(Chapter Excerpt from “‘A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory.” Voice of schoolteacher, Anna Bortel.)
Snow swirled over our tent city until it resembled an igloo encampment. In fact, by November, the snowfall equaled the previous year’s total and visions of Valdez leaped around in my head. Piles of snow provided excellent insulation around the huts, but plummeting temperatures meant an ongoing battle to keep our fickle oil stoves working.
One evening, Herman Romer, Harriet Amundson, and I welcomed the invitation to see nature films at the hospital. The other two teachers rowdily gathered their outdoor gear for the short walk in the minus 43º F dark night and begged me to hurry with my preparations. They’d completely forgotten our stove vigil.
Inadequately designed narrow ¾-inch copper tubing carried the oil from the outdoor tanks into the huts and to the stoves. With these polar temperatures, the oil thickened and would eventually freeze. We’d be doomed.
“We can’t leave or the stoves will freeze up,” I exclaimed in frustration.
My colleagues stared at me incredulously.
“We’ll have to tap the lines to keep the oil flowing,” I told them. “Let’s work on all five lines before we leave, and then one of us can run back in a few hours to go through the same procedure all over again.”
We ventured out into the powdery deep freeze to tackle the oil lines. The tapping rang out loudly in the crisp air. When we’d completed our task, we took our chilled bones to the embracing warmth of the dependable coal heated building. For a short spell, we escaped our ever-consuming battle against winter.
The contrast between this environment and ours was jarring: bright lights, no drafts, a floor that didn’t sag or bounce, water coming out of a faucet rather than a water bucket, and indoor toilets. In light of this fact, I couldn’t help but wonder why a steady stream of guests seemed attracted to our crude one-room habitat. Was it the popcorn or the Salmon Belly Chowder?
The hospital staff was always together. Where else could they go? Attending one of the churches presented new faces, as did mingling with CAA (later changed to FAA) families; nevertheless the steady stream of guests attested that the compass bearing for socializing and entertainment pointed to the straggly snowbound school compound.
“It just feels so good to come here,” Ethel had told me as she curled up on my bed with a wholesale magazine, which was our version of window-shopping. Ethel Jenkins, the Head Nurse, was from Arizona and of Indian descent; this made for interesting conversations about the comparisons to the Alaska Natives. She frequented my Quonset to distance herself from her work-staff, which she either supervised at the hospital, or lived within the nurses’ quarters. We hit it off right away and I enjoyed her sense of humor and friendship.
Oftentimes, the nurses stopped in after Sunday night chapel services and joined us in listening to Unshackled. In those days, and especially in Alaska, we clung to any radio program available. This program told dramatic true conversion stories of men on skid row. Other times, a group gathered for a catalog party where we pored over Sears & Roebuck and mail-order magazines, and placed orders. Questions of “What are you getting”? and “What color do think would look best”? were strewn into our shopping forays; which culminated in writing in item numbers and colors, then calculating postage.
My get-away was to eat steaks, coconut pie and other out-of-my-ordinary cooking at the hospital dining hall, or sip tea with Ruby Gaede, the Tanana Hospital physician’s wife.
I hated to admit it, but as much as I enjoyed people, I’d started to cringe whenever I heard a sound at the door and a cheery “Hello – anyone home?” I knew this greeting would signal to Herman that there would be socializing in our hut, and that on cue he’d be over in a jiffy.
On this particular night, it was a relief not playing hostess, but just sitting back in the large space of the meeting area. After we’d learned about crawly creatures in the Arizona desert, Ethel invited us for tea; simultaneously, Ruby asked us to stop in for cocoa. All three of us were night owls and we readily accepted both offers. Before going to Ethel’s I returned to our encampment, made the rounds, and beat on the oil lines. When we progressed to Ruby’s, I once again followed the same procedure.
“Kids,” I said to Harriet and Herman upon our return home, “I hate to suggest this, but it appears we’re going to have to babysit the stoves tonight.” This exercise had not been included in our Fundamentals of Teaching book, either.
Harriet feigned a yawn, but when I volunteered for the 2 AM shift, she volunteered for 4 AM, and Herman agreed to 6 AM. After completing my duty, I snuggled down beneath my covers, grateful that the next alarm I’d hear, and the ensuing banging, would be made by my loyal coworkers.
We weren’t alone in our midnight madness. Usually the Natives showed movies at the Community Hall only on weekends, but for some reason, they started showing them on weeknights as well. Naturally, the children accompanied the adults and as a result, the children would fall asleep at their desks or stare into space.
