Growing Up Alaska: Never Regret

I have enjoyed sharing stories from my youth and growing up in rural Alaska. There are many more that I could tell and I hope that you have enjoyed them.

As we wrap up one year and venture on into another, I want to look forward and encourage you to do the same. Find your own adventures in life, whether you live in Alaska or not. Your adventures don’t have to include bear encounters or blizzards or mining, but as so often in mine, they include family and friends.

Don’t let life pass you by. Most people tend to regret the things they haven’t done than those that they have.

I missed out on a normal kid experiences; playing sports, dating, having multiple friends my own age. My mom has often apologized for the way that we grew up, afraid of us resenting the absence of these childhood norms. But I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

My world is so much bigger because of it. My life so much more unique. What I think as ordinary and mundane is amazing and unbelievable to others. It was hard and had its own challenges, but so does any life worth living.

Thank you again for coming with me on this journey and I hope that this next year is a safe, but adventurous one for you.

Growing Up Alaska: A Christmas Miracle

Growing up in the middle of nowhere meant that anything you got either came from Fairbanks (128 miles away) or it was mailed in. Whenever the Sears Christmas catalog came in, kids poured over it to see the latest toys and gadgets and dreamt of what we would be getting for Christmas.

It took over a month for shipments to make it to our little community, but we knew, when Thanksgiving rolled around, boxes started arriving at the post office.

Unless the mail planes didn’t fly.

The week before Thanksgiving, a massive high pressure system settled over most of Alaska and our temperatures plummeted to an average of minus forty degrees. And it stayed there, day and night for weeks.

When the temperature dropped to minus thirty, the planes didn’t fly and when it hit minus forty, school was often closed. Cars struggled to run and steel would even crack or break.

Few people left their homes unless they had too. Many homes were so cold that people wore their snow gear inside as ice from their breath formed on the walls. Neighbors checked on one another and shared what they could.

And it stayed like that for weeks.

We moved into December and each day that went by meant one more day closer to Christmas and no mail. I watched as my mom began to worry and wrapped empty boxes under the tree in hopes that she could replace them before Christmas came.

On the evening of December 22nd, the temperature began to rise slowly reaching nearly minus 25, but a wind had picked up sending the windchill well down into the negative 40s.

On December 23rd, the winds grew stronger and carried clouds over the Yukon Valley. We saw the temperature creep up into the negative teens by evening as large snow flakes began to fall. Mail planes tried to deliver the mail, but the storm was too strong and flying conditions were hazardous.

On Christmas Eve, the wind had died down and the temperature hung around zero and the snow continued to fall. Within 24 hours, we’d gotten nearly 18 inches of snow and it showed no sign of stopping.

Christmas was going to be delayed, but not our spirit. The community rallied together and we did our annual Caroling and met up at Crabb’s Corner to celebrate. The celebration that normally lasted only an hour or two stretched late into the evening as people were just happy to be out and about.

We’d stayed later than normal and were one of the last families to leave. I was putting on my snow gear and preparing to drive my snow machine home. In the few hours we’d been there, it had snowed another four to five inches and I went out to clear of my parent’s truck.

In the silence of the snowfall, I heard a buzzing sound off in the distance. When it suddenly hit me what it was, I dropped my broom and ran inside. The place had gone quiet as the bartender turned up the CB radio which cracked.

“This is Mail Service for Postmaster Carson. Do you copy.”

The postmaster, who was sitting at the bar leaned across it and stuck out his hand, signaling the bartender to hand him the radio.

As it turned out, there were three planes circling town looking for the runway lights. Their planes were heavy and they had about a half an hour of reserve fuel.

In moments those remaining were scrambling for the door to prepare the runway which was under two feet of snow. The relay for the lights wasn’t working because the backup generator had been to cold to start.

Plow trucks bogged down as they tried to quickly clear the runway. Minutes ticked off as the pilots checked in on one another and the progress. People ran too and fro as they lined up trucks on one side of the runway and lit fires on the other.

