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.
The Casual Barracks had open bays on each floor. The bays were divided into cubicles, each of which contained two bunk beds. I was in a top bunk which came almost to the top of the cubicle partition. It had been a long time since I had been in an open bay. I felt uneasy, maybe it was part of the fear that I was feeling. It was three or four hours each night before I could fall asleep.
The Casual Barracks was the “labor pool” for any details on base. There were all kinds of reasons that a person might be on casual status. When a sergeant came looking for a group of men for a detail, they tried to avoid choosing the men who had just come in from a remote site. However, they could not do so overtly without getting in trouble themselves. Therefore, we had to “cooperate” by making ourselves scarce.
That was more difficult for me than for most of the men. I received a letter from Lorraine with $3 and it was gone almost immediately. My shower clogs had broken, I needed socks, I bought some cough drops, a pack of cigarettes, and a cup of coffee. It was gone. Some of the guys make themselves scarce by going into town. The bus used to be free. Now it is 50 cents each way.
The Sunday after we arrived, I went to the evening service of a church just off base. The pastor was Reverend Ivy. It was in a Quonset hut and was named “Lighthouse Mission.” I wrote:
“The service was quite Pentecostal though more subdued than I expected. They prayed twice and they pray like the people in the Free Methodist Church – all at once, out loud. The preacher and another man played the guitar and a girl played a kind of rinky-tink piano. I’m referring to the way she played – the piano was a nice one. The minister didn’t feel he had a message, so he didn’t preach.”
Fifty years later, in September 2010, Lorraine and I went to a church at that same location. It is now a large church with three campuses. It is still Pentecostal, but now its name is Muldoon Community Assembly of God.
The next day, Monday, December 19, 1960, I requested and received a partial pay. It was an advance on my pay for the first half of January 1961, $15. Because of my allotments, my net pay was only $29/month. Since I was being transferred to Ft. Meade, Maryland, I anticipated that my travel pay would be several hundred dollars at least. I was hoping they would advance part of that to me so that I could buy a plane ticket home. I wouldn’t find out until we processed out. Processing would start Tuesday, December 27. Monday, December 26 was a holiday since Christmas was on Sunday.
Processing went by in a whirl. We were scheduled to fly from Anchorage to Seattle on the evening of December 30, 1960. I thought that if everything went right I might just be home the evening of our second wedding anniversary. Things didn’t go all right. The weather grounded flights for the next several days. It was January 2, 1961 before we flew out of Anchorage, Alaska.
When we landed, the bus from McCord Air Force Base to Seattle-Tacoma Airport had just left. There wouldn’t be another bus for several hours. Along with a lot of others on the plane, I decided to take a “gypsy” cab to the airport. When the driver led four of us out to his car, my chin dropped. It was a Ford Falcon! He put one airman in the front seat and put a duffel bag at his feet and a suitcase on his lap. He tied two or three duffel bags on the roof, filled the trunk, put three of us in the back seat and put some bags in with us. He drove like a maniac! He charged us each $5.
At Seattle-Tacoma Airport I was able to get a ticket to Washington, D.C. I called my parents and told them when I would be arriving that evening. When I arrived at Lorraine’s parents’ house, I ran upstairs to embrace Lorraine and then I ran up another flight of stairs to see Paul. CHAPTER E
When I returned to Anchorage on my way home, there were fifteen days that I had to wait before I departed for home. I inquired at a number of offices about the people who had been relocated from Shemya. No one knew anything, and most didn’t know who the people were. Finally, I found someone who knew what I was talking about. I was directed to one of the security offices. One of the men recognized me and knew that I had been helpful in ferreting out the various Russian attempts to spy on Shemya.
“I’m glad to see you Airman. I think you can be of help to us. We need a report on how the Shemyites are doing. With most people I could send, there will be a communication problem and a trust issue with the people. I am going to arrange to have you assigned to us for five days, if you are willing that is. We will take you out to where they are to have a short visit with them. When you return, I want a complete report.”
“I’ll be glad to go. However, I am broke. I couldn’t afford a bus or train ticket.”
“We will take care of the expenses. You couldn’t get there by bus or train. Go back to your barracks and pack enough clothes for several days. We will pick you up at noon, so eat an early lunch.”
At noon, they picked me up and took me to the airfield. There a small plane was waiting and it took me to Bethel. From Bethel, a Federal Wildlife officer took me by four-wheel drive pick-up truck to the village of Tuluksak. There was a sort of trading post or general store constructed of logs with no name on the outside of it. We ate our supper there. The ranger borrowed a snowmobile to take me the rest of the way. He told the owner that he would be coming back and would like a bed for the night.
That meant the Shemyites did not live far from there and that I would be staying several nights with them.
“I’m going to drop you off. Then you will be on your own. I’ll give you all day tomorrow. Then I’ll pick you up the following morning. Weather is unpredictable in Alaska. If there is a snowstorm, just wait it out. I’ll return for you as soon as I can.”
