Saturday, October 10, 2015

Alaska Historical Society honors Anchroage Remembers

The Alaska Historical Society honored 49 Writers with the Contributions to Alaska History Award for Anchorage Remembers : An Anthology of Alaskan Writers, Anchorage Centennial Project. See the list of awards at

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Lawrence D. Weiss: The Road to Anchorage

There was only one road, but I was lost. My truck radio had stopped working. I hadn’t seen another vehicle for hours, and I was driving toward an immense brown mushroom cloud unfurling like a shroud over horizon and sky. My predominant thought: ‘What the hell am I doing here?’

A couple of months earlier, spring of 1982, I was winding up a post­doctoral program at the Harvard School of Public Health. I was on track to be hired by the prestigious National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, when President Reagan unexpectedly cut the Institute funding in half. My new job evaporated.

I told the Harvard employment office that I would be interested in any position in my field of job safety and health. Some ten days later a guy named Steve called and said that he ran a small non­profit in Anchorage—the Alaska Health Project—and he was looking for someone to teach job safety and health to employers and workers across the state. He was in town recruiting for the position, so we met the next day to talk about the job. The work itself sounded perfect in terms of my interests, and he thought I was a good candidate for the position. He would get back to me in a couple of weeks.

I started to have second thoughts. The Alaska Health Project was not the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health—no high salary, no federal benefits, and no prestigious appointment. And Anchorage—a hick town truly on the edge of nowhere.

A few days after these disquieting doubts bubbled up, Steve called from Anchorage and told me I was hired. Suppressing my angst, I agreed to take the position for the simple reason that my options at the time were severely limited. He said, “The job starts in two months. See you then.” Click.

At the time I knew nothing about Alaska except that Anchorage was a few hours’ drive north of Seattle, give or take. Captain Cook knew more about Alaska in 1779 than I did. My anxieties peaked when I bought a special road map that listed all the gas stations on the Alaska Highway (Alcan) because there weren’t many, they were far apart, and they closed early. And while you’re packing, advised the narrative on the map, “Bring a couple spare tires, a replacement gas pump, and a spare rotor cap, and attach a screen across the front of your pickup to protect the headlights and windshield from gravel thrown up by speeding semis.”

Mid­-May I drove out of Boston heading for Anchorage. I stopped for a few days in Albuquerque to visit family, then drove north to meet up with the Alcan. And that’s how I got to the desolate track of wilderness road, driving straight toward the mushroom cloud that climbed past the horizon way up into the blue sky and obliterated it. I was a school kid in the duck-­and-­cover 1950s. The cloud looked just like an atomic bomb had been dropped somewhere up the road ahead of me. Maybe Anchorage was already a pile of radioactive dust in a war that just started.

About that time I noticed a little VW mini­bus with Canadian plates coming down the road toward me. I wasn’t going to let him get away. I swerved in front of him, blocking the road. He had to stop. I jumped out of my truck, gesticulating wildly at the gigantic cloud and bellowed, “What the hell is that? What’s going on?”

In retrospect, I think this guy had probably run into his share of desolation­-crazed Americans driving up the Alcan. He was calm and reassuring. He said that there was a big forest fire up ahead, maybe Canada’s biggest this year, but that if it threatened drivers on the Alcan, the Mounties would barricade the road until it was safe to pass.

Oh. Forest fire. Not nuclear holocaust. I thanked him profusely for the information and felt foolish and silly. While I was standing there pondering my overactive imagination, he gently reminded me that my truck was blocking the Alcan, and would I be so kind as to move it so he could continue his journey.

I kept driving. Eventually, the column of dense smoke became an entire horizon of billowing smoke, but there were no Mounties in sight, so I figured I was still OK. After hours of stuporous driving, tires droning over gravel, I suddenly realized I was in the middle of just ­burned forest. Licks of flame erupted from burning limbs, and pyres of smoke climbed from charred brush. Glowing ash rained down everywhere. Still no Mounties, so I pressed forward nervously. Meanwhile, my fuel was dangerously low. There was supposed to be a lodge with gas near here. Maybe the gas tanks had already exploded in massive fireballs, sealing my fate before my first day in Anchorage.

After some time I rounded a bend in the road and was startled to be in clear air. I had emerged out the other side of the hellish landscape. There was the lodge, maybe a half-mile away from the line of trees exploding in flame behind me. The road was choked by a couple hundred men and women milling about and dozens of vehicles parked helter-skelter on and off the road. I asked a guy what was going on. He told me that this was the main base for fighting the fire. He took a scornful look at my U.S. license plate and told me that here in Canada anyone can be forcibly recruited to fight fires.

