I will be posting one chapter per week of my latest book, ICE DREAMS. Please note that the numerical chapters are autobiographical. The alphabetical chapters are pure fiction.
I arrived at Elmendorf AFB on January 19, 1961. My new stripes got me much nicer quarters (at least while I was at Elmendorf). The next day I rode the bus into town and found the Department of Interior offices.
“Sergeant, we have been expecting you. I suppose you are wondering why you have been given detached duty with the Department of Interior and what your duties will be.
“We are putting another trailer in the Shemyite community. It has been modified to provide a large classroom area. It is equipped with a whiteboard, a movie projector, a slide projector, a typewriter, a mimeo graph machine, and a reel-to-reel recorder.
“You gave a very insightful report. Now we are acting on it. We will leave it to you how you will proceed with basic English education for the children and the adults. We want a weekly report from you. You will give us a report of your day-by-day activities, by the hour. You will give us a weekly report of how well the children and adults are learning basic English. You will be honest about any problems you are having. You will tell us what you need and what the community needs. We are placing our confidence in you. Don’t let us down.”
On January 23, 1961 I signed out of the Casual unit and went to the airfield. As before I was flown in a small plane to Bethel, Alaska. There Ranger Thompson met me with his four-wheel drive truck. In the back was a shiny yellow SnowCat snowmobile.
“I see that you won’t have to borrow a snowmobile in Tuluksak.”
“Oh, I’ll have to borrow one. That one is for you. Do you know how to ride one?”
“At least you are honest. I’ll show you. You’ll find that they are a lot easier for going through the snow than snowshoes or dog sleds.”
We drove to Tuluksak and arrived earlier than we had the last time. As promised Thompson showed me how to start the snowmobile, how to make it go forward, how to steer it, and how to stop it. He gave some precautions, but said the best teacher was to ride.
When we arrived, I again went to the first trailer. I said, “Starshij,” “Tatyana?” I was eagerly greeted and pulled into the trailer. The wife again gave me sweet hot chai and black bread with yogurt. Igor was sent to bring the Starshij and Tatyana to meet me.
When they arrived, I told the Starshij through Tatyana that the government had sent me to their community to teach the children and adults basic English. The new trailer had a classroom in the front and a bedroom for me in the back.
I asked the Starshij for permission to hold basic English classes in their community. I suggested that the children come to school 8 am to noon. The adults could come in two groups – women from 1 pm to 3 pm, then the men 3:15 pm to 5:15 pm. I would ring a bell at the beginning of each class. I also requested that the mothers take turns, two at a time, sitting with the children and helping if a child is sick or has to go to the toilet or is crying.
The Starshij frowned.
“It is all right to have the classes for the children in the mornings. About the mothers and the adult classes. I think the adults of the community must meet and discuss how they want to do this.”
I had brought bread and peanut butter with me. I would have to find out about obtaining water, food, and wood from Tatyana. They had stacked a large pile of wood by the stove. I found bottles of water and much food in the cabinets. I didn’t know how to turn on the kitchen range.
The next morning at 8 am I rang a schoolmarm bell vigorously. The children poured out of the trailers. A couple mothers and Tatyana accompanied them.
I had mimeographed a sheet with the letters of the alphabet. We began with the first five letters. I wrote them on the whiteboard. Then I wrote some simple words like apple, boy, cat, dog, and egg. I illustrated each word with a picture. (I had grabbed up all the old magazines I could find and brought them with me.)
Then we sang some simple children’s songs in English.
After that I let them stand, stretch, run in place, and other exercises. When it was snack time, I had some crackers with jelly. That was messy but one of the mothers went from child to child with a wet rag.
After the snack, we repeated the five letters five times. Then I had them sit down and I showed them a series of slides I found among the educational supplies. It had words and pictures illustrating the words. These seemed too hard for the children so I stopped it after fifteen minutes and showed a couple of cartoon films. They laughed even though they couldn’t understand any of the dialogue.