But still, the pilots couldn’t see us.

Time continued tick off. Fifteen minutes turned to twenty, then twenty-five, then thirty, then thirty-five. We could hear the planes, but they couldn’t see to land.

The pilots began to get antsy as they now burned well into their reserve fuel.

“5 more minutes,” the lead pilot begged the other two. “I know it is going to work. I can feel it.”

It felt like everyone was holding their breath. A minute passed. Then two. Three. Four. Five……Six.

“We have to head back,” one of the pilots said over the radio and you could see the people gathered around slump as one.

“Thanks for trying,” Postmaster Carson called them over the radio.

“We’ll try again tomorrow,” the lead pilot called.

“Wait!” yelled one of the other pilots. “I can see lights!”

And that is when a real life miracle happened. The snow stopped and a rift appeared in the clouds just above us. Stars sparkled against the night sky. Then the flashing lights of small planes appeared.

“I see it too!” called the other pilot. “5 minutes apart to land. Mark it and line it up!”

The first plane came in, it skis plowing through the snow as he coasted to a stop before spinning around to line up with the runway to takeoff.

Immediately an impromptu ground crew was unloading the plane and fueling it up. People hugged the pilots as they climbed out, thermoses of coffee and bags of sandwiches and Christmas cookies were shoved into their hands.

Within fifteen minutes, all three planes had landed and were unloaded and a few minutes later they were lined up and bouncing down the runway. We watched as they cleared the cloud cover and huge flakes of snow began to fall as the rift disappeared.

We heard the pilots buzz the runway one time, and then the night grew quiet as we all stood around, dumbfounded.

“Who wants to be Santa?” the Postmaster called. “I’ve got a long night ahead of me.”

Truckloads of boxes were taken to the tiny post office while bags of letters and mail were taken to Crabb’s Corner, the site of our evening festivities. Packages were sorted by family and route while the mail was sorted by volunteers into piles of obvious Christmas correspondence and ordinary mail.

Volunteers loaded up vehicles and began delivering packages and Christmas mail on their way home.

I volunteered to deliver mail to those not on the road system and a sled was brought and attached to the back of my snow machine. They placed the packages and mail in large black trash bags to keep them together and taped a label on so I knew which bag went where.

The trails were deep with snow and I got stuck many times, but I kept moving, stopping by each house and knocking on the door. People couldn’t believe that I was delivering mail in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve in the middle of a blizzard. Many grinned and some even cried, overjoyed that Christmas had come.

It took me a little more than two hours before I too was heading home with an empty sled and a full heart. I was exhausted and soaked to the bone. I sat in front of our fire drinking hot cocoa as the clock struck midnight and realized that I had grown up that night. Christmas was no longer about toys and gadgets, but the joy that it brings to people in an often dark and lonely world.

Growing Up Alaska: Caroling

Central is a small community in the interior of Alaska that covers a lot of area. We lived at one end of the road eight and half miles from Central proper. From that point, people stretched along the highway ten miles in either direction.

One of my fondest memories was when we would go Christmas caroling. Nearly two dozen people would pile into trucks and ride snow machines up and down the roads, stopping at houses and caroling. It was announced when we would be out doing this and sometimes we were met with darkness, but often people would come out and listen to us sing and offer us cocoa or cider and cookies.

Then, after a couple of hours of caroling, we would make our way back to Central and Crabb’s Corner where we would end our caroling and the community gathered for a spaghetti feed. People would continue to sing and sometimes even Santa would make an appearance.

This little act of joy impacted our community and drew people together. It didn’t matter how poorly we sang or how cold it got, people opened their doors with smiles as they sang along with us, remembering family and friends far away.

Growing Up Alaska: Midnight Mischief

Christmas of 1983 was an interesting one. My youngest brother had been born just a few weeks prior. We had constructed the lower section of our house over the summer. And my dad was recovering from an injury in which he lost two fingers.