No! I was not going to be dragooned to fight a forest fire in Canada. My destiny was in Anchorage. I drove to the lodge to try to get gas. In those days most lodges stopped pumping gas by mid­afternoon and this was several hours beyond that, but I was desperate. I was prepared to plead with, even bribe the lodge operator. The lodge was packed with dozens of hungry firefighters shoveling food into their spent bodies. The old guy at the cash register could barely keep up with the line of grizzled, exhausted fire fighters waiting to pay their bill.

I pushed to the front of the line and started cajoling the cashier about how desperate I was for gas. Much to my surprise he said he would help me as soon as he could find someone to run the register. After a while we were out at the pumps. While he was filling my tank, I was looking just over his shoulder at trees exploding in flame a half mile away. I asked him if he was afraid for his lodge. He chuckled and said, “No, not at all.” He and his wife had been there about 40 years, and it was time to retire, he said. He smiled and added that the place was heavily insured, and it had been a real good last few days in the restaurant.

I drove hard that night to get away from the flames and Canadian firefighter recruiters. I thought more and more about a new life in Anchorage, but it was hard to believe there was a city at the end of this dangerous, desolate road. Two or three days later I came up on the outskirts of Anchorage. I drove right through downtown, all the way down the steep hill by Elderberry Park, and stopped when I could go no further. I looked out over Cook Inlet, Sleeping Lady, and the Chigmit Mountains that anchor the Aleutian Chain to the rest of the state. There was a town at the end of the road after all.

On my first day at the job, I discovered that our office building was a squalid two-story wooden structure with four 2­room office suites. It was on the edge of a huge parking lot we shared with the Rescue Mission. I had a small office with a window overlooking the Mission and the parking lot between us. One day, after I had been working there a couple of weeks, I came to work early to get some writing done. After a short while my concentration was assaulted by the sound of a hard-­driving chain saw that seemed to be just outside my window. I cautiously approached the window and peered out.

Two guys from the Mission had spread a large plastic tarp in the parking lot between the Mission and our building. The guy with the chainsaw and his friend were butchering a huge moose sprawled out across the tarp. It was very messy. I couldn’t watch. On the other hand, I was really beginning to like Anchorage. It was full of good stories to tell my Harvard colleagues who landed boring Washington, D.C., jobs.

Lawrence D. Weiss Ph.D. is happily retired in Anchorage. He has decades of experience in program evaluation, health policy analysis, research, writing, and publishing. He founded and served as the Executive Director of the Alaska Center for Public Policy (ACPP) 2004-2012. Prior to that Weiss taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage for sixteen years, and retired as Professor Emeritus. In the 1980s, before taking a position at the University, he served for six years as the Executive Director of the Alaska Health Project. He is the author of three books on various aspects of public health policy, and a fourth book about the historical political economy of the Navajo people. In addition, he has published numerous narratives and articles on a range of topics.

Dixie Lee Hudish: Starting my Oil Spill Adventure in Anchorage

Here I was a divorced woman in my late 40s, laid off from my job in Anchorage after having raised my two children, and standing among hundreds of workers in the Anchorage Laborer’s Union Hall Local 341, trying to get an oil-spill job. It is now a couple of months after the horrendous Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of March 27, 1989.

The oil spill buzz was all over town, not only in the state of Alaska, but ‘outside’ in the lower 48 states too. There were plenty of oil-spill jobs to be filled.

As I pulled off Commercial Drive and into the Laborer’s Union Hall parking lot on my first morning, I gasped and thought, ‘Oh My God—this is going to be more than I expected!’ The lot already seemed full with plenty of folks milling around outside.

What had I been thinking—that I would just walk in, sign up, and someone would simply call my name for one of these many oil-spill jobs that I had been hearing about?

I walked slowly toward the entrance while trying to casually stop and listen in on the conversations among those folks standing outside, smoking and talking to various buddies and strangers. I was hoping I might pick up as much gossip as I could, to get an idea what exactly was going on regarding cleanup oil spill work. I realized then that I was going to be on the bottom of the union dispatch list, but I did hear that hundreds—or was it thousands?—were needed, so I thought I better hang in there for a while before I would take another route in getting an oil-spill job.

