I’ve always said my best years in the Army were the nine my family and I spent in Alaska. Spread across two tours of duty—with an interim three years at Fort Bliss in Hell Paso, Texas—we lived in Fairbanks and Anchorage. We hiked, we biked, we fished, and we became video game addicts when the button-up and bundle-down long dark winters began. Ask any of my three globe-trotting “Army brat” children where they’re from originally and they'll be quick to answer “Alaska.” After meeting them these days, you’re likely to walk away impressed by their spunky-but-unassuming personalities. That’s the Last Frontier spirit bubbling up inside them.
I was never so happy as I was the day I received orders to report to Fort Wainwright, the Army post at the eastern edge of Fairbanks. At the time, we were stationed at Fort McPherson, a post in Atlanta--so small, it could only be seen under a microscope--and we’d had enough of the summers’ heat and humidity that choked us like we had kudzu spreading through our lungs. We were ready for snow and mountains.
My first tour of duty in Alaska was glorious, but cut short when the 6th Infantry Division was caught in the Clinton-era military downsizing and the guidon was furled, sending me packing to Texas. That trip down to the Lower 48 along the Alaska-Canadian Highway was one of the saddest drives we ever took. We like to joke that, even today, you can still see our fingernail claw-marks in the road just outside of Fairbanks. They had to drag us kicking and screaming from the Great Land.
My second time around with U.S. Army Alaska—one year in Fairbanks, and the rest of my time in Anchorage—was blessedly long…though we still shed plenty of good-bye tears. This time, I was leaving Alaska to head off to war with the 3rd Infantry Division, headquartered at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
This morning, I’m boarding a plane and heading back to Alaska for my first visit since leaving in 2004. “Excited” doesn’t even begin to cut it. “Cartwheel-ecstatic” comes a little closer. I’ll be speaking in Homer tonight; at my alma mater, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, tomorrow night; and at the Great Harvest Bread Company in Anchorage on Saturday night. While in Fairbanks, I’ll giving a craft talk via an on-stage interview with short-story writer Frank Soos, one of my dearest friends and mentors. It was Professor Soos who guided me through the graduate program at UAF toward my MFA in Creative Writing, sparked my interest in Alice Munro, (literally) introduced me to Lewis “Buddy” Nordan, and threw extra gasoline on my already-burning fire for Flannery O’Connor. Whatever talent you see in me as a writer today has Frank Soos’ fingerprints all over it.
In anticipation of my trip back to Alaska, I’ve been going through the journal I kept during those years. I thought I’d share a few random entries with you to illustrate the impact the state had on me. We begin when I’m on my way to Fairbanks—initially a solo trip because Jean and the kids waited back in the Lower 48 until I found us housing.
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Oct. 31, 1991: The cabbie who drove me to the Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle was fat and had a greasy beard. He also tried to regale me with stories about Alaska. I gathered he'd lived for a short time on Kodiak Island. "One day my uncle was out chopping wood when a bear—a Kodiak, they're the largest carnivores in North America—came at him from behind. One swipe and he went flying 20 feet through the air. My aunt heard him yell and for all she knew he was dead. Well, that made her pretty mad, so she grabbed her a shotgun, marched right up and when the bear lifted his head, stuck both barrels in his mouth. Ooo-eee! Blew the top of that bear's head clean off!"
"How did your uncle turn out?" I asked.
"Oh, he was all right — just messed up his shoulder. But me and my brother skinned that bear and we ate bear meat the rest of the year."
Later, we drove past a cow pasture and saw a bull mounting a female. The cabbie guffawed. "A little morning whoopee. I'm jealous."
I wondered if he had a predilection for bovine. A little later, he asked me, "So do you go in for fat Eskimo women?"
When I said I was married, he shut up.
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Dec. 10, 1991: As part of my arctic indoctrination training with the 6th Infantry Division (Light), I was forced to watch a film on frostbite. The video was made from a 30-year-old 16mm film. It showed feet, toes, hands, buttocks that looked like yellow-orange wax and were puffed up like hot dogs. The toes were black and crumbly like charcoal. "This slide demonstrates very nicely the deadening of metacarpal tissue,” the narrator deadpanned. “The blebs are filled with fluid and are shiny." We saw them amputate a set of toes, slicing them away like an unwanted part of a Thanksgiving turkey. The fingers looked like overcooked hot dogs, split and running with grease.
I will be wearing gloves every day I am here in Alaska.
I made my hooch with my poncho draped over white nylon cord strung between two snow-pregnant trees. I "delivered" their "burdens" before I built the shelter.
The air crisped to a fine crackle around 10 p.m. The mummy-style cold-weather sleeping bag kept me warm, except for my feet and the small face-hole. I felt as if I was wrapped in gauze, unable to toss and turn. The overnight low was minus 11 degrees.
In the morning, putting on my white rubber Vapor Barrier boots ("Vee Bees"), it felt like slipping on a pair of ice chunks fresh-cut from a lake.
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Feb. 1, 1992: Dog sled rides at Birch Hill on Fort Wainwright. A team of 12 dogs whisked us around the ski lodge for a 4-minute ride. The cold wind seared our bare faces. Jean said when she took her ride, one of the dogs in the rear of the team took a crap, his legs splaying out and she thought, "Oh, jeez, he's gonna kick poop back on me!"
The driver had a full beard. By the end of the second trip, he looked like a package of freezer-burned meat.
* * *
April 15, 1992: Gen. Colin Powell visited here today. Everyone was in such a tizzy—as if the man walked on water. As a safety precaution, a detail of a dozen soldiers spent the entire day yesterday chipping away the ice from the football-field-sized parking lot.
