August 30, 50 year anniversary of the Summer of '42

Jeff and I are precariously close to the United States Border, careening through Saskatchawan, Canada where I feel compelled to repeatedly ask waitresses, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?" From here we will drop into North Dakota and hopefully find some temperatures before reaching New York City that rise above 55 degrees so I don't feel as though "summer" was a total bust. This could be my payback for living in sunny Los Angeles for five years, riding my motorcycle in a tee-shirt in January and always coming home to New England for Christmas with a tan.

The second 1/2 of our time in Alaska was so unlike the first that I have the sensation of going through a time warp. Within 24 hours of hearing the last bit of drunken dribble from the god of the Mud Bay, I landed a job as the hostess at the somewhat famous "Pipeline Restaurant and Lounge". This is where Captain Hazelwood overdrank himself into the comatosed oblivion which allowed a lesser crewman to park the Exxon Valdez atop the very obvious Bligh Reef at the end the channel of water known as the Valdez Arm.

The best way to describe the restaurant, at least for a worker, is to say that we were not allowed to have any meal which cost over $7.00 (which meant a baked potato or loaf of bread were the only affordable items, food being extremely expensive in Alaska). But at the witching hour of 10:30 pm, every employee flocked to the growling bartender to procure the free alcoholic beverage granted each shift. They then returned to their respective responsibilities.

Norreen, a 50 - 60 year old woman, the Grand Dame waitress with 8 years of free drinks under her belt, began her relationship with me with this conversation:

"Who put this pitcher here?"

Another waitress had handed me the pitcher, pointing at a shelf, saying, "That's where the ice tea goes." So I fessed up to The Pipeline Lioness, "I did."

"And just what do you think is in this pitcher?" she asked with her nails becoming unsheathed.

Oh, I could tell I was about to receive a lesson in life from Norreen. "I believe it's ice tea."

She poured the liquid into a glass. I had to admit my inability to make a positive identification.

"No, this is not ice tea. This is piss." Facing me squarely and raising her voice, she instructed, "And we don't serve piss at the Pipeline."

Well, now I knew, didn't I?

So, that job only lasted four shifts, during which I worked with and seated more drunk people than ever any New Years Party sported in the lower 48. Then I became jobless and although I searched Valdez where it rained EVERY DAY save two and never brought the mercury above the 55 degree mark, I remained jobless for the next five weeks. Except the last three days, which are a story in themselves.

Closer, closer to the lady of liberty we come...Before going through the Lincoln Tunnel, I think I should give a final update on the alternative world of hygiene. What I have discovered in Valdez in 5 short (or extremely long, as the case was)weeks is that most everything in life: perceptions, customs, social rules and...hygiene are all a matter of relativity. Einstein must himself have lived in Alaska for some time.

Having left the Mud Bay and Captain Lucifer (I assume all of his third of the angels had abandoned ship one by one just as we gleefully announced our own plan to do likewise) we moved on to shore in Valdez. After spending a week living in the Van of Love, it became apparent that Murder She Wrote would fashion an episode after us if we didn't find another place to live.

Now, here was one of my first lessons in relativity. In Valdez, (which probably has more money floating around in it than any other place in Alaska due to it being the termination point for the Alaskan oil pipeline,) anyone residing in a doublewide trailer was considered living in the lap of luxury. And what a lap it was.

There were two double wide trailers (which, of course, is where the fisherman, Double-wide Clyde got his name) for rent at a cost of $900.00 per month. We skipped those and looked for a few days for a cabin. Nada. In desperation we called about a 19' travel trailer for sale for $1000.00.

Once we got to it and saw that each of the aluminum walls were lined with windows and that on each of these plenteous windows there were screens, (with the best of imaginations you can't muster an accurate image of the number of mosquitos and NO-SEE-EM's which hovered over any living soul {probably what that third of the angels became when they left The Mud Bay and hit the shore}), Jeff began the bargaining process, New York style. The older woman, she and her husband themselves living in a permanently planted single width trailer, never knew what hit her.

Within 1/2 an hour, Jeff and I owned our first home together, a 19' (actually 16' on a good day), 1968 Aristocrat lo-liner, to the tune of $700.00 ($100.00 less than a month of rent for me in Venice. Of course, the lack of drive-by shootings itself necessitated a drop in price.)

With a borrowed truck, we pulled our home through Valdez, across the widely known "Bridge to Nowhere", (the road from Tok to Valdez through Valdez ending just over the bridge) onto the property of 70 year old Wayne Blondeau, shared by his girlfriend Ginger, his ex-wife Tammy (an 30's can-can girl from Fairbanks), and Tammy's husband, Jesse (and Wayne's best friend). It was my good fortune that also living on the property in a wannagan were Scott and Rose. Rose became my sole Valdez compatriot.

A "wannagan" is any structure that is built onto a mobile home, whether a front entrance, or a few extra rooms. Rose and Scott's wannagan was an anomoly because it stood alone, attached to nothing. Inside, they had a tent set up where they slept (mosquito and no-see-em precautions). Having just graduated from Brown University as a literature major, Rose spent the days in Scott's pick-up truck reading. She went through a book a day. At night, she was a hostess/waitress at The Pipeline. Scott was building a wannagan onto a mobile home just across the dirt road from them.

So, down to the end of the dirt road to a piece of open land in the middle of the woods, at the base of the glacier-tipped mountains, Jeff and I planted out trailer. We became the lolining, Valdez Aristocrats. We had, by far, the choicest view of the mountains and harbor of anyone in Valdez.

In our trailer was a stove, oven (in which I baked many loaves of bread), refrigerator and heater, all powered by two external propane tanks. There was also a water tank that fed into a faucet in a sink, but we never cleaned the tank out, and once the trailer was parked, had no way to fill it. Instead we used a free-standing 6 gallon water tank with a spigot which we filled in town every two days or so. With this water I cooked, made coffee, washed the dishes and bathed, (or at least washed my face and teeth).

Now, what was amazing about our little abode was that when we had friends come for dinner, (like Scott and Rose, or a mother and daughter from Australia that we met in McCarthy, a small town accessible only by driving 60 miles down a dirt road and then crossing two rivers in a hand-pulled tram that was suspended above the rivers. We ran into the same two women in Valdez and so invited them to dine with us on some fresh salmon, which Jeff picked up while doing sex ratio comparisons at one of the canneries that day). Or blueberry pancake breakfasts (I picked the berries myself during a boating exploit with some of Jeff's working mates from the Department of Fish and Game. After motoring through icefields in front of Columbia Glacier {there are a whole string of glaciers near Valdez named after ivy-league colleges - how obnoxious!} we went to a small bay adjacent to an old Aleut town. They dropped me on the shore of a tiny island with Osa {did I mention that Osa flew up to LA after we were on shore for a week or so} and I picked blueberries to my heart's content. Any that dropped, Osa scarfed up. What a politically correct blueberry team we make! No waste!) Anyway...oh yeah, when people came over, they were so impressed with our domicile.

Most people we knew lived in tents or in their cars or in the housing provided by the canneries. Not that there aren't houses with four walls and windows and all. Actually, Valdez probably has more traditional houses than most towns in Alaska. But they are primarily inhabited by employees of Alieska, the oil company. Por ejemplo, I'd meet someone in the Fish and Game office and say, "so where are you living?" "Well, you know the road past the water tower? After it turns into a dirt road, there's a bridge (not the bridge to nowhere. This bridge led to a number of places, including several mines, one of them belonging to Wayne whose property we lived on) and after a bridge is a path that backtracks along the river? And there are a couple of 10' trailers there? A little further down the trail I have a tent set up." And that was the average response. As a matter of fact, we sold our trailer for $750. (a profit of $50.) to someone who was planning to use it as a winter home. As winter approached (which was what was happening when we left at the end of August) people were really scrambling to find an alternative to a tent to winter in. Last year it snowed just under 50 feet in Valdez and there were plenty of folks living in tents there.

So, in our little trailer we were considered living high on the hog (now, where the hell did that expression come from?). But the trauma of hygiene, begun on the Mud Bay, continued. Even on the drive across the country from New York to Alaska, we showered every other day, and brushed our teeth at least once a day. When we ran into my two step sisters Tyler and Hillary on the highway in North Dakota, I suggested that after three days of not showering they might consider themselves disgusting.

