Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Alaska Years

The frontier state is in the forefront of the news this week thanks to Senator John McCain's selection of Governor Sarah Palin for his vice presidential running mate.

Alaska. Been there, done that.

When my brother was nine and I was fifteen and leading a self-absorbed teenaged existence in California, my parents dropped The Bomb. They had just returned from a trip to Maui, one of very few trips they took without me and my brother during our childhood. Apparently they had made a stop in Anchorage on the way and in one short month, we were moving there. I remember the reveal just like it was yesterday. My father, being a smart man, told me at the same time that I would get a full new cold-weather wardrobe once we arrived. (He delivered on his promise. We spent several hours with the Nordstrom Personal Shopper upon arriving in Anchorage.)

My father was the adventurous sort and had always told us that the year he turned 40, we'd sell our California house and sail around the world. We moved to Alaska instead. You see, up until that point my father was a career IBMer and Anchorage was much more interesting than Armonk. I give him credit there.

Once we got over the initial shock and got all those inane questions out of our systems (Does the snow ever melt? Will we take dogsleds to school? Are we being punished?), it was a pretty sweet existence. We moved into an English Tudor style house in a subdivision, bought a 4-wheel-drive station wagon and learned to shovel snow. My mom, always the good sport, found work in her given field.

We had a lot of visitors during those years. Pretty much everyone who had ever wanted to see Alaska came up during the summer. When my maternal grandmother came to visit, she brought an entire suitcase of Kosher meat since there was no Kosher butcher in Alaska. Eldest Daughter recently found a picture of me, my father and my paternal Grandfather taken on a fishing trip during this time. Love that 80s hair.

I went to a regular 'ole high school, one of six in Anchorage, and made friends. About 25% of my high school classmates when on to college; the other 75% planned to stay in Alaska and make their livings there, where a college education was not necessary to live well. This easily put me at the top of the academic ranks, whereas I was closer to the middle back in California. This gave me a huge advantage when it came to college applications. Plus I had the geographic diversity factor going for me. Downhill skiing was much more accessible than it was in Northern California and, along with a pull toward chairlifts, I developed a love for the mountains and respect for the wild. Did you see the movie Into the Wild? That's really what rural Alaska looks like.

For kicks, let's review some basic Alaska facts:
  • The population of the entire state is roughly 600,000 people. That's the same as for the city of Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • There are 14 men for every woman.

  • Alaska has 586,000 square miles of land. That means that it's 2.5 times larger than Texas and 488 times the size of Rhode Island.

The first year was a huge adjustment and I'm not just talking about the random moose walking down the streets. On June 21, the Summer Solstice, the sun sets at 2:30a and rises at 3a. This means it never gets dark enough to turn on your headlights. Conversely, on December 21, the run rises at noon and sets at 12:30p. You don't realize how much you live by the cycle of the sun until it's altered. We learned to pay close attention to time after that first summer when it was 9p before my mom started going through the motions of making dinner.

We learned to fly fish, dip net and eat game. We dipnetted up to our chests in hip waders to scoop running salmon. Reread that sentence. It's correct as written. We learned what things to ask my dad to bring back from his frequent business trips to the Lower 48. We learned that Honolulu is an unofficial suburb of Anchorage. We learned about the Permanent Fund and that no one goes to school or work on the first day of the Nordstrom Half Yearly Sale. The summer I turned sixteen I got my first real job, answering phones in the circulation department at The Anchorage Times. The hours were miserable but the schedule afforded me lots of time to hang out with my friends.

There are no pictures of my high school graduation. They sank to the bottom of some remote river, along with a whole bunch of other things, while my dad and brother were on a fishing trip that next week. There are, however, pelts from the Black and the Brown that my father took during those years. If you have to ask what a Black and Brown are then you're better off not knowing.

My parents made amazing friends during The Alaska Years, many that they keep in touch with today. Cheryl and Fran live not far from my parents in California. Donna and Bob died tragically in 2002. Sandy and Anita are still in Anchorage, as is one of their daughters, now a practicing OBGYN. We see a lot of Sandy and Anita; they love the Bay and my parents served on volunteer boards with them for nearly 20 years after they moved back below. Gary and Roxanne-With-The-Purple-Hair are still up there somewhere. Grace lost her battle to cancer during my 20th year but not before giving me the best cheesecake recipe ever.

I lived in Anchorage full-time for 2 1/2 years until I went to college down below. Then I returned for two summers. During the second summer my father's assignment ended and we moved back to California. Most people would have flown but in typical Malcolm fashion, we took our 28' Bayliner down the Inside Passage for six weeks. This was before the Exxon Valdez disaster so I'm grateful to have been places that no longer exist. When I think of Alaska I recall best the scenery - the snowcapped mountains against a blue, blue sky with Anchorage at the very base of them, the glaciers we saw and heard from our Zodiac off Prince William Sound, the doll sheep on the mountains en route to Girdwood.

Every now and then I come across another former or current Alaskan. My friend Denise, who I met in the hospital down here while we were both antepartum patients, used to live there. One of my clients has an office in Anchorage and I was shocked to discover that I knew one of the men there from my high school years.

I look forward to taking our kids there. Thing 2 will enjoy the wide open spaces. Thing 1 will be shocked at how small the Nordstrom is. And Eldest Daughter will be amused by my friend Birdman Brian, who wears more makeup than I do, even on the days I am dressed for client facetime.


Squirt's mom said...

I can't believe I never knew this about you! -Shanta

legalbeagle said...

Does this mean you have finally forgiven us? I also remember the day we told you we were moving to Anchorage. You said, and I quote, "I'm not moving. I'm going to live with the Jacobson's down the street." I think we all learned a lot living in Alaska. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Love ya, Mom

Amy S. said...

I read this last night on my phone and loved it.... I rushed back this evening to see if there was a link on your 80's hair... which there was not. Come on... I want to see if I can out 80's you or not!

Polka Dot Moon said...

How lucky were we to live in such a beautiful state! I fear for the lovely Alaska and what will become of her..........we will soon see come this November 4th!