Swing with Me

N and R on tricycles KSCNaomi and Ruth

“Let’s swing,” said my sister, Ruth, in a soft voice.

It was a sunny, but cool afternoon in Alaska. Her husband had built a tall swing set for their grandchildren and situated it carefully in their manicured lawn, which was surrounded by a fence to keep out the moose. Ruth continually sought to tame the ever-encroaching wilderness and had cleared the underbrush between spruce trees she had left along the edges. The little trails beckoned me to morph into my little girl-self and run among the trees, play chase, and disappear.

Ruth and I started swinging when we were preschoolers in Kansas City, where our father was doing his medical residency. It had been a little metal-pipe swing set, just our size. We also had a tire swing. When it rained, a puddle formed beneath it.  On subsequent hot, humid summer days, we would giggle with glee, hang with our bottoms beneath the tire, and swing through the puddle.  Our undies were a muddy mess; all the same, our mother didn’t say a word. She brought out a bucket and we took turns trying to sit in it, wash off, and cool off.

A decade later, in Alaska when our parents were proving up our 80 acre homestead and clearing land, our father trimmed out, but left standing, two tall, close together spruce trees. Somehow he climbed to the top, fashioned a sturdy crosspiece, and attached two thick ropes for a swing. In the evenings of the Midnight Sun, on the longest swing ever, we stood on the flat wooden seat in our puffy Baby Doll pajamas, and took turns swinging high and wild, shouting and laughing, feeling the wind in our hair and dodging mosquitos.

A few years ago, I took my grandboy to Alaska. We went to Ruth’s place and pulled ourselves onto the two swings and started pumping. “Watch me,” I instructed him. I jumped off and turned around. He jumped, too, nearly yanking his arms off.

“Oh dear! Time for a lesson.” And so I taught him to pull his arms around to the inside before he jumped. “Now you won’t pull your arms out of your sockets!”

He rubbed his shoulders – and laughed – and tried it the way I had shown him. “That’s better, Nomi,” he said with a big smile.

And so it was last summer that Ruth said quietly, “Swing with me.” Silently, we pulled ourselves onto the swings, each in our own thoughts. My eyes teared up. I slipped back in time and thought of us as two little girls. I could see her beside me, her brown hair curling in ringlets around her face. When we were ages four and five, we were uprooted from our Kansas prairie and transplanted to the Alaska tundra.  Away from cousins and grandparents, we were there for each other.

Yes, my dear sister, I will swing with you, then, now, and into the sunset.

(First printed in the Kansas “Country Register,” April/May 2019 issue.)

  1. As child, where did you swing? Your backyard? A schoolyard? A park? Over a creek? On a tire?
  2. Do you swing now?
  3. With whom do you swing?
  4. How do you feel when you swing?


The 2019 Mining Season Begins

By Naomi Gaede Penner and Mark Gaede

My brother, Mark, and his buddy have gold claims near Hope, Alaska. They’ve had them since the 1970s. In case you want to know where they actually are, so you can get-rich-quick, let me clue you in, the two miners worked day-jobs for many years, and only recently have kinda stopped subsidizing and broken even; meaning, they make enough to pay for gas driving to/from the claims.

The end of March, they started up operations. The snow (measuring) post at Summit Lake was showing just over 3 feet of snow and temperatures had been near 40 degrees the past week. When they pulled into their road, it was cloudy with light drizzle. They figured the snow would be nasty. It was. Of course, they planned to wear snowshoes. Any of you who snowshoe, know what those temps and conditions mean: sticky, heavy, show clinging to the bottoms, and barely-catch-your-breath hard work.

The two miners, age-60-something, planned to haul in two dredge motors and 20 feet of new 5-inch hose. They secured this on a sled for a load of about 150 pounds.  In addition to the sled, Mark’s pack carried air hoses, diving masks, hand tools, and heavy rubber gloves, for a weight of around 30 pounds.

As anticipated, the going was rough. Their snowshoes sank about 10-12-inches into the wet, soggy snow. Occasionally, they would break through the next crusty layer and be up to their knees. Now they had to lift their snowshoes even higher: up out of the snow and then on top of the snow for another step.  Happily, for the most part, the sled pulled along just fine since the trek was down hill.STC_0658

Don’t go sneaking around Mark’s Mining operation.

Before going completely down to the creek, they stopped at the Tiny House to lite the propane furnace and to leave articles not needed at the creek.