We went through the woods on the snowmobile. It was freezing cold riding out in the open. The cold wind felt like knives cutting into my face. Suddenly, we were in an opening and I could see several dozen trailers, placed helter-skelter in the clearing. I got off the snowmobile, shouldered my duffel bag and headed for the nearest trailer. I heard the sound of the snowmobile trailing off in the distance. “Then you will be on your own,” he had said.
At the first trailer, I knocked. I thought my fingers would fall off - I was so cold. A man came to the door. He looked suspiciously at me. He asked a one word question in their language. I said, “Starshij or Tatyana?” Pointing his finger at me, he said, with a questioning inflection, “Airman?” I said, “Yes. Da” He pulled me up into the trailer. Seating me beside a pot-belly wood stove, he said a lot that I couldn’t understand. Then he called for his wife and gave her some commands. Soon I had a hot cup of chai in one hand and a thick piece of Russian dark bread smeared with yogurt in the other hand.
Next, he called the name “Igor” and a boy of about twelve appeared. I heard “Starshij” and “Tatyana.” The boy pulled on a parka and gloves and went out the door.
After a while, an older man and Tatyana returned with Igor. I tried intently to calm my mind so that Tatyana could communicate with me.
“The Starshij you knew in the cave did not survive the attack on him by Ilya. He died in the hospital after they flew him from Shemya to Anchorage.” Pointing to the older man, she said, “This is Mixajl. He is now our Starshij. Why have you come?”
“I am on my way home after serving my year out on Shemya. I cannot leave until December 30. The Air Force asked me to visit with you all and report to them how you are doing and what you need for your transition to living here. They know that I can communicate in a limited way with you and that your people know they can trust me.”
Tatyana interpreted my answer to Mixajl. He grunted.
“There are Russians in this area whose ancestors came here over one hundred and fifty years ago. There is an old Russian mission not far from here. We have an affinity with them but few of them now speak Russian and we barely understand it anyhow. We need to learn English and our children need to learn English.
“Our men have to learn new skills in order to sustain our life here. The government has given us food and money, but surely that will not continue for long. Also, our men cannot have dignity if they are not supporting themselves and their families. We need some native peoples to teach us how to hunt and fish. We need for someone to show us how to farm and what crops and plants will grow well in this area.”
“Those are all reasonable requests and I will communicate them to the government offices. With your Starshij’s permission, I would like for you to take me to as many families as possible tomorrow and let them tell me what they need and how they are adjusting to this move.
“If you have not heard, Ilya and Gretchen blew up the cave. There is now a huge crater on the tundra above where the great room of the cave was located. Then the bodies of Ilya and Gretchen were found on the beach near the cave. They both had been shot in the forehead. Later it was discovered that a civilian contractor living on Shemya was a Russian spy. He had been their boss.”
Tatyana relayed this information to the Starshij. They talked at length. Finally, Tatyana said that I had his permission to visit other families. He said that Tatyana must have her father’s permission to accompany me. Of course, if she did not accompany me, I could not learn anything from the people I visited. The Starshij also said that I could stay in his trailer for the two nights that I would be there.
The Starshij did not seem to be a pleasant person. When we reached their trailer, he said some rough things to his wife. She looked older than him. She screwed up her mouth and gave him a curt reply. She showed me into a small bedroom which had no furniture. On the floor was a long burlap bag filled with straw or pine needles. When she closed the door, it was pitch black inside the room. I kept my clothes on and covered myself with my parka. I was not welcome in this home!
The next morning, I was awakened with some rough, derisive words. When I came out of the room, the woman led me to the trailer’s bathroom. There was a basin of cold water sitting on the sink. I relieved myself, washed my hands and face in the cold water and then poured the wash water into the toilet bowl.
Breakfast was a bowl of kasha and a cup of unsweetened chai.
Soon after breakfast, Tatyana came to my rescue. We went to a half dozen trailers. Then Tatyana took me to her family’s trailer for lunch. Her father and mother were pleasant people and treated me as an honored guest. After lunch, we visited another half dozen trailers. The last trailer we visited was that of Tatyana’s uncle, aunt, and three young cousins. It was a happy family. They were expecting us and the aunt had prepared a special dinner for us.
After dinner, Tatyana’s parents and younger brother came over to visit. We all sat around on the floor on cushions except the aunt, uncle, and Tatyana’s parents who sat on the sofa and only chair in the living room. The aunt kept everyone’s glass filled with hot sweetened chai. I was glad that I didn’t have to go back to Mixajl and his wife until it was time to go to bed. When I returned to my room in their trailer I could tell my duffel bag had been thoroughly searched. I was also glad that the next morning, soon after a breakfast of kasha and unsweetened chai, the ranger came for me.
I took careful notes at every trailer we visited so that I could write a good report when I returned.
“REPORT ON A VISIT TO THE SHEMYITES -
On December 20 – 22, 1960 I visited the community of relocated Shemyites near Tuluksak, Alaska. These people, who formerly lived in a large cave on the Island of Shemya, Alaska were relocated to this place some months ago. They were given FEMA trailers as dwellings and they have received enough food and money from the government to sustain life.
