Fifty Years Ago…
Half a century ago, I lived 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the Inupik whaling village of Pt. Hope, Alaska – the northwestern most point on the North American continent. It was a different sort of lockdown, voluntary on my part for one thing, but there were similarities in regard to combating isolation.
Boredom was certainly a big problem, as was drinking for many.
These days remind me of my first decade in Alaska as the reports that I posted in recent Newsletters attest. I also have the advantage of having those years and experiences to draw on.
As I consider my current day-to-day life, I think about those times of no TV, no radio, no phones, erratic electricity, and unpredictable mail plane deliveries. No roads. No doctors, dentists, or other health care professionals. No barbers, beauty salons, nail tenders, dry cleaners, or stores beyond a very modest co-op whose offerings ran from cigarettes to fuel oil and very basic basics.
Yet somehow I lived there for two years without going completely bonkers (some, back then, suggested that I was bonkers to move there at all, but that’s a different story).
Located on the tip of a frozen sand bar that jutted 15 miles out into the Arctic Ocean, where the sun set in mid-November and didn’t rise until late January, I can assure you there was absolutely nowhere to go.
As I write this I am increasingly aware of the contrasts.
I can’t leave my house – but I can order in almost anything. I can, for example, download a book in 30 seconds, not wait six weeks for my order to the Book Cache in Anchorage, or the Alaska State Library in Juneau, to be processed – even if I knew what book to request.
Obviously no Google to help me out, though my well-worn copy of “The Last Whole Earth Catalog – Access to Tools” saw me through many a long Arctic “day.”
Friends shop for me every ten days or so and, really, I can get almost anything (except yeast for some odd reason). That a far cry from ordering a year’s worth of everything to be delivered on the one annual supply ship, the North Star.
I can get medical attention, Rx’s arrive by mail and I don’t have to charter a Medi-Vac plane to evacuate my ailing son 200 miles to the nearest hospital in Kotzebue.
It was during those times that I began to learn to write, though never to type – still two fingers and a thumb in that department.
Yes, these days I am isolated in comfort while I watch those who complain about modest restrictions that are for the good of everyone. In Pt. Hope I did know that the long winter would end, and I knew roughly when. That is another difference. But I had no influence on that then, though you and I and everyone else does now.
I spent many a long evening in Pt. Hope hanging out with the Elders – people who no one paid much attention to. Listening, I found humor in cultural differences as when Jimmy Kaligivik, then in his late 80s, related his first encounter with the Episcopal Priest sent to open a mission.
“What was the funniest thing you noticed about the Reverent?” I asked.
Tears of laughed rolled down Jimmy’s face as he said, “Father treasured his snots!”
“What?” I said.
“Treasured his snots. Had special sacred cloth, fancy, blow his nose into sacred cloth, look at carefully, fold up, and place in special pocket!”
It was not my first experience seeing cross-cultural humor, but it has always stayed with me.
As has the benediction he helped me translate from Inupik religion:
“May the goddess who dwells beneath the sea,
Keep you from the cold and from the dark.
But most of all,
May she keep you from the heedless ones among you.”
I thank that is an extremely apt benediction for these times and “the heedless ones” endanger all of us, including themselves.