Then their trudge continued. At one point, they thought it judicious to leave the trail for a more direct shot to the dredge site.  Given it was extremely steep, Mark’s buddy stayed up top with a 50-foot long tag line to keep the sled from running away. Mark remained with the sled and guided it down the slope.  All at once, Mark’s lead snowshoe fell through a pocket in the snow and hung up on an alder about 2 to 3 feet down. Mark did a face plant. If that wasn’t enough abuse, another alder slipped under his pack strap. This promptly pinned him in place. Furthermore, the sled slid up on his trailing snowshoe. There is wisdom in the buddy system. However, in this case, Mark’s buddy had also lost a snowshoe and was flailing around trying to keep the sled from completely running over Mark.

After getting a grip on his unexpected position, Mark wormed his way out of his pack and swam out from under the sled. Taking this all in stride, he reported, “It took a couple minutes to regroup and then we finished the trek to the creek.” All in a day’s work. On a more serious note, he added, “It just underscored how hazardous winter ops are and why it is not a solo event.”


Mark’s buddy resting at base camp.

Getting equipment in and out each season is always a lot of work. Nonetheless, they are undaunted. Decades of trial and error, along with modern advances, such as Gortex socks and everything else Gortex, has made a difference. So have hamburgers at Summit Lake Lodge and doughnuts at the Moose is Loose Bakery in Soldotna.

And so, the two miners, who have known each other since they were babies in the Bethany Baptist Church nursery in Anchorage, Alaska, are off and going for another season.



Alaska Statehood – January 3, 1959

1741    Russian navigators, Chirikov and Bering, discover Alaska

1784    First settlement on Kodiak Island

1867    Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7,200,000

1848-   1914 Gold strikes and rushes

1959    Statehood, January 3


(Setting: 1959, Tanana, village of 300 people along the Yukon River in Interior Alaska.

Main Character and speaker: Anna Bortel, head schoolteacher.

Adapted from “’A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory,” by Naomi Gaede Penner.)


“Let’s have a party!” I announced to Harriet and Herman, my two co-teachers.

With our tensions of trying to live and teach in Quonset huts that had no windows, round walls, insulation floating down and making students itch, no running water, floors that bounced when we walked across them, and heating oil that froze when the temperatures went below minus 40 degrees, we needed laughter – in large doses.

They agreed and I went to spread the good news to the Gaedes, Wally the Public Health lab technician, and our friend, Ethel.

Earlier in the day, I had reviewed with my students the history of Alaska and the story behind our state flag. Together we stood and sang the Alaska State Song. I was proud to be a part of this state and of history-in-the-making.

That evening, my friends and I celebrated in the old schoolhouse. When Herman had returned from the Christmas holidays, he had brought smoked salmon strips, and mentioned that sometime I should try putting salmon on pizza. When I pulled outsalmonpizza from the oven, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Along with this uniquely Alaskan pizza, I combined crushed blueberries and cranberries and made a statehood beverage.

Later, after viewing some slides several of us had taken, we turned to view the dirty dishes. Wally volunteered to carry the washable items back to his duplex, which was the other half of the Gaede’s building; therefore, practically next door. The following day, when Harriet and I went to reclaim our dishes, we found clean pots, pans, dishes, and water glasses stacked toward the ceiling in his kitchen – a balancing act and a work of art!

That was the grand finale of our Statehood celebration. It made us laugh. It warmed our hearts. Alas, it did not warm our Quonsets and we continued to set our alarms to take turns going outdoors and beating on the oil pipes to keep the oil flowing to our cookstove-heaters.

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School in Quonsets in Tanana

The New Year Starts with a Bang

(Adapted from the Naomi Gaede Penner’s new book manuscript,

“The Bush Doctor’s Wife.”)

The year was winding down, as were the many holiday festivities for which Ruby had planned and prepared. She had energetically entertained people, dealt with long dark nights with mere glimpses of sun during the day, and so far kept her children warm in the frozen Interior of Alaska. Last on the list was Mark’s second birthday, December 27.

The little kid was grumpy and for good enough reasons. He walked around crying and rubbing his ears, all the while coughing with a hacking croup. Ruby could not keep up with his runny nose. She herself was not feeling at her top mothering capability and was suffering from a head cold. Both mother and son felt miserable.

