PASS ALONG STORIES, HOLD THE OPINIONS
Wearing torn Wrangler jeans and a thin wool jacket, my brother was checking his trap line as he punched his way through the wet November snow. It was raining sideways, and he was up to his thighs in heavy drifts, a mile from the road.
Jeans are what we wore in the 1970s because that’s what we had from the Montgomery Ward catalog. That, and waffle-weave henley shirts made of an impossibly itchy blend of wool and cotton. There wasn’t a shred of technical fabric anywhere, too much cotton, not nearly enough wool, and no adequate layers for 10-year-old boys.
Wool and maybe some stiff rubberized rain gear would be the layers, if you had them: Smelly halibut jackets, which always seemed to be heavy with Southeast Alaska southeasterlies. Yellow slicker if you could muster one.
When he arrived at an old deserted FAA cabin, that 10-year-old boy was dog-tired, and the cold had sucked every shred of warmth from his bones. His backpack, heavy now, a cotton-batting sleeping bag, a can of Sterno paired with a can of chili were of little help: The matches were wet, his fingers were too cold to open the can, the sleeping bag was damp.
Dropping those soaked blue jeans to the tattered floor of the shack, Pete laid them out flat underneath his sleeping bag, into which he escaped for whatever warmth his young heart could pump toward his extremities. He figured he could dry the wet jeans out that way, body heat and all.
There he fell asleep — the sleep of a hypothermic 10-year-old boy braving the cold and the dark of Thanksgiving eve in Alaska.
In the morning, the sun rose crisp and sparkling, and the temperature had dropped into the low 20s. Those jeans had become stiff as lumber, ice penetrating every fiber, and they were frozen to the cabin floor.
As the family lore goes, he was stuck for hours in his tighty-whities, curled like a hedghog inside his sleeping bag, waiting for someone — anyone — to come to his rescue.
Seeing as it was Thanksgiving Day and his absence was noted back at the Fritz Cove cabin where we lived, a search party led by my father started out, following Pete’s trapline and ragged tracks to the old abandoned cabin.
That night, we gathered around the shortwave radio and listened to Russian trawlers chatter back and forth, somewhere out in the great vast ocean. The fireplace blazed and the warmth never felt so good. Pete was safe at the hearth.
With much to be thankful for, and we coined the family saying: You can’t have an adventure if you aren’t in a bit of peril. That, and don’t forget to bring flares.
The advice would come in handy over a lifetime of adventures and misadventures.
A few years later, circa 1978, that Alaska-raised brother walked off the ferry in Seward to attend a newly launched culinary school at what is now AVTEC. The gravy I make this Thanksgiving Day was taught to me by Pete, who learned it from the Seward Culinary Academy. People say I make the best gravy in the world, and I take pride that the 40-year-old culinary academy taught me, in a roundabout way, how to properly brown a roux.
CHERISH AND BE GENEROUS
We are traveling or we are staying put this week. We gather with family or we cobble together tribes, and at times we settle for makeshift food – for some meager, for some on a hospital tray, and for some of us, just too much of a good thing.
We talk, watch the games, give thanks, and if we’re smart, we practice forbearance in our politics for just this one day.
Our children, sponges that they are, will hear every word.
As one who has written analysis and opinion for a career, I know well the temptation to hold forth. You will be asked your opinion, but heed my advice: Do not take the bait.
Instead, go for the stories. You’re an Alaskan, so you’ve got stories in spades. They don’t have to be grand stories. They can be about someone’s pants freezing to the floor.
We Alaskans have more to offer each other in legends than any sentence that fades off into a reluctantly uttered, “in my humble opinion.”
We can leave our political rasps at the door for now and polish the stories of our lives instead. In gratitude, we can blow at the embers of our Alaska lore, and it will rise up like life itself from the Thanksgiving table, surround us with wonder and love, and seep into the DNA of the young people who are seemingly oblivious, but who are, in fact, the keepers of the memories.
We are people of the frontier. At times we indulge in the notion that we are more special because of it. This Thanksgiving, we can make good on that sense of “terminal uniqueness” by delving into the imperfect, hilarious, hair-raising, mind-boggling tales that have shaped our rough-hewn lives.
Dig deep and mine the memories. There you’ll encounter the poignant, the unforgettable, and the formative. Listen and be humble. Go for the ancient truths.
The hand-picked, high-bush cranberries and best gravy on God’s earth will be long gone. The politics will churn and change. Our leaders will frustrate and offend. This we know for certain and this we need not inventory right now.
But, with a bit of coaxing and even a spot of embellishing, the dark-and-stormy-night stories of Alaskans will live on.