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The last ride of the man called Overshoes

When your given and legal name is Edward Roy Overton from Laval, Quebec, and you are a former Canadian paratrooper and Korean war veteran who first viewed the Yukon from beneath...

When your given and legal name is Edward Roy Overton from Laval, Quebec, and you are a former Canadian paratrooper and Korean war veteran who first viewed the Yukon from beneath a silk canopy while drifting above Kluane National Park on pre-deployment airborne maneuvers in the early 1950s, maybe it’s inevitable you would be handed some kind of Yukon nickname, and “Overshoes” was the one that stuck.

In subsequent winter training jumps into the Upper Lakes near Lake Bennett, Overton decided he would settle in a Carcross cabin if he survived the war and live out his days with a fishing rod, so impressed was he with the mountains, lakes and scenery. Of course, when that day finally arrived, even idealistic vets need jobs to survive and Dawson City had lots of those with the dredges so Overshoes settled into a 25-year visit to the Klondike which he always considered temporary.

As soon as he made and saved enough money for his dream cabin near Carcross, or Tagish or Atlin, he would live out his fishing fantasy and that would be the last anybody would hear of the old warrior.

That day never came. By the time I met him in Dawson in the early 1970s, he was a middle-aged fixture in the heart of the Klondike and one of the most popular and well-liked men in town who may never have had another enemy once he gave up on war.

He tried “the company” - Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation - briefly working on the thawing crews but said it reminded him too much of the military with its hierarchy and no overtime. He next tried working for Parks Canada’s historic sites branch on the restoration crews putting new foundations under the many old buildings in Dawson scheduled for a new lease on life. He found he was ideally suited for this kind of work because of his height, which he called “five foot, nuttin.’”

Short and strong were attributes for working under buildings and Overshoes was both but he found his true calling in life by bartending, notably in Hank DuBois’ Downtown Hotel where he and his buddy Patty Kane entertained customers with their stories and jokes as much as their off-key singing.

That was how he met the Clear Sky Boys from central Alaska, a friendship which proved pivotal and, ultimately, fatal.

* * *

The Clear Sky Boys were cold warriors, highly trained civilian contractors who worked on a mysterious military base located somewhere close to Clear, Alaska just a short distance south of Fairbanks on the road to Denali and Anchorage. Their jobs were “top secret” and they were not allowed to discuss them with anybody.

One of them once took me aside and said: “Look, we all know you are just a nosey young friend of ours from Canada but you’ve got to stop with the questions. Technically, we’re supposed to report anybody who questions what we do to our security people, who you don’t want to meet. Our work is classified intelligence and all you’re doing with your questions is making all of us feel uncomfortable, OK? So clam up.”

I suspected “the base” was a Distant Early Warning site and their jobs were to be the first line of defence in the event of a surprise Russian nuclear missile attack at the height of the Cold War. I also surmised it was a suicide job because married men were not allowed to do it.

If the Russians ever attacked to start WW III, Washington wanted the first nukes to detonate over central Alaska, not the nation’s capital. And they were all paid ridiculously big money to see that it happened that way.

There were seven of them, five from Washington and Oregon and one each from Idaho and Minnesota. In a nutshell, they all got rich by spending their working careers in a remote Alaskan bunker waiting for the Russians to attack. Off duty, they were all avid hunters, fishermen and party animals, typical Alaskans who sported big, bushy beards.

They looked more like hippies than cold warriors, which was part of their cover. It was a ritual every spring as soon as the snow was gone from the Top of the World Highway between Tetlin Junction and Dawson City to head for the Klondike for a weeklong soiree, which is how they got to know Overshoes.

The ringleader was a short, stocky airplane enthusiast from Oregon named Bruce Hardin who got married and had to quit his job. So he purchased Clear Sky Lodge which was their off-duty party base. Overshoes introduced me to all of them on one of their spring jaunts and I was immediately accepted because any friend of Overshoes was a friend of theirs, even if he asked too many dumb questions. It also helped that I had served in the U.S. Marine Corp. and was a Vietnam veteran. They respected that.

After so many trips to Dawson over the years to party with Overshoes, they were frustrated that they were never able to talk him into coming to Alaska so they could repay the hospitality at Clear. Hardin told me they tried everything to get Overshoes to Alaska, including offering to fly him over in Hardin’s prop, but they couldn’t get him out of Dawson because he was an avid gardener in the summers and liked to hibernate in the winters.