I quickly figured I best hurry and sign up as fast as I could so there would be less folks signing ahead of me. I signed the books, paid a monthly fee, and was given a copy of the dispatch rules. Then I just fell in with the rest of the group standing around.

As I looked about, in this huge hall that got smaller by the minute as more folks crowded in, I thought the men must out-number the women maybe ten to one; plus, we were not all Alaskans. Although I had arrived in Anchorage back in 1969, many from outside Alaska were looking for work here, too.

I kept looking around to see if I knew anyone while still trying to listen in on conversations, to hear what I could pick up as helpful news. I did feel like I fit right in as I stood there with my worn jeans—the grubbiest I could find—with my old hiking boots, a sweatshirt hoodie over my flannel shirt and turtleneck top. Along with my International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1547 baseball cap on my head, I wanted to let everyone know I was a union member, but just not of the Laborer’s Union. Most had their working clothes on—jeans, Carhartts, boots or hardy-working shoes with big rubber soles, and baseball caps with all kinds of insignias.

I heard lots of construction jobs being called out, and found it quite interesting that I should find myself here in this union hall, having recently been laid off working as a staff member for the IBEW Local 1547 Union. I knew I needed to line up another job soon, for I was living from paycheck to paycheck. I was glad I had been able to raise the children on my own; my son was now working ‘outside,’ and my daughter was attending college in California. I figured I could make enough money to get ahead of things, yet I didn’t really know what to expect. Getting an oil-spill job sounded exciting, and somehow I got caught up in the frenzy and adventure of it all once I had made up my mind to go after this job. What did I know about cleaning up oil? I thought I would soon learn when I got there!

Well, as the days went by and I was still showing up at the Laborer’s Union hall every day, then nearly two weeks and still no dispatch, I decided to go to Plan B: swapping out my car for my girlfriend’s van, getting my bike and gear packed inside, and heading down the road for Valdez.

The company that was doing some of the hiring, Norcon, had set up offices right in downtown Valdez. I ended up parking my van along Mineral Creek, just outside of Valdez, where various folks had pitched tents. I knew I couldn’t drive my van into town as I would lose my great camping spot; those were hard to come by because everyone else was also camping out to check on oil-spill jobs every day. So I drove my bike to the Norcon office daily and would pester anyone who would listen to me. I also volunteered at the Otter Center where otters were being cleaned from the oil.

I met a couple of nurses (one being MaryLee Hayes, who remains a very dear friend). They were tenting next to my great camping spot and were willing to help save my place for me so I could drive to Seward to try for a dispatch from the Laborer’s Union hall there. Nothing was happening for me in Seward, either, so thus while I had time, I volunteered at the bird center. Here I, along with others, took puffins and placed them in small rubber tubs to clean them with toothbrushes using Dawn soap.

One day, as I returned back in Valdez, I was using a sump pump to clean out the otter tank. I started talking to the young gal next to me, asking where she was from and was she hoping to get an oil-spill job. She told me she was from Massachusetts and was being paid for working in this Otter Center. That did it for me! I immediately quit on the spot and proceeded the next morning to head for the Norcon’s office to see why residents such as myself were not able to get paid oil-spill jobs, but out-of-state folks were.

I explained my volunteering situation, and about the third morning after that, I walked into the office and was told to get my issued supplies that included rain gear, rubber boots, hard hat—and to stuff everything in what looked like a green army duffle bag that seemed to be bigger than I was. I couldn’t get all my personal things and my issued gear into the duffle bag, so I ended up wearing my hardhat, rain gear, and rubber boots. I knew I looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care! I had just enough time to get my vehicle locked up in a designated fenced area and be ready to be flown out on a light aircraft to a small boat. From there we were taken to an old ship where we waited until our barge arrived to lower Herring Bay. Wow! I finally made it!

I was really lucky to be hired as a trouble-shooter for the Norcon supervisors and for the out-of-state Exxon supervisors, who arrived on the barge by helicopter. I never did learn how to clean rocks of the oil as I was too busy dispatching boats, maintaining the office on the barge, and monitoring all kinds of activities.

The current oil spill cleanup process began to be closed down in the fall, and I arrived back in Valdez with many other workers. After finally finding the van, I headed back for Anchorage the next morning. I was exhausted from working more than 100 hours a week and looked forward to being back in my hometown.

Anchorage was still buzzing with oil spill news and events. I realized then that all Alaskans were going to be affected by this tremendous oil spill in some capacity, for a long time to come.

