Story by Hank Nelson of Wasilla, Alaska
New Alaskan 1989
Reprinted with Permission
From the beginning, O.K. Joe was born to be a logger. It is academic now but there was a time in Joe’s youth when his fate might have been otherwise. Joseph Otteson Knutsen was born into a very wealthy Bostonian family. His mother, Elizabeth, was a pianist of some worth and her husband, Knute, was a first-rate baritone. Elizabeth Knutsen gave Joe his long name hoping it might inspire him to become a world renowned musician, but he did not have an ounce of musical ability. Merely singing “Happy Birthday” was a social embarrassment. What did interest young Joe was the life of a lumberjack. Two summers spent with Uncle Fritz in a Maine logging camp took care of that. It was only a matter of time until Alaska… the last frontier for tramp loggers… lured Joe north.
In Ketchikan, Joe hired out and hitched a ride on a float plane to a logging camp. Tom Moran, the camp boss, wise to the ways of tramp loggers, met Joe at the dock. Joe stepped off the plane wearing a sheepish grin and clutching a gray duffel bag. “Whatcha got there, friend?” Tom inquired. “Now don’t tell me it’s a sack of Christmas bells I hear tinkling. What’s the name?”
“Joseph Otteson Knu. . .”
“Hold it, hold it,” he said, lifting up his hand. “Ya got anything shorter’n that?”
“Okay, Joe. Let’s have’er.” Tom snapped his fingers.
Joe held the duffle bag close to his heart. Tom pointed to the plane. He was about to speak to the pilot, when Joe gave in.
“Okay… here it is. Just a stiff one or two for after work.”
The camp boss looked into Joe’s duffle bag and then back at Joe. “Looks like you brought enough with you this trip for a good many stiff ones! Okay, Joe, report to the bull cook and… THESE will be waiting for you at the office. You can pick ‘cm up at the end of the job.” Those who witnessed the event remembered. From that day Joseph Otteson Knutsen was simply known as O.K. Joe.
Now it was several years later and Joe was at another camp on Prince of Wales Island. Each day the snow line was creeping, inch by inch, down the flanks of the mountains. The countryside seemed laden and expectant, waiting only for nature’s command to begin winter. O.K. Joe started thinking of things like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and shutdown! The weeks passed. The snow came and drove the loggers from timberland. O.K. Joe and his brethren flew to town to begin waiting for the spring startup.
O.K. Joe walked along the sidewalk on his way to the mission. The sky was sullen gray. It was morning and Ketchikan was coming to life. The prospect of a long, inactive winter chilled him. Christmas and getting together with everyone for the traditional dinner at the mission was the lone, bright spot for Joe. He had done this each Christmas for the past 10 years, and looked forward to the occasion. However, this year would be different. Word had come to him that his old pal, J.C. Carlson, had been killed in an automobile accident up north. J.C. had always played his fiddle at the Christmas dinner. He would be missed.
Christmas was less than a week away but he was not in a holiday mood. He was flat broke! His last paycheck and bonus checks were gone. They had filtered through his fingers like dry sand. Even his unemployment compensation, usually a breeze, had hit a snag and was delayed. Being broke at Christmas time was pure misery. Joe decided he’d volunteer to help the mission gather toys and clothing for distribution before Christmas. The holiday season was in full swing. Displays and Christmas decorations adorned the shopping mall. Sounds of Christmas carols playing over loudspeakers added to the festive mood, but the gleaming gifts on display might just as well have been from a different world. They were for other folks who could afford them.
O.K. Joe walked on past to the downtown area, past the saloons and Pawnshops. Then he saw it! Ahead of him, crumbled up, lying on the middle of the sidewalk, was a bill! Instinctively, Joe quickly glanced around. Without losing stride, he bent down and scooped up the money. He walked quickly down the street and pushed the bill deeper into the pocket of his trousers. No one rushed up to him. Joe stopped, then carefully withdrew the money. It was a new crisp twenty dollar bill.
