Friday, November 05, 2010

What's in a Name?

Walter Newman (1934-2010)

"They call me sweetness and I like to dance..."

This life is a mystery for no one knows what hidden secrets await our arrival just around the river's bend. We are all fortunate enough to meet people who have cared for us, wished us well and shared their positive energy enabling us to learn from their wisdom. Just before I met Tamra back in 2003 I worked at the Yukon river garage a few hours north of Fairbanks on the Dalton Hwy. One fall afternoon a boat came downriver plowing thru the waves as a torrential storm had left the 3 passengers soaking wet. They came in to the restaurant to warm up with some coffee. These 3 native men had traveled for hours from the village of Beaver to the bridge where a vehicle was waiting to carry them the remaining miles down the hwy. to Fairbanks. Two of them were just kids, perhaps in their early 20's. The fella with the biggest smile was an elder, his name was Walter. The weather might have been rough but nothing was going to diminish this man's zest to live an enjoyable life. One might ask why they were in such a hurry to get to civilization? Why to play some tunes of course, they were musicians.

All of our Yukon Quest races have been memorable experiences yet for any musher the 1st time on the trail is always the most nerve wracking, anxiety ridden moment they could ever imagine. For me? Well, I was pumped up with too much energy as usual. The night before my buddy Rich and I had been up until the wee morning hours putting my race sled back together after a moose had flattened it. (you'll have to read our book to hear about that one) Lack of z's has never been a problem for me though. In 2000 we only had 1o dogs on our team compared to the other larger 14 dog squads. Not having as much as others was not going to keep me from playing on the trail- where there's a will, there is a way. Three of the pooches I had only recently acquired thus we would end up relying on the "Magnificent 7" to get us to the finish line from Circle City to Whitehorse, some 700 miles. What do I remember most of the starting line that very 1st time? The hat I was wearing- it was a blue and orange Chicago Bears winter cap. It wasn't that warm but it was more for ceremonial purposes. On the back of it I had written with a magic marker inscribing the number #34.

Ask most chicagoans from my generation who their favorite hometown athlete was and a few might say Michael Jordan, his airness was truly magical. Walter Payton however was the MAN.
He wasn't the most genetically talented player. Walter did not covet having the most trophies but he had the golden heart of a child who had an immense passion for life. There was no weekdays and weekends. There is only Today- so let's get busy playing! Now there's a spirit to emulate: dedication and perseverance with a constant smile to share with others along the way.
I'm sure Sweetness would have loved to win a few more Super Bowls but at heart he realized that the opportunity to play the game itself was the greatest trophy. How ironic that many years later I would meet up with a Native Alaskan named Walter who possessed these very same traits!

Walter Newman was a buddy of one of my mushing mentors Mr. Lester Erhart an Athabascan native from Tanana, a Yukon river village. When I lived there many moons ago we would often sit around the table either talking dogs or listening to Lester and the band play some tunes around the table. Throughout all of my travels I've often reflected on the village of Tanana for me it's the true HEART of Alaska. Not only geographically but spiritually. I pity any dog musher who has not had the opportunity to visit there. The People of the Yukon river represent not only where Alaskans came from but our beauty within. Whether it be at the finish line of a race or the Athabascan Fiddlers dance Walter and friends were happy to be alive and were not about to waste much time whining about obstacles that might pop up along the way. Their shining spirits would always prevail in the end.

So herein lies the crux of my problem. Unfortunately Walter Newman passed away at the tender age of 76 this past week. He lived a full life leaving numerous folks with a positive feeling from having met him along the trail somewhere. Walter assumed that I had named one of our main lead Dawgs 'Walter' after him. This dog happens to be our main man, his sister Annie receives all of the media attention but her 2 brothas (Watson is the other one) are typically up in front leading the way most of the time. The crazy thing is that the past few weeks Walter has been putting the other pooches to shame. He's rather large for a race dog, over 60 pds. yet the rest of his nieces and nephews have to give it their best just to stay at his pace. He's not a loping dog like the sprintier hound dogs. Walter's a true husky with a powerful trot that resembles #34 high stepping it into the end zone. Walter just turned 6 years old recently, in Feb. he'll be competing in his 5th 1,000 mile Yukon Quest race. If we are fortunate enough to make it to the finish line once again with him in lead I'm sure that Wally Newman's spirit will be with us every step of the trail.
Cuz we like to Dance...

I'm not sure if it's the magical wilderness of the north, the mysteries of her People or the bizarre karma of H.H. Neff but these eyes have witnessed a myriad of strange sightings often enough to realize that there is far more to our existence on this earth than what people might read in the papers or see on tv. I laugh at those who don't believe in God, a 'Higher power', the Great Almighty- talk about ignorant. Up here we can feel the presence of a greater entity in all we see around us. Up north there really is not much of a need for 'indoor religions' for nature bestows upon us her beauty every day, especially at night when the universe sparkles from above for our eyes to feast upon. We occasionally see it through our fellow human's spirits as well. Walter was defintely someone who took advantage of being brought into this world. And even though I might not have named our dog after you when he was a puppy your character can be seen thru his beaming smile as we head off down the trail in search of what lays ahead.

While reading Mr. Newman's obituary in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner a few days ago I came across an interesting side note to this story. Walter Payton, my football hero, wore the number 34 on his jersey. The same # which I had inscribed with a marker on the back of my hat. Walter Newman was born in the year 1934
-makes ya wonder doesn't it?

Hugh H. Neff
2009 Yukon Quest start. Photo by Carol Falcetta


At 5:57 PM , Blogger irvin wai said...

now thats a cool story well said H.N

At 12:20 PM , Blogger Allan said...

It's a small world when your connected to God!

At 4:01 PM , Blogger Robert/Bob said...

"Up here we can feel the presence of a greater entity in all we see around us. Up north there really is not much of a need for 'indoor religions' for nature bestows upon us her beauty every day..." Amen my brother. God's creation here in the North speaks loudly of His existence and power.


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