Ruby would have preferred to be in bed rather than preparing supper, and more so with Mark underfoot and whining. She could not take a step forward or backward without bumping into him. All the same, the macaroni and cheese casserole with toasted, buttered breadcrumbs on top needed to go into the oven. She shooed him back as she pulled down the oven door to lite the pilot light, which required turning on the gas and touching a lit match to the igniter. What happened next terrified them both. She wrote home:

“…as I was making supper I lite the oven and Mark was right there and shut it (gas) off so I reached down to light it right away again and we had an explosion. I think of the song, ‘some through the water some through the fire some through the blood.’ Well the Lord did help me through the fire. I was in the middle of the explosion it all happens so fast, Mark was beside me blown down on the floor and he was frightened and I felt as though I was on fire, I felt my hair and it was singed badly my face burned so badly, I’m glad the girls were at the table playing and I screamed for Naomi to run to the hospital for Elmer. He came and brought salve, Furacin (a topical cream for second and third degree burns), and we put it on all the burned places, my nose hurt so and my right hand. Elmer did such a good job of treating me, and the pain was gone the next day. I wore a glove over the Band-Aids on my right hand. This is the second of Jan. and my hand has nearly pealed, and my nose has a new layer of skin, my chin and neck are in the process and I have no scars, the burns weren’t deep. So we have much to be thankful for.

 Who knows if the casserole got baked or if she put it into the refrigerator for the following night’s supper; or if the scare shocked the croup out of Mark; or if Ruby figured the oven explosion was enough use of matches and didn’t want to light even two candles for Mark’s birthday, which would not actually be noticed since his “cake” was a cookie Christmas Tree she had made earlier. With Mark improvising his own, there was no need for fireworks or firecrackers to start the New Year.


No doubt, Mark kept her on her toes and she could never let down her guard.  A few days into the New Year, Ruby was stacking freshly washed towels in the bathroom linen closet when she heard the scratchy sound of a match being lit. She opened the bathroom door to find Mark sitting on the rug in the hallway with a tiny blaze in his hand. Seeing his mother and hearing her yell his name, he dropped the match on the rug. Ruby stomped out the small flame and shook her son by the shoulders until his teeth chattered. Over to his room she marched him and up went the gate. She thanked the good Lord she had been nearby and not down in the basement, and that she had managed to keep him alive for the first two years of his life.


Mark — when he was not setting fires inside the house. Mark with moose antlers


Alaska Earthquakes 1964 and 2018

Earthquakes in Alaska from January 1  to November 30, 2018


Alaska Earthquake, November  30, 2018

7.0 on the Richter scale

“This is the largest earthquake to strike near Anchorage since the 2016 M7.1 Iniskin earthquake. Because the quake was so much closer, the impacts to Anchorage and Mat-Su were far more severe and widespread.” .” http://www.earthquake.alaska.edu

Alaska Earthquake,  March 27, 1964

9.2 on the Richter scale, the strongest earthquake recorded in North America.

Of the 10 largest U.S. earthquakes, 7 have taken place in Alaska.

Alaska has 52 percent of all earthquakes in the United States.

“The Day the Earth Fell Apart”

(adapted from Alaska Bush Pilot Doctor– as told by my father, Dr. Elmer Gaede)

THERE were no pressing medical needs on this Good Friday holiday, so Dr. Isaak and I decided not to hold clinic. Instead, I was working in the back woods of the homestead. It was a sloppy time of year when snow melted, yet the ground was frozen, resulting in mud during the day, and icy conditions at night and the early mornings. “Breakup,” we called it.


I looked up and saw Ruby coming toward me, trying to walk around the waterways in her black knee-high rubber boots.

“One of your O.B.s is on the phone.”

Within a few minutes of telephone conversation, Mrs. Smith gave me an experienced progress report on her condition. This was not her first baby, so without hesitation I told her I’d meet her at the clinic.

I changed my work clothes, singed from winter brush fire burning, and headed out the door to the Volkswagen bus.

“If this is the real thing, I won’t be back for supper,” I called to Ruby.

The VW skated on the water‑on‑ice Gas Well, to Kalifonsky Beach Road that met the Sterling Highway, and across the bridge that spanned the Kenai River. The bridge was the only one crossing the Kenai River and connected the lower Kenai Peninsula towns with the main part of the Peninsula.

Mrs. Smith met me in the clinic parking lot and took her muddy boots off at the door. She’d driven herself to. Chances were her husband was in the oilfield and a friend was home watching her other children.

