Alaska

Growing up, as I did, being a part of a service family, my parents tried to instill certain values into each of us kids. As I was the oldest, I received the initial brunt of these attempts. My dad was not what you would call lovable. He had a penchant towards reacting first, and providing a non-apology later. One of my earliest recollections of him was when we lived in Alaska. I must have been about six then.

One day, he was on the roof using a giant snow scraper to push the drifts that had accumulated off the edge and to the ground. I pestered him almost continually to let me come up there and help. Finally he relented and I shakily climbed the ladder. My eyes were closed all the way up and, when I reached the roof, he had to grab me so I wouldn’t fall backwards.

Together ‘we’ pushed mounds of snow across the roof and down into the yard. When all of it had been removed I suddenly realized that I would have to go back DOWN the ladder. Oh, no, this wasn’t a good idea at all! I was petrified and wouldn’t get near the end of the ladder. Finally, highly vexed, he grabbed me and TOSSED ME OFF THE ROOF!

I fell for several centuries, screaming all the way, until I landed flat on my back in a huge drift. For a moment, I was stunned. I couldn’t utter a word, or cry out. Then, the sides of the hole I had made began toppling inwards and I was buried. I estimate now that the drift was about five feet deep and I couldn’t have sunk more than two or three feet into it but in my young eyes I was buried alive.

I struggled for the surface, gasping and choking, to finally break free into the sunlight. He was still on the roof, doubled over with laughter, at my plight. At the time, I didn’t see the humor at all. With as much dignity as I could (being six years old) I stomped over to the door and went inside to tell my mom about his deed.

I never did find out why she started laughing also but I suspect that it had to do with all the snow that was packed into my snowsuit – and where it was packed – since it was open down the front the whole time.

Another snow-related event: I was walking home from school one dark day (this being winter, darkness fell around two in the afternoon) and made the decision to cut through a back yard. As I began wading into deeper and deeper snow I finally realized that the snow surface was beginning to meet my gaze directly ahead, not at my feet or knees. I panicked a little and began flailing away with my arms trying to make headway, but those efforts only made the snow fall on top of me. I began to cry.

An unseen person began talking to me in a calm voice: “Hi, little boy. Are you all right?” I tried to turn, but my entire body was stuck fast facing forward. I wailed louder.

The calm voice floated closer to me and I began hearing crunchy footsteps approaching. In a moment, I felt the snow falling away from my back. Soon I was free to turn around and begin clawing back the way I had come.

After several lifetimes, I was free. As I mumbled my thanks, the kind person said “lucky you didn’t get much further.” I didn’t ask why, but only went on home – using the streets instead of any old shortcut.

Reflecting on this event years later, I have come to the conclusion that if I had managed to get farther, I would have probably sunk into a very smelly depression. Being Alaska, it simply wasn’t possible to make a hole deeper than about two feet or so because of the permafrost. Permafrost makes common dirt as hard as granite and to make holes, you had to use dynamite. This was expensive and most people couldn’t afford it. Community sewer lines didn’t exist so any house where I lived had to have a shallow pit out back to contain ‘leftover people products’. Need I say more?

One of our neighbors kept sled dogs all year around. At night it was somehow comforting to hear them sing to each other from their doghouse roofs. I could fall asleep to their soothing, low, long drawn out howls.

One day, my mother told me that she had talked to the old guy who lived around the corner that had the dogs. He had invited us (her and I) to come over and see them.

Up close, a sled dog was terrifying; especially to an eight year old. We went to each one in turn and they were allowed to snuffle our gloved hands. Once this ritual was over, the lead dog was unchained to come see me. At first, I thought he might just think I was food and snap my hand off at the elbow but he turned out to be just overly friendly. In short, he smacked my chest, knocked me flat on my back and began tasting me. Perhaps he was aiming for a much larger meal.

His name was Bruno and he was pure Malamute. A Malamute is a descendent of dogs raised by the Mahlemuits tribe of Western Alaska. Their appearance is very similar to a huge wolf. They are immensely strong and are still used today as sled dogs.

Back then, I knew nothing of this, only that I had found a new friend. Bruno and I began a relationship. I would come over most every day and feed him bits and pieces of beef or moose carcass Jed (the old trapper who owned him) had gotten from the butcher. He, in turn, would let me harness him to the small one-person sled and we would mush our way around the block. Words such as “gee” (right) and “haw” (left) entered my young vocabulary. The word ‘mush’ itself wasn’t in Bruno’s repertoire; instead, Jed had used the more popular “hike!” “Easy” (slow down) and “whoa” (stop) almost completed the commands. A slight kissing sound was the opposite of “easy” and meant for the team to speed up a bit.

As I gained more experience in controlling Bruno, Jed allowed me to make friends with the rest of his team dogs and eventually I worked my way up to a three-dog team. Bruno was always the lead dog. He had the rest of them well trained and once he started running it was sometimes very difficult to get the team to stop.

