One thing about us northerners; we love to tell northern stories. Our stories are our wealth and our identity. As a kid, I skipped a lot of school to spend time in bush camps and traplines with my dad. In the evenings, after a supper of caribou stew and bannock, we’d gather around to listen to his stories about life before airplanes and electricity, when people scraped a hard life off of a hard land. The men and women in his stories were independent, hardy, and full of character. Though life was difficult, they liked to have a good time when they got together, usually Christmas, Easter and after the river ice breakup in the spring. Those good times made for good stories. When my dad got going, you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. He held the floor.
Now that my dad is gone, my older brother Gerry holds the floor whenever we gather. Gerry caught the last of the old way of life and has the stories to prove it. Though I caught the tail end, I still remember those stories and how to tell them. Now I tell stories about my own friends and my own life. Since Gerry is not here, I’m holding the floor. I want to tell you about a friend of mine. Pull up a chair.
I have a childhood friend named Chris. I met him when I moved to Aklavik during sixth grade. The early seventies were a hard time for kids in small communities. There was a lot of alcohol and violence, and a lot of them had to fend for themselves. I myself was escaping a gang of bullies in Inuvik who needed someone to beat on ‘cause they were getting beat on at home. So I schemed up a plan to finish grade six with my Granny and Grampa Thomas in Aklavik. I had way more fun over there anyway.
I made a host of good friends in a short time, including Chris. He had a quick smile and great attitude despite the cards he was dealt. We were both outcasts in our own ways. But we found solace in one another. We loved digging forts into snowdrifts and running blindly through blizzards. I got a few good whippings from my Granny because of Chris.
We reunited years later on the rough-and-tumble drilling rigs of the Beaufort Delta. Though we were barely out of our teens, we worked like men (and drank like them too). After years of that lifestyle, I quit the partying and hung up my hard hat. I went back to school to study filmmaking and started my second career. But some of us have deeper ghosts that we just can’t seem to outrun. The unfortunate ones get swallowed by the darkness. Most don’t make it out. But Chris did. He went to the deepest place a human soul can go. And even when his soul was burning, Chris could still find his shit-eating grin and say to me, “I’m still here, man.”
Chris only stood five-eight and maybe weighed in at one-fifty, but was made of pure sinew. But he could crush a beer can with one hand when they were still twenty-six-gauge tins. Chris had a run-in with the law one winter and spent it in the hoosgow. While he was in there, he lived in the gym, eating peanut butter by the jar and bench-pressing weights. When he got out, we naturally reveled in his freedom.
Inuvik’s was celebrating in its twenty-fifth anniversary and there were all types of celebratory events, including an arm-wrestling competition at the infamous Mad Trapper bar. We’d been on the Warpath all day and were feeling no pain when we got there. We missed the main competition but the referee announced an open challenge to anyone who wanted to arm wrestle. They’d given out these ridiculous giant foam cowboy hats and Chris had one pulled down over his ears. He looked like he belonged in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Chris walked up to the stage and the referee asked him whom he wanted to challenge. Chris said, “The biggest guy in here.” After an uncomfortable silence, no one came forward. The referee suggested to Chris that he should perhaps lower his expectations. There just happened to be a couple of Edmonton Eskimos in town, for the celebration, and one of them walked up to the table, to everyone’s amusement. The guy plopped his massive elbow on the table, with a thud, and opened his baseball-sized hand. Chris slapped his hand into the linebacker’s, with dramatic flair, and everyone broke out in laughter. Chris anchored one foot against the stand and dug the other into the hardwood behind him. The referee positioned their hands and went through the rules quickly. He counted down from three, and let them go.
One thing about being in prison … you don’t call cower, or you’ll get eaten alive. Because before the linebacker could blink, Chris threw his weight into his shoulder and cocked his wrist inward, creating a stubborn brace. At first, the linebacker turned and smiled at the crowd as if to say, Well well, what have we here? When he realized that Chris meant business, he tried to get his arm back. But Chris wouldn’t give it. We all thought the guy was just humouring Chris, and we let out a collective groan. But the linebacker’s muscles tightened and we could see him struggling. Once we realized that Chris actually had him on the ropes, we went apeshit. Every son of a bitch in the bar, worth his salt, was on his feet and shouting at the top of his lungs for Chris to beat him. The linebacker’s partner, realizing that they’d eat this for the rest of their lives if they lost, was on his knees, shrieking and pleading at his friend, to save their asses from humiliation. It was an ear-splitting screaming match. The roar must have spilled out the door, ‘cause two cops came running in with their hands on their holsters. The linebacker’s eyeballs rolled back in his head and a gob of snot shot out his nose as he gave one last grunt to try and break Chris’s grip. The force of the linebacker’s arm lifted Chris’s feet right off the floor and he hung there like a wolverine hanging off a grizzly bear’s throat. By that time, the bar owner was trying to hold his roof down ‘cause we were taking it down by the second. Chris turned to us with his shit-eating grin and winked. I don’t remember the rest ‘cause I was getting too drunk. Needles to say, Chris never bought another beer that whole weekend.