She shook her head and held her stomach. “I didn’t plan on having a baby at breakup when the roads are so bad.”

She lay down on the examining table, which would most likely turn into a delivery table. I began my evaluation. Blood pressure normal. Fetal heart rate normal. The baby’s head was low. I needed to call a nurse right away.

Abruptly the room swayed. I grasped the examining table to steady myself. Was I dizzy? I sat down on the nearby tall stool. The movement continued, now with a distant rumble and a stronger force. I looked at Mrs. Smith. Our puzzled eyes met. “Earthquake!”

“Let’s go!” I shouted above the din and helped her off the table. I held on to her arm and we careened down the hallway to the emergency ramp door, which I deemed most solid.

The shaking intensified. As we stood looking out the open door, I saw tall spruce and aspen trees whip violently back and forth until their tops nearly touched the ground. Like the sound of surf, the roar became deafening. The barn across the street jumped alive and gyrated on the convulsing ground. The ground heaved up and down like ocean waves and cars lurched crazily on the road. I’d been in earth­quakes at Tanana, but never like this.

I stood horrified as a jagged crack appeared in front of a car. It opened about a foot wide and then suddenly clapped shut. The earth stretched apart and other fracture s appeared. The smell of sulfur filled the air. I was staggered by the force of nature.  The thunderous rolling continued and the ground groaned in agony. Will it never end?I wondered. How long can this last before everything is broken apart or sucked into the earth?

After four never-ending minutes, the nightmare stopped – or so I thought. Silence.

“I’m going home,” said Mrs. Smith in a trembling voice. “I don’t want to have my baby right now.”

She walked into the empty waiting room, stepped into her boots, carefully made her way down the front steps and out the front door to her car.

Back in my office, the large clock on the wall, hung crookedly. I pushed back the furniture in the waiting room that had danced out of place, and then tried calling Ruby. The phone was dead. I needed to get home.

Just as I opened the front door a state trooper pushed in. The usually self-assured man, who dealt with terrible accidents and Alaska catastrophes, was wild-eyed and uncertain.

“Doc, you’ve got to stay!” his command sounded more like a plea. “Emergencies will be coming in!”

I’d never seen him so frantic and wondered what he knew that I didn’t. This put me in a bind between medical obligations and my concern as a father and husband.  But, he’d given me no choice. I’d been ordered to stay at my post as a physician.


         Later Ruby told me of her experience. She and the children were sitting at the supper table when they heard a loud thud and then felt a jolt, as though something large had run into the house. They figured out it was an earthquake t and expected it would subside – as earthquakes before had done. When the shaking and noise increased, she feared the house would crumble.

“Let’s get out of here!” she had screamed.

She, Naomi, Ruth, Mark, and Mishal, had made their way drunkenly toward the front door. Mishal had fallen down the steps. Ruby pulled her up. The driveway was covered with snow. Unable to maintain their balance, they had collapsed onto the cold ground, without shoes or coats. Trees had swayed as if they were feathers. The ground had rumbled and split open, emitting swamp gas from the shallow fields beneath our homestead. After hour-long minutes, they had returned to the house, Ruby felt nauseated and as if she had been on a boat, churning in rough seas.

After the deafening roar and violent shaking had stopped, she inspected the house. The only damage she found was water sloshing out of her suds-saver tub in the laundry room and a fallen flowerpot. None of the china or fragile keepsakes had tumbled out of the shelves, nor had sugar bowls or syrup bottles.

When the evening shadows crept in, she had found candles.  Remarkably, after several hours, electricity was restored and she turned on the radio – to the shocking news from a Seattle station that no one knew what had happened to Anchorage, Alaska.


      In the clinic laboratory, I located a battery radio to learn about possible damage in other areas. I was surprised with the difficulty in finding stations. In their usual setting was just a lot of static.  Finally I tuned into a Seattle station. Grad­ually, and with jaw-dropping disbelief, I learned what had happened in Anchorage. The announcer­’s reports were so graphic and grim that I couldn’t comprehend them until I listened again, and heard the same message over and over. Houses and people swallowed up, bridges destroyed, entire streets dropping below the surface, and fires started. The broadcasts were without music and commercials. There was no lightheartedness to break the tension. The extent of the damage in Alaska had only begun to be assessed.

