from head to toe, but sitting upright and apparently alert. In front of him was the person of Aana, mother, his nurse these past many days, and, beside her, Oomachome–Lee, the musher, brother of Pop, gnawing on what appeared to be a giant turkey leg. Pop and Kangilajuq were already there when the Falandahorns arrived at the scene.

Together, they ran to Dad, huddled around him as he sat in the sleigh. “Honey, honey are you okay?” His wife asked hurriedly. “Oh, GQ, you’re well!”

 “Dad, you’re back. You’re back!” wailed his son.

Behind the veiled parka hood, he cracked a reassuring smile. “Did I win? Hi guys. I love you guys, I’ve been thinking about you every day. Yes. Yes, I’m fine now. Thanks entirely on the people you see before you. Thanks especially to this woman, this gift of grace in front of me,” he put his hand on her shoulder. “Honey, this is ‘Aana,’ as I have come to know her. Without her care I would not be here talking to you today.”

The old Yupik woman didn’t turn but slowly stepped out of the sleigh, allowing an embrace from Cathy Falandahorn. “How can we possibly repay you?” and then, turning to the handshake of Pop, her question repeated: “How can we possibly repay you?” But she didn’t really expect an answer. Instead:

“She asks, how can they possibly repay you?” the interpreted words of Nu Nu Tuk spanked the silent, dead air like an assault.

There was a string of words in the Yupik from the old man.

The Falandahorns now stood beside each other in awkward silence, the wind picking up, blowing the snow around.

Said Nu Nu Tuk: “He say it ancient native custom that if native save another’s life, that person must oblige him in whatever favor native asks in return.”

“Uhhhh…”

There was another litany of Yupik from the old man, suddenly sounding less cute than unnerving.

“What d’de say, whatd’de say?” sounded Flip.

“He wants to represent Mr. Falandahorn in next years’ Iditarod race…. as his paid personal trainer….”

More Yupik….

“He wants you to stay here in Alaska for one year for this reason and favor will be considered repaid.”

Bob Falandahorn threw down his hood. “Now, see here, tell him I’m unemployed. I need work. I can’t just….”

Nu Nu Tuk relayed the statement, and all listened to the difficult sounding response.

“He say its already been arranged.”

“Already been…”

 

“Everything’s been arranged,” promised Captain Monte Marmer, who managed a seafood restaurant in Nome during the off-season, and on Pop’s recommendation, ‘his man’, landed a short-term job there. They rented out a nice place overlooking the bay, a place handed them by the good captain.

 

By October, it was once again time to set the North Star assail, and this time old Pop was not alone. King Crab Fishing was by far the coldest, most difficult work Bob Falandahorn had ever done, but in the end, it also paid better than anything he’d ever done.  Until the time of his paycheck, he cursed every day of the blasted business, suggesting more than once that–‘why don’t you just throw me to the crabs and be done with it?’

Then, one day, when he least expected it, walking with Pop and Nu Nu Tuk Johnson back to the house, the funny old man said something into the air, to no one in particular. Falandahorn caught Nu Nu Tuk’s glance.

“What did he say?”

Nu Nu Tuk shrugged: “He say, ‘now…. about that race….’”


© Copyright 2018 CP Dawson. All rights reserved.

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