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Seth Kantner: Memories of a homemade man

Seth Kantner

KOTZEBUE -- Snowflakes are falling in this memory of Oliver Cameron, the snow coming down on already deep drifts outside our windows, and a gray world out there stretching to dark horizons.

I don't recall how Oliver arrived at our sod house, but I picture him on snowshoes, dragging one of his narrow homemade sleds, the runner tracks already buried by the time he pulled his parka off beside our stove.

Snowshoe travel makes sense. During his visit, he spent weeks building snowshoes for my mom and my brother Kole in our small house.

For the first few days Oliver filed at my dad's ripsaw, filing down each tooth, making each bigger and sharper, and adjusting the set. Oliver liked to whittle at tools until he liked them better than before.

He was a tall, thin man. He wore drab patched wool pants and a wool shirt buttoned at the sleeves. His wrists and throat were pale, his fingers long and strong. He had big ears and broad lips and, if you paid attention, you noticed his hands shook. He had a look in his eyes and in the little cap he wore -- that look from photographs from the 1930s, of thin, hungry men living through the Great Depression.

To Kole and me, Oliver was an encyclopedia of intriguing projects. We were aware too of his stature along the river in the extended family of our parents and their friends -- more often than not he was the man those back-to-the-landers turned to for expertise. He was perpetually helpful, mysterious and serious, polite and impossibly ancient -- nearly 50 years old.

After the ripsaw was satisfactory, he set up sawhorses across our floor and sawed strips out of birch boards my dad had milled. He wasn't in a hurry. The snow was deep; all of us were deep in winter. No one we knew was in a hurry. Time and tundra we had in unlimited supply. Oliver sighted down each strip, leaned it in the corner and began ripping another.

Next he worked with a hand plane. He showed us how to hold the plane at an angle to make it cut more easily. I don't remember the plane shavings as sharply as something else in our possession back then -- a store-bought item, and for that reason more interesting to us kids than anything made from a tree and caribou leather.

It was a bag of Nestle chocolate chips. Somehow my family had them, and still unopened. The bag was brilliant yellow, smooth, small and solid. You could feel the chocolate chips inside. On the back, printed in tiny chocolate-colored writing, was a recipe.

Kole and I asked my mom if we were allowed to make cookies. We weren't sure it would be OK -- with Oliver staying -- and that vague issue he was known to have when it came to sweets. But chocolate chips were so alluring. And there was more: The recipe claimed to make seven dozen cookies. Was that even possible?

My family had a small plywood table at that time. The grain ran crosswise, and you weren't supposed to lean on the ends -- they overhung the frame and downward pressure would crack them. We didn't have more plywood and it seemed important that our table didn't break; we warned visitors about this danger promptly.

"Careful! Don't lean on that part."

We asked Oliver if he minded if we baked cookies. He nodded politely. Still, we worried about what might happen.

That evening my mom cleared the table off. As we slid each tray out of the cookstove, we spread the hot cookies in rows on the table. The air hung with the chocolaty smell. We didn't eat a single one. We waited for the last tray to come out. It seemed important to try to make 84, as the bag promised. Kole and I always had a need to verify numbers and facts to prove or disprove claims the world out there sent our way.

The final count was 47, disappointing, but still a lot of cookies.

Oliver sat on the flat sawhorse, one leg crossed over the other, his wrists crossed on his thigh. He wasn't fiddling with birch boards or filing tools into more agreeable tools. He was looking over all those cookies.

I remember watching him -- what we'd done was like baiting a fox trap -- and suddenly feeling bad. Mom had said Oliver had health problems connected to sugar. I don't remember what problems, just the feeling that we should have waited. But people often stayed for weeks back then, and that yellow bag was magic waiting to be unwrapped.

Of course, we wanted Oliver to stay. Back then, kids in cabins out away from neighbors and other children counted on adults like Oliver to show them amazing things, like how to clamp chunks of wood and bits of metal in the vise to saw, file and form into tools. And I guess men like Oliver counted on families for comforts such as warm cookies.

I don't remember whether he got sick. I know he ate cookies, because we watched him, and eventually he steamed the strips of birch and formed two pairs of snowshoes. He soaked caribou hides in a washtub to slip the hair and made a knife to cut the skin into strips of babiche. The strips were rubbery and he used them to firmly lace the snowshoes. Afterward, he let the babiche dry and it shrank and drew tighter.

Now, four decades later, I still have the larger pair. I've traveled miles and years on those shoes. I only wish I'd paid attention as he eyed the grain of the wood and laced the intricate pattern.