The Good Friday sun slipped away, edging the pink wisps of clouds with gold against the darkening sky. Darkness closed around us. Hour by hour, the night grew blacker and the reports became worse. Aftershocks added to everyone’s trepidation. The nightmare was not over.

A new report informed us that the earthquake had churned up a tidal wave. Our homestead was three miles from the beach;  even at that distance, we were close to sea level and a gigantic quake as we had experienced was powerful enough to propel itself inland. In the utter blackness, no one would be able to see if came, or have any chance of getting ahead of it.

Patients came and went during the night. The next day I was released to go home. This was not the same town I’d driven through the day before. Signs lay crumpled on the ground, buildings had slits down their sides, and streets were cracked. I was thankful to see the bridge across the Kenai River was still intact.

Two days later, on Easter, the Anchorage Daily Timesrolled out papers with preliminary lists of casualties in Anchorage and pictures of buckled downtown buildings, cars fallen into yawning pits, burst water mains, snapped power poles, and houses sloughed off the bluff down to the Cook Inlet.

The following day, the Times provided instructions for Anchorage residents regarding gasoline, food supplies, fuel oil, water and field toilets, mail delivery, typhoid shots, and schools. Casualty figures increased, although actual bodies could not be found for those swallowed up into the ground.

Unlike Anchorage and the coastal towns, Soldotna was in pretty good shape. There was no major structural damage, and because there was no city water or sewer, no main lines were broken. Within the week we would hear cargo planes overhead bringing food supplies to Kenai.

At Homer, only 80 miles away  from our homestead, the dock was ripped loose at Homer Spit, and boats littered the remaining waterway.  The land table had dropped nearly six feet, so with high tides coming in in only a few weeks, all the buildings near the dock would be flooded. The fragments of dangling dock were no longer useful at the lower elevation.

At Kodiak Island, the tidal waves heaped more damage upon earthquake destruction. Most of the boat harbor was gone and boats littered the beaches. Between 650 and 700 people who had been evacuated from other parts of the island were being fed by the Civil Defense agency at the Kodiak Naval Station.  Another 20 to 30 people were unaccounted for.

Reports of devastation continued. Most of the residents from Valdez were evacuated. Governor Egan said of his hometown, “There is no sign that there ever was a dock or boat area. This area has totally disappeared.” Fires added to the chaos and 34 people were known to be dead.


            Our Easter church service took on a new meaning as I thought of the 104 or more people killed in the quake and the grieving of those who had lost these loved ones.  I hoped they would find spiritual comfort on this day. I thought of the traditional Easter story, where an earthquake shook the enormous rock from the entrance of Jesus’ tomb. The guards attending this tomb were frightened and confused – and I could certainly under­stand why.


            I had to see for myself the bizarre turmoil resulting from the Good Friday Earthquake. My medical partner, Dr. Paul Isaak, and I flew to Seward to see the staggering confusion there. Although Seward was closed to outsiders, we were both members of the Civil Air Patrol; furthermore, we were on the hospital staff and granted special permissi­on to enter the area.

In reality, it didn’t take much to keep people out of Seward. The road was badly broken apart, and the main portion of the runway was unusable. There was no trace of the hangar we used, and the cross-runway where it had been was in shambles with heaps of gravel, trees and debris.

64 Earthquake Seward airstrp

As if the earthquake hadn’t rendered enough damage, a tidal wave had rolled in and crushed everything for about three-quarter of a mile from the bay. The mile‑long waterfront had collapsed into the ocean bay and docks, warehouses, offices, and storage tanks had vanished. Rails, train cars, and engines were melted together or tossed about as if an angry child had tired of play. In a lagoon a half-mile from Seward, two rails dipped up and down with the tide. Wrecked cars, twisted rails, crumbled houses made what had been just crowned an All American City look like a garbage dump.   The smoke had so obliterated the town that originally it was reported that the entire city had been wiped out by the quake and ensuing tidal wave.

64 earthquake Seward

64 Earthquake Seward railroad tracks


The eerie feeling intensified as we flew south of Seward.

“Didn’t there used to be a mountain peak over there?”  asked Paul.

“I thought we knew this area like the back of our hand, but something seems different.” I responded.

“Do you think an entire mountain could be swallowed up?”

I didn’t answer. That concept was too overwhelming. For some time we flew in silence.

After awhile, Paul pointed out the window, “Look! That lake is empty!”

