One of my best memories visiting Big Bob Aiken in Barrow occurred when we let some air out of the tires on his truck and drove onto the beach, to the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
"Welcome to the top of the world," he said in his deep rumble of a voice.
On a different trip north we rode around town, me on the back of his four-wheeler, holding his middle for balance. Just the other day, a short while after I learned Big Bob passed away at 62, I rolled up my jeans leg and peeked at the scar obtained cutting my leg on that ATV.
Silly thing to do, but we all react in different and sometimes odd ways when we're hurting because someone we care for dies. We choose to smile at pleasant thoughts so sadness won't overpower us.
I knew Big Bob for more than 25 years. We met at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks in the late 1980s. I was writing for the Anchorage Daily News and Bob was a legend of Native sport, an athlete I had to meet.
Not that you could miss him. Big Bob was smaller than he used to be, but still NFL-lineman-sized. He stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 350 pounds then, down from 500. Bob didn't have the meanness in him to play football. His was a gentler soul; a giant of a man who loved kids. They gravitated towards him for hugs whenever he entered a room.
Bob excelled in the Eskimo stick pull, Indian stick pull and four-man carry, all strength events symbolic of Native activity in the wilderness. Heck, he probably could have carried 10 kids at once, never mind four 150-pound males the way the rules read.
Once, I ate dinner at Bob's family home and his mother made seal stew with carrots and potatoes, only with saltier meat than beef. Good stuff, but he couldn't get me into muktuk. It was so chewy I could never conquer it with my bicuspids and practically pulled jaw muscles trying. Bob made fun of me, drolly noting it was an acquired taste.
Bob had a delightful sense of humor. It was low-key, but he sneaked barbed one-liners into conversation, often straight-faced, so you didn't know if he was kidding. Usually, he was. But Bob was super-serious about WEIO, its history, its meaning to Alaska Natives, and was true to its traditions and did not want to see them edited.
After Bob retired from competition he returned each July to WEIO and often acted as master of ceremonies, informing the fans, many of them tourists at the Big Dipper or Carlson Center, what they were seeing. Bob was very much a keeper of the WEIO flame.
Another long-ago year, I traveled to Barrow to watch the Christmas Games, the local games competition. Back then I hardly knew a soul in Barrow. Half the town was in Hawaii on vacation. Hanging with Big Bob in the bleachers when it was 30 below outside was how I spent my vacation.
More recently, not much, though, Bob and I collaborated on a book about his life titled "Muktuk and Mukluks: The Life and Times of the World's Largest Eskimo." These days it's easier to find first-edition copies of Harry Potter books. That is a shame because Bob's life story was worth telling.
The last few years were hard on Bob. No longer the strong man, he was captive in Anchorage, 800 miles south of home, battling insidious diseases from kidney cancer to heart palpitations. Much time was spent under doctors' care and for the last couple of years, undergoing kidney dialylis.
My sense, based on Facebook and email, is that Bob became more religious in recent years. He didn't seem to fear death, but if he welcomed heaven as a destination I still think he at least wanted to switch planes one more time in Barrow. People everywhere loved Big Bob, but in Barrow more than anywhere.
He sometimes came across as dejected, and I think the last message I sent him said "Hang in there." That's something you say when you really don't have anything to say but know courtesy dictates you say something.
The last Facebook message I received from Bob – posted the night before he died – and not read by me until after he passed, was a photo of him wearing one of his cool hats (he looked spiffy in fedoras and pork-pie hats), in front of a large black vehicle. I'm not sure what make it was.
His notation was that he had just secured the vehicle of his dreams. Darn, I hope he got to drive it.
Lew Freedman covered sports for the Anchorage Daily News for 17 years.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing