(Adapted from Naomi’s upcoming book, “The Bush Doctor’s Wife.”)
Tanana, Alaska 1957
The bright colors on the hillsides had faded, and the sun rose lower and crept to the south. Ice cakes hurried down the Yukon River. Ruby had never seen the like. In the early stages of freeze-up, the river reminded her of thick, lumpy sherbet punch she made for ladies’ fancy events. Living adjacent a broad and turbulent waterway had been an adjustment for the Kansas prairie-land farm girl.
A month prior, the river barges had docked for the last time, bringing groceries, household goods, heating oil, mechanical supplies, and so on. They would not return until June.
Temperatures dipped consistently below freezing and daylight receded by more than six minutes per day. The fall foliage had dulled to a palette of pale cocoa, cloves, and maple frosting. Ruby no longer saw villagers picking cranberries and blueberries, or digging potatoes, carrots, or turnips from their gardens; neither were they fishing, or sitting on board benches along the riverbank.
Airplanes encountered increasingly bad weather and mail service became inconsistent. All in all, the village felt smaller with the absence of river barges, limited air traffic, and compressed days.
Ruby felt uneasy about the approaching winter. Certainly she had made it through two Alaska winters in Anchorage, yet there she’d had actual grocery stores, kids’ winter hand-me-down clothes from friends at church, a department store, and even the Army Surplus store. But here she was in an isolated village with meager and expensive supplies at the Northern Commercial store.
Part of preparing for winter meant tucking in things. If Ruby had lived in town, that could have meant cleaning a lawn mower, hanging up shovels, raking leaves, mulching outdoor shrubbery, and putting studded tires on a car. Here, she had none of those. Here, the item to tuck in was her husband, Elmer’s, J-3 airplane, which was still on floats by the river, with ice clustering around its bottom surfaces. He needed to put the plane on wheels and fly it to the village landing strip.
(Once there was enough snow on the airstrip, he would change over to skis.)
On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, he found Ruby in the sewing room, mending corduroy jeans. Gradeschoolers, Ruth and Naomi, sat cross-legged on the heavy wood comforter trunk and played with buttons in a round tin box. Mark, almost age two, crawled at his mother’s feet, attempting to manipulate the sewing machine foot-pedal. Ruby alternated between pulling her persistent son out from beneath her legs and pushing the fabric underneath the moving needle.
Elmer rounded the doorway. Buttons grated beneath his shoe soles. He looked at Ruby. Her eyes didn’t leave her task and the sewing machine hummed steadily. Elmer cleared his throat. “Ruby, I thought you might like to get some fresh air.”
“Just a minute,” she mumbled.
“I need to get the plane off the river.”
“Children, go find your coats,” she said, removing the straight pins from between her lips.
When the family stepped out the door, Ruby noticed the uncanny silence. Leaves no longer crackled beneath her footsteps, but were frozen together in layered mud-clumps. The sky was dull. Clouds were strewn like quilt batting. No sound of a motorboat running full pitch against the river current. At 4:15 p.m., the sun would soon slip behind the horizon.
The girls interrupted the stillness with their chatter. They were intrigued by the ice growing along the river’s edge and stamped on the thin shelves that were filled with water bubbles.
Ruby helped Elmer half carry and half drag the two-seater aircraft up and out of the reach of the river’s icy fingers. The metal floats pulled across the gravel screeched like fingernails on a chalkboard. Mark wanted to climb into his Daddy’s airplane and interfere with the work.
“Mark, come make the ice crack.” Ruth showed him where to place his stubby booted feet. As roly-poly as he looked, he wasn’t heavy enough and nothing happened. “Jump,” she instructed. He finally accomplished the task. The children laughed hysterically. Their noise sounded extra loud in the otherwise quiet afternoon.
Within a week, Ruby would write her parents, “Changing Elmer’s plane from floats to wheels is no more effort than changing a tire.” True. All he needed was someone to lift a wing so the axle could be placed on a block.
The bush doctor’s wife had gained a new skill. Seasonal demands were different from those in Kansas. The plane was tucked in. She was a hardy farm girl. She would keep her family secure and tucked in for the winter.