Remembering James Nicholas
James was like a member of the family at the Angstman home in Bethel. He helped around the yard for about 30 years, but his involvement was way more than a helper. James was never hired for the job, he simply showed up one day when I was hitching dogs, and gave me a hand. The next day he came back at the same time, and I was hitching again, and he helped again. He adapted his life to our schedule because he liked what we were doing. He helped with the dogs, with netting and caring for fish, with hunting and taking care of meat, and anything else that came up outside. He wasn't interested in inside chores, and was rarely asked to help. After a couple of weeks I started paying James, never a lot, but sometimes payday would be a problem for him. Soon I started paying his rent and utilities instead, and a few other items like a boat, motor and gas, and things went better after that.
One time James went to Anchorage for a vacation and didn't make it back for a couple of years. When he returned, he walked past the window of my office without coming in and went straight to the dog shed and started cleaning it up. I had a handler at the time who came in and asked who the old guy was working in the shed. James didn't introduce himself, cause there was no need to. He had work to do. After about an hour he came in the office and said hello, and he came back everyday after that again without any mention of a job or pay. I paid his living expenses plus a little pocket money from then until he became ill and retired about 3 years ago at age 80. He was still a very hard worker even then.
James was like no other person I have ever known. He represented a way of life that has all but disappeared in our region. James learned his ways from old time Indians, and chose to stick to the old ways even when all the folks around him were becoming more modern. He liked hunting, fishing, mushing, trapping, and taking a ride in the country. He only drove an outboard and snowmachine because he had to, but he never learned how to fix them, unlike almost all of the older Native men he knew. He carved, he helped plant trees, he cut trees for sleds, he made the sleds by hand, and he kept a little garden. All of these things he had learned from the old timers, and he never wanted to give them up.
One time I had a big batch of wood delivered for fire wood. I hired a guy with a power splitter to do the job because it was a huge job for James alone. James showed up and the other guy was busy splitting. James came by and asked me what that guy was doing. I told James and he wasn't happy, so he set up with an axe right next to the machine and cut as fast as he could, and I think he cut more wood that day than the machine did.
Hunting with James was entertaining for me and my family and friends, and I made sure to get him out on one or two trips every year. He knew how to camp like no modern guy ever will. Whatever he needed he found back in the woods, and he could throw up a lean to with a fire in front quicker than I could imagine. He would never let a fire go out, probably cause he learned that from old timers who didn't have a steady supply of matches. One time in the mountains our caribou camp was on a lake with only driftwood willows. We worked hard all afternoon to gather a big supply of wood. By morning, it was about half gone without a lot more to collect. I asked James to let the fire go out after breakfast so we could have enough wood for the evening. That worked for about 1 hour, when I noticed him restarting the fire. We spent much of that trip gathering twigs. In Bethel, we would gather small driftwood along the bank to extend our wood supply. James explained he didn't want anyone to see him gathering "old woman wood". Another time we raised a couple of pigs in our yard. When it came time to harvest them I asked James to help. He refused saying those were kind pigs, and he raised them and wouldn't help killing them. This from a guy who once killed a bull moose with an axe. Of all the things I learned from James, maybe the best was learning to sleep under the stars when the weather was good. I saw him do it, tried it, and realized it was an old Indian way that made sense.
But James was more than just a helper. He was always around the office visiting after the chores were done and all of the crew I have had over the years loved having him around. He would shovel the snow, mow the lawn and generally make himself busy, but mainly made people happy. When I posted news of his passing on facebook, many of my former staff chimed in with their memories of James, all fond of course. My favorite comes from Hsini Russell, a young intern who worked in the office around 2005. This is an exact quote from her facebook posting about James.
Hsin-i Russell: This makes me sad. He struck me as an integral part of Bethel family life. My favorite memories: James fishing and visiting the fish camp; his afternoon sits in the office; and Christy complaining that he egged on the dogs pulling me in the rookie race. The best was his farewell hug when he squeezed my ass. You have our condolences.
He flirted with most of the women who worked in the office, and when asked if I should tell him to stop, most said of course not. The highlight of every August was his office birthday party, usually pizza, which was widely attended.
But it was my family who cherished James the most. He served the role of an Uncle to my three kids, and they all learned that his unique ways were to be treasured. They all went on outings with him and marveled at his outdoor skills, and also found him of course to be the kindest and gentlest person they knew. I noticed that they went out of their way to see that James had a little better life, making sure he was included in family events and that his modest needs were met. His passing has reminded them all of the place he had in our family. He leaves behind a hole that will never be filled.
I have stories about James I could tell until break up, but I will choose only one final one that sort of explains my fascination with James. He and I did not always communicate well, because he elected not to understand all my instructions about what needed to be done. He spoke a fairly basic form of English,and always told me he really missed the old language. His curiosity extended mostly to natural things. Of course he did not have a lot of formal education. One day we were loading sand into the back of my truck out of town on a warm day. James never liked the heat, and after digging a bit we were both sweating a lot. We stopped and leaned on our shovels. He said "too hot" which is a phrase he used often. I agreed. After a long pause James concluded "I just don't understand how those camels can live in the desert".
I had never thought of it that way.