On the ferry Malaspina coming, home from Alaska, most of the passengers were military families being moved from Alaska to some other place. There were single men and women and couples but a lot of the military families had children — from babies to teenagers. I wonder how often these kids will have to move before they grow up. How do the frequent moves affect them? Do people need a place to be from?
I talked to Jerry about this. He said: “I was born and grew up in Eureka CA. I went to high school there, and when I graduated I went into the army. I didn’t care if I never came back, never saw Eureka again.” But in the army he was stationed in Alaska: ever since Alaska has had a hold on him.
After the army he went back to California and enrolled in California Polytechnic Institute. But Alaska called, and back he went. I asked him why. He is not an introspective man and he had to think for a while. “In the army another guy and I used to get a military vehicle and go fishing or hunting. He was from Texas, and he didn’t like crowded places either. I used to hunt deer in California, and he used to hunt deer in Texas. We didn’t hunt much together, but we fished and hiked a lot. We never went to bars or stuff like that. I liked the seasons.” Northern California has two seasons, rainy and more rainy.
Jerry and his friend, whose name he can’t now remember, and another guy built a boat out of scrap materials. They used it for fishing. They got someone to take them and their boat to Delta, then they floated down the Tanana river to Fairbanks. They had no motor, just two oars and a stick. They did not have life jackets. They were young and foolhardy. In going around Fairbanks Jerry got to know a man who built houses who hired him to do the wiring. The man said he liked having Jerry work for him because he could just turn him loose and let him do it.
One day Jerry and his Texas friend got some ice skates and went up to the University skating rink where there was nobody else, but they skated and Jerry noted the University. While he was at Cal Poly he finished his pilot’s license and took the test — in those days, he says, the FAA actually had pilots. He bought a plane and flew it to Fairbanks where he applied to the University to see how many credits they would accept from Cal Poly. They accepted everything and he lived in Alaska for the next 30 years.
In Haines, where we boarded the ferry this week to take us home, we met the sister of the Malaspina’s bar tender. Christy Tengs runs the Bamboo room restaurant and bar there. She lives upstairs. She has lived there all her life. On the walls of the restaurant there are pictures of her mother (who lives there with her) as a pretty young woman, dancing a hula, and her father as a handsome young devil who crashed one airplane after another. Christy’s two children live there with her. It is hard to make a go of a business in a place like Haines, Alaska, where you make all the money you can in the summer, because in the winter expenses are high and business is slow. She may have to leave with her 2 children. What then? How will she feel, leaving that place which has held her all her life?
I was born in Washington DC and lived there off and on for a few years, and also in New York. My parents moved to a new house every couple of years, and I never developed a feeling of continuity. I connected to another place.
When I was 3 years old my mother left for a year — my parents’ marriage was faltering; she had another man. I was taken to the house of my aunt and uncle in Andover, Massachusetts for that year. Although after that I lived for a time with my mother and step-father and I spent time with both of my parents and their new spouses, Andover became home and haven for me for all the years of growing up and for many years after that.
The people were important; my aunt was like a mother, my uncle, though more distant, was certainly an influence on me as I grew up and my cousins were like annoying little sisters. But the place itself had a hold on me.
The house was built around the end of the 19th century. It was big — 3 stories, 10 bedrooms. Verandas wrapped around 2 sides.
The large front hall had a fireplace and a wide stairway to the second floor with a landing where a big bay window was ornamented with 2 huge Ming Chinese vases on the wide window seat.
The telephone was in the front hall.
The living room was lined with book shelves where there were complete sets, leather bound, of the Waverly Novels by Sir Walter Scott, all of Dickens’ works and all of Kipling‘s works; there was a grand piano and fireplace where brass lions guarded the andirons, and a big ornately carved mirror hung over the mantle.
A long three panel bay window, one step up, eventually came to hold my aunt’s collection of potted plants. Worn oriental carpets covered the floors and glass front cabinets were filled with curios my uncle’s grandparents had collected on their trips around the world.
There were 3 pantries off the ballroom sized kitchen, and a hallway to the back stairs which led to the servants rooms. When I was young there was one, Mary Stanton, the cook. The other servants’ rooms were filled with trunks, more stuff collected by my uncle’s grandparents. My aunt and I sometimes amused ourselves by going through those trunks; she called doing that “domestic archeology.”
Many acres of field, orchard and woods surrounded the house. My uncle’s sister and husband owned a house which had been recently built on a large adjacent property connected by a path that went by the chicken house and yard. The barn was as old as the main house and was where my uncle kept his car (he always drove a convertible when I was a kid.) There was a room in the barn where Mike, the gardener, lived. Pigs were raised in the barn, and there was always a side of bacon hanging in the pantry.
All of this says money and privilege. There was money, but it was not my uncle and aunt’s. His parents financed the household, and when they died they left him the house but no money, so gradually the house fell into disrepair. Railings fell off the veranda, the roof sometimes leaked and rats sometimes died in the walls, making parts of the house smell terrible.
As a child I roamed the woods, climbed trees in the orchard, looked for bird’s eggs, and built a platform in an old cherry tree where I took books to read. I read a lot of Kipling. I picked flowers and the scents of lilacs and phlox bring sudden stabs of memory of that lost world.
I have not become attached to another place in the same way. I love the island where I live, but I don’t belong to it. I often go back to New Zealand, and there I have a partial sense of belonging. My mother was a New Zealander and I have a much loved cousin there that I have known since childhood. I went to school there as a teenager for a short time, and that gives me a rootlet there. But Andover is my real home, and when people ask me where I am from the answer is, Andover, Massachusetts.
When people ask Jerry where he’s from he says, “Alaska.”
We each had a place in the world that was ours. I feel as if I needed that grounding. I take the memory of it with me where I go — I know I belonged somewhere. Jerry is sitting beside me as I write, reading a scholarly book translated from the Russian about the purchase of Alaska from the Russians.
Perhaps human beings need a a piece of the earth that is theirs, a place to go to even if only in memory, that anchors them in the world. Even tribes of nomads cover familiar ground. But it seems that such a place can be acquired after childhood.
I wonder what the kids of these military folk will say when asked the question, “Where are you from?”