Now, on shore, without the convenience of running water and bathroom afforded us on the Mud Bay, I moved into a new sense of cleanliness. If there had been a bathroom, I would have seen the writing on the wall: "Einstein was here."

Perhaps it is better if I don't elucidate too much on the nature of the holes that Jeff and I dug in the bushes near our trailer. But I will say that in Alaska it is very beneficial to urinate around your living area. It is a special message to the bears that this is someone else's territory. I'm sure this is one of the things that kept the bears away. (Wouldn't Osa have made a little gourmet snack, straight from Wolfgang Puck's neighborhood.)

I was enlightened, upon the blueberry pancake-oriented visit of Jeff's boss, Jennifer, that around our trailer a carpet of red blackberries and bushes full of salmonberries grew in every direction. Salmonberries look like salmon roe (eggs), small redish-orange translucent sacks. On the two days of the summer that it didn't pour with rain (I spent most of my time in the library reading about the three major groupings of indigenous Alaskans, watching movies in the audio-visual room, and taping collection of books on tape and Chinese folk songs) I went out berry picking. While I scoured the bushes, Osa ran up and down the near-by stream that flowed into the bay chasing spawned-out salmon. (Did you know that salmon are both fresh and salt water fish?)

Osa spent one day with Jeff and I while we did stream-walking, one of Jeff's Fish and Game responsibilities. We walked upstream in waist high gators and counted fish. By doing this month after month, year after year, they track the population and dispersion of salmon. Anyway, at first Osa didn't notice the fish. When one bumped into her, she flew out of the water, petrified. Then she started to chase them, and by the end of three hours, was catching them in her mouth. I had to drag her out of the glacial runnoff stream water and wrap her in a towel where she shivered and moaned for 45 minutes from being on the edge of hypothermia.

Anyway, the whole time that I was picking berries, I kept worrying that some bear was watching me gather up his/her food supply and was going to wait until I had done all the hard work and then come to gobble me up and eat the berries for desert. By the way, I made many jars of salmonberry jam to go along with all of the filets of smoked salmon that Jeff was storing away. (We'll be checking Santa's data base to see whose been naughty or nice...)

Needless to say, taking a shower under these circumstances became a major event. First we had to find a place to do it. We settled on the shower facilities at Sea Hawk, open only to cannery employees. (The other two canneries in Valdez were Nautilus and Peter Pan. Perhaps you, like myself wonder how one lands on the name "Peter Pan" for a fishing cannery...) Because we had to sneak in here, this was something we did only every four to seven days.

O.K., the only time I went a full seven days without showering was because we spent 1/2 the week in McCarthy. In McCarthy, there are only a few buildings with running water. For instance, we spent one night in a Bed and Breakfast place, actually the old smelting building for one of the areas gold mines, "the Motherlode." (This was one of the four times Jeff and I slept in a bed all summer. The trailer only had two single beds on either side of the trailer, so we slept separately. I felt like the Cleavers or Father's Knows Best, a nice, respectable couple who held hands from their separate beds.) Even at a Bed and Breakfast in this town, the only "facilities" were an outhouse and a water barrel with a faucet. Very cool place though. There are something like 23 people that live in McCarthy year round. There is no phone system into the town, although you can call out on a sideband radio system, the problem being that the bulk of the conversations consists of "Over..."

So the McCarthy week was a no-shower week. But it's how everyone in Alaska lives, so no one notices. I did have a small reprieve in this hygienic reality when I worked the last four days in Alaska at Tsaina Lodge, a small lodge 35 miles outside of Valdez. The owner of Tsaina has started an "Extreme Skiing" and "Extreme Snowboarding" business during the winter if you are interested in taking a helicopter up to the top of wild mountains. In May when Jeff and I came through Thompson Pass where Tsaina Lodge sits, all the mountains were still covered, white, white, white with snow.

Anyway, I had made friends with the folks at Tsaina Lodge and they asked me to come up so that each of the three people who were still working there (the end of the tourist season had pretty well arrived by the middle of August) could each have a day off. Well, the first morning I walked out and noticed that the glacier on the pass looked brown. As a matter of fact, there was a fine dust all over the ground and covering the trucks in the parking lot. The mountain near Anchorage had done it's volcano dance and there was ash everywhere. The road was fairly empty, so we closed the Lodge. I went for a run along the Pipeline with Osa, took a shower to celebrate and then made jam in the big pots in the kitchen.