I spoke with their “Starshij” (elder, elected leader) on several occasions through an interpreter, Tatyana. These people are descendants of Cossack soldiers who fought with the White Army during the Russian Revolution. The Bolshevik victory prevented their return to their native lands. They bought a fishing vessel and set sail for Alaska as immigrants, as did many other Russians at that time. Their ship was caught in a storm and wrecked on Shemya Island. Many of them perished. The survivors discovered a large cave which was heated by a large thermal pool. There they lived.
Their language is a patois of Kazakh and Russian words. They were an insular community and never learned English or any other modern language. They understand each other, but not anyone else. When I first met them, they had an interpreter, Gretchen, who knew English. She had not been born in the community and, as it turned out, was a Russian spy.
They developed into skilled craftsmen who made souvenir objects which they sold to native Alaskans and Siberian natives who then resold them as “native crafts.” They had an impressive workshop and design studio in the cave. They caught fish and other seafood from the ocean and learned to garden in the tundra during the brief Alaskan summer. They also bartered for food when they sold their crafts.
Now they are in a totally foreign environment. Here is what they need in order to successfully relocate to this new location.
1. There is an urgent need by both the children and the adults to learn English. The children cannot go to school without a basic knowledge of English. The adults cannot learn to garden, to fish, to hunt, to begin to produce crafts once more until they can communicate with persons outside their own community.
2. The men need powerful rifles and training in how to use them. They never had firearms on Shemya. Now they live in a wilderness where a brown bear or a moose could devastate their community. A trailer is no protection against either one of those animals. Also, they need to be taught how to hunt and trap animals for food.
3. Native Alaskans could teach them many things once they can communicate with each other. The men are skilled craftsmen. The women are excellent seamstresses. For almost a year they have not been able to use their skills.
I recommend that the winter months be used to give both the adults and children intensive instruction in basic English. This should be supplemented with films, records of simple songs in which the words are distinctly pronounced and accompanied with pictures.
Several soldiers could give some of the men lessons in marksmanship, firearms safety and maintenance. These soldiers should have experience working with people whose language they can’t understand.
The weather in the Tuluksak area is different than on Shemya. The people need to be taught how to dress in order to survive in snow and ice and sub-zero weather for months at a time.
These are not difficult measures and these are good people who deserve our help after being torn from a familiar home and being relocated in a strange environment.”
I was thanked for my help and returned to my unit at Elmendorf. Christmas was several days away. After Christmas, we began processing out on December 27, 1960. We were supposed to fly from Anchorage to McCord AFB near Seattle, Washington on the evening of December 30, 1960. Bad weather cancelled all flights out of Anchorage. It was January 2, 1961 before we were flown south to McCord AFB, arriving in the very early hours of January 3. From there we took a “gypsy” taxi cab to Seattle-Tacoma Airport. I was able to get a seat on a plane to Washington (DC) National Airport and my parents met me there and drove me to Baltimore.
I had to report in to my new unit assignment at Fort Meade, Maryland before January 12, 1961. That gave Lorraine and I about a week to find an apartment. We searched the classified ads, drove to one apartment after another. Either the apartment was too dirty to clean, or it was in a bad neighborhood, or the rent was more than we could afford. We resigned ourselves to living in the home of Lorraine’s parents, and continuing our search on the weekends. It is a good thing we didn’t find an apartment.
I reported in to my new unit on January 11, 1961. The First Sergeant met me as I entered the Orderly Room.
“Well, Airman, I see that you liked Alaska, and Alaska liked you.”
I furrowed my brow.
“You don’t know what I mean? You really haven’t a clue?”
“No, First Sergeant.”
“Sit down in that chair and read these orders.”
The first set of orders promoted me to Staff Sergeant. That was two grades above Airman Second Class. It also awarded me an Air Force Skill Category that I had never heard of. This Category had a pay supplement for living in a high cost duty zone.
The second set of orders transferred me to detached duty under supervision of the Department of the Interior in the Tuluksak, Alaska area. I was to report to the Department of the Interior offices in Anchorage, Alaska no later than January 20, 1961. Transportation of dependents and household goods was authorized at government expense.
The First Sergeant said, “I have never seen the equal of either one of those orders. You must have friends in high places.”
“Not any that I know of, First Sergeant. I do have a good idea what they want me to do. It is a wild story involving Cossack soldiers, modern-day cave-dwellers, and Russian spies.”
“Sounds like they are going to have you writing scripts for movies. Good luck to you. It sounds like you have more good luck than most of us.”
“Thank you, First Sergeant.”
I was sure going to need good luck when I break the news to Lorraine and to her parents!
There were tears, then anger, then a day of sullen silence. In the end, Lorraine realized that I had to obey military orders. A week from now I would be going back to Alaska. Once I was there we would have to decide whether she would remain in Baltimore and wait for me or whether she would join me in Alaska.
If I had remained at Fort Meade, as I expected, I could have been separated from the Air Force in September 1961 to go to seminary. Now that I was being returned to overseas duty, arguably another remote site, I probably would have to remain at least a year and maybe until my enlistment ends in September 1962.