“Boys and girls, it is very important for you to get enough sleep so your minds will work when you come to school,” I exhorted, as did the other teachers.
The students looked at me with glazed expressions. I wasn’t sure I’d conveyed the seriousness of the situation until one day after school when a mother stopped in my hut. “I thought my boy was joking. He says he don’t want to go to show last night. He wants to spend show money at the store.”
“Rest” may have been our Fourth ‘R,’ but in addition, we emphasized the importance of cleanliness. As time progressed, little Freddy, who looked like a street urchin, would have won the prize for the most improved. He loved school and took my admonitions to heart. Soap and water, impetigo treatments, and a good night’s rest transformed him into a dapper young man.
A girl in the community related to me, “Freddy is such a changed person. He is clean and has more manners. Can you believe he makes his mother let him go to bed early? Then he wakes up at 4:30 and wants to go to school!”
Freddy’s grades improved, too, and his misbehavior diminished. I needed this encouragement, but it had its drawbacks. On Saturdays, the one morning I could sleep in, he’d come knocking on my hut door at 7 AM, in winter darkness.
“Who’s there?” I’d call out.
“It’s me, Freddy,” he’d answer in a cheerful little voice, “I came to see you.”
“Freddy, I’m not up yet.” I’d say in an annoyed and amused chuckle. “Please come back at 9 o’clock, okay?”
With a meek “yes,” he’d leave, only to return in 15 minutes when the conversation would be replayed. After several Saturdays of attempting to arouse his teacher, he quit coming.
Health education continued with a visit from the Public Health dentist, Dr. Tom McQueen, and his assistant, Ada Jakes, who flew into the village to examine and treat the Native children. Much to my surprise, the children were raring to go for their appointments. Whenever a student returned and I referred to my schedule, I looked up to see every eye glued to me and every pencil laid down. As soon as I announced a name, that boy or girl would dart out the door as if going to a fire. At recess, children circled around the ones who had been treated, and listened to their stories and stared at their gauze-packed mouths and holes from pulled teeth. When the Novocain wore off, the quiet classroom would be interrupted with a shout, “It’s waking up! It’s waking up!” I’d never before witnessed children who took so much pleasure in dental visits.
Meanwhile, the minus 40º F continued with occasional bouts of only minus 20º F. On these “warm” nights, we welcomed undisturbed sleep without night duty. Each time temperatures dipped to minus 35º F, Harriet or I would put our potatoes, onions, and eggs on the opened oven door and keep the oven on low heat. Even then, there were times when this precious commodity succumbed to frostbite. To obtain fresh produce was tough enough, but to preserve it was even tougher. We’d sent an order with one of the nurses flying to Fairbanks, but at some point, the celery and lettuce froze. Earlier in the fall, a care package from Harriet’s mom fared better. She’d filled a box marked “Fragile, Eggs, Special Handling,” with fresh produce from her farm. We were ecstatic to find potatoes, turnips, cabbage, and eggs all in good, not-frozen, condition. We’d been using potato flakes and now we savored every mouthful of real mashed potatoes.
Understandably, food played an important role in our lives. “Where did you get this, Anna?” someone would ask, and in the same breath want to know, “Can I get it, too”? Over the summer, in Ohio, I’d discovered boxed whipped topping. At a chapel party, I’d put dollops of the imitation whipped cream on pumpkin pie. “Mmmmmm” was the consensus. Women made requests for packages and I wrote Mother to send me two big boxes.
Culinary skills were not limited to women. “Grandpa’s cooking a pork chop dinner for us tonight,” announced Harriet, using her after-school nickname for Herman. Unlike us, Herman splurged at the Northern Commercial store. How could we chide him for this luxury when he presented us with delicacies such as non-wild meat cooked on the one-burner and a salad of canned shrimp added to a can of mixed vegetables. From time to time, he’d show up on our doorstep with spice cake batter and the request to bake it in our oven. Of course we helped him eat the finished product.
The interminable cold interrupted our sleep and our school schedule, but not our social life. “How would you teachers like to come to the hospital wiener roast and skating party on Friday night?” asked Ethel. In these temperatures our noses would drip, eyes water, and fingers tingle. I didn’t know about the others, but I was a clumsy skater. We accepted. The temperatures chilled neither our enthusiasm nor a romantic attraction. Harriet shared matter-of-factly that a hospital employee had asked her to the party. No other details. As one would expect, she assumed he would come to the hut and they’d walk together to the skating site on the river. This being the case, Herman and I bundled up and left her in her fluttering anticipation.
