I’m old enough for polio to be a common health hazard in my youth, but rather than contracting that dread disease I contracted Greystoke’s Syndrome, an ailment that played havoc with my reading comprehension. It’s a condition common to children reading at a much higher level than expected – as a fourth grader I regularly read books written at a high school level and often came across words that I had rarely heard spoken, putting me in the same situation as John Clayton II, Lord Greystoke. Also known as Tarzan, young Greystoke taught himself to read by deciphering the small library his parents left behind when they were killed upon arrival in early twentieth century Africa. He rarely understood the spoken word as well as the written form, but fortunately I had an advantage the King of the Jungle lacked: my fourth grade teacher Cora Blinzler
Mrs. Blinzler was old school in the purest sense of the word and put great stock in proper classroom decorum maintained by percussive discipline, BUT she encouraged my extracurricular pursuit of knowledge as much as she could given her 30+ student class load. She spent extra time helping me develop my already prodigal reading skills, but despite that extra help I continued to struggle with penmanship and pronunciation: I eventually solved the first problem by turning from cursive to block lettering, but my continued mangling of verbal pronunciation destroyed words even worse than my horrible handwriting:
- Idiosyncrasies became “Idio-crass-knees”
- Taciturn became “tack-turn”
- Hors d’oeuvres was mangled into “hour doves”
It was while I was her student that I encountered one of those mystery words when the subject of the up-coming Fur Rendezvous began appearing in conversations and broadcasts shortly after Christmas break. I didn’t immediately make a connection between the “Ren-dez-voos” I was reading about and the “Ron-day-voo” I heard about on the radio until the week before the event kicked off, when I learned that both terms referred to an annual festival featuring cultural, sporting, and social events unique to our locale, combined with a general thumb-to-the-nose to Old Man Winter. The only down side was the lack of any kind of school holiday, but there would be a lot of interesting things to do and see during evenings and on weekends.
Mom in particular gushed about the way Fur Rendezvous would be a perfect opportunity to learn about our new home, but I was less than enthusiastic about giving up my weekend to look at what I assumed would be a dog show. I was still recovering from a foot fracture sustained during a sledding accident, which made the simple act of getting around difficult. But even more pressing was the animated cartoon issue – Mighty Mouse was aired on Saturday afternoons, and while he wasn’t a particular favorite, his show was the only weekend cartoon we had. Unfortunately my artistic entreaties fell on deaf ears, and Saturday morning I dutifully climbed into the back deck of our Falcon station wagon as my family eaded downtown for the Ren-dez-voos.
I silently cheered “movie” when we filed into the Sidney Laurence auditorium, but my elementary school funk returned when I learned that we were there for an exhibition of native dancing and not a movie. Confusion continued as the exhibition began – I knew about square dancing from school, and I knew about the Twist from American Bandstand, but I was clueless when dancers in Native American garb came on stage. I’d seen enough Westerns to expect lots of jumping and yelling around a fire but these guys were just kind of shuffling around.
We hadn’t had time to remove our coats so I was getting hot and restless as we sat in the dark. “Restless” soon morphed into “fidgeting” which brought on the reaction that any other nine year old would have had in that situation: passive/aggressive resistance, as in kicking the seat in front of me…but within just a few minutes I was surprised to find myself kicking in time with the soft drum beats from the dancers on stage. I was also surprised that I could just about understand the story they were acting out, and I deduced that one guy was some kind of wizard as he wearing a totally bitching mask that could change faces with a quick pull on a cord…
…but just as the story was getting good we had to leave and go find a decent place to watch the races. With the first Iditarod a dozen years in the future, “race” meant the World Champion Sled Dog Races that ran on a track laid out amidst the buildings, streets, and forests of a much smaller Anchorage (40,000 in the 1960 census). After twenty minutes of stop-and-go driving followed by as many minutes of shuffing through the snow, we found a good spot along Chester Creek close to the site of where the Sullivan arena would be built twenty years later – and as the start point was downtown on Fourth Avenue we still had at least an hour to go before any of the entrants would pass.
I was familiar with the competitors in the same way that I knew about sports figures in general: I knew some names but not much else. I was pretty sure that Bart Starr was a quarterback and Gordy Howes played hockey, but the only athlete I really knew anything about was Willie Mays, and that was because he played center field for San Francisco Giants – Dad’s favorite baseball team. Unfortunately, lack of knowledge about the mushers aggravated the disconnection I felt towards my new home and friends – while my buddies could swap names and statistics, the only racer I could recognize was the returning champion, Roland “Doc” Lombard, who while also an outsider, had the grace to be based in Massachusetts (which actually got snow in the winter) rather than my sunny native California.
