HodgePodge: Old Steve – a boyhood hero remembered
By Charlie Hodge.
This morning’s ‘spring cleaning’ found me knee deep in shed treasure when I discovered (stumbled over) my ancient backpack. Seeing it transported me back to a special time.
“My saints and Aunt Hanna boy, what are you doing,” the weathered, gnarled face, framed by an exaggerated set of ears, bellowed. “That is not how you carry a knife.”
The sinewy man was no more than five foot-eight inches, but his sleek frame promised a powerful strength and toughness coiled within. Great creases and scars crossed his forehead like trenches dug across a battlefield. Straight, jet-black hair combed flat back only added contrast to his large, bulbous, red nose and flaming red face. He was imposing.
“I was j-j-just walking with it and…
“What ya was – was not thinking. You were stupid. Stupid dies. Knives aren’t toys – they’re meant to do one thing and one thing only, cut. They do it very well, especially if the person with the knife is very good, or very stupid. You are being stupid. Put the knife in its sheathe, now!”
My childish frame shuddered fearfully as I whisked the knife into its cumbersome pouch. It was the first time in my life Robert Nelson Stevens barked and I jumped. That one-sided conversation was the start of a wonderful friendship. I was nine years old; Old Steve was 50-something.
Still at cub camp the next day, held at the Okanagan Anglican Church Camp on the shores of Okanagan Lake, ‘Old Steve’ taught me how to clean a Rainbow trout. The grizzled camp caretaker was a master when it came to using a knife.
His varied lessons never ended. For the following 30 years Steve remained one of the major influences and best friends in my life. Steve was like a second father, giving me glimpses into several worlds I’d have never known otherwise.
One of 10 children born to a B.C. miner-blacksmith near the turn of the century, when his mother died at age seven Steve and several siblings were sent to an orphanage. The facility was a nightmare, school lessons came hard. Failing to memorize an entire page of scripture by day’s end resulted in numerous strappings and rods. On his 13th birthday he was turned onto the streets of Vancouver.
Steve found work at a ranch busting horses however a horse busted him first, crushing his skull with a hoof. He survived the kick but suffered bouts of epilepsy the rest of his life. Healed of horses, he went to work at a mill learning a trade in carpentry. When the Depression hit the mill closed and work was non-existent. For more than a year Steve rode the rails looking for work throughout the nation, but work was scarce and times harsh.
Eventually he sought a wilder yet safer world and headed into the Yukon and Northwest Territories looking for gold, trapping fur, and leading pack-trains. Several years later, filled with frozen fingers and battles with bears and wolverines, the call for soldiers reached the north and Steve finally felt needed.
However even the army turned Steve away due to his epilepsy. Instead, he was given work building military facilities moving from one work yard to another – Penhold, Esquimalt… wherever orders were given.
When war ended he continued as a shipwright despite breaking his back falling from a scaffold. He met a young lady, married, and started a family. Within a few years Steve was offered a position building boats in Victoria, but his wife wanted no part of the move. Steve took the job saying he would return home on weekends. When he returned the following weekend his wife and children were gone.
Steve began drinking that day and never stopped for 13 years. “I was a fool.”
Most of that wasted time was spent on Vancouver’s Skid Row, though again he rode the rails of Canada numerous times. He frequented numerous drunk tanks and jail cells across the land. One day he simply decided he had had enough and quit drinking. “I just walked away from it.”
Soon after leaving booze doctors told Steve he had leukemia and would not live long. Refusing to be hospitalized he bought himself a pack board and literally walked into the ‘Interior’ of the province, virtually over the Rockies’ Coastal Mountain Range. Five months, three broken ribs, 14-pounds lost, and a rattlesnake bite later, Robert Stevens arrived in Kelowna fit and lean.
Within a few weeks he’d procured the Anglican Church camp caretaker job. Miraculously, when rushed to hospital for a second snake bite it was learned his leukemia was gone!
Soon after Steve became a regular member of our household, a frequent for Sunday dinners, always at Christmas, and even occasional visits to the rink to watch me play hockey. Most often we spent our time fishing, or alone in the hills where he and I were both happiest. He taught me how to track almost everything. We hunted occasionally, but he knew that it was never really in my heart. Mostly we just watched, listened, and grinned.
Many an hour was spent in his rustic cabin; wood stove roaring up a pot of thick gruel he’d insist was coffee. A million and a half butts from his hand-rolled tobacco filled the ashtrays, and the stories went on and on.
For a man of little education he’d read libraries of books. No greater love of books have I known. A book a day was possible for him to consume and comprehend. His language could peel bark off a tree and no greater temper had a grizzly bear. He was a cantankerous old codger, even in his mid-life, and I loved him dearly.
Steve taught me to see things through the eyes of the hurting and lost. He lost a lot of things in life: parents, family, youth, innocence, trust, wife, kids, job, control, self-respect, and 13 years. Steve lost a finger to a saw blade a hunk of another over a bottle of wine. Yet Old Steve found in me the kids he lost, the mistakes he made, and a chance to somehow try and do better.
Lessons came hard in life for Steve, but in the long run he was too wise to be stupid forever. He also saved my life a couple of times.
Christmas Eve a few years ago one of my dearest companions died. ‘Old Steve’ lived to be old after all.
I miss him. However I still have the memories – and his old backpack.