I pushed the stick forward and we flew down for a closer look.

“The bottom must have cracked open and swallowed up the water!”  I couldn’t believe what all we were seeing.


 In my line of work, death and birth were a part of the circle of life. A week after the history-making phenomena, Mrs. Smith returned and the “Earth­quake Baby” didarrive. The child had truly arrived at “breakup” when the Alaskan world broke apart.


Unlike the bridge across the Kenai River,  141 of 204 in Southcentral Alaska were no longer intact.

The Office of Emergency Planning calculated damage to Alaska at approximately $537,600,000, of which around 60 percent was sustained by Anchorage.

104 or more people killed in Anchorage. More than 2,000 people were homeless in Anchorage.



Tucked in for Winter

(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.

barge docked one Yukon

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.J-3 sunset Yukon

(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.

Yukon freeze up with N and R .jpg

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.

Furry Therapy

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A box of Kleenex sat beside him. He stroked her soft white head, dabbed his eyes, and apologized. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s okay,” I replied. I planned to sit there as long as he needed the fluffy comfort of my Therapy Dog and she appeared to be willing as well. I didn’t know his story. I didn’t feel it right to ask. I just knew this dog was fulfilling her mission of compassion.

She never talked. She just smiled, reached for the dog, and caressed her flat ears. When I’d first started visiting the center, I looked for people who were excited and extraverted; those who gave affirming feedback to my efforts. I learned quickly that the ones in the corner, perhaps even looking half-asleep, might be just as interested, just as in need, and just as responsive – in their own way.

He never said much. He just moved towards her in his wheelchair whenever he saw us coming. My Taffy dog seemed to understand his non-verbals and made her way towards him. He bent over and pressed his face against hers. It was as though they had their own conversation. I stood quietly and let it happen.

“She’s white! She’s white! My dog was white!” Tears edged out of the woman’s eyes. “Oh how I miss my dog. She’s white.” The tears were bittersweet. Sadness and joy. Taffy stood for a while, and then sat down patiently to accept the ongoing firm and friendly petting. “She’s white!”

I heard the shrieking first. Then I saw its source: crumpled little woman gesturing wildly. Taffy was not to lick people, but what was I suppose to do when some of these people delighted in such affection? “She kissed me!” Taffy was unperturbed by the uncontrolled motion. It almost seemed this stocky thick-furred dog related best in such situations.

“She likes me!” The troubled teenager got down on his knees and enveloped her in a hug. “Can she stay here?” We stayed. I assured him that indeed this dog did like him. Finally I had to leave. I gave the young man Taffy’s business card with her picture and bio that read:

English Cream Retriever. Hobbies – exploring open spaces, rescuing fruit that kids toss out of their lunches, and playing with her stuffed animals. Taffy has been a registered Therapy Dog since 2015. She volunteers at a nursing home and a healthcare center, and has even been at Denver International Airport. She endears herself to people by “talking” and teasing.

I never planned on having a Therapy Dog. My husband and I had planned to purchase a modest-sized RV and volunteer with Mennonite Disaster Service by following the aftermath of floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Then he died.

I never planned on Taffy being a Therapy Dog. She was the high-spirited, strong-willed pup who flunked Puppy School. But, little by little, she passed her off-leash work, Canine Good Citizen Basic and Advanced, and the evaluation and certification for Pet Partners.

I believe that just as humans are created by their Maker for a purpose, dogs are created by their Maker for a purpose, too: herding, retrieving, guarding, serving, sensing illnesses and distress, alerting, cuddling, hunting, sniffing for bomb threats or avalanche victims. I have a purpose. Taffy has a purpose.

“… on the sixth day, God created animals…….And God saw it was good…(Genesis 1)

(First published in the (Kansas) Country Register, February/March 2018)

Text and photo @Naomi Gaede Penner

Grade-schoolers are so much like…..Grade-schoolers: 1950s or 2016



My friend Lisa Friesen Collins started out as a grade school Crossing Guard and then moved on to be an Educational Assistant for a kindergarten class. She continues to entertain us with posts on Facebook, which many of us think are blog-worthy. Here are a few:

Life as a Crossing Guard isn’t boring that’s for sure. Take away the rude drivers and I’m left with interestingly fun kiddos. I have the group of boys who run or bike as fast as they can to get to their destination; the boy who moves slower then molasses on a winters’ morning, but talks non-stop as he strolls across the street; and then the group of girls who slow down so they miss the light – so they can talk with me a bit longer. I’ve gotten attached to these kids. I love it.

