by Anniel 5/6/16
The Beginnings • Life and love are sometimes (always?) a funny deal. This story is about a marriage that lasted for sixty-one years of joy and adventure. It’s a tale of funny meetings, partings, working, hunting, hurting, but most of all, happiness. Not even the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Let’s start the stream of this story with McCall, Idaho, on the shores of beautiful Payette Lake. My own grandmother and my father had lived there periodically, and Dad fought some large battles with his mother in McCall, but he loved the place.
McCall was also my favorite spot in the whole world from the time I was only three or four years old. I loved McCall, in spite of having to be around Greta (be sure you roll your “r” when you say her name), my great-uncle Oscar’s mail-order bride from Finland.
Greta had a bad case of Finn Skin and thus was one of the most wrinkled women in existence. She spoke (maybe) ten words of English and would jabber to Dad about me in Finn, cackle, and then pinch my cheeks. She scared me to death. She had only a few rotten teeth left in her mouth, her grey hair was in a ratty bun, and her idea of cleaning up meant putting on a clean apron over the two or three dirty ones she was already wearing. She always sewed herself and her grown daughter, Helen, into their long johns when winter came, so bathing wasn’t big on their agenda.
Dad’s Uncle Oscar died when I was a baby, and Greta was afraid of riding in automobiles, unless my dad was driving. So once a year we went to McCall and he drove Greta and Helen, to the cemetery to put wild flowers on Oscar’s grave. My grandmother and Oscar were surnamed “Jarvi”‘ which means “Lake” in Finn, so they used the English name.
Daddy was a renowned skinflint, but always took us for a motorboat ride on the beautiful lake and drove over the Forest Service road to Brundage Lookout on the backside of the lake. Brundage is now a very affluent Ski Resort.
I stayed part of every summer in McCall until I moved to Alaska. I still smell Ponderosa pine when someone says “McCall.” Greta and Helen had a huge Ponderosa in their front yard for which they were offered good money by the big logging companies. My brothers and I always camped under the stars by that tree.
The very first thing on my father’s McCall agenda was going to the bakery in town where he could buy a loaf of real Swedish limpa bread, and he always took me with him. I did not know at such a young age how way leads on way and that Frances, the young girl behind the bakery counter, would one day move to Alaska and become one of my friends, nor that her husband-to-be would be the best friend and hunting partner of my husband, Bear. But life does have a way of surprising us.
Frances grew up to be a very classy lady. That’s how I always think of her, a Lady, in the most admiring of terms. Frances was born in the Dalles, Oregon, where her father lived with his family for her first four or five years. He worked for the Forest Service and was sent out to remote sites for months at a time. He was also a drinker, much to his wife’s dismay.
Frances’ mother sent her and her brother to live on her parent’s farm in Sunnyside, near Yakima, Washington when Frances was four or five until she was twelve. She says she feels sorry for kids who never have the freedom to live and learn to work on a farm.
Her mother then followed her father to his remote assignments and they had two more children. Her father had quit drinking and life was pretty stable when he was sent to McCall with his wife and children, including Frances and her brother. Their father stayed dry, for awhile, then he fell off the wagon and when the police brought him home drunk, Frances’ mom told them to lock him up for the night and she’d bring his suitcase to him in the morning because she never wanted to see him nor have him in her home again, and she divorced him. He eventually moved to Alaska and got a job with the Road Commission, run by the U.S. Department of Commerce in the Territory. Frances did not see him again for many years.
Frances lived in McCall from the 8th Grade through high school, working part time at the bakery. She decided to become a nurse and moved to Boise to attend the Catholic Nursing Hospital and get her degree. One night a friend set her up on a sort of blind-date with a young man named Tony Wolfe, who had a good job with Idaho Power and Light. A good job was an important consideration for people reared during the Great Depression.
Oh my, was that meeting a disaster. Tony, wearing his black leather motorcycle gear and boots, strutted about in all his glory. Frances hated him at first sight. She told her friend, “He’s so much in love with himself.” To make matters worse, Tony didn’t remember ever meeting her. Things were definitely not off to an auspicious start.
After earning her BA in Nursing, but before taking her boards and getting her license, Frances returned to McCall to work as a telephone operator for the summer, and the Wolfe-man was there.
Randall B. Wolfe, always called Tony, was born in Belfrey, (yes, as in “Bats In the. . .) Montana. When he was nine his family moved to Ora, Idaho for a short stay, and then on to a farm in Caldwell. Under Idaho State law children could leave school at 13, which most kids, including Tony, did in order to help out on the family farms. Tony was lively and was probably what was fondly called a “Juvenile Delinquent.” The town sheriff finally suggested that Tony was big and strong enough that he should probably move on and find a job. He went to work as a lineman with Idaho Power and Light, working in a few small towns before being assigned to McCall. There he spotted such a pretty girl walking home from the telephone company that he tried to get her attention. Each evening he offered her a ride home in his cherished convertible, and each evening she stuck her snoot in the air and ignored him completely.