Apparently, he’d never walked on frozen water before.
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July 16-20, 1992: Camping trip to Denali National Park and Tangle Lakes with Mom and Dad. All throughout the trip, Dad kept remarking in a soft voice, "Well, this is some country you have up here. Really fantastic. I can't get over how open everything is."
We stayed two nights at Savage River Campground in Denali—the 16th and the 18th. The portly ranger at the reservations desk (who looked like he needed a couple of good hikes under his belt) shook his head brusquely when we asked if he maybe just maybe had something, anything for the 17th as well. We were lucky, he said, one-in-a-million lucky in fact, to get anything at all for that night, let alone for two nights later.
On the 17th, we rented a cabin south of Denali and 15 miles north of Cantwell, at the Perch Restaurant, a new, hastily-built A-Frame cabin. Dad and I went out to resupply our food (mainly soda and junk food). We went to the one and only food store in Cantwell and walked out with two skinny grocery bags after paying $57!!
The next day, we all rode the free shuttle bus into Denali. An eight-hour trip into land as beautiful and green as I've ever seen. The way the vegetation crept up the shale sloped mountains reminded me of a velvet blanket. Not unlike those landscapes you see of Ireland and Scottish highlands. Our wildlife tally included 5 grizzlies (a sow with two yearlings—one still suckling her teat when we drove up), two red foxes (one trotting nonchalantly along the road with two fat Arctic ground squirrels in his mouth), two bull moose with racks larger than most pickup trucks, dozens of caribou and one 3-pound grayling in a roadside pool that always rises to the surface when the shuttle bus stops to allow the tourists a view.
We saw two bicyclists pedaling along the park road. A ranger accompanying our bus quipped, "You know what the grizzlies call those kind of people?....Meals on Wheels."
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Dec. 12, 1992: Though it was later in the season than usual, we got our Christmas tree today. Normally, Jean and I like to get it on our anniversary, but since I was busy with grad school work that weekend, we waited until now. Jean stayed at home while I went out with the kids and Curtis Larch, the husband of Jean's best friend, Cathy. I would have preferred to drive four miles to the other side of Fort Wainwright and chop down one of the sparse, shrub-like trees there, but Curtis had this great day already planned out and, because our wives are friends, I didn't feel I could protest. So, we drove nearly 100 miles, down past Ester to the Standard Creek drainage area until we reached a narrow logging road and we found a whole forest of sparse, shrub-like trees. It was minus-25 degrees and Deighton started whimpering within three minutes of leaving the womb of the car. I took pictures of all three of them running the saw back and forth across the trunk, then I bundled them back into the van and finished the job. We had to break off a few branches as we stuffed the 11-foot tree into the van. Schuyler had pine needles going up his nose the entire trip back to Fairbanks. We decorated the tree that night and put presents underneath the anorexic branches. Later, in the evening when the kids had gone to bed and the house had reclaimed its silence, Jean and I sat on the sofa.
"What's that noise?" Jean asked suddenly.
We both listened. There it was again—it sounded like tiny rodent feet scampering across the gift wrap.
"It's the needles," I said. "They're falling off."
Now our carpet is starting to look like a forest floor.
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Dec. 22, 1992: Deighton got The Call of the Wild as a Christmas gift today. Tonight, I came up as he was laying in bed, reading, his small smooth face pinched in concentration, mouth ajar, as he labored over every sentence. "Dad," he said, laying the paperback aside, "what's this book about?"
"Well, it's about a dog in Alaska."
"A dog?" he said.
"Yes, the main character is Buck, a dog."
"Ooooohhhhh." His face cleared. "I wondered! I thought Buck was a human and couldn't figure out why they said his father was a St. Bernard!"
* * *
Dec. 31, 1992: Ice fishing with Capt. Paul Phillips (my boss) and Maj. Tom Rheinlander (the division's public affairs officer) at Quartz Lake. I went out to Sears last night and bought a $7 ice fishing rod, a plastic contraption that looks like it wouldn't hold anything over two pounds. Left the house at 7:30 this morning, driving in Capt. Phillips' black Ford Explorer, listening to Patty Lovelace, Clint Black and Merle Haggard. The smell of Capt. P.'s chewing tobacco filled the air of the truck. While he and Maj. R. talked Army politics, I sat in the back, scraping little holes in the window frost and feeling a little out of place around these officers.
The lake was nearly empty. Capt. P. didn't want to drive out, afraid he'd get stuck in the snow. The ice was two feet thick. We had hand augers and it took us maybe fifteen minutes to drill three holes. The wind was sharp and sliced into my fingers when I took my arctic mittens off to thread the hook and, later, to take that same hook out of the fish's mouth. Between us, we caught about three dozen fish—rainbows, silver salmon, none over two pounds—and threw half back in the hole. For every fish caught, the two officers took a hit of peppermint schnapps they'd bought at the North Pole 7-11. I had two sips (though I caught six times as many fish). The mint made me gasp with pleasure, though it didn't stop the throbbing toes and fingers.
"When you're ice fishing in Alaska, it's not a question of how much fun you have, but whether or not you survive," Capt. P. said with a chuckle. He's ice fished with his father-in-law in Oregon many times. "He's never happy with just one hole. He'll keep drilling until the ice looks like Swiss cheese. He likes to take his friend Bob Wade with him. Bob weighs about 350 pounds. He'll walk out on the ice and right away you'll hear the ice start to crack and pop. Everybody lets Bob Wade go off fishing by himself somewhere."