(Excerpt from ) Chapter One


Making ice cream on the Yukon River, in front of Tanana

Ruby hugged her parka around herself, pulled the squirrel-fur mittens out of the pockets, opened the back door, and stepped outside. The rush of cold air made her eyes tear. Quickly, she leaned down and reached for the ice cream freezer crank. The handle barely moved. There was no need to top the bucket with ice. At 30ºF below zero, the mixture of milk, eggs, and sugar could freeze without assistance. Satisfied with the progress, she returned indoors and, despite fogged up glasses, made her way to the closet to hang her coat. The house was unusually quiet.  

It was mid-afternoon and Ruby was ready for a break from parenting. Mark, nearly age two, was destined to be a plumber and she’d extracted his busy hands out of the toilet – several times since breakfast. His two sisters, Naomi, age seven, and Ruth, age six, would soon be home from school, and a three-ring circus was possible. Just to know another adult would arrive later in the day would have been encouraging to Ruby. However, her husband, Elmer Gaede (GAY-dee), the only Public Health physician for twenty-two villages up and down the Yukon River, in Interior Alaska, would probably not be home for supper – or the entire evening.

The morning alarm had gone off at 7:15 a.m. Elmer had swung his legs over the edge of the bed and headed to the bathroom. Ruby silently got up and wrapped a robe around herself. By the time he had shaved and dressed, Ruby had hot oatmeal and homemade raisin bread toast waiting for him in the kitchen. As a physician, he had learned to eat quickly in case he was called out. Between bites of porridge, as Naomi called it, he and Ruby had exchanged a few words before he pulled on a heavy wool coat, and other sub-zero gear to walk the short distance to the Tanana (Ta-nuh-naw) Public Health hospital. Ruby crawled back into bed until it was time to wake children for school. 

After the sun had shyly peeked above the horizon, around 10:30 a.m., Elmer had returned to heat his Piper J-3 airplane’s oil on the kitchen stove, which otherwise congealed within the engine, and layer on long johns and wool pants in preparation to fly to a medical emergency downriver. 

“I don’t know if I’ll get back today,” he’d said on his way out the door.  The “I don’t know” was dependent on being able to stabilize the medical crisis before the sun retreated. The Tanana airstrip didn’t have landing lights, and, of course, the frozen river strip, which was often cleared for planes with skis, rather than wheels, didn’t either. There was no means to land if he returned after dark. Ruby felt the familiar uneasy tightness in her stomach that transferred to quick annoyance with the children’s normal, but very busy activity. “Not knowing” seemed to be a standard state of being for the bush doctor’s wife.  

One thing she did know was that after supper, when she brought in the ice cream freezer, pulled out the dasher in the middle, and placed it on a cookie sheet, her children would shove against each other to spoon up drops of ice cream, and ask, “When is Daddy coming home?” They knew he loved homemade ice cream for a bedtime snack. Once he finished with a bowl or two, they anticipated crowding onto the living room couch where he’d sit and read them bedtime stories. Of course, this would be after their mother reminded them to brush their teeth, and they’d have pulled on their flannel pajamas, warm slippers, and grabbed at least one, if not two, favorite stuffed animals. Each child would have a different book, and plead to have his or hers read first. “Not knowing” was all too familiar to the bush doctor’s children, too. 

But at this moment, Ruby stared outside at the fading sunrays on the angular pressure ridges in the frozen mile-wide river. Within moments, the 2:30 p.m. sun slipped down beyond the Yukon River and all that was left were shadows on the river and the reflection of her face on the frost-edged living room window. 

Back home, in the Kansas harvest-time humidity, Ruby’s dark brown hair, naturally highlighted with auburn, had responded with full, thick waves. Here, she used a Toni permanent kit to give it fullness. The straight line of her short bangs appeared as though someone had carefully marked a pencil-line – and then cut with precision. Her hazel eyes looked out from behind glasses that had dark upper frames and sparkles in the corners. Red lipstick brightened her winter-pale face, which, with more potent sunlight than Alaska offered, would have been olive-tanned. Oftentimes, she dabbed some of the lipstick on her checks and then blended it with her fingers – as a substitute for rouge. There was no Kansas heat to flush her face. 

A worn-soft bib apron shielded her from the cloud of flour she’d just worked into a pile of dough. Bread-making was usually a twice-weeklyroutine; except when company was invited for dinner or missionaries flew into the village and needed a place to stay for a weekend, or week or two; then she baked nearly daily and the yeasty aroma was prolonged within the house.

Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined herself in this setting: Tanana, Alaska, a village of approximately 300 people, mostly Athabascan (ath-uh-BASS-kun) Indians, along the renowned Yukon River, and in the heart of the Last Frontier. The location was poles away from her and Elmer’s heritage in the Mennonite farming settlement of Central Kansas, where she’d expected to perpetuate a lifestyle like that of her parents, and their parents – the Leppkes and Litkes. By no means had she anticipated that the ordinary farm boy, Elmer Gaede, with the mischievous grin, who had aspired to be a dairy farmer, would instead pursue medicine – in Alaska. Would she have married him if she’d known? Who knows? The girl off the Kansas farm was in love.