Stephenie Todd Wheeler: Opportunity Knocks: Opening the Door to Engagement

On a late summer afternoon in 1992, an enthusiastic rap-a-tap-tap sounded on my front door. I opened it and there stood a grinning, youthful 40-something man eager to make my acquaintance. Few would have guessed this charming, newly retired Air Force captain would, in 15 years, be found guilty of corruption and sent to prison. Starting with that door-to-door campaigning exchange, the lessons I would learn from former Alaska Representative Pete Kott were less about power’s corrupting influence and more about the influence of people who make an effort to engage in Anchorage politics.

At the time Kott-the-Candidate dropped by, just two months had passed since I delivered my last salute. My Air Force uniforms were now packed in a trunk with other sentimental treasures highlighting 30 years of life experience. Although I enjoyed the discipline of military life, I looked forward to a new chapter characterized by far less regulation and restriction on all aspects of living.

For example, during the eight years I served on active duty at Elmendorf Air Force Base, I steered clear of all things political, other than to vote. As a military Public Affairs Specialist, I was acutely aware that those of us in uniform stood in defense of all our countrymen, no matter their political persuasion. And thus, public displays of politics—like public displays of affection—were frowned upon. When he was a military officer, Kott abided by these same rules of conduct. I believe he and I were equally raring to re-engage with our relatively fresh re-entry into civilian life, and that first encounter was an opportunity knocking for both of us.

“Hello, Ma’am! I’m Pete Kott, and I’m running for election to the State House,” he said that summer afternoon, the grin still firmly in place. He said he aimed to represent House District 17, which then encompassed parts of East Anchorage, including Glencaren Mobile Home Park. Mine was among hundreds of closely spaced mobile homes that lined the narrow and rutted gravel roadways connecting this sizable neighborhood near the base of the foothills.

“I’d like to hear what you have to say about . . .” he began. Before he finished the sentence, I stepped through my front door and out onto our east-facing deck, which afforded an unobstructed view of the Chugach range. The 12-by-20-foot platform was the finest feature of our rust-brown double-wide. I didn’t bother to offer our lone plastic lawn chair, left orphaned by the clumsy rough-and-tumble of my son, five, and two stepsons, four and five, who collectively broke the other one.

“Let’s talk education,” I said, thinking of my preschool brood comprised of the three boys and a three-year-old daughter. What followed was a pointed interrogation that lasted at least a half hour. I felt liberated, as I spoke with long-winded conviction about things I thought deserved debate. I remembered how much I cared. The topic of education was followed by emergency response, elder care, and exiting military life―and those were just the E’s. To his credit, candidate Kott’s interest never visibly waned as I rambled through the alphabet of issues. I’d like to think we were both caught up in the moment. This would-be politician knew he had a live one, as I willingly indulged his invitation to express my views. Even so, by the time I reached the P’s―potholes, public transportation, and property taxes―poor Pete Kott must have been ready to move on. Yet our doorstep dialogue was worthy of recall, and remember it we did when we encountered each other again and again, thanks to his successful bid for election and my post-military career.

Within a month of honorably separating from the Air Force (June 1992), I was hired by Executive Director Karen Cowart as the communications coordinator for the Alaska Visitors Association (AVA, the precursor to today’s Alaska Travel Industry Association). While I had the technical expertise after years spent writing for military audiences, under Karen I honed the heart-and-art of passionate and action-provoking messaging. When she left AVA in 1997, I followed Karen to her next gig at the helm of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, a statewide oil-and-gas contractors’ trade organization. During the decade I worked for Karen, I watched this networking savant motivate often-stoic business people to engage, engage, engage. As a freshman lawmaker and recipient of that constituent engagement, Kott likely learned from Karen as well.

Acting in a staff support role, I frequently accompanied Karen and tourism or petroleum industry executives who traveled to the state capital to lobby. Seven-times-elected Representative Kott was among those wined and dined by business leaders seeking an ear sympathetic to the cause of commerce.

One wine-and-dine venue during the legislative session was the annual AVA-hosted reception invariably held at the dimly lit Baranof Hotel in Juneau. In spring 1993 I experienced my first reception, where I manned the welcome table covered with rows of alphabetically-organized nametags. I looked up as Kott walked into the meeting room, smartly dressed in a suit and tie. He pointed to me in acknowledgement. “I remember YOU!” he said with a wink and broad likable grin. “You meant business!”