When the women came, I repeated the alphabet lesson. I had cut out pictures of rooms in a house and also pictures of food. I began vocabulary lessons with words like chair, sofa, bed, blanket, skirt, shirt, trousers. When the men came, after the alphabet lesson, the vocabulary lesson and pictures were tools like hammer, axe, saw, wrench, then animals like bear, moose, and caribou.
That night I spent several hours working on the lessons for the next day and writing my day’s report. Afterward, I wrote to Lorraine:
“This is my first letter to you from the Shemyite community. It is with a heavy heart that I tell you that it will not be possible for you and Paul to come here and be with me in the near future if ever.
“The situation here is dreadful. I cannot speak the people’s language and they cannot speak with me. Today was the first day of basic English classes. I had twelve children of all ages for four hours. Then I had five women for two hours and seven men for two hours. How long will it take until I can say even simple things to them?
“There is constant danger that a bear or moose could come wandering into the community and do a lot of damage before it left. In Spring that danger will be greatly increased. There is not so much as one rifle in the community and none of the men would know how to use one. But how can we bring someone in to teach them to hunt or how to defend the community against wild animals when they can’t speak English?
“When Spring comes, they should plant gardens. Who can teach them what plants will grow well here? Who and how can someone teach the men what time the salmon will be thick in the river and how to catch them and how to smoke them? It is a frightening thing for them to have been uprooted from a home and environment where they knew how to maintain their way of life. Now they are in an entirely new home and environment that they know nothing about and without the ability to ask people who do know how to survive in this harsh environment.
“I have only a small bedroom and a compact kitchen. The rest of the trailer is devoted to classroom space. If you and Paul came up to Alaska, the nearest place you could find an apartment would be in Bethel. Bethel is a two or three hour drive on dirt and gravel road to Tuluksak. Then you have to travel by snowmobile or dog sled from there to the Shemyite community. The government gave me a snowmobile to use. I don’t know how I will get to Tuluksak when the snow is gone. That is where there is a small store, the post office, and the telephone.
“I have resigned myself to the probability that I will have to stay here until my enlistment expires in September 1962. I will try to get a thirty day leave in September 1961. I would have to pay the air fare from Anchorage to Baltimore, so I will be saving my money.
“Please let me know your feelings about all this.
“I love you and miss you and Paul.
The next day was Friday. I showed the children a calendar and drew a circle around 27 and another circle around 30. I mentally asked Tatyana to explain that we would have classes on five days then be off two days and start classes again for another five days. I’m not even sure Tatyana understood me. The mental strain of being the only one who cannot converse with the others in the community and yet being their instructor is tremendous. It is exhausting.
The next day I slept late. Then I rode the snowmobile into Tuluksak and mailed my letter to Lorraine and my first two daily reports to the Department of the Interior office in Anchorage.
When I returned to the community, I started making a snowman. Soon some of the children saw me and started helping me. Then I showed them how to make snow angels. They understood the word “angel” because it is very similar in Russian.
For my piece de resistance I told them all to go to their house and get a cup and a spoon. While they were doing that, I put some syrup in a pan, added some raspberry preserves, and brought it to a boil. I turned off the burner, went back out to the children and showed them to fill their cup with clean snow and then line up by the door to my trailer. One by one I poured a little of the hot syrup onto their cup of snow. It became “Eskimo ice cream.” They enjoyed this treat that I enjoyed as a child in West Virginia.
Afterward, I went back into the trailer, took an afternoon nap, washed dishes and fixed supper of fried spam and baked beans with a side dish of sauerkraut. I fixed a cup of chai to drink with my meal. The little store had begun to stock it for the Shemyite community.
On Sunday, Tatyana’s family and her uncle’s family gathered at the home of Tatyana’s parents for Sunday dinner. They invited me to join them. I decided to try an experiment. I took my Russian Bible with me and when the time seemed appropriate, I read a simple passage from one of the Gospels and then began reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Russian. They joined me. In many cases the words they used were different. Nevertheless, they understood enough of the Russian to keep in pace with me throughout the prayer.
