Note: The following encompasses roughly month 9 through month 24 of my 24-month contract in Bush Alaska.
So, it’s kind of a morbid habit, but every now and then I Google the phrase “Sidney Huntington obituary.” Last I checked, it still returned no exact matches. That’s because Sidney Huntington is literally the toughest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.
I haven’t seen him in about eight years at this point. Today he’s nearly a hundred years old and still kicking around Alaska somewhere, probably in his home town of Galena where I met and got to know him well enough to become regular poker buddies.
You can find lots of information about Huntington from all sorts of sources. He even wrote a book about his life many years back that’s become something of an Alaskan classic. In a nutshell, he was born in 1915 just below the Arctic Circle into an indigenous Athabascan culture that was still hunting and gathering off the land in much the same way it had for centuries. During his century of life that way of life was decimated in just a few generations and then forcibly rebuilt in the name of “progress and modernization” in the image of the place I come from, most often referred to — more than a little derogatorily — as the “lower 48.”
Huntington himself has been something of a bridge between the old world and the new. He spent decades working to preserve the valuable hunting and fishing resources that had always sustained his ancestors while also fighting to bring a modern education and opportunities to the youth of Alaska.
But the story of his life has all been told before, this is all just necessary context for a joke Sidney Huntington once told that was nearly perfect and taught me the value of patience when it comes to springing a fantastic one-liner at just the right moment.
After about a year in Galena, a fishing buddy who had grown up in the area called me up and asked if I knew how to play poker. Sensing an interesting behind-the-scenes of the local culture sort of adventure, I quickly answered yes and he told me to meet him at “ol’ Sid’s house” right away. Right away was 10 p.m. on a Friday and Sid’s house was a two-story sort of shack in the middle of Old Galena, the part still prone to frequent flooding from the Yukon (considered an attractive feature to most tough sons of bitches.)
It was technically true at that point in my life that I did know how to play poker. However, what I did not disclose is that I didn’t really have a clue how to bet and had rarely played for stakes higher than pocket change with my younger cousins at New Year’s Eve in the suburbs. What my friend failed to disclose (or did not know) was that the term “poker” in Bush Alaska encompassed a whole galaxy of esoteric card games that would never be found at a felt table in Nevada or the kids’ table in suburban Denver.
Nonetheless, I arrived at ol’ Sid’s and sat down to a table attended by a majority of the town’s Native patriarchs. I was the only person not born and raised in the Bush at the table, and the palest gambler by far.
That first night, I stayed past 2 a.m., I learned several new card games at the hand of my surprisingly patient tutors, and I lost $700.
I surely would have lost more if Sid hadn’t intervened at a few key moments and told me I was making stupid bets. These warnings elicited frowns and laughs from the other faces at the table, but rarely were they challenged by the others.
Over the next year I would receive the call — always late in the evening — sometimes fortnightly in the slow winter months, and far less frequent during busy summer fishing months. I was always the only white guy at the table, and we always went past two a.m., with Sid often outlasting the rest of us until four or later. I got to be pretty good at some of those esoteric games, and I never lost as much as I did that first night.
For the most part I broke even, but I left the table with a wealth of stories and anecdotes from the Bush — like the time — in the 1960s, perhaps — that Sidney was returning from the trapline one 30-degree-below-zero night on a snowmobile and the machine went through a hole in the ice into a shallow section of the Yukon. Far from home, he dragged the thing out of the icy water by himself and quickly made a fire from gasoline and frozen wood to keep from freezing to death himself.
Today, I don’t remember those lesser known games, but I’ve retold the history of the region through the anecdotes I heard at that table countless times. From the boarding schools that Native baby boomers were sent to, to the role of the U.S. military in Alaska and the Native Claims Settlement Act, I heard about it all between servings of Pilot Bread and games of “7 or 27.”
So right, the joke.
Eventually came my last visit to Sid’s table. My contract at the radio station was up and I was planning my next long-term adventure in Asia. I shared the news with those around the table who weren’t yet aware and then we settled in for another five-hour marathon of cards and commentary.
Preparing to depart from the table into early morning temperatures dozens of degrees below zero could be a bit of a process. A gambler’s departure from the game was not announced vocally, but by the beginning of the bundling up motions which sometimes took several minutes, followed by a solemn wave and “so long, Sid. Good night, fellas.”
At 3 a.m. that last night, I was down just slightly and satisfied with leaving a little of my money in Galena. It was Sid’s turn to deal, and rather than ante, I began to bundle up instead.
At that moment, Sid took the cards from the table and promptly threw them back down in disgust. He stood from the table with surprising agility for a 90-year-old man and declared:
“That’s it! We’re all done. We finally got everything back from the white man! No need to continue.”
He then disappeared into the back of the house without another word. It was a classic walk-away one-liner.
Only after we all finished bundling up did he re-emerge. He shook my hand, wished me luck and patted me on the back as I walked into the frozen moonlight with the rest of the men who had just been calculating their next ante moments earlier. It was the first time that Sid had quit before everyone else and sent the rest of us home at once.
Only on driving home did it hit me. I had just been the punchline to a joke Sid had been planning to deliver the entire night, just waiting for me to make my move so he could execute it with perfect timing. It’s also possible that it was improvised, that he had always possessed such razor-sharp wit and lightning-timing all along, even at 4 a.m., but the man I know is much more cunning than that. For all I know, he had been planning to deliver this line for decades and was just waiting for the right Caucasian foil with a passing knowledge of cards to come along.
Whoever finally has the sad duty of writing Sidney Huntington’s obituary, perhaps another hundred years from now, I hope they add a critical line: “Sidney Huntington, often a leader, also wasn’t afraid to claim the last laugh.”
Photo credit: Alaska Dispatch, Loren Holmes