“I still do,” I shot back with a smile as I handed over his nametag. The banter was short-lived, as Karen whisked him away to the hosted bar and introduced him to AVA Board members. For the remainder of the evening, like a fly on the wall, I observed how the seeds of public policy were planted―one conversation, one drink, one handshake at a time.

Juneau was hardly the only scene of influence. Outside of the legislative session, AVA and the Alliance organized social and business functions at Anchorage’s elegant and over-the-top downtown establishments, including the Hilton, Hotel Captain Cook, and 4th Avenue Theatre. Legislators were always on the invite list, and the savvy ones usually showed up for these opportunities to engage. Whether seated for dinner, mingling at a themed gala, or attending a conference forum, Kott never failed to take a few minutes to connect with me, his constituent. Each time, we laughed at the memory of our initial doorstep exchange, shared at a time when we each had untarnished confidence that we could influence change, whether as a constituent or candidate. We weren’t wrong. But political reality isn’t as predictable as we imagined back in 1992.

While Kott did climb the legislative ladder as his connections and power grew, not all influences turned out to be beneficial. At end of the 1990s, I witnessed the toll Juneau took when I attended an evening function to honor him. The event occurred at one of Kott’s favorite haunts, the How-How on Muldoon Road. The restaurant’s cheerful, ornate oriental decor and lively crowd only accentuated the decidedly un-cheery demeanor of the man with bleary eyes and gray-tinged pallor. He seemed to have aged two decades over the course of one. There was no wink. No acknowledging smile. Just a weary expression and curt greeting. I left early, saddened by the transformation of a man worn down.

Today, I remain on the periphery of Anchorage politics. Not an insider, not an outsider. From this vantage point and my experience, I understand that politics is people, and to have any influence at all, one must engage. With relatively few people in a vast land, Alaska is still fairly rural, and residents still have remarkable access to their legislators. It concerns me that the majority of young (and not-so-young) people I meet have zero interest in their elected representatives, much less voting for them. Too many citizens are uninformed, misinformed, and, therefore, often detached and jaded.

I understand the cynicism. Taken too far, political engagement and influence can turn rotten, even illegal. Pete Kott’s fall from grace and similar stories tend to reinforce the pessimistic attitudes. Certainly, I could focus on the unfortunate end to Kott's political career. Instead, I recall the public servant he clearly yearned to be at the time of our first encounter 22 years ago. I remember how good it felt to really engage and how effective it was, and has been, to do so.
The pivotal lesson I gleaned from Pete Kott is not the obvious “power can corrupt” but, rather, a sense that participation in the process matters. Voting, questioning, doorstep dialogue―they matter in Alaskan politics. So I stay informed. I cast my ballot always. I write my legislators on matters that matter to me. I engage. Pete Kott taught me the value in that, beginning with the opportunity that knocked in 1992.

Fresh out of Air Force basic training and journalism school, Stephenie Wheeler arrived in Anchorage in May 1985, reporting for her first assignment at Elmendorf Air Force Base. She remained active duty for eight years, all at Elmendorf's Public Affairs Office. She later started a small home business specializing in public relations for non-profit and small businesses. Formed in 1994, Alaska Message Maker supplemented her income from full-time communications positions held at the Alaska Visitors Association (1992-1997), and Alaska Support Industry Alliance (1997-2001). Stephenie joined the Alaska Railroad as its Public Involvement Officer in 2001 and was promoted to Communications Officer in 2009. She has an associate’s degree in public relations and a bachelor's degree in business. Wheeler has a son, a daughter, and two grandchildren. Although raised in Idaho, Wheeler considers Alaska her home.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

MaryLee Hayes: Bearing it Best in Alaska

In May this year I camped for four sunny days at the Rapids Camp yurt at the Eagle River Nature Center, a few miles from Anchorage. A yurt provides comfortable camping for me. The rounded structure is made of thick canvas over a wood frame and houses a set of bunk beds, a table, chairs, and a wood stove. This particular yurt faced a vast and marvelous view of snow-covered mountains and forested slopes. The rushing Eagle River flowed just over a ridge.

On the two-mile hike through the woods to the yurt, my friend Maria shared the backpacking load with me. When we reached our destination, we discovered that the door lock was not working, and the door would not stay closed. Barely had this fact registered when Steven, a Nature Center volunteer, walked up the path with news. Over the ridge by the river, a black bear had just killed a moose calf. Hikers were to stay away from the area.

With this bear news, the door problem took on a new dimension of concern.