During that month he showed Kole and me how to make crooked knives for carving spoons out of spruce roots and how to anneal used files in the stove, to soften the metal to then file into knives. He showed us how to quench the steel and boil chunks of caribou antler in water until they were soft enough to pound onto the tangs for handles. And finally, to soak ugruk hide to form into sheaths.

It was a bold and worldly feeling, to climb into your pants in the morning and walk around as a seven-year-old with a knife on your belt -- one that you'd made yourself, just yesterday, with Oliver.

One spring Oliver camped by Amoktok Slough, along the bluff here. He walked to our home almost every day -- our only company, of course -- and worked with my dad building a kayak, skinning it with canvas, painting the canvas to keep it from leaking. When the ice went out, he went back upriver. In a second kayak, I think, that he built at his tent. Maybe from his tent.

This fall I walked up Amoktok. I was hungry, needing meat, searching for a porcupine. Oliver's old spruce poles still lean there, up against a big spruce. Across the river, too, are the gray timbers of another of his camps. Cranberry plants grow up the sides of abandoned poles. Upriver, there are igloos he built and lives he touched, folks from Kobuk to the coast who remember him.

Now I know Oliver really did live through the Great Depression and World War II, where as a young man he was a radio operator on a B-24 bomber. Like memories -- so far back they feel no longer your own -- it seems inconceivable that the kind gentle man we followed faithfully to the workbench had been a soldier in that terrible war.

He had been shot down over Europe and traveled hundreds of miles in hiding with Yugoslavian partisans, to eventually reach safety in Italy. Maybe his health problems started during that time of starving and strain behind the Nazi lines.

Later, he married and moved to Kotzebue and then to the north shore of Kobuk Lake. From there he moved up the Kobuk River in 1962 and built a sod igloo, and then more of them on the north end of Ambler.

One spring, after the ice had gone, Oliver again showed us something new. He had said we had to wait until sap was running in the trees, and finally it did. He cut a section of willow and we gathered around.

That is how I picture him, how I see his face clearly, with his ears sticking out and his broad lips and his hands fashioning a section of willow into a stubby flute-like whistle. He then scored the bark, tapped it all around with his knife handle and wrapped his lips around it -- to get it wet to further loosen the bark.

"Spittle," he explained.

It was a new word for us, and of course it rhymed with Oliver's other favorite word: whittle. Spittle, and the way he did, it was a little unnerving, and I remember paying attention, but looking away too, from that glistening saliva.

Regardless, the willow whistles he showed us how to make were marvels that fit into your pocket. Walking the game trails barefoot, you could blow notes whenever you felt the desire. To this day, I can't make them work the way he did. Basically, they don't work at all. Somewhere along the years I forgot some important notch, or the shape of the flat area under the bark, or something.

Down the hill here, below the cache Oliver helped my dad build, is a clump of willows that grow straight and true. When the sap runs, occasionally I wander down with my knife. I try to resurrect a perfect whistle. But it never comes out right. It never whistles and I wait more years before I try again.

Thinking about that lets loose a string of memories and in the dark by flashlight I hurry over to our old workbench and paw through the drawers. Under screwdrivers with red plastic handles and blue hacksaw blades, sure enough, there are old handmade tools.

A tear comes to my eye when I pull out a tiny antler-handled saw. My saw! How could I have forgotten my saw? Oliver helped me make it. I loved that little saw like a friend for so many years. I used it a thousand times to cut antlers and willows, spruce roots and forked limbs for slingshots.

I pull out a crooked knife, and an awl. Kole and I loved the awls we made with Oliver, always so sharp and perfect for putting holes in ugruk and moose hide.

Finally, I find what I've forgotten but somehow knew was here. A flat spruce handle -- the folding saw Oliver made with us almost half a century ago. When I lift it the two hand-filed blades swing out and the stub of a third, snapped off at some point. Peened nails rivet the ends of the handle tight. In green and red marker are the faded words: KOLE & SETH.

Wind blows outside and under my small circle of light I remember more. Oliver walking with me out on the tundra. He's tall, long legs in wool pants, worn leather boots, him peering at small trees, searching for the perfect one. It must be thin and narrow, and a black spruce -- whatever that means.

I don't know spruce can be black and white. Only that Oliver is helping me make a bow. And of course that means arrows, with tips and beautiful split duck wing feathers, and each arrow pierces another memory. More memories of that quiet, earnest, eminently resourceful man we all knew as Oliver, up and down this river, along the shores of my childhood.

Seth Kantner lives and writes from his home in Kotzebue.

Seth Kantner
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