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.