The original plan for the house was to get the first two floors done with living space on the first floor and bedrooms on the second. However, when the accident happened, it prevented us from finishing the house. In fact, the first floor wouldn’t have been done before winter if the community hadn’t come together and help “finish” it.

That winter was hard. I was only 8 and all of us kids knew we had to step up and help, not only because dad couldn’t do as much, but neither could mom being extremely pregnant and then later, extremely tired.

All of this culminated into a large amount of stress and yelling as frustrations over sleep and no one having any personal space to retreat too. Mom and dad and the new little brother slept in the living room while me and my two brothers slept in sleeping bags in the dining room.

Christmas morning was always a big thing, but this year, my mother was adamant that if anyone woke her up early, blood was likely. Bodily harm was threatened if she even heard a peep from us before 7 a.m.

So, on Christmas Eve, we settled into our sleeping bags, and listened to the clock tick ever more slowly. Usually after we went to bed, the lights on the Christmas tree were unplugged and we were plunged into darkness, but his night, dad left them on.

The lights twinkled a dazzling display across the walls and ceiling, and if I pulled myself out from under the table, I could watch the tree. I fell asleep like that until I heard dad get up at some point to stoke the wood fire.

I rolled over to look at the green luminescent hands on the clock that mom had placed on the floor as a reminder that we couldn’t get up until 7. It was just after midnight, so I rolled over and closed my eye’s tight, willing it to be morning.

Then dad started moving around the tree. I could hear paper rattling as he moved presents and could see his headlamp as he sat in his chair to assemble some things we were getting in the morning.

I was so curious and wanted to move. I’m sure I did a few times, but every time dad’s light swept toward me, I clinched my eyes shut and faked being asleep.

The beeps and whirs and flashing lights were all too much. I wanted to jump up and see what my dad was doing, but I didn’t dare invoke the wrath of mom and the very real possibility of Christmas being cancelled.

I watched as dad lay on the floor next to the tree to move presents around and to set up some things. I tried not to watch. I willed myself to fall asleep. But it was no use.

I opened my eyes to the sound of whirring and tilted my head over just enough to see two little lights aimed at me in the darkness. The whirring grew louder as the little lights drew nearer. In the backlight of the tree, I could see the lights and sound was coming from a little battery operated truck. It steadily approached and I wanted to reach out and grab it, but I didn’t dare move.

The truck was nearly to me when I looked beyond it and saw a second pair of lights coming at me. While the first one was now obviously going to go by me, this one was coming right at me. It was moving so slowly that I didn’t need to worry about it hurting, but I was conflicted on how to act.

The first truck whirred past my head and I tried to keep my eye on it. When I looked back, dad was walking towards me. I tried to close my eyes and even faked a snore as dad padded quietly past me and retrieved the little truck that was now spinning its wheels against the wall.

He picked it up and I kept my eyes closed tight as he padded over and picked up the second truck right before it hit me. I listened as the whirring stopped on both trucks, but my dad didn’t walk away.

Then the whirring began again as dad set one of the trucks on my chest and I felt it rolling along.

“Shhhhh,” he whispered as he set the second truck next to me. “Don’t wake your mom.”

In the light of the tree I could see his eyes twinkle as he winked at me and wandered off, leaving me the two trucks.

I played for nearly an hour, letting the trucks drive across my sleeping bag, acting as if there were valleys and ridges. My brother and I passed them back and forth for a while before I finally did tire and set the trucks by my head and drifted off to sleep.

When I woke up, the clock glowed 6:15. My trucks were gone, but stockings were lying in their place. My oldest brother was already awake and playing a battery operated game inside his sleeping bag to muffle the noise.

I found a flashlight tucked into the top of my stocking and went through it quietly until I heard my youngest brother waking up with a scream. I heard mom and dad talking. As I heard footsteps approach, I closed my eyes, though I knew that I wouldn’t be fooling anyone since I was clutching my stocking.