Today, this little boy, probably first grade, came walking up to the corner in full cover. I said, “Wow Batman, you look awesome!” He answered, “My mom said I needed a light jacket, but this works better and I have a hat and mask!” Off he headed down the hill, bat ears flapping and cape flying. (With his mom not far behind, half embarrassed and half in hysterics!) I love this job!

Life as an Educational Assistant isn’t boring either.

Did I really just have to tell some first-grade boys, “Do not lick the monkey bar poles”? Funny – but wouldn’t have been funny had I not caught them in time.

What a fun day, making Christmas ornaments with kindergarteners. “Ms. Lisa, you can never have too much glitter!” That is so true sweetie! Nothing like glitter and glue and 12 kindergartener hands “helping” me.

File this under “Only In A Colorado School.” My daughter relayed this note-worthy exchange in her science class:

  • Student: “Ms. ______, have you ever looked at a marijuana leaf under a micro scope?”
  • Teacher: “No, can’t say that I have.”
  • Student: “I could bring some in from home so we could all look at it.”
  • Teacher: “Um, I’m not sure that’s legal so let’s not, but thanks for offering.”

My daughter to me: “Well, we all know what goes on at their house!”

And then there was the school dance:

  • Mrs. Collins!!!! Did you hear about the school dance party?
  • Yes, I did. Are you going?
  • Yes! Are you?
  • I don’t know, are you asking me to go to the dance with you?
  • (Silent big-eyed stare.)
Um, I though you were married already cause your kinda old.

Comments to kids today:

  1. No armpit tooting at school. I don’t care how funny it sounds, please stop.
  2. No, the field is not full of dog poo. Those are dirt clods from lawn aeration. (Explain what lawn aeration is. Repeated this at least 25 times.)
  3. STOP! No throwing dirt clods at each other! (Repeated this at least 25 times.)


And yet those cute, goofy, irritating, sometimes gross, kids fill my day with laughter and joy!

The above experiences are from 2015 and 2016, yet they are not that much different from Sharing Time in the kindergarten class in Valdez, Alaska, in 1954, as experienced by Anna Bortel:

“The children always surprised and delighted me with their revelations. One day, Penny shared. Her chair was next to mine, and she leaned against me, her blond curls tumbling upon her cherub face. ‘Go ahead,’ I whispered. Taking a deep breath, she asked her classmates, ‘Should three-year-olds still be wetting their pants?’ I stifled a laugh. Not a single child thought this was amusing and she and the other five-year-olds wrestled soberly with the issue; all the while she unconsciously reached over and played with the back of my hair. Then she turned to me, ‘Miss Bortel, what do you think?’ I felt the gentle spray of moisture on my face as she exhaled with each lisped word.

Another time, a boy explained that he awoke to find a longshoreman in bed with his mother. These small folks grappled with big issues, and unreservedly offered their opinions.

One fall day, a child carried a leaf to class and asked why the once green leaf was now yellow. Following a mini-lecture on frost, a boy piped up, ‘I hope Jack Frost doesn’t land on me and change my color.’ The earnest faces around me pondered that same thought.”

(Excerpt from ‘A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory, by Naomi Gaede Penner.)


  1. What were you like as a student? How are you still like that student?

2. What were your insecurities in school and/or weakness in specific subjects?

3. What games did you play at recess?

4. Who were your friends? Did you have many or few? What kind did you choose?

5. How can you connect to your child/grandchildren/special youngsters because of your    own experiences?

  • Note to educators and parents: the Reader’s Guides in the back of Naomi Gaede Penner’s Alaska books are perfect for book reports, grades 6 – 12.


(Published in The Country Register, Kansas, August/September 2016 issue)

All text is Copyright © Naomi Gaede-Penner. All Rights Reserved.

Harvest: From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra


Vintage combine - courtesy photo from Paul Penner, Past President of the National Association of Wheat Growers

Vintage Combine Photo:Vintage combine – courtesy photo from Paul Penner, Past President of the National Association of Wheat Growers

As a preschooler, harvest time on my Grandparent Leppke’s farm, outside Peabody, Kansas, was an annual ritual I never forgot, even when our family moved from Kansas wheat fields to Alaska tundra.