Having worked as a registered nurse in Anchorage hospitals since 1991, I had tended many patients wounded by a bear. Once, I cared for a man from northern Alaska who aggravated a passing polar bear when he took a flash photo from inside his workplace building. The bear plunged through the window and threw its massive weight onto him, its jaws and claws tearing at his neck, head, and arms. The trauma a person goes through after such an ordeal is shocking for him or her, both physically and emotionally. Stories like this are never far from my mind in the Alaskan outdoors.

Luckily, Maria had brought a bungee cord for a borrowed backpack that didn’t fit too well. The bungee cord held the yurt door mostly closed, so I would try and make do. Although Memorial Day weekend was not an easy time for repairs, Steven promised a new doorknob as soon as possible. Meanwhile, it was watch out for the cruising black bear, protective of its moose meat dinner, and have a nice day.

With bear guard spray, bells, and whistles held close, Maria and I walked back on the path toward the Nature Center where her truck was parked. We came upon two women hiking and told them about the bear and baby moose kill.

Suddenly one of them pointed and stuttered, “There’s—there’s right now bear! Bear right there—now!”

Sure enough, a mother black and two cubs walked behind us on the trail.

We did all the right stuff: talked loudly and backed off slowly while facing them. No problem. They faded from our view in a matter of minutes.

Maria left the Nature Center, and I returned to the yurt alone, assessing the situation: a fresh moose kill by the bear near the yurt, a door that didn’t shut tight, and a need to walk alone past a mother bear and cubs.

As I pondered this, a group of young girls came by with their leader. There’s safety in numbers. Yes, I could walk with them. They were happy with their role as my protectors though we were all nervous. The mother and cubs eventually came into view, still just off the path. The hair on the mother’s back bristled, but she let us snap photos as we passed by in a tight group. Afterwards, the girls turned back and left me to the darkening woods.

As the midnight sun settled around the yurt, I armored myself with what was at hand: a broom and my walking stick. I set a hatchet by the bunk, tied the door shut with the bungee cord, and kept the bear guard spray, whistle, and bells handy. I slept fitfully through the long night, dreaming of bears.

Early the next morning Steven delivered more news when he checked on me: a bear had demolished a camper’s tent nearby. My doorknob could not be replaced yet—and oh, by the way—a moose recently charged him. Have a nice day.

It was beginning to feel like an episode of Wild Kingdom.

Still, at the yurt all seemed peaceful. I almost decided to have lunch on the deck but thought better of it. I connected the bungee cord so the door was partially shut, and ate soup in the warm yurt while I read. Then I heard someone at the door. Maybe Steven again?

I called, “Who’s there?”

Then I saw two big black feet under the door’s bottom crack.

Oh dear.

I sneaked to the door. There on the porch was one very huge black bear, about three feet from me, with only a bungee cord between us.

But this appeared to be a fed bear. Uninterested in me and my soup, he sniffed around for a while and then slowly lumbered off.

For the record, I got a picture of one big black butt and was left feeling very grateful for a sturdy bungee cord.
MaryLee Hayes was raised on a farm south of Grand Rapids, Michigan. She became a registered nurse at age twenty; shortly thereafter she began exploring other states, looking for adventure. Having moved to Alaska in 1981 "in order to see a moose," she later graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, majoring in English with a Writing Emphasis. After the very cold winter of 1988-89, when the thermometer outside her cabin in Fairbanks registered less than -60 degrees for three days in a row, Hayes left the Interior. She moved to Valdez to work on the clean-up effort following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Eventually she settled in her cabin home outside Eagle River, which is surrounded by mountains and good neighbors, and it is where she plans to stay. Being mostly retired from nursing now, she volunteers for the Alaska Women Speak journal and Equilux, both which offer writing opportunities.

Gail Stolz: Dinner, Thursday Nights: My Chosen Family

We each are lucky in some particular way. My friend Joanie finds lost rings, including a ring she’d lost in a road median. She once found my wedding band that had slipped off my finger into her driveway snow. I am lucky in my friends. Joanie and I are part of a group of women who have shared potluck dinner every Thursday since 1981. We named ourselves the WAWAs back when Joanie still lived in Fairview. The acronym is secret and now almost forgotten; it has a hint of mental health work with a nod to self-help groups. I have spent my adult life within this group, and they are my family.

