Yesterday, Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, we spent most of the afternoon at a celebration of the 50 th year since the establishment of the Manley school, now called the Gladys Dart Manley Hot Springs School. Gladys herself organized the event, helped by her sons and some community minded residents here. The original school, a one room cabin near the hot springs, had been lovingly and skillfully restored by Bunny, our neighbor down the street. It is painted dazzling white with brilliant red trim. The cabin is on the land owned by Gladys and her husband Chuck. She started it in 1958.
That year, coincidentally, is when Jerry first came to Manley to work for Harold Strandberg, who was prospecting for gold in Tofty (just down the road.) Jerry went back to Fairbanks where he finished his education and homesteaded. He returned to Manley from time to time until he bought the electric company here in 1975 and came here to live for the next 10 years.
The weather for the celebration was beautiful. It was sunshine and 70 degrees. There were about 50 chairs set up outside next to the school and a lavish pot luck lunch spread under a canopy. My contribution was chili.
Many Manley residents came, and Gladys had gathered a lot of former pupils, especially from the first two or three classes in the school. Those people were in their 50’s and 60’s and many had children and grandchildren with them. Jerry’s son, Patrick, went to the school, but after it had moved to another location in a double wide. The ceremony began with a salute to the flag, an inaudible prayer said by a sweet-looking elderly native woman, and singing of the Alaska Flag Song.
Then, as everyone (even the children) stood silently, names of people who had died during the memory of those present were read. I could see that many in the crowd had tears in their eyes. I saw that Jerry was moved. He had known almost all of those people, some of them well. I recognized the names of many Jerry had told me stories about, some funny, some sad, some sensational. Memories of the past bring emotion with them, and all these people were remembering together. There is unity in that; people are drawn closer.
When the list concluded it was suggested that anyone call out a name to add to the list. There was a little pause, and then many other names were spoken. I whispered to Jerry, asking him whether he wanted to say the name of his late wife. He said, in a clear voice, “Susy Hook.”
Then there were a lot of testimonials to Gladys, but after a while someone grabbed the microphone and said, “It’s getting late, we’re getting hungry, and the food’s getting cold.” Gladys spoke, a few more funny stories were told, and everyone headed for the food.
I saw a lot of friends from the town, and met some new people. An interesting woman who had taught Patrick in preschool invited Jerry and me to her place on a lake near Denali National Park. I want to go, but it is reachable only by airplane. I have her email address.
I learned for the first time the complete history of our house. It is not a happy one. The family who built the original one room house was murdered at the river landing by a crazy man (Jerry thinks his name was Michael Silka) who lurked around in a boat on the Tanana and shot everyone he saw. They were a young couple with a 4 year old son. She was pregnant. Jerry knew them. He said they were quiet and kept to themselves, but were nice people. All killed. It took the troopers some time to get out here, and when they finally came, in a helicopter, the crazy man shot at the helicopter and killed one of the troopers. The murderer killed 7 people here and a trooper.
The next family here in our house was that of the school teacher. He built a big addition which is now the living room and bedrooms. Jerry and I have changed this part. After the school teacher left an old man lived here who had difficulty with stairs. The steps to the deck were replaced with a plywood ramp covered with chicken wire to keep it from being slippery. Jerry has built fine new steps to replace the ramp.
We bought the house from a man who fancied himself a trapper. He was not particularly popular in the town because it was said that he interfered with other people’s traps. He left odd chicken wire and coffee-can home-made traps all around the house (and a lot in the native woods behind the house.) Jerry is gradually getting rid of them. I guess they must have been supposed to trap squirrels. He left us a huge bleached white moose bone which I keep on the window sill.
At the celebration a friend said to me, “You asked me about cliques in town when you first came. Here’s your clique.” I asked him to explain. “Well, the people here are one clique,” he said, “Then, you notice the people who are not here. They’re the ones who think this isn’t important. That’s the other clique.”
Manley is a good place, but Jerry says it’s a dying place, full of old and dying people. There are empty houses. Next year there may not be enough kids to open the school. I think my friend is right. The celebration was important. Things like that keep communities together. Towns fail when they lose their schools. There is a lot of enthusiasm these days for people to go off into the bush and pretend to be survivalists, but the idea of nurturing a small town is a much less popular concept. The appropriation of $12 million for a new airport may save the town. For a while at least
Manley is a place I never would have thought of living. I am here to make Jerry happy, because I love him. Its major charm for me it that there is nothing for me to do here but paint and write and read, so I don’t fritter time away gardening or on the net, or going to town because I forgot to get cumin for a recipe or chatting with friends. I even talk less on the phone because the phone here is by satellite and makes an odd delay so you keep talking over the other person. There is beauty here, but that beauty partly inheres in the vast sameness of birch and spruce forested hills as far as the eye can see.
I have met some interesting characters in Manley. I have written about some of them. The people I wrote about in the withdrawn post came here 5 years ago. Some people have been here most of their lives. Some of my commenters would have you believe that the inhabitants of interior Alaska have uniform characteristics of fiercely guarded privacy and pioneer independence.
On the contrary, I find more diversity and eccentricity here than in most places. Politics range from very liberal to wild man conservative. There are dead beats and dreamers, people who manage to get along without ever working and people who think they will someday get rich finding gold. There are retired academics. There’s a proselytizing evangelical Christian who spends half a year in India converting Hindus and worshiping the memory of Mother Theresa. There are rich men. There are local business men (my Jerry used to be one of those). There are retired school teachers. Some people are religious, some are atheists. There are dog mushers and fishermen and trappers and hunters. There are people who live on government grants and subsidies. There are knitters and quilters and pilots. People. Mostly they live in peace, sometimes they quarrel. In a pinch they help each other out.
As for privacy, my guess is that if anything of even minimal interest happens in this town, the news travels at warp speed. There are feuding factions here, as in most small towns, and even those people who don’t take sides spend a fair bit of time discussing the maneuvers and thrusts of the combatants. Gossip is the town recreation.
Native groups own most of the land around here, and they have a lot of effect on the community, not only because of the land they own, but also because in Alaska natives have access to government funds and programs that the non-organized people in the town don’t have.
Recently rifts developed between groups of natives who live here. The faction which came out on top, because of superiority of numbers, has recently decreed that nobody, including the natives of the opposing group, may not set foot on Indian land. This has resulted in grumbling and resentment in the community. Basically it would mean that nobody could walk in the woods. There’s no way to enforce this, so it is generally ignored. Jerry and I walk every night in the woods behind our house. But there are a lot of signs posted around the town warning everyone to stay off Indian land. The signs are irritating, and especially distress those who are trying to encourage tourism here.
I hope the town prospers. I hope the school stays open. I hope the Roadhouse, which is a real treasure, keeps going. The present owner wants to retire and since he also owns the store it is uncertain what will happen when he is gone. My own future here is uncertain. I am quite old and the trip from the lower 48 is strenuous. I don’t think that at my age I could adjust to the winters, so year round living isn’t a possibility. And, believe it or not, being a survivalist is expensive. Jerry and I are thinking of moving on, trying something new. We need to make the most of the years we have together.