Now that he was unexpectedly prosperous his mind explored avenues of possibilities. What O.K. Joe wanted most was a stiff drink, but he knew what the first drink would lead to… and twenty dollars would not go far. A bottle of cheap wine would be more like it. As he toyed with these alternatives, he reminded himself of his vow to stay sober during the Christmas season. O.K. Joe had been the recipient of a gift, for whatever the reason. Somehow, it didn’t seem right to squander it. He stuffed it back into his pocket. The sooner he was out of town, out of temptation’s way, the better off he’d be.
O.K. Joe began walking then he stopped abruptly. He couldn’t believe his eyes! There behind the plate glass window of Klever Mueslix’s Pawn Shop was J.C. Carlson’s violin with a “For Sale” sign on it. He opened the pawnshop door. A tinkling bell, attached to the top of the front door, summoned the proprietor. His grim face reflected a “don’t bother me unless it concerns business” attitude. “What can I do for you?” he mumbled, as a man who had posed the same question a million times before. His eyes sized up O.K. Joe. To Klever Mueslix, he looked like a man down on his luck and about to ask a favor. He braced himself.
O.K. Joe cleared his voice. “I was just wondering about the fiddle you got propped up in the window.”
“You interested in buyin’ it?”
“No… I was just wonderin’ about the guy who left it here. It’s just like the one a friend of mine, J.C. Carlson, owned. I never thought I’d see his fiddle in a pawnshop.”
“Look, I don’t ask questions. People come in wantin’ money… for one reason or another. They fill out a form that makes it legal, in case it’s stolen goods, and I give ’em the dough. When sixty days is over I got a legal right to sell it. Could be the ‘fella’s name was Carlson. I don’t ask questions and I don’t run a charity.”
Later Joe spoke to Father O’Cain and told him about the fiddle. O’Cain nodded and added, “Yes, Mueslix is a hard man. He’s successful and owns a lot of property, but I’m afraid there isn’t a whole lot of charity in the man.” There were still nearly two days left before Christmas. O.K. Joe thought hard about J.C.’s fiddle. It had meant a lot to him. It wouldn’t be right if a stranger bought it; Maybe he could talk to Klever and work a deal. Joe walked down the avenue, along the waterfront. The sun had come out and though its orb was low, Joe welcomed its cool warmness.
Klever was not happy to see him. “Look here, your buddy’s already been here twice today an’ I’ll tell you the same thing I told him, I’m not running a charity. I’m running a business. Two hundred in cash or no deal! Saavy?”
O.K. Joe swallowed hard. “J.C. Carlson alive! You seen him this morning?”
“Didn’t I just tell you? Sure, I saw him. He was in twice, like I said.
“Well. I’ll be. ..Merry Christmas, Mr. Mueslix!”
Down by the waterfront, J.C. Carlson sat on the edge of the dock, his legs dangling. He was gazing across the water. O.K. Joe couldn’t believe it. He was alive!
“Hey, J.C., where in the world did you come from?”
J.C. swung his head around and smiled. “What’s the matter, Joe? Think you seen a ghost?”
“As a matter of fact, that isn’t too far from the truth. The guys at the mission said you’d been killed in a car wreck last spring near Tok Junction.”
J. C. laughed. “No, sir. I’m all here. Wait a minute, I’ll pinch myself to make sure. Yep. . .it’s me alright.”
“What happened, J.C.?”
“I was hitchhiking. Caught a ride up north, little ways out of town, we hit a moose… broadside. Driver got a broken jaw and me, a few bruises. The moose got the worst of it. We landed in a patch of muskeg ”
O.K. Joe shook his head. “You sure were lucky you didn’t get hurt worse.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Joe. Maybe the Big Boss is saving me for something He wants me to do.” He was quiet for a minute. “You know, I’ve been thinking, Joe, ever think much about God ‘n’ stuff like that?”