Finally one evening he pulled his car up next to her, marched to her side of the road, picked her up, dumped her in the back seat through the open top and then drove her home. When he opened the door to let her out, Frances stuck her nose in the air again as she angrily stomped up the driveway and into the house. Then her mother, who had watched the car drive up, made a tactical error. She told Frances that she was “never, ever to go out with that Tony Wolfe.”
Nothing makes the “forbidden fruit” attractive like being told “NO.” Frances instantly rebelled and resolved to date and marry Tony, even though she admits he was her polar opposite.
Tony was burly and gruff. He may have had lots of curly dark hair on his head, but he had much more on his body. It curled out of his shirt, both front and back, hung off his shoulders, and his muscular arms also carried a pelt. His head of dark hair began thinning fast, so he eventually wound up looking like the proverbial bald-headed village blacksmith.
Her grandmother, after whom our Frances was named, also carried the last name “Wolfe,” though she was not related to Tony, but his last name endeared Tony to her. Frances claims both her mother and grandmother loved Tony better than they did her.
Tony’s proposal to Frances was a very romantic moment. One night after seeing a movie he said, “Well, I guess we ought to think about getting married.”
“When did you have in mind?” she asked.
His answer makes me laugh, “When you quit smoking. When I kiss you I feel like I’ve been licking a dirty floor.” (Ouch!)
She quit, and they married just a few months after he had thrown her in the back of his car.
Frances never returned to take her Nursing Boards because, as she says, “I began popping out babies.” Theresa was born when Tony transferred to Boise, the two boys, Mike and Andy, were born in Caldwell, and Elaine was born when Tony transferred back to McCall.
Tony and Frances loved each other and were mesmerized by their children. Life was an exciting adventure for them, and they might have stayed in Idaho forever, but a tragedy sent the family on a new path, eventually all the way to Alaska.
One day at work, a day just like the countless days before it, Tony and his co-worker friend were repairing a high voltage line when the friend brushed against the hot wire and was instantly electrocuted, falling dead inches from Tony’s feet. Shocked and aghast, Tony called for help, and never returned to his job. Even though he mostly could find only seasonal and part-time work, Bear says he thinks Tony could not stand the thought of how close he had come to leaving his family without a father and placing hardship on Frances.
Frances’ father now returned to her life. Someone in McCall knew where her dad was and wrote to tell him that Tony was out of a job. Her father was still working for the Territorial Road Commission, U. S. Department of Commerce, at the beautiful Silvertip Station on the Kenai Peninsula. He wrote to offer Tony a job in his Department.
In 1957 the Wolfe family loaded up their four young children, food and camping gear and drove all the way to Alaska on what was then called the ALCAN (Alaska/Canadian) Highway, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the end of WWII. The road was unpaved and either very dusty or very muddy, and the mosquitos were terrible, but the drive was beautiful and so much fun. Then they drove on to Silvertip on the Kenai Peninsula.
The job didn’t pan out because of nepotism rules. The family stayed in Silvertip for a month, and became friends with France’s father and step-mother, before Tony went to work as a Telephone Lineman for The Alaska Railroad in Portage. He was moved to several different places and the family stayed in small homes, furnished by the Railroad, they fixed as best they could. At one point they lived in a two room house where they used empty gunshell cases against the walls for insulation and storage. Frances says they loved what they were doing and where they stayed. Everything was an adventure for everyone in the family.
They were moved to Girdwood, where Alyeska Ski Resort is today, then on to the Village of Matanuska, and Frances was once again pregnant. They happily made plans for a home delivery, with Tony acting as coach. About five weeks before the baby was due, Tony, who was a junk man at heart, decided to go into Anchorage for a car auction. Frances was leery about him leaving, but he reminded her they still had five weeks before the baby was due. What could possibly go wrong?
Tony had been in Anchorage for only a few hours when he called to check on Frances and the kids and she told him, “Get home because the baby is coming NOW.” He drove like a madman, but baby Laura put in her appearance before he got home. For years Tony told everyone that when he got there he couldn’t find the scissors so he had to tie off the umbilical cord with shoe laces and then bite it in half. He was kidding, but everyone believed him, including me.
The Railroad closed the Depot at Matanuska and transferred Tony to Wasilla, where their last child, another girl they named Frances after her mother, was born. She was always called Franny.
In 1959 Tony transferred once again, this time to the Village of Talkeetna, named after the place “Where Three Rivers Meet” in Athabascan. The rivers there are the Susitna (Sand Island River in the Dena’aina language of the Athabascan tribe living there), the Chulitna (Strait Hand or Tongue River), and the Talkeetna (River of Plenty.)
Talkeetna is where first Bear, then I, would come to know and love the Wolfes and other characters who called it home. Bear says about 150 souls, including dogs and cats, were permanent residents when he moved there in 1966.
LIFE magazine once published an article that said: “Alaska is the Terminus for schizophrenics, and Talkeetna is the Terminus of the Terminus.”
Next time: Tales of the Talkeetna Terminus. • (659 views)