I come from strong women. I grew up in California as part of a female-headed household and regularly visited my grandmother—our matriarch—who lived independently into her 90s. In 1981, I had just graduated college and was spending the summer with Mom in California when my Alaska aunt came down for a family reunion. Knowing I was considering my next move, she invited me to Alaska. “You could get a job in Anchorage,” she said.

Soon after I landed here, I heard about the nascent women’s group whose instigators worked in a little building on Cordova Street that housed the Open Door Clinic and Family Connection, health and social services non-profits that are now long gone. These women, recent arrivals to Alaska, reached out through Anchorage’s network of friends and colleagues for other women to join them for potluck dinner. Given our health and social services wellspring, it’s no surprise that past and present WAWAs include seven social workers, three nurses, and two attorneys.

In our early years, the WAWAs defined ourselves in the negative. We were not a book group. Nor, in that era of woman’s lib, did we gather for consciousness-raising. We had no rules, except for unwritten ones. One unstated and rarely broken rule was that we bring food dishes that we prepared ourselves. Over the years, we’ve had some clear winners: I think of Nancy whenever someone serves Chicken Marbella; chocolate anything brings Joanie to mind, and Marilyn owns Green Chile Pie. When Donna joined, she brought us to an entirely new level of dining pleasure.

Among the most memorable cooking failures in our early days was Kathy’s attempt at sausage soup. We assembled at Martha’s house, a two-story zero-lot line on the outside of the Tudor-Muldoon curve. That evening, we drank wine and nibbled appetizers for a very long time. Eventually, Nancy exited the kitchen and announced, “Despite heroic rescue attempts, Kathy’s sausage soup doesn’t taste like anything at all.”

The “bad holiday gift” exchange is my favorite WAWA tradition, one that began a collective response to unwanted gifts we had received from misguided friends and relatives in the Lower 48. This year, we brought our garish holiday-wrapped gifts to Donna’s house after Valentine’s Day. The first opened gift looked like an endless one-sided zipper but turned into a cool little bag. I won a 1970s-era three-by-five-inch gold pendant emblazoned with horoscope symbols. Donna opened my prize, a much re-gifted and truly ugly haunted tree trunk with eyes that glowed when its hard-to-place candle is alight. I had found it in a cupboard and remembered receiving it years earlier from Kathy at another gift exchange. I wonder who will take it home next time.

Like family, the WAWAs support each other beyond the dining table. In the mid-90s, for example, we celebrated Nancy’s birthday at one Thursday dinner. Over appetizers, she said, “I went to see the doctor because this place near my throat hurts, but he didn’t find anything.” After talking with Nancy in the kitchen between courses, Marilyn, who can be fiercely protective, said, “Nancy should go to the E.R.”

We all went along and brought the cake. We took turns with Nancy while she waited for an exam. Eventually, her lung cancer was diagnosed. Many of us spent time with her in Seattle during her treatment. When Nancy died two years after her birthday celebration, the WAWAs lost one of our own.

I am lucky to have followed my aunt’s path to Anchorage and fortunate to have arrived when so many other recent arrivals were looking for a connection to replace the family they had left behind in their move to Alaska. For more than 30 years, the WAWAs have eaten together, sharing meals with prosaic events on the menu next to the food and wine. These shared ordinary times and occasional profound experiences have transformed us from a group of friends to a family. The WAWAs are my reference points for understanding my world. Our shared good times and sorrows, frustration and success, and our unique personal histories are now interwoven, providing warmth and comfort, like a hug.
Gail Stolz has lived her entire adult life in Anchorage. Both she and her husband arrived in 1980, although they didn’t meet for a decade. They have the pleasure of raising a daughter. Stolz loves Anchorage’s combination of urban comfort and being able to get out and away quickly and easily. She treasures regularly sighting moose and migratory birds and that the world here looks so different from season to season. She depends on friends and family and can’t imagine progressing through life’s passages without having them at her side.

Becky Saleeby: From Around the World to Anchorage

Aluel breezed into class a few minutes late, apologizing as she settled herself in a front middle seat. I asked one of the Brazilian women at the end of the table to start reading, and by the time they were finished, Aluel’s eyelids were already drooping. She roused herself before I called her name. She carefully pronounced each word of the paragraph she read and answered my questions correctly.

