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Super Bowl pool in Cordova bar leads to stunning discovery of Kodiak kin

It was the evening before last year's Super Bowl, and I was in Cordova, shooting pool at the Alaskan Hotel and Bar. I stepped up to the bar to order another whiskey ginger when an older man approached me, "Do you want to join the Super Bowl pool?'' he asked. He had glasses and was of medium height, thin with a baseball cap and tan skin. He looked to be in his 60s.

"Ah," I said, "I would, but listen to this luck. My plane is leaving at kickoff! I'll be in the air for most of the game!'' Honestly, I was more upset about the missed cheese dip and hot wings than the football, but when the Seahawks played in the Super Bowl, even I had to make overtures toward giving a damn.

"Where are you heading?'' he asked.

"Home, to Kodiak,'' I responded.

"I grew up in Kodiak. Ever heard of Village Islands and Blue Fox?'' he countered.

My head shot back with the blunt force of that innocently posed question. There were no places on earth more connected to my family geography than the two that he had just named. My family had spent decades in those two spots, places with too few people to even be considered settlements. It was like he had tossed a dart towards the Gulf of Alaska and it had landed directly on top of my house.

"Yes,'' I said, surprised and somewhat suspicious. "Did you know Slim Trueman?"

"You mean my Grandpa Slim?'' he countered with a similarly bemused expression.

"You mean my Grandpa Slim?,'' I said. I thought that Slim, the grandfather of my two youngest siblings, only had two children of his own, my stepdad and my aunt.

"Wait a minute, I didn't know that Grandpa had children!'' his voice echoed my thoughts. "I lived with Slim and my Grandma Matrona. We spent summers setnetting at Village Islands and winters at Blue Fox," he said, the tenderness audible in his voice. "I guess we are family."'

At this point, a handshake seemed too formal, so we embraced after exchanging names. He was Curtis, and he had lived with Slim from 1959 to 1965, from elementary school and through adolescence. Slim was estranged from his natural family when Curtis lived with him. After being stationed in Kodiak during World War II, Slim returned to Washington and divorced his wife, leaving her with two tiny children. He returned to Alaska immediately and started setnetting in Uganik Bay, on the west side of Kodiak Island. When fish traps were banned at statehood, Slim staked setnet sites where fish trap piles were previously driven. Outside of salmon season he trapped around Afognak Island, using the old fox farm nestled in one of the bays as his most permanent home. He is remembered as a pioneer setnetter on Kodiak Island.

"Did you also spend time there, at Blue Fox and Village Islands, with Grandpa?" Curtis asked.

I told him that by the time I was born, the family's fishing empire was on its way out. We spent summers at Packer Spit, across the bay from Village Islands.

"And Blue Fox, well Blue Fox I haven't been to since I was a toddler. I remember taking a banya there, but that's it. I remember that when Slim stayed the night, mom would put plastic sheets on the couch. I thought he was the Bogeyman."

Slim died when I was nearly five years old. For me, Blue Fox was a place as familiar as a dream you just forgot. It was there -- right there -- but not quite accessible since it slipped from my family's life just as I was gaining cognitive awareness in my own life.

"But Slim, he's buried at Blue Fox. He died in 1987. I remember my stepdad carrying his coffin down to the fuel dock to take him out there. He died just a few days before my sister was born. She would have been his first grandchild. Well, natural grandchild," I corrected myself.

At this, Curtis began to weep through his smile, "I haven't been to Blue Fox or Village Islands since I was a teenager, but I dream that I'm there all the time. Those places are home."

Curtis told me that he lived with his daughter and his granddaughter, who he cherished spending time with. He spoke of his pet crow at Blue Fox, of the cannery on Shuyak Island, of picking nets with Slim.

By the end of the evening we were at his house, pawing through shoeboxes of photos. I remember seeing one photo of Slim when I was a teenager. It was a square photo, torn around the edges, showing him making fists at the camera. My memories of the Bogeyman were so faint that I wasn't completely sure what he looked like. "Is that Slim?'' I asked. But I knew it was, since his face was like my brother's.

Curtis let me borrow a few dozen photos to take back to Kodiak, so that I could share them with my siblings, who didn't have any photos of their grandfather. But there Slim was -- right there -- dancing with Curtis's grandmother in the house at Blue Fox, pulling a salmon from a net at Uganik. Beyond my siblings, I knew that the current caretakers of Blue Fox would love copies. Like me and Curtis, they love that place, that spot of earth that persists even when those who cherish it most move on.

The Seahawks won the next day during my layover in Anchorage.

Anjuli Grantham is a public historian and curator in Kodiak.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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