However, there was one nameless racer who stood out – a man in his thirties from someplace up in the Interior. There was a strikingly different cadence to the way he ran behind the sled that included an odd kick, and as he passed us I could see his face was set in manner that left no question about his intent. We learned later that he was an Athabaskan native from Huslia, a small town located up in the interior along the Koyukuk River, and that he was contending with and triumphing against serious physical problems. I was struck by his courage as was the rest of my family, and even though we would only attend one more Fur Rendezvous as a family there was always a positive comment when this particular racer would show up in the media.
The mushers passed quickly and I was surprised when Dad called us back to load up the Falcon to make our way home to deepest, darkest Spenard. It had been a much better day than expected and I wasn’t even miffed when I found out I’d missed Mighty Mouse. We’d had a lot of fun, and the day also proved to be the first real distraction to the disorientation that came with moving to Alaska. Despite its status as the “Last Frontier” we were living in an urban environment more developed than any other area I had lived in up to that point. At the same time it was also the only part of Alaska I knew about, the furthest I had been out at that time was a fishing trip to Bird Creek twenty minutes south of town. We still felt ourselves to be transplanted Californians, our only prior connections to the Last Frontier being Dad’s deployment to Kodiak Naval station with a P2V Neptune squadron in the 1950s and Mom’s great-uncle Ned who’d been a participant in the Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the century. The Fur Rendezvous we’d just experienced had been a blessed jumpstart to an adjustment to our new home in the north. It could have been the displays, the dancing, the dog races or just the fact that it was one of the rare weekends my family spent together without someone getting hit, but by the end of the weekend we felt just a bit more connected to Alaska.
Even if genealogy hadn’t been actively encouraged by our faith, Mom would have been a fanatic in the art of tracking down ancestors. She’d always loved mysteries – and mysteries combined with family history were both entertaining AND a welcome distraction to the heartbreak of watching her beloved “innocent-shepherd-turned-sailor” slowly succumb to the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. She was sitting at the kitchen table with pedigree charts and family group sheets scattered all around when she was startled out of her genealogical reverie by the loud ring that only pre-touch tone telephones can produce. Like others of her generation she picked up the receiver automatically (“if it’s a phone call it must be an emergency!”) but when she heard the unfamiliar voice she started to hang up…until she caught the faint hint of an accent in the voice.
There was an odd roll to some of the vowels that could have come from the Yukon Territory.
“May I speak to June Laird please?
Maybe the Great Lakes?
“Laird is my maiden name.” said mom as she shook off her distraction: “My name is June Deitrick now. May I help you?”
The caller introduced herself as middle-aged woman named Rose researching her own family lineage which appeared to include the aforementioned Uncle Ned. That revelation triggered a torrent of names and dates between the two ladies – a benign sort of mania peculiar to those who have been bitten by the genealogy bug…but after ten minutes Mom could no longer contain her curiosity:
“Please forgive me but I’ve always been interested in languages and your accent baffles me. If I didn’t know better I’d think you were an Alaskan Native.”
‘Well, maybe that’s because I am Athabaskan and I’m calling you from Huslia…”
It turned out that Uncle Ned’s sojourn into the North had involved a lot more than just prospecting for gold. When the Klondike proved to be less-than-profitable Ned headed west to the Koyukuk area in Alaska where he made an attempt at prospecting before turning to running a trap line and supplying wood to passing riverboats…but then the story of Uncle Ned gets hazy. Most of Mom’s notes from her conversation with Rose have been lost and those that survived are nearly indecipherable (Like mother/like son: penmanship was not her strong suit). What we can figure out gives us all the ingredients for either a soap opera or a Gary Cooper western:
- Ned, or Ed as he was sometimes known, had a family with a local Athabaskan woman.
- A feud over trade concessions developed between Ed and his son-in-law Viktor.
- Ed killed Victor in self-defense after the younger man attempted to murder him.
- Though found innocent, Ed rode off into the sunset, leaving the Koyukuk for the Lower 48.
(For details consult Sidney Huntington’s 1993 biography Shadows on the Koyukuk)
What does all that mean? Evidently Rose was my Mom’s second cousin through Great Uncle Ned, which means that all those years ago when I was taking classes at the University of Alaska (in Fairbanks) there could have been “shirt-tail relations” among the Native students I was sitting next to in my classes.
It gets even better.
Remember that one young musher we cheered so hard for during that championship race – the one with the special kick? That young man was Rose’s brother, and that kick became well known as the trademark move of world champion dog-musher George Attla. We didn’t know it at the time, but when our little family of disconnected California beach bums went to that Fur Rendezvous in 1962 we were rooting for that one tenuous but very real connection with our new home in the North that I’d always hoped for.
The connection I’d always hoped for had always been there.