Recently a couple of people reminded me that my experiences growing up in rural Alaska were very unique and they encouraged me to write about them. The timing was perfect since I now have some copies of pictures of me growing up to share. I welcome your thoughts on my experience, and hope you’ll share some stories of your own unique backgrounds, too.
We lived in Cordova, Alaska when I was born; accessible only by ferry and plane. Cordova sits in an area considered to be very beautiful, but due to the constant rain, my mom hated the town so much she refused to have me born there. As my due date neared, she flew alone to Anchorage and stayed with friends until the big day arrived. I was the only one of us three kids born ‘naturally’ as they say. She was ‘knocked out’ for the other two more than a decade prior.
I arrived a few months after the “Good Friday Earthquake”. At 9.2, it was the largest earthquake recorded in the world. Post-quake tsunamis were felt in Canada, Oregon, California, Hawaii, and Japan. My parents were bowling in Cordova when the quake hit. Apparently, they had a hard time getting back to the apartment due to widespread damage, but weren’t injured or in physical danger.
When I was a year old, we moved to Cape Yakataga, but left my brother and sister behind so they could continue with school. Yakataga is even more remote and I believe it had a population of less than 25 people. Dad worked for the FSS (Flight Service Station) which later became the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). Mom told me that she loved picking the wild strawberries that grew along the beach grass. While beachcombing, she also found stray Japanese glass balls used to hold fishing nets afloat.
After a year, we moved to McGrath where we lived until I left home. My siblings rejoined us there since they could go to high school. McGrath is accessible by air only. It’s population was around 500 and was an aviation hub for interior Alaska. We had jet service three times a week; a post office, school, two bars, a roadhouse (cafe/rooms for rent), and a grocery store. Groceries even back then were so expensive that a gallon of milk was around $5. Since my dad worked for the government, we got our groceries (a little less expensive) delivered by plane once a month. Produce in winter was a treasure. I was an adult when I found out apples weren’t supposed to be mushy!
My earliest memory there is having boarding students live with us. McGrath was one of the larger towns in rural Alaska, so the native village kids got sent to live with families for the school year. Over the years, I think we had 6 students live with us. We had five at once for a while and it was pretty chaotic. Our house had three bedrooms and one bathroom.
Sharon and Bertha were Eskimo sisters and stuck together like glue. Their English wasn’t very good because many of the villages kept their Native tongue as the primary language. White people living in the villages was not very common. The girls were elementary school age and I always wanted to be in the middle of what they were doing. I walked the mile with them to school one day because I felt left out. They told me to go home, but I wouldn’t listen. We didn’t have a phone until many years later, so it took a while before my mom found out where I was.
Susan had siblings, but for some reason they got spread out to various families. Her sister Sandy would sometimes come over to visit. They were a few years older than me, so I didn’t feel as close to them as with Sharon and Bertha.
Gail, Dianne, and Dee Dee were teenage sisters that lived with us. I remember sitting outside their bedroom one time trying to listen to what ‘big girls’ talked about. One of them came out the door and saw me. I figured I was really going to hear about it, but she just laughed and they let me paint my nails. They had the shiniest and most beautiful black hair. I was a minority with my blonde hair, and I wished so badly to have pretty hair like them. I remember one of them always wearing a beaded headband that said “Indian Power”. Early on, I didn’t know what that meant.
At some point, though, I figured out they were Indians! Living in my house! Until then, I had no idea of this fact. (only that they had beautiful black hair) When I found out I had Indians in my house I was terrified. All I knew of Indians was stories about Cowboy and Indian days when white people got scalped. I worried they might have knives or bow & arrows hidden in their room and that they might get me in the night. Luckily, my blonde tresses were never in danger of getting scalped and I have mostly fond memories of all the girls that lived with us.
How about you? What unusual things in your childhood would you like to share?