True to our word, all three of us boys laid there until the clock settled on 7, then we were up and doing our chores before breakfast. A peek under the tree revealed my two trucks posed as if they were rock climbing over another present.

I don’t remember anything else that I got that year, but those two trucks always bring about thoughts of happiness and joy.

Growing Up Alaska: Getting Into the Holiday Spirit

As we roll into December and find our holiday spirit, I thought I would tell of my first Christmas in Alaska. To be honest, I don’t remember Christmas Day, but I do vividly remember the days leading up to it, especially Christmas Eve.

We had not come to Alaska to stay. It had become a short trip that never ended.

That first winter, when I was five, we stayed at the Arctic Circle Hot Springs Hotel where my dad was continuing renovations on the interior of the building over the winter.

As Christmas approached, the hotel manager’s wife decided that we should put on a Christmas pageant and put up a real tree. She’d been digging through the basement of the building and had come across boxes of traditional German Christmas Decorations.

The top of a tall spruce tree was brought in and set up in the lobby. The tree towered at least fifteen feet up into the vaulted reading area in the lobby. We strung popcorn on string to drape around the tree and antique ornaments were interspersed with homemade ones.

No lights were hung on the tree, but instead, tiny little candle holders were tied off to the boughs and ribbons were tied on.

All 8 of us kids of the hotel staff practiced our pageant for over a week and made our own angel costumes out of old bedding from the hotel. We would descend the steep stairs from the second floor while singing traditional Christmas Carols. Being the youngest, and may I dare say the cutest, I was to lead the procession.

Rehearsals did not go well. We went too fast. We went to slow. We missed lyrics. We sang out of tune. We got yelled at a lot. I got yelled at a lot. I was told I needed to keep focus and lead everyone. Don’t look back, just keep singing and keep going.

So on Christmas Eve, as I descend the stairs, I did just that. I kept singing. I smiled. And I kept going.

And I missed the tragedy of fallen angels as one kid stepped on another kid’s costume and sent the pile tumbling down the stairs behind me. Over the gasps and cries, I kept singing and I kept walking until one of the parents stopped me and blew out my candle.

Over the next half an hour, scrapes were bandaged, bruises kissed and tears dried. And I sat in a huff, upset that I didn’t get to finish my song and more upset that someone had blown out my candle.

To cheer everyone up, we sang carols around the Christmas tree as they lit the candles. The lights were dimmed and we each got a candle and passed the light from one person to another, then us kids got to go forward to light a candle on the tree before some adults started lighting the higher ones.

In a sudden revelation of hind sight, they realized that they should have started at the top and worked their way down, but the manager’s wife, who was decked out in antique traditional clothing from Germany (also found in the basement) decided to use a ladder to light the top candles on the tree.

We sang and watched as she leaned out and lit the top most candles. We watched as the ladder swayed under her son’s grip as it became more and more unbalanced. We watched as her dress swung out as she leaned further out. And we watched as her dress caught fire.

Screams interrupted the caroling as people tried to warn her. She flailed about trying to put out the fire. The ladder swung as she spun about and crashed into the tree. She fell six feet into the lobby and the tree fell through the large plate glass window of the lobby.

The manager’s wife landed on the floor, her dress in flames as people ran for a fire extinguisher. Someone grabbed the giant rug she had fallen onto and wrapped her up in it in an attempt to douse the flames.

Old man Harry Hughes dumped his orange drink on her and encouraged all us kids to do the same. He chuckled as he walked away saying, “Best Christmas in years!”

Us kids and the few guests of the hotel were ushered into the dining room for cake and cookies while they adults cleaned up the mess, which included cutting up the Christmas tree and putting plywood over the gaping hole in the glass. Luckily the manager’s wife wasn’t seriously burned, though her dress and the rug were ruined.