Here I have to mention another famous Alaskan edifice called an "ADCO." It is a huge mobile home-like structure that is comprised of many bedrooms and one communal bathroom. Apparently they became particularly popular in Valdez during the oil spill clean-up, but you can find them all over Alaska. While at Tsaina Lodge, Osa and I lived alone in this huge ADCO. That is, until the last night, when the guy who owned it decided for some breach of contract to take it away from Mike, the owner of Tsaina. Mike, who also felt that there had been a breach of contract, but on the other guy's part videotaped the breaking apart of the ADCO. I was lucky to get Osa and my clothes out of the place before they carried it off.

The next day Mike and Annabell, a summer employee and Mike's new girlfriend, went off to Valdez. This left Stoltzie and I alone. Stoltzie, a young blond user of monosyllables was either stoned, rollerblading or cooking for the Lodge or a combination of the three each time I saw him during the summer. Left alone with Stolzie to mind the Lodge meant that I was cooking, washing dishes, waitressing and bartending. Stolzie concerned himself with putting his Nirvana tape in the tape player.

While tending bar in the afternoon, I was blessed with the visit of Vern Hurlbert. He came in by pick-up truck, which pulled a trailer at least 40 years old, it's green and blue paint flecking in every direction in the ash-laden post-volcanic wind. There were already three Alaskan Indians in the bar. These three young men had left Anchorage together intending to take an afternoon trip to a town just outside of Anchorage. Two weeks later they were still 300 miles from Anchorage. While in the midst of their storytelling, Mr. Vern Hurlbert entered the bar and announced his candidacy for state senate of Alaska. He started handing out a flyer that I feel compelled to include.

As you may or may not be able to tell from the map pictured here, the area that Vern wants to represent is larger than the state of Texas, but has a population of about 27,000. And notice please Vern's address and phone number: Sleetmute. Phone: Carrier pigeon. There are no roads through most of Alaska, only a small number of towns being reachable by car. Otherwise, as with Cordova mentioned in my first letter, it is only boat or plane. This led me to wonder where Vern kept his little peeling camper when he was at home with the carrier pigeons in Sleetmute.

After telling the three Native Americans and myself stories about his many children born via his many wives (notice that Vern is with children, but conspicuously without wife in his picture in front of the capital) Vern asked if he could hang a campaign sign in the lodge. Michael and Annabell being in town, I took the liberty to tell him he could hang it on the bulletin board just inside the door where other people had hung small flyers about rafting and glacier flights. A few minutes after he walked from the bar, I heard an explosive staple gun somewhere outside, but didn't pay much attention. I thought that Stoltzie might be building an indoor rollerblading ring for the winter.

Later in the evening after the bar had cleared out, (Vern left just after the natives finding himself without a large enough audience for proselytizing the worthiness of his political stance) I heard the front door open. In walked Mike and Annabell. In Mike's hand was a 3' by 2' cardboard sign with "VERN HURLBERT FOR STATE SENATE" across the top. Mike wanted to know "Where the hell did this come from?" Apparently, Vern had decided the small bulletin board was not enough and wanting passerbys on the main road to have him in mind, he had mounted his propaganda on the front of the lodge.

This is the kind of place where Tom Waits should spend a little time. His next album would be Alaska = MC .


Well, I have long since entered the Lincoln Tunnel and have "settled" here on the fringe of the West Village in the home of Jeff's parents. I am spending a lot of time with my sister Geraldine and her family, "the Holy Family" as I like to call them, Ted, Gerry and Justin. And I have the good fortune to be taking two classes; one at Columbia, "Women and Resistance in Latin America" (a graduate anthropology class) and to continue the education I received in my car, Spanish I & II, at the New School. It looks as though I'll be entering the Doctoral Program in Folklore at UPenn in Philadelphia in January.

Here's my address and phone #:

59 West 12th Street #16A

NY, NY 10011


Now that I'm back in the midst of civilization, and actually have a phone AND running water (although I still can't get used to taking a shower every day) I can again carry on individual communication.