Finally, an opportunity presented itself and it was all my doing, something I’ve never been able to forgive myself. If I hadn’t taken Overshoes to Alaska, he might have lived to become an old man instead of dying at the young age of 47.

* * *

Overshoes loved boxing, a true fight fan and be could talk for hours about it, even though he’d never seen a championship fight in person. His favourite fighter was Joe Louis and his favourite fight was when Louis KO’d Max Schmelling, Hitler’s fighter. That was the fight when Louis said: “He can run but he can’t hide,” which Overshoes quoted frequently.

Although I wasn’t a fight nut like Eddie, I was a big Muhammad Ali fan and I knew his upcoming third match with Joe Frazier was going to be a classic. Frazier pounded Ali in the first one, knocking him on his butt in the 14th round, the first loss of his career. Ali won the second with his speed and footwork, which kept him out of range of Frazier’s lethal left hand, and it was anybody’s guess who would win the rubber match.

I knew the fight was going to be shown in a theatre in Fairbanks on closed circuit, so I phoned Hardin in Clear to see if it was possible to get tickets and told him I was trying to talk Overshoes into coming with me. That was all he needed to hear and he phoned back saying he had 20 good seats and everybody in Clear was going to arrange a week off work if I could get Overshoes out of Dawson. The party was on.

Eddie wanted to see the fight so bad, it really wasn’t much of a chore to talk him into it. His only worry was his house freezing up while we were gone for two weeks, but a friend volunteered to keep an eye on his place.

Since it was winter, we had to take the long route to Alaska, which meant going down to Whitehorse for a couple nights at Cal Miller’s Capital Hotel, where Patty Kane was bartending, then up the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks and another hour south to Clear. Going through Kluane, he pointed out the exact spot where he first parachuted into the Yukon and fell in love with the place, near Slim’s River, and we spent a night touring Second Ave in Fairbanks, which was like Dawson City with nothing but saloons. We tried to have a drink in every one but were not successful because we were outnumbered.

Then it was off to Clear for a week of pre-fight partying and anticipation and you would have thought Overshoes was visiting royalty the way he was treated. It was beyond red carpet treatment with a huge wild-game feast every evening, unlimited free drinks, two complimentary rooms and a veritable parade of partying Alaskans who came out to finally meet this Yukon legend they had been hearing about for years.

And he didn’t disappoint. Overshoes knew when it was show time. He must have done his FDR imitation 20 times for different audiences: “We, the people of the United States of America, hate war. I, your president, hate war. My wife, Eleanor, hates war ... and I hate my wife, Eleanor.”

The Clear Sky Boys wanted Overshoes’ week in their town to be memorable, something they would never forget, so they arranged bands to play in the lodge, and their jobs may have prevented them from having wives but there was no mention in the regulations about girlfriends. They were all over the place and they all wanted to dance with Eddie, who surprised me with his outdated footwork and stamina.

Alaskan women are crazy, even the ones who think they aren’t, and Alaskan parties don’t end early. They go on for days. After a dance, one asked me the time, which I told her was five o’clock, and she said: “Morning or evening?”

I won’t recap the fight, that’s been done elsewhere many years ago, but Overshoes, the fight expert, agreed with the decision in Ali’s favour even though he was pulling for Smokin’ Joe. He made a comment about Frazier jabbing with his head that summed it all up. Frazier must have thrown 50 big left hooks in that fight which hit nothing but air. Ali was just too quick for him.

On the way back down the highway to Whitehorse, Eddie said the whole thing was one of the best experiences of his life and he’d never forget any of it. When we got to Whitehorse, he was aglow telling Patty and Cal some of the stories of what we saw and did in Alaska, and I felt good knowing Overshoes had a full magazine of stories to get through the rest of the winter.

Within a week, he was dead.

The friend who was supposed to look after his place, didn’t. The pipes had burst and his kitchen looked like a glacier. Instead of moving into Hank’s hotel and working on drying his house from a distance, he stayed in it during the cold snap and got pneumonia. His funeral was the biggest and saddest I ever saw in Dawson. It was like the whole town lost its best friend.

He’s buried in the Dome Road cemetery.

Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.