We all understood that there had been a breakthrough. The language barrier was beginning to crumble. I had discovered a new tool for my classes with the adults. From now on when I taught them the English word for a picture, I would try to have the Russian word for it. The men came and hugged me.
It became a custom in the community for a couple of families to get together for Sunday dinner. They would invite me and at some time they would indicate that it was time for me to read the Bible and pray. I would read a familiar Psalm or Gospel portion, say a prayer with simple Russian words, and then begin the Lord’s Prayer. They would all join in with me.
One day, one of the men whose name I had not learned, came to the trailer while the children were in class. I heard some hammering outside. When I looked to see what he had done, I saw fastened to the trailer a beautifully hand carved Russian Orthodox cross. Without ordination or installation or any church’s blessing I had become the community’s pastor!
On Monday, February 20, 1961 one of the boys, Stefan, became ill about an hour after school began. He vomited. When one of the mothers took him to the toilet to clean him up, she noticed that he was very hot. She said something to Tatyana who communicated to me, “He is very hot and flushed. She is taking him home.”
The next morning, instead of children, Starshij and Tatyana came to my trailer. Tatyana communicated, “Ten of the children are all sick. Like Stefan, they are vomiting and are very hot. We do not know what to do. Can you go for help?”
I dressed as warmly as possible and started the snowmobile. I rode into Tuluksak. In the general store I asked where there was a doctor and how to contact him.
“In Bethel there is a doctor.”
I asked to use the phone. I called the Ranger in Bethel.
“This is Sergeant Pritt from the Shemyite community near Tuluksak. We have an urgent need for medical assistance. Most of the children in the community are very ill. They are running high temperatures, vomiting. I don’t know any of the other symptoms because of the language barrier. Please call the Department of Interior office in Anchorage and let them know we need help. Then see if you can get a doctor or even a nurse to come out here. Will you bring them?”
“I’ll call Anchorage for you. As for the local medical people here, they are pretty busy already. This time of year always brings a lot of illness.”
“Please do what you can. This community could lose all of its children.”
I drove back to the community with a heavy heart. I went from trailer to trailer visiting the families with sick children. In each one, I would put a rag in cold water, wring it out, and lay it on the child’s forehead (if the mother was not already doing this). Then I would say a simple prayer for the child’s recovery. I would pronounce the name “Jesus” clearly. I would motion for the mother to continue using the cold water rags.
The next day, I returned to the general store and called the Ranger. He told me that he couldn’t find any doctor or nurse who was willing to go out to the community. They had all the sick people that they could care for now. As for the Department of the Interior office in Anchorage, they said to tell me to keep up the good work. I was both angry and discouraged. While I was in the general store I bought some boullion cubes.
Back in the community, I again went to the trailers with sick children. The fevers were gone but the children were weak and listless. I would go to the stove, boil some water, and put a boullion cube in the cup. After it dissolved I would motion for the mother to feed it to the child. I would leave another cube with the mother. Before I left, I would pray for the child and for its mother.
By prayer and bouillion cubes, the children slowly recovered. By Friday, they were out of bed and moving around in the trailers. By Monday, February 27, 1961 the classroom was filled with children who had recovered and were able to learn and participate in class.
I wrote to Lorraine and told her what had happened. I washed my hands in alcohol and put the letter in the oven before sending it. I didn’t want to send the germs of this illness back to them. My precautions were probably foolish considering how many unclean hands would handle the letter before it was delivered.
In my daily report, I told that all the children seemed to be well. I urged that at least a dozen rifles, powerful enough to bring down a bear or moose, and a supply of ammunition be sent as soon as possible. The men of the community should be learning to use the weapons and practicing target shooting now. They need to be ready by this Spring when hungry bears, moose, and other large animals may roam into the community looking for food. If any such animals did come into the community, they would do a lot of damage and maybe even attack some residents.
In my basic English class with the women, I began to include words for parts of the body and symptoms of illnesses – fever, rash, vomit, pain. With the men, I began to include words for the large animals and also for the parts of a rifle.