Ruby’s introduction to Alaska had been in Kansas City, at the Covenant Church where she and Elmer walked each Sunday during his family practice internship at Kansas University medical school. One afternoon at a ladies’ meeting, a missionary woman from Nome, Alaska, showed slides. When the Kansas-bred young woman had seen the pictures, her initial, and remaining thought was, “Dark and cold. Who on earth would want to go to Alaska?” During this same time, Elmer crossed paths with a nurse from Bethel, Alaska. She urged him to consider Alaska. “The Public Health Service’s pay is fantastic!” she said. “Physicians get $7,000 to $9,000 salary per year!” This was put in perspective with teachers earning $3,440 to $4,700. And, in the early 1950s, houses sold for $14,000, and cars for $2,000.  Another incentive for Elmer was that he would be able to fulfill his military obligation, which he had deferred by working on his parent’s farm. [2]

Ruby’s musings ended with the yowl of a half-grown kitten bursting into the room in front of a yelling chubby-legged preschooler. Mark lost his balance in the pursuit of the kitten and slipped on the floor. The kitten perched with arched back on the couch, and watched the boy scream until tears rolled down his cheeks. Before Ruby could respond, a blast of foggy, frozen air entered from the hallway door by the kitchen, signaling that school was out for Naomi and Ruth. The stomping of their feet on the back porch could never be heard with the padded silence of the moose-skin mukluks they wore. 

In synchronized motion, the grade-schoolers pushed back fox-fur ruffed red parka hoods and shook loose their tangled brown braids. Naomi’s short bangs mirrored her mother’s and her hair retained its morning neatness. In contrast, her younger sister’s hair was softened by wisped edges that pulled out and curled, or stood up in a cowlick wherever it pleased. 

“The handle won’t turn on the ice cream!” declared Naomi. Surprisingly she had not started the question with a “why.” Her first observation about nearly anything was not “what”, but “why.” In this situation, it wouldhave been appropriate to ask why ice cream was even being made, rather than hot cocoa dotted with bouncing marshmallows, or steaming chicken noodle soup with soggy crackers floating atop. 

Wintertime in Interior Alaska was certainlyan odd time to be making homemade ice cream; nevertheless, it was Ruby’s propensity to make ice cream with glacier ice, river ice, and this time, to curiously experiment with making it without any ice at all. Perhaps this ice-cream-making was a means of staying linked to her home place, where cousins, aunts, and uncles regularly took time on a Sunday afternoon from the hard work of carving life out of the prairie, and gather for the simple enjoyment of sharing chilly bowls of rich dessert, combined from the pure ingredients of farm eggs and milk from their own chickens and cows.

         Ruby cherished those memories. Oftentimes when she cranked the ice cream freezer, she talked softly to anyone around, about the way it was back then, intermittently giving a quick laugh of amusement or pleasure. Today, she was not cranking or reminiscing, and her experimental ice cream inclination may have been just one more way she found fun in the ordinary or difficult routines of life. She was often the instigator of celebrations and parties; not necessarily in spectacular dramas, but in spontaneous and homey ways, ways that made an observer or participant chuckle, “Who would ever think of that?” Making ice cream on a dark winter afternoon in the Last Frontier was one of those occasions.

“Mark, you leave my cat alone!” Ruth said in an unusually loud voice. More typically, she defended her little brother, and believed he could do no wrong. Furthermore, she did not like to draw attention to herself and often remained in the background. Obviously, she felt strongly about cat-torment, or at least the well-being of her gray and white kitten, Yukon.

Mark thrashed around on the floor in a temper tantrum, banging his reddish-brown curls on the square linoleum tiles; his blue eyes squeezed shut. 

Ruby walked down the hall toward the bedrooms to find a tissue to wipe Mark’s teary eyes and running nose. By the time she returned to the kitchen, Ruth had disappeared to the basement, where she was most likely rearranging the toy villages and farms around the electric train track. 

Chances are, the first-grader was crouched over, or sitting on the floor with legs spread beneath her like a “W,” beside the electric train track her father had carefully laid out and tacked to a large piece of quarter-inch plywood. She would be putting precisely the right amount of magical drops in the engine smokestack. There, in her serene after-school retreat, the electric train chugged around the track, past a herd of Guernsey cows and pen of pink pigs, puffing subtle but enchanting bursts of smoke. Who knows where the cat had fled.

Naomi plopped herself at the table, ready to report on every piece of trivia from the school day. It all seemed so astonishing and important to her, from the ice around the outhouse seat holes, to the government subsidized cheese[3]that so-and-so refused to eat, to her broken silver crayon that she had rationed for only very special pictures. “What will I ever do?” She asked anyone in hearing distance, of which there was only her mother. 

Ruby listened with only one ear because Mark, who had finally realized that flailing on the floor would not make the kitten cuddle with him, had climbed up inside the built-in Hi-Fi cabinets, where he scratchily started and stopped and restarted his record-player. She had had just about enough of “The Little Engine that Could,” who thought-he-could and thought-he-could. She really wished that that train could get itself up the hill and out of her hearing range.