“Sorry, Teacher, I came to class right after work and haven’t gone to bed yet,” she said.    I knew Aluel’s story. She and her husband, Shir, had been students of mine in other classes at the Alaska Literacy Program (ALP). Aluel, with smooth dark skin and a cheery smile, is as beautiful as her name sounds. She works the night shift as a housekeeper at Providence Hospital. Refugees from the war-torn country of South Sudan, Aluel and her family were placed in Texas when they first came to the United States. Later, they decided to relocate to Anchorage, a sought-after destination for refugees because of its clean air and good job prospects. Many of them enroll in ALP classes.

Ever since I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s in Benin, a politically unstable country in West Africa, I’ve wanted to teach English as a second language. Forced to leave Benin abruptly, after a coup d’├ętat, I never had the chance to teach at the high school in Dogbo, the village where I’d lived for six months. I regretted missing the opportunity, never thinking it would come around for me again.

Afterward, I set out on a different path. I embarked upon years of graduate school, followed by the offer of an archaeology job in Alaska. It wasn’t until my professional career was winding down that I got another chance. A friend at work told me about ALP, and I immediately signed on as a volunteer. Retired now for the last two years, I finally have the time to teach not only English, but also citizenship classes to immigrants and refugees from around the world who want to become naturalized U.S. citizens.

One of my favorite classes was a discussion session for fairly high-level English speakers. We didn’t use a textbook, so I had to rely on the students to help develop a curriculum. At the first meeting I asked them about topics they were interested in studying. Their answers surprised me.

“Communism, capitalism, and the utopian society,” replied Tom, a brilliant young man from China.

“I’d like to talk about animals” was the answer of a middle-aged Nicaraguan man, who loved to write long poems in English and share them with his classmates.

Other suggestions included global warming, space exploration, and healthy lifestyles, all of which would require research. I spent long planning sessions at home, Googling each of their topics before I felt ready to lead the discussions in class. Invariably, they had questions I couldn’t answer, but that never stopped them from finding out on their own. Flor, a young mother from Guatemala, would often be the first to pull out her smartphone and have an answer for us in a minute or two. Most of them were more technologically savvy in two or more languages than I was in one.

Some of my students intend to live in Anchorage for only a year or two, like Sister Philomena, a Catholic nun from South Korea. She dresses in a simple grey habit and often arrives to class with Korean candy or homemade gifts to share. Once she confessed in her halting English that her dream was to become a missionary in Africa. Two vibrant young college-educated women, Yira from Panama and Tatiana from Columbia, came to town as au pairs for a short time. They hoped that improving their English would give them an edge in the job market back in their home countries.

A few students−Jinnam from South Korea, Bon from Thailand, and Turkan from Turkey−are married to Americans and eligible to apply for citizenship after living in the U.S. for only three years, instead of the usual five. For single parents, like Gatchuk and Rebecca, both from South Sudan, naturalization means that their minor children become citizens as well. All of them speak excellent English, but come to class for coaching in the basics of American history and government in order to pass an exam during their interviews with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). They concentrate on memorizing answers to one hundred questions about the Constitution, the founding fathers, and recent events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The day after Alulel had her interview, she arrived in class early. I heard her voice on the stairs, greeting other students and sharing the good news. “I’m going to be a citizen! I got all the answers right on my first try,” she told everyone in her excitement. She held center stage for the next ten minutes as we congratulated her. She gave us a detailed account of her interview and her answer to each question.

“George Washington is the father of our country, period. I made sure to put a period after each sentence I wrote,” she explained. I listened to all the advice she had to offer and passed it on to other students before their own interviews.

Aluel, Shir, and 50 other people from at least 20 countries became American citizens in the U.S. courthouse in downtown Anchorage last September. Aluel looked elegant in a black suit, and Shir looked proud, grinning as they posed with the judge in front of the stars and stripes and the Alaska flag after the ceremony.

Since then, I have attended other naturalization ceremonies, always thrilled to cheer on my students when they pledge allegiance to our country. Whatever I have managed to teach them about American idioms or the system of checks and balances is far outweighed by what they’ve taught me. They have shared stories about the food, customs, holidays, and history of their homelands. They have showed me the face of perseverance and resilience. They have opened the door to the world for me, and all without ever leaving our small classroom in east Anchorage.
Becky Saleeby has lived in Alaska for more than thirty years and worked in remote areas of the state as an archaeologist until she retired two years ago. She and her husband, Bruce Ream, raised their three children in Anchorage, taking advantage of all the outdoor activities— camping, hiking, biking, skiing, and snow-machining—that Alaska has to offer. Gardening, writing, and volunteering at the Alaska Literacy Program keep Becky occupied these days.