I remember it smelling of burnt hair for days in the lobby, but nothing of Christmas morning. However, that Christmas Eve will always be burned into my memory, every pun intended.

Growing Up Alaska: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in Central, Alaska, was always interesting.

When we first moved there, the community was tightly knit. We were isolated from the rest of the world for nearly 8 months out of the year so you learned to depend on your neighbors. Many of those neighbors were reclusive, but you were assured that around Thanksgiving, they ended up around somebody’s table and were family.

Later, when we built our house, we became the hub for Thanksgiving. Our house was the largest in the area and we often found half of the community coming together bringing dishes to share. It started in the early afternoon and often lasted into the night as people slowly took home containers of leftovers, many of the less fortunate individuals taking home far more than they came with.

Kids would be out sledding or snow machining and sometimes would end up at the hot springs pool. The generator would be kicked on and we ended up around the television watching holiday shows or playing Atari.

The adults would gather around in groups talking and playing card games, some even able to find a chair to nap on despite all the racket. People who rarely talked to one another gathered around the wood burning stove and laughed over a piece of pie and coffee.

Then we would clean up as people trickled home. A swipe of dessert or a leftover sandwich before bed and another turkey going into the oven.

In the morning we would get up and snack all day. New plates of food were piled high and covered with tin foil before being delivered to those that didn’t come over for one reason or another. Some greeted with smiles, most left on doorsteps with a note.

And each year, after it was all over, my mother swore she wouldn’t ever do it again, but we all knew that next year, our house would full, baking would happen for days before the feast and that we would all pause for a moment in the middle of eating to be thankful for all that we had and to remember those that didn’t make it to this Thanksgiving.

Growing Up Alaska: Special Delivery

Growing up in rural Alaska had both its perks and its disadvantages. One such disadvantage were that many of the national education promotions were not applicable in Alaska, let alone rural Alaska.

One such program that we could sort of participate in was The Book It! club sponsored by Pizza Hut. We had to fill out our charts and then mail it in and a month or two later we would get a voucher that we had to bring with us the next time we went to Fairbanks. It worked, we had a lot of readers because, seriously, what else was there for us to do!

One year, our principal had planned it out that we would be doing a field trip to go to a ski meet in Fairbanks. We had received our vouchers and he had called ahead to make sure it would be okay for him to bring a dozen kids in to redeem them. We were excited when our principal told us that he had gotten permission.

We were completely bummed when the weather changed and we had to cancel our trip due to poor road conditions. Our principal called the owner of the Pizza Hut and told him we wouldn’t make it.

The next day, not long before lunch, our principal suddenly slipped on his coat after receiving a phone call and left the TA in charge. He returned in less than half an hour with a box full of personal pan pizzas!

The owner of the Pizza Hut had felt so bad for us, and wanting to honor us for our diligent reading, had contacted the contractor who delivered mail to our town. The pilot had flown the pizzas to us and had the postmaster call when he landed.

I will never forget the joy of getting my very own pizza for lunch. What was a small act to one person had a lifelong impact on others. There were not enough thank you letters to express the token of our appreciation.

When I think of it, it always remind me that kindness takes a little effort and the payoff is always greater than the act.

Growing Up Alaska: The Battle of the Bulge

When we first moved to Central, the road to Fairbanks was only opened during the summer, so people bought up stores of food and lived off what they hunted. One of the many foods that we could buy in bulk was beans, especially Pork ‘N Beans.

We were taught to be grateful for what we had, and a part of showing our gratefulness was eating all the food that was prepared for us, whether we liked it or not. We all had foods that were abhorrent to us. For me it was oatmeal because it was goopy and seemed to grow. For my oldest brother Shane, it was the beans and cornbread we had at least twice a week. And for Clint, it was Pork ‘N Beans and peas.

We sat at the table until our food with threats of saving it for the next meal. Clint usually sat the longest pushing beans around his plate as if they would seem to disappear. They never did, or so we thought.

