Goodbye, Akela

When I was a little boy, one of the highlights of the week was attending the weekly wolf pack meetings of the 54th Dunbar wolf cubs. When my brothers and I joined, we got second-hand retro uniforms, green caps with yellow seams, and neckerchiefs that were half navy blue and half sky blue, held together by a funny little thing called a woggle. We walked into the little old wood-floored hall attached to Immaculate Conception church just west of Dunbar in Vancouver, and were welcomed into a group of young boys who were led by a man with a strong Hungarian accent and very little hair. The cubs called him Akela, and along with his assistant Bagheera he led our pack every week. We had races to reach candy at the other end of the hall, played various team sports, learned to tie knots, sang campfire songs around a little contraption that was basically a few small logs nailed together with some translucent orange plastic cut into flame shapes lit up by an incandescent light bulb in the centre, and lots of things I no longer remember.

One time we were playing floor hockey outdoors across the street, and the ball flew over the low chainlink fence. As was our habit, a number of us would compete to get over the fence and get the ball back fastest. I jumped over the fence but my shoelace got caught on the fence and I fell headfirst onto my face on the concrete, chipping one of my relatively new two front teeth. Akela checked that I was OK, and I think he let me keep playing, though I can’t be certain anymore. Maybe we got ice, maybe not. My tooth is still chipped, and I’ve always thought of that as a fond memory. Akela didn’t baby us, but he treated us well and always showed us that he cared. I had a huge amount of respect and admiration for him.

He was a wolf cub leader for many decades. I was lucky to be in his pack for 4 years, which was 1 year longer than usual but I enjoyed it so much they let me stay through the end of Grade 4 when Dan and Matt had already joined the older boys in Scouts at another hall a couple blocks north of there. In those 4 years we went camping 12 times to Camp Byng on the Sunshine Coast. The first time we went, I remember climbing into the back of Bagheera’s huge camper van with my brothers and some of the others to head to the ferry. I had never been in a van that had an oven in it! Akela took us on nature walks through different parts of the 200 acre camp, pointing out and giving the latin names for all sorts of plants, and I’ve never forgotten pseudotsuga (Douglas-fir). He also taught us about Western redcedar and other local trees, and the edible Oregon grapes, salal berries, salmonberries, huckleberries, and sorrel leaves easily found in our BC rainforests and on mossy bluffs. He would whittle away at little bits of wood he’d picked up, making a little spoon or paddle with his Swiss Army knife. He reminded us frequently that we were not to kill any wild animals or bugs, with one exception: mosquitoes.

Akela would make us stand in a circle outside in the early morning and do his version of yoga like the “slow boat to China” lowering ourselves as slowly as possible into a crouch, as if we were to continue lowering until we went down through the Earth and came out the other side (of course such a tunnel would really have had us come out in the ocean to the south of Africa, but we didn’t know that). Akela taught us to use a bow and arrows; I for one was amazed to see an arrow fly with so much power into a target or, occasionally a tree behind it. He also taught us a game called kick the can, which was loads of fun as the tin can was placed in the centre of a clearing next to the lodge while we all ran and hid in the dense forest around it, so getting back and through to kick the can without being tagged was extra adventurous for us kids.

Of course Akela had a legal name outside of scouting circles: Stephen Sothy. He was actually born and raised as István, but after escaping the Communist regime in Hungary by jumping off a prisoner train and gradually making his way by foot and regular train beyond the Iron Curtain, arriving eventually in Canada, it was easier to give the English equivalent – Stephen. To me and my siblings, outside our wolf cub events, he was Uncle Stephen, husband to my mom’s older sister Cecilia, who died in February 2010 from cancer.

Uncle Stephen alternated between calling me Christopher Robin or Christophoro. He brought us huge rhubarb stalks from his garden, occasionally invited us over to pick his amazing raspberries in the backyard, took us kids up the gondola to the top of Grouse Mountain with Aunty Celia, helped her run a booth at the May Fair at their church, wore a Santa hat at our annual family Boxing Day party, and cracked jokes left, right, and centre. At Bowen Island, if we saw a hat hanging way up on the deer antlers in the hall, we knew Uncle Stephen was there. As we sat in the living room at Bowen, kids playing cards or reading old books and older Readers Digests on the couches and seats lining the walls, we knew we’d hear despairing gasps from Mom, Aunty Celia, or Granny if Uncle Stephen was playing Scrabble with them at the card table in the centre of the room – he took the longest out of anyone to decide what letters to play.

Stephen Sothy, Boxing Day 2008

One time when I was still very young, probably in the late 80s, Uncle Stephen’s blue early 80s car pulled up in front of our house on W 41st. I remember going out to the car, and Aunty Celia was the one driving. She liked driving very fast. In the passenger seat was Uncle Stephen, happy as usual, and he showed us a big sewn-up scar on his chest. He’d had a multiple bypass heart surgery, one of a number of heart surgeries he’d have over the years. Another time, many years later, he was the first person to have a new type of stent put in his heart.

On New Year’s Day 2017, Uncle Stephen started feeling dizzy and short of breath while having coffee at church after mass. He had three new stents put in that afternoon, and we visited with him in the evening for a couple of hours at St Paul’s hospital. I managed to see him in hospital one more time three days later, just before I left to South Sudan. During my next short break home in late May, I drove Lisa and Aunty Pat over to his house in Dunbar and sat with him for a little over an hour, helping him sit up and rubbing his back like he asked, massaging his neck a bit, and repositioning his legs, heavily swollen from congestive heart failure. Aunty Pat told a good joke and Uncle Stephen laughed his usual laugh and said it was the funniest joke he’d ever heard. He asked me where I was going next for work, and I told him I was leaving the next day to Yemen. He told me to take care of myself and stay safe, I gave him a hug and said I love you, and he said I love you too, thanks for your visit, and we said our goodbyes.

Uncle Stephen, “Akela”, was moved just over two weeks later to a hospice, where he had frequent visits from family every day until he died Friday, June 16th with his son John by his side.

Stephen Sothy, Bowen Island, August 2009