The call came the spring of 1999, shortly before the second of our three trips from Knoxville back to the Kenai Peninsula. The ravages of Parkinson’s disease made difficult for Dad to make himself understood on the phone, but there was no mistaking the message of his call:
“Son, I miss you and I don’t have much time left. What would it take to move you home?”
I was stunned speechless. My father was thrifty to a fault and had turned me down once before when I had asked for help getting home right after I finished grad school, but that wasn’t the sole reason for my discomfort. I wasn’t sure if we could make the move back – and It was the first time that Alaska hadn’t immediately trumped every other card in my hand. The truth was we’d invested a lot time and energy to “bloom where we were planted” in East Tennessee.1 Plans were in place to get the boys through their missions, we were finally winding up Meghan’s adoption process and my part-time teaching gig showed signs of becoming a fulltime job. A 4000-mile move was not the simple decision it was when our family was much younger. It would need substantial planning, but fortunately the vacation back home that we’d already planned for the summer would allow us to gather information we’d need for such a move.
We came back from the trip feeling positive about moving but during our first church meeting back I was abruptly pulled aside by a friend whose family was undergoing some rough times. She hissed: “You’re leaving, aren’t you? You’re going home? YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME! You can’t leave now. I need you! My whole family needs you! Our whole world is falling apart and you’re the only people I can depend on!”
…which put the needle on my awkward-o-meter well into the red caution zone. I knew from personal knowledge that she wasn’t exaggerating – if anything she was down-playing her domestic situation and unfortunately, I was still at a point in life where I thought I was Batman and could save anyone. She was so distraught that I mumbled something vague about postponing the move and for the time being we went back to the exquisite hell that is life for a Yankee in the Southern Appalachians.
…but then the real problem was that we weren’t Yankees – or Southerners. Living on the northern arc of the Pacific Rim took us neatly out of north vs. south // urban vs. rural // mountain vs. flatland // red state vs. blue state rivalries. However, to be brutally honest I couldn’t care (bleeping) less whether I was in a red, a blue or a purple state. The only state color I ever cared about was the white state – Alaska.
Alaskans are different – and when I refer to Alaskans I’m not talking about snowbirds who try the Great North on as an experiment then run back to Oregon or Ohio when they find out life is hard on a frontier. I am referring to a person whose feelings for the last Frontier cannot be indexed against the size of this year’s PFD pay-out. Someone whose emotional bond with the state is more a matter of citizenship rather than residency.2
It’s said that you can take the boy out of Alaska, but you can’t take Alaska out of the boy. If you talk to anyone that knows me well you’ll find that I have never completely left – and for the first twenty years of our marriage that was literally the case as education, military and ecclesiastical service prompted moves back and forth between the Last Frontier and the Lower 48. Every plan and/or decision in my life included the end goal of returning to Alaska – we’d never have left Alaska in 1989 if my job situation with Kenai Peninsula College hadn’t been changed by university politics.
By the same token an extended stay in Knoxville after graduate school was never part of my plan – it would be more accurate to say that we were marooned in East Tennessee by a combination of unforeseen setbacks. In the last forty-five years I’ve moved 22 times and lived in 16 different states but at heart I am still an Alaskan boy with an Alaskan license plate on the front of my car.
The funny thing is that I didn’t really think of myself as an Alaskan until I left for college in 1971. Since moving north in 1962 I’d thought of myself as a transplanted Californian – I kept up regular correspondence with my cousins and seemed to make friends easier with other transplanted kids who had been hauled north by parents either serving out at Wildwood Air Force Station or working as petrochemical managers and engineers getting the new North Road refineries running smoothly.
Sometime during the winter of 1970-71 that mind-set began to change – and like most major changes in my life it was brought about by a very minor incident, in this case a story I heard while serving as a teacher’s aide in gym class. While sorting and folding towels Marie (my counterpart from the girl’s class) told me a story she’d heard in her Alaskan history class about a native witch that lived in the area many years ago. This witch never seemed to age until the day she accidentally left her tribal lands – her hair immediately began to streak with grey, wrinkles creased the skin of her face and the joints in her arms and legs became stiff and painful. It was all very terrifying until she stumbled back over onto home turf and the effects reversed just as quickly. The story became a predictable series of mishaps involving the witch (or her victims) inadvertently crossing the line.
Of course, I had to turn it into another of my very predictable running jokes, so from then on, I would always call for a shoe check whenever Marie would come into the room, the idea being that she was somehow a descendant of the witch and was able to retain her youth by hiding a small bit of dirt in her shoe that would allow her to still be technically “walking on tribal land”. At the same time though the witch story did more than just supply material for my sense of humor – it also generated in me an awareness that there could be something intangible linking me with the Great Land that surpassed all other relationships.
Maybe that’s why I was so careful unpacking my carryon bag when we got back to Knoxville after that trip in the summer of 1999. I didn’t bring back dirt for my shoes, but I did have a couple of small, smooth pebbles from the north pasture on the homestead where I had always wanted to build a home after moving back. As time goes by the chances of getting home keep getting slimmer and slimmer but I refuse to give up hope and until then those two pebbles will serve as a link.
I’d like to say karma rewarded our sacrifice for staying put to help our friends but unfortunately that was not the case:
- Martin Landau never made it to the moon by September 13th and in the process tipped the entire Space:1999 continuity over into the ashbin of cancelled TV series.
- The move back home kept getting postponed and the next time I saw my Dad he was in his casket at his funeral four years later.
- Shortly after this story the friend that so desperately needed us to stay in Knoxville informed us that since her “family was doing fine she didn’t need us as friends anymore.”
It was tough dealing with that statement /snub because I had yet to learn to stop crossing oceans to help those couldn’t be bothered to step over a puddle in return. Fortunately, there was something else that helped me move on, an aspect of my life and identity remains the same: Even though our subsequent move to Clarksville kept us in the Volunteer state I cannot refer to myself as a Tennessean, I cannot sing the entire Alaskan Flag song without breaking into tears and the sun always appears too bright and too high in the sky
Regardless of my physical location I am and will always be an Alaskan boy.3
- In his epic poem “Cremation of Sam McGee”, Robert Service states that Sam’s home town was Plum Tree, Tennessee. When planting trees in our yard in Knoxville I made sure the first one put in was a plum tree.
- I’ve spent my life performing residency calculus – totaling up years, months, days – even hours and minutes that I’ve spent physically existing within the state’s borders. For years I was obsessed with keeping my “Alaskan citizenship”: From 1971 to 1989 I bounced back and forth like a tennis ball between the Last Frontier and various locations in the Lower 48, and for most of that time I was able to keep my Alaskan driver’s license with its wonderfully low number.
- See blogpost, “The Alaskan Diaspora”.