“Sure, I guess so, J.C., same as everyone else, but I ain’t too keen on religion. I’ll tell you one thing though, there’s got to be a reason for the ways things work out sometimes.”
Joe changed the subject. “Do you want to go and have a talk with Mueslix about your fiddle? I could put down twenty dollars and maybe he would hold it until we
figure something out.”
“I appreciate it, Joe, you wanting to help and all, but Mueslix expects the whole thing paid in full. You know I really hated to part with that old fiddle, swore I never would. It belonged to my Daddy. He had rambling fever when I was a kid. Just left one day. I went back home once. She held me, Maw did, the day I said goodbye. I could have stayed but Alaska is home. We’ll probably both die here with our corks on.” They laughed. Old horses want to die in their traces, miners with their picks and shovels in hand, fishermen making their last seine, golfers on the last hole; it seems frivolous, but that’s how O.K. and J.C. wanted it, to die with their boots on. Joe remembered the time a tree uprooted and almost killed him. A log could up-end, a widow-maker drop out of a tree, or a line could snap in two. A man just never knew… it was probably a good thing or he wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.
The hours leading to Christmas Eve passed swiftly. They busied themselves making deliveries for the mission. It was after dark when the last truckload was delivered. Heading back, O.K. drove slowly by the main entrance of the mall. He saw the Salvation Army volunteer ringing the bell. It happened fast. Joe opened the door of the truck and quickly dropped the twenty dollar bill in the kettle.
Christmas dawned clear and crisp. The morning passed swiftly. The dining hall began to fill. Camaraderie and good tidings permeated the room. Joe could smell aromas of baked turkeys and hams, dressing, gravy and pies. When everything was ready Father O’Cain cleared his voice and asked for a moment of silence. Just as he was about to bless the food, the main entrance door opened and Klever Mueslix stepped inside. He removed his hat and nodded. “I didn’t mean to intrude, but I wanted to drop this here fiddle off for Mr. Carlson.”
For a moment, J.C. was speechless. “Thank you, Mr. Mueslix. I… I don’t know just what to say, ‘cept thanks.” Klever looked around the table. He fidgeted nervously with the brim of his hat. “Well… this being Christmas, I knew you all gathered here each year and figured you’d need some music.” As Klever turned to leave, Father O’Cain said, “We’d be pleased, Mr. Mueslix, if you’d stay and have dinner with us. We’ve plenty and you’re welcome.”
O.K, Joe placed his hand on Klevees shoulder. “Here, I’ll grab an extra chair and you can squeeze in between me and J.C.”
Father O’Cain gave the blessing. He looked at J.C. and smiled. “Do you have .a song for us, Mr. Carlson?’
J.C. stood up and walked to the head table. He took the fiddle out of an old case battered by years of travel. J.C. hadn’t played for a long time. He picked it up and tucked it beneath his chin. The bow scraped across the strings, striking a few hesitant notes. He began playing “Amazing Grace”. The first few notes were discordant and ragged. Then the music became bolder. The single instrument became symphonic, filling the room with reverence. J.C. finished, then gently placed the violin on the table. His gnarled fingers, bruised by years of harsh contact with countless chokers, lovingly caressed the curves of the silent wood.
“J.C., that was beautiful,” Joe said in a voice choked with emotion. “Guess that shows how an old fiddle can sound in the hands of a master?”
“No,” J.C. replied,”only when it’s been blessed by the MASTER’S Hand.”
Photo of Hank Nelson from the 1960s.
Note about the Author:
Tough fingers that pull the trigger of a chain saw daily are equally at home gently stroking the keys of a typewriter. Hank Nelson, faller at Coffman Cove, loves the people of his trade and in particular that disappearing unique breed of man, the tramp logger. This Christmas story is fiction but the characters and circumstances represent a compilation “of those I’ve met during the couple of decades God has blessed me to travel the timber harvesting circuit from Oregon to Alaska.” Multi-talented Nelson describes himself as a writer, editor, musician and maker of stumps.