One day I surprised my mom by inviting her for a ride in the sled. She climbed in and wrapped up in the bearskin comforter. I shouted “hike!” and off we went. Over the fields we went. Wind whistling past my ears, laughter erupting from my lips, and icy snow flying everywhere. We careered around corners in controlled slides, me stomping (jumping up and down, actually) on the brake to prevent tipping, and zooming down the straightaway. This was probably the first time my mom and I had had a completely private time between just the two of us.

We zipped up and down the semi-plowed streets for probably an hour, occasionally passing Jed’s house to see if it was time for us to stop. Finally, he stepped out on his porch and held up a hand. I shouted “easy” when I first saw him and “whoa”-ed to a stop directly in front of his walk. I felt like a real drover right then. Jed and I unhooked each dog in turn (never unhook more than one at a time – they tend to get into brawls) and took them back to their huts and fed them. Bruno was the only one that was allowed to run free. He knew where to go though and stood ready for his praise from all three of us. He seemed to say “thanks for letting me please you”.

Note to law enforcement: the Principal at my grade school kept a paddle the size of a ping pong paddle (only made of leather) that was used for most any infraction of her law. It was used on me a bunch of times, but I suppose I deserved it; I was kind of unruly and would punch guys – hard. “But, I was only kidding” is not a viable excuse in the Territory of Alaska in the late 1940’s. Alaska didn’t become a state until after I left. The Feds would have stopped her I bet.

Summers are very short in Alaska. Ours fell on a Tuesday in July I think. Just kidding. We had been planning a camping trip up to a place called Circle. It is about 150 miles North of Fairbanks, but, back then, there was no real highway that went that way. What everyone used was called a highway, but was really just a muddy cow path. My dad owned two vehicles. One vehicle was an old surplus Army Jeep and the other was a Ford Model A. The Model A was chosen for the trip. The Jeep was nice, but it sat much lower to the ground than the high-wheeled A; especially when we packed it up.

Circle, at that time, was the furthest North you could drive on the North American continent. The “road” stopped dead at a small parking area a mile out of Circle because the mighty Yukon River swept by on its way to the Bering Sea. At this point it was said to be over two miles wide – and three feet deep.

There is an adjoining township (back then it was a simple camp) named Circle Hot Springs. The hot springs back then consisted of a smelly hole in the ground with green algae growing on its surface. We kids weren’t interested in dipping nary a toe into it.

We set up camp in a flowery field and walked to the Yukon. My Grandmother and Grandfather made the trip with us so she showed me how to skip rocks. I get pretty good at it too. I could make them skip seven or eight times before they lost enough momentum to sink. My brother only made huge splashes because he couldn’t figure the angle of entry correctly; and, I suppose it would have been easier if I told him to use flat rocks.

The next morning we discovered that several bears had invaded the town dump overnight. My brother and I amused ourselves by throwing rocks at them for a while but got bored when we couldn’t make any one of them eat our baby sister. Bears are no fun.

The Chena River flows close to where we lived and, in the winter, it is completely frozen over. Bridges are not needed as roads would simply drop down to the bank and cross to the other side. I don’t recall any vehicle ever falling through the ice while we were there. In the dead of winter, at noon, the brightest part of the day, a Winter Jamboree was held. This consisted of all sorts of games and contests out on the ice. My absolute favorite was the jalopy race. Twenty or more cars, stripped to chassis, engine, and seat for the driver, would race around a huge oval which was made by scraping the snow down to the ice. Straw bales were placed at strategic points (i.e. corners) so cars would crash into them if they lost traction; which would be guaranteed since they used completely bald tires.

Another ice-related event was the Ice Alarm. This was a small hut out in the middle of the frozen river that was connected to the bank by two long wires. When the ice began to melt in the spring, the hut would begin to move downstream (forgive me) glacially. When it moved far enough to trip a switch attached to the wires an alarm would go off and the exact time was written down. A great amount of bets would be placed on the exact date and time of breakup. The purse for the couple of years I was there ran around half a million dollars – and in the late forties that sure wasn’t hay.

The closest my dad came was almost two weeks late one year and four days early the next. We could have used a gold-plated dogsled or something like that.

As regular as the clocks in the Ice Alarm, when the ice finally broke, the river would rise and flood the surrounding area. We lived high up on a bluff, but we had friends down lower to the river. When they began to get flooded out, we would invite them to stay with us until they could go back to their house. We were pretty crowded but, since we were close friends, we endured. They had a daughter named, I think, Bitsey or Betsey. She and I had to share a bed (she snored) but, hey, to a six year old it’s no big deal. I love the double-takes I get now when I tell people that I slept with non-family girls when I was six.

T.O.M

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One Response to “Alaska”

  1. tom1950 Says:

    Happy to hear that. More to come.

    T.O.M.

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