Column: My Father's Hands

    Harold Axel Stolpe trolling from the wooden river punt he built.

    The first time I remember being aware of my father’s hands was when I was three. I wasn’t very tall, nor powerful. Standing on a main street of Juneau for the first time in 1962.

      The “Big City” life bustling around this small Little Norway-born boy.

      Before me loomed a large theater marquee that demanded I see “Hatari!” and the posted billboard showed John Wayne screaming at me to do so.

      I was terrified.

      So many people.

      So many lights.

      Too many days away from our own Mitkof Island home.

      Then my father’s large hand swallowed my tiny feeble one.

      Its warmth flowed down my arm to my torso and into my tiny black rubber boots.

      Looking up I could only see his hand.

      His huge muscled fingers pulsating life. I knotted my fist and he ever so lightly squeezed me back.

      My father’s hands had done a lot before that gesture.

      They had developed from their own Swedish baby’s grasp to Alaskan grippers.

      My father’s hands stole a train in Canada.

      Well, it was a derelict engine on wilting tracks that the government had left.

      My father’s hands retooled the engine, cut the wood to feed the furnace and ran the iron horse back and forth a half-mile or so until authorities stopped the fun.

      My father’s hands became a man’s far too early, when his father died in the great flu epidemic in Canada.

      My father’s hands led his mother and his sister and brother-in-law onto a steamship headed north.

      He was not yet a teen and his schoolbook education would end.

      My father’s hands learned to build a log cabin on a fox-farming island.

      They built pens and caught foxes.

      They floated the cabin into Petersburg as a home and it still stands today.

      My father’s hands built a house.

      They cut trees and cleared stumps.

      They moved boulders and hauled lumber from miles away.

      My father’s hands installed telephone lines for the Alaska Telephone Company.

      They shot a brown bear on Kodiak Island.

      They brought back two “male” rabbits that turned out to be of opposite sex and bred a never-ending supply of little townsfolk’s’ pets.

      My father’s hands raised the five children of his wife as his own and added two more.

      My father’s hands provided.

      They harvested a goat from Horn Cliff, a deer from Petersburg Mountain, a moose from Thomas Bay.

      They built the family skiffs, long flat-bottomed river punts that would pound along the water’s surface until we little ones would crawl into the bow and fall asleep.

      My father’s hands steamed the oak planks that bent about the skiff frames.

      They ladled the molten lead he harvested from discarded telephone cable into homemade casts and produced weights and trolling balls for fishermen.

      My father’s hands caught fish.

      They hoisted species of bottom dwellers across the rails and carved them out on the deck with seven sets of childish eyes in awe.

      My father’s hands poured concrete.

      They fixed broken machinery.

      My father’s hands did not know how to play catch with a young boy but they placed large rocks where I could bounce a baseball back and forth.

      They taught brothers how to hunt.

      They crafted wooden sleds and skis.

      They swung an axe in forests out the road and hauled out cords of firewood.

      They pulled me from the water when my five-year-old body fell from the docks.

      They set me on shoulders higher than a mountain.

      They were not afraid to use a razor strop if misbehavior continued.

      They wiped a tear when my grandma died.

      My father’s hands would hold my mother’s.

      They shook my own when I finished seventh grade, a year more of school then he had ever hauled a book to.

      They would rest on my shoulder when my heart was broken by a first love.

      They were awkwardly in his pocket on my high school graduation, thrust deeply inside the workers overalls that would be needed at a job any moment.

      My father’s hands did all the things for grandchildren and townspeople that they had done for me growing up, that I took for granted when I followed my own hands out into the world.

      My father’s hands became ill.

      They had done more heavenly good than was allowed on this place and were needed somewhere else.

      The last time I was aware of my father’s hands was April 22, 1993.

      My father’s hands had cradled his head during a brain aneurysm days earlier.

      They gently caressed his years of toil, so tenderly that we thought he had fallen asleep sitting upright.

      They would bear the tubing that fed my father for a few days.

      They would not flinch when doctors and family decided they should be allowed to rest.

      My father’s hands lay spread like large road maps many had opened and folded.

      The man I had become was instead that needy, loving child again.

      I squirmed my tiny knotted fist inside his fingers and clasped them about my terrified youth.

      My father’s hands pulsed a final comforting reply.

    Above - Harold Axel and Patricia Anne Stolpe in 1959.

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