Much to my surprise, one of the first people I spotted was the would-be-Romeo. “Herman, isn’t that the guy Harriet told us about?” I pointed to a fellow in an olive-green army surplus parka who was zig-zagging through the expanding crowd. Every now and then his parka hood flew back exposing thick black hair. He greeted other skaters and appeared to be having a very good time.
The hospital maintenance man had rumbled out on the ice with his CAT to clear the snow and the frost heaves to make a smooth skating surface. Large bonfires lit up the night beneath the starry sky, and reflected off the glare ice. Metal skate blades flashed. Small flares leaped about in the blackness as people’s flashlights showed them the way to the party. Shouting, teasing, and laughter filled the evening.
“Why is he so nonchalantly skating about on his own?” I said. “Poor Harriet.”
After awhile, he skated toward me.
“Where’s Harriet?” he asked, puffing.
“Waiting for you!” I answered perturbed.
He gasped. Stumbling about he unlaced his skates, and in stocking feet, fled up the bank and down the road. Soon he returned with Harriet beside him. I wasn’t sure if her face was rosy from the exertion, the icy air, or the attention of suitor. Throughout the evening, Harriet never strayed far from her escort’s side, although she and Herman played “crack the whip” with the children. The two of them were excellent skaters and acted like kids themselves. Lines of exuberant children linked themselves together with hands on the parka waists of the person in front of them. The first in each line grabbed either Harriet’s or Herman’s waist and off they went in two swinging circles. At some point, the tail-ends would go so fast around a corner that the caboose would lose hold individually, or drag with them the coupling in front of them. Away they slid on their knees or behinds. Everyone hollered in boisterous terror and glee.
Eventually Harriet wore down and caught her breath beside a bonfire, where she ate browned hot dogs, cast furtive glances at her suitor, and overall appeared quite smug. The night held its magic; however, the would-be romance began and ended all within that succinct span.
Ongoing battles between the brutal cold and the stoves continued. On December 13, the school construction crew left Tanana. A Native man was hired to keep watch over the old and new school, and I attempted to help him. When the furnace in the old school gave up the ghost, I sought help from the CAA mechanic who serviced it. But then that night, it went out again, and before we knew it, the water pipes froze and burst! We turned off the water, but the damage was done. As if the mess wasn’t discouraging enough, it meant that we would have to carry water over from the hospital for our use in the huts – bathing, dishwashing, and cooking. Ironically, the damage left a display of glorious shimmering stalactites and stalagmites. Fortunately, Herman had moved into his own Quonset.
During this time the electricity switched off sporadically in our school compound. One midnight, the stack blower on our stove chimney stopped whirring, indicating a power outage. I knew this silence meant the furnaces had ceased functioning in the new school. Overcome with weariness, I sat in my bed with tears streaming down my face. I was tough, but these circumstances seemed tougher. How could I fight so many uphill battles? If it wasn’t the huts, it was the old school; if it wasn’t either of these, it was the new school. I sobbed until I could hardly catch my breath, and then wiped the moisture off my face before braving the icy blast between my hut and the school. I dragged myself through the drifting snow to reset the starter on the furnace.
Amidst the constant frustrations, the joyous season of Christmas pressed closer. After my children left in the afternoon, I assisted Herman in teaching his upper grades two-part harmony for “Christmas Night” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Each rendition sounded like the winter wind whistling around the corners of the dilapidated schoolhouse, but I reconciled myself that their lack of precision didn’t matter. Their enthusiasm would make this a joyful experience for their parents.
I’d ordered Christmas candy from the Sears catalog. To my disappointment, I received word that it would be back-ordered and unavailable for Christmas. As usual, we were called upon to adapt. Homemade fudge and popcorn balls were substituted for red and green ribbon candy and chocolate-covered peanut clusters. Creating holiday happiness didn’t rest solely on me, though. Someone else had caught the spirit of the season.
“Do any of you know why Donald isn’t here this morning?” I asked my students.
The looked quizzically at each other, but said nothing. After I dismissed the class for lunch, along came Donald, peering out from under his parka hood, pulling a bedraggled Christmas tree. He had spent the morning hunting for it, chopping it down, and pulling it to school. How could I reprimand this exhausted little boy, when with hopeful eyes, he looked up at me and said, “How do you like it, Miss Bortel?”