It was about halfway through the winter when Clint started finishing dinner more quickly. It still took him a while after everyone else was done at the table, but my mother was sure that he was coming to appreciate what he had more.

Part of the agreement for renting out the cabin was that dad was going to do some upkeep on it. So as it started to warm up, we noticed a swelling in one of the wall panels. Worried that there was a leak in the roof that was running down the wall, dad decided to investigate.

He checked outside and shoveled off the roof, but nothing. The bulge continued to grow and it was clear that it was swelling from moisture. The only issue with getting to it was that the table had been nailed to the wall and we would have to remove the table in order to open up the wall.

My parents conjectured on what the problem might be. A family of mice or squirrels. A leak somewhere else that dad couldn’t find. And as it got warmer and began to smell, they were sure some kind of animal dead in the wall.

So dad finally opened the wall and we all gagged. Out poured moldy peas and Pork ‘n Beans. Clint had found a small hole in the wooden paneling where the table met the wall. When everyone was distracted, he would shovel his unwanted food into the hole and miraculously be done with dinner, his food having disappeared.

Mom was irate and dad was non to pleased to not only have to replace the paneling, but the insulation and the outside wall as well that had also absorbed the decaying food. If Clint hadn’t already been grounded until he was 60, he certainly was by the end of this.

Growing Up Alaska: The Long Walk Home

When I was 6 years old, we still hadn’t built our house so we were living in a cabin well off the beaten path. There was a trail that led to it, but the nearest maintained road was a little more than a mile away. And by maintained, I mean they pushed enough snow off of it that most people wouldn’t get stuck.

At that point in time in Central, most people didn’t drive around in a truck during the winter, but typically rode snow machine; my family included. That is, unless you were my second oldest brother Clint who got himself grounded from our snow machines (the reason why is a whole other story).

That meant that in order for us to catch the bus, we had to walk a little more than a mile each direction to reach the bus stop. At a brisk walk, we could do it in 25 minutes, though the average for most was closer to 35. For us, it could take 45 minutes plus.

This drawn out walk would drive Clint crazy. I have always been a bit of a dreamer and dawdler and distracted by everything along the walk. I would carry on long conversations with my imaginary friend which would cause me to walk even more slowly.

It was often dark and Clint would threaten to leave me behind, but I knew that he couldn’t show up to the cabin without me, so I knew his threats were idle. There were times that he left me behind, but I would find him waiting along the trail near home.

This plan of fear often backfired because I would become even more alert of the dark woods around me and slow down to walk cautiously. And of course if I told mom that he’d left me behind, she would get mad and ground him even longer, though I am pretty sure at that time he was grounded until he was like 60 so it had little affect.

Bribing didn’t work very well either. We didn’t have a whole lot to barter with, so he could give me very little. And I didn’t mind the walk. It became a game of trudging across the arctic in search of mammoth or a game of war where I was hiding in the large dips in the trail or behind snow berms from the enemy that was tracking me.

Looking back, I fondly remember those times and do feel a little bad for Clint, sometimes. But then again, if he hadn’t gotten grounded from the snow machine, we wouldn’t have had to walk.

Trick or Treat at 20 Below

The following is my 2021 Halloweensie entry where Susanna Leonard Hill challenges us to write a Halloween themed story under 100 words. We also had to include the words goosebumps, glow-in-the-dark and goodies.

Mine comes in at 84 words! Hope you enjoy!

Trick-or-Treat at 20 Below

Children laugh as they pile out of the car Costumes stretched over winter gear Covered in glow-in-the-dark reflective tape. Goosebumps pimple any exposed skin. Welcomed warm blasts of air from open doors As we collect our goodies. Snow boots in place of princess slippers, A clown mask worn over a ski mask As our candy freezes solid in the bag. Dad driving us up and down the street Warming up chattering teeth between stops. That is how we trick-or-treat When it is 20 below!