A man I can trust

When I first met Paul, he was living mostly in his car. He'd get housesitting gigs now and then, but if you absolutely, positively had to find Paul, you'd look for his '78 Datsun. Kerry and I were staying in a tent at the time, so I guess it all seemed pretty normal. Robin was three months old, the temperature was around zero, and Paul was looking for his next adventure. We were building a log home, and that seemed like fun to Paul, so we went to work.

The previous summer, before Robin was born, Kerry and I had decided that a house you could drive to was in order. A buddy had a bulldozer that needed work, so I fixed it and he let me use it for site preparation as payment. We finished the concrete work before freeze-up, when Kerry was six months along. Paul had been working as a wilderness firefighter, but was looking for something different. Since I had a foundation, a pile of logs, and a saw, I had something to offer.

It was readily apparent to Paul that I couldn't pay him, but I insisted that something good would come from all this. I told him to keep track of his hours and we'd find a way to settle up. As long as we kept him fed and gave him a place to park his car, he was cool. No problem, there was a fat spot in the driveway next to the tent where he could park.

It wasn't totally primitive; we had a wood cook stove under a little overhang and even a phone. In those days, the phone company was so aggressive that all I had to do was build a box on a stick big enough for a phone and they ran a line to it. I was so excited to finally have phone service, I ran right out and bought an answering machine. I was all the way home before it occurred to me that we still didn't have a place to plug it in. Electricity was still three years away at the time.

Paul and I read a how-to book and went to work on some 60-foot logs. Robin spent her long days in a plastic baby carrier we got at Goodwill, and Kerry peeled most of the logs herself. "Peeling" is stripping off the bark and a layer of wood by pulling a knife with handles on each end toward yourself.

We had hired a couple of strapping teenage boys to help at one point, and they could sure peel faster than Kerry - for about an hour. So Kerry would nurse Robin, peel, make meals, peel, sing to Robin, peel. At least I think she was singing. I saw her lips move as she rocked the kid, but the screaming chain saws drowned her out.

The neighbors, about a quarter of a mile away, had guinea fowl, those short, spotted birds that are in a constant state of alarm. One day when we were taking a break, Paul got tired of the birds' racket. So he started his saw and just let it idle during break so we didn't have to listen to the panic.

Paul became increasingly interested in our "mainstream" life. I often had an income, we were married, had a baby, were building a house. One day when Kerry was cutting my hair, Paul got in line. He went from ponytail to downright respectable.

The way I ended up paying for the summer's invaluable labor was by giving Paul half of my cabinetmaking business. He worked as hard as I did, and we built a strong friendship over that next winter. We were old enough to be called adults, but young enough to not have any regrets, no axes to grind. We spent long hours at the shop that winter solving the world's problems, and our own.

By springtime, Paul figured he'd outgrown his car. I introduced him to a terrific friend I had known growing up. They were married a couple of months later in the cavernous log house we had built and not furnished. I helped Paul build his family a house in the same woods. Later, Paul built a place for Kerry's folks just down the road. Over the next few years our business evolved over quite a course. So did our friendship as kids came along and grew up next door to each other.

A couple of years into living in the big house I wanted a better heating arrangement than two really small and inefficient wood stoves. Kerry was feeding the stoves every couple of hours all day and we couldn't keep the house above freezing at night. I landed an old piece of pipe three feet across and seven feet long that was easily converted into an appropriately sized wood stove.

It weighed about a ton. I was not going to have an easy time getting it into the basement and hooked up, but it never came to that. When Kerry and I were away for a couple of weeks and got back to minus 40 degrees F., we found that Paul had rounded up a crew, installed the stove, and had made the house nice and comfy. It was the first time we had not come home to a frozen house after a winter trip.

When Kerry, the girls, and I left Alaska, Paul's family took over the big log house. It only seemed fitting. Now they've moved to California and I think a dentist from Anchorage bought the place. We call each other often, but on the regular indoor kind of phone. I haven't seen Paul and those guys for, I guess, five years. But the whole deal is such a big part of me still. I am fortunate to know a man I can trust.

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