Our dark schoolroom brightened with this and other artistic touches. We put up Donald’s tree at one end of our hut. Besides decorating the tree, the children cut and pasted colorful bells and Santas which they strung from the hut framework. Holiday music on the record player added to the atmosphere and the children vibrated with pleasure.
Finally the day of the Christmas program arrived. The children filed into the classroom and as usual, detoured to the Christmas tree before taking their seats. All at once, they rushed over to me. With terrified eyes and trembling bodies they blurted out, “Come here, teacher! There is someone in our room.. . . . Are you scared?” They clutched my arms and leaned against me.
I couldn’t imagine what had frightened them. There beneath the Christmas tree was a young Native man, curled up, and sleeping off his night of alcohol. I’d wondered about a strange odor when I’d entered the room, and now I saw the pool of urine. Nudging him, I called his name. No response. The children turned their faces up to me with confidence that I could handle this situation. Again I called his name. Nothing. Now what? I wondered. By this time, word had spread through the other classes and Herman poked his head through the door. “Mr. Romer, could you please stay here while I go to the hospital for help?” The hospital served as an emergency source for any village crisis.
Jerking open the hospital door, I hurried to Alice in the reception area and explained the situation. Recovering from my shock, I joked, “He doesn’t have a tag or a ribbon, so I don’t want to keep the gift under the tree!”
Alice assured me someone would arrive to care for this unusual gift. I returned to my students with much relief, and checked on the young man, who was still inert; then I proceeded to restart the day with attendance-taking. Shortly, the all-purpose ambulance arrived and hauled away the Christmas boy.
That evening at the Christmas program, the children sang their best. I sighed with relief and with hope that the next year we would be in our wonderful, spacious school, rather than the crowded Community Hall.
The New Year did not start with a celebration, but with body-shaking tears. Following a New Years Eve party, I’d worked endlessly on our oil lines. Then, at 3 AM, I collapsed in bed, chilled to the bone, and utterly worn out. I had reached the end of my rope and had no reserve to cope with one more minute of this pioneer life. Harriet, the hardy Minnesota girl, numbly struggled with the lines at 4 AM. Temperatures were freezing outdoors and now sunk lower inside our Quonset. She desperately fought to restore some heat. Herman quietly carried our potatoes and onions to his place to keep them from freezing. Our fortitude was freezing to a standstill in the winter battle.
On January 6, 1959 I wrote to Mr. Isaac:
Mr. Krazinzki, from the Anchorage office, told me to have larger tubing put in from the tanks to the stove, but I have to have someone who is willing to do it, and even then there is no assurance that the freezing problem would be solved. There is a large tube and heating cable on the one at the old school and it still freezes.
Dr. Gaede suggested that I just not have school when it gets 40 degrees or more below, since it is wearing us teachers out to fight to keep the fires going, and even then we can’t get the temperatures up so the children can take off their coats.
One plunge of the thermometer to minus 50 caused us to send all the children home. Two days later, my chimney sooted up and would not produce heat. Again, I sent my class home. Doc and Ruby came over and together we cleaned it out. We were completely covered with soot, but the stove was back in working order.
In the January Northern Lights, the upper grades wrote, “It’s a little cold in the huts now.” I questioned their choice of words and accuracy of reporting!
January 1959. Fifty degrees below zero. Four hours of daylight. No running water. No heat. Construction on the school halted due to the unavailability of windows. I’d left the model school in Pekin, Illinois for this? The going was indeed very tough.
1 lb. Fresh salmon poached, (or 1 14 ½ oz can salmon)
2 T. butter or margarine
1 med. onion
½ C. celery, diced
1 T. flour plus 1-2 T. water
2 chicken bouillon cubes
2 C. water
2 C. diced potatoes
1 13 oz. can evaporated milk
1 tsp. dill weed
¼ tsp. basil leaves, crushed
1 15 ½ oz. can cream-style corn
Salt and pepper to taste
Drain salmon, reserve liquid. Sauté celery and onions in margarine. Add bouillon cubes, water, and potatoes. Cook slowly until potatoes are cooked. Mix flour with water to make thickening, add to potatoes, celery, onion mixture. Add salmon, reserved liquid, milk, dill weed, basil, corn, salt, and pepper. Heat thoroughly, but do not boil. Serve with cornbread or fresh rolls, and a salad. Invite your neighbors in—if you want to share.
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