July brought golden-headed wheat and harvest time – and soaking humidity and 100 degree heat. The farmers waited, carefully watching for just the right time. For several days prior, Grandpa would drive out to each field, climb out of the his red 1951 Dodge truck, and walk out into the wheat. He’d snap a head or two from a stalk. In the palm of his hand, he’d rub the head in a circular motion to shell out the kernels and gently blow the chaff away. One by one he’d take each kernel into his mouth, biting his teeth against it, listening for a “pop” as he bit it in two. Even when the sound and feel were right, and even when the urge was to hurry and harvest, he’d combine a few bushels and take a coffee can full to the Co-op for a moisture test, hoping for less than 13 percent.

Family and friends worked together, returning to their home places if they had moved to the city. Even as a child, I could feel the adrenaline.

Grandpa, Dad, my older cousin, Dean, and young uncle Wilbur stumbled out of bed at 5:00 am. Before preparing equipment for the fields—greasing combine bearings, pumping gas into trucks, checking engine oil and checking for loose machinery belts—they downed thick, buttered slices of homemade bread and frosted cinnamon rolls, cereal and milk. After the dew dried, they climbed onto combines. A snack was taken to the field in the mornings, and then at noon, dinner was served there as well. At 4:00 pm, Grandma, Mom, and other full-skirted women relatives returned with “lunch,” carrying baskets of homemade cookies, cake, and donuts. Jars of tepid tea, ice already melted by the glaring sun, barely quenched the sweaty, straw-hatted workers’ thirst. And regardless of the Kansas summer heat, Grandpa preferred a jar of hot Postum, a “healthy” coffee substitute from the 1890s, made from powdered roasted grain.

Women weren’t merely servers of hospitality. They drove trucks alongside the combines, caught the reapings, and transported them to the grain Co-op in Aulne, four miles north of the farm. I sat beside Grandma on these runs. Hot, dry wind blew through the open windows, carrying dust, chaff, and occasional grasshoppers. All was well in my world as I sipped from a shared bottle of strawberry or orange soda pop.

 Exhausted, sweat-drenched men ended their day at 8:30 or 9:00 pm, when dew dampened the fields. Fried chicken or pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed peas, sliced cucumbers in vinegar dressing, and peach pie were eaten in the near silence of numb fatigue. Windows that had been shut in the morning to fend off heat and dust were pushed up, inviting any breeze to bring whatever coolness the night had. Grandma and Mom finished washing dishes as hard-shelled June bugs clung scratchily to screens and crackled underfoot outdoors. Crickets chirped while everyone collapsed into bed and fell immediately into dreamless sleep, too tired even to dread the alarm coming in five or six hours.

Headering Wheat - Oklahoma - Henry Gaede and Frank Janzen

Everyone worked anxiously with an eye to the sky, watching clouds, always vigilant for a weather change; for wind, rain, and hail are harvest’s bitter enemies. Days and nights blended together in fatigue. Depending on rain, muddy fields, and machinery breakdowns, harvest would last for three to four weeks.

Sunday was the only day of rest. No matter whether clouds boiled in the skies and threatened destruction, Grandpa and the other men put on crisp suits and ties, and Grandma and the women smoothed out wrinkles in their Sunday-best dresses to sit on hard pews in the motionless heat of un-air-conditioned buildings. Here, they lifted their voices to sing hymns, and then listened to sermons and prayed, always mindful of Who made the wheat grow and Who gave the harvest. I sat beside Grandma. Through these country church experiences that were mixed into the everydayness of life, my parents’ and grandparents’ trust in God soaked into me, watered deep by shared experiences, singing in harmony, putting coins in the offering plate, hearing familiar Bible stories, and echoing “Amens.”

Throughout my life, when our many moves threatened to unhinge my security, I revisited those early experiences, trying to find and feel those moments of stability, until eventually they became idealized.

Excerpt from “From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra: a Mennonite Family Finds Home.” Find and purchase Naomi’s Prescription for Adventure books, at www.prescriptionforadventure.com or by calling 303.506.6181.


Anna Bortel: A Teacher is Born – 3 (Bullies, Tragedies, and Inconveniences)


“With my ambivalent feelings about school, if anyone would have told me that I would become a school teacher, I wouldn’t have believed it. I didn’t care for school. To begin with, my older sister, Millie, was the studious one among us children, whereas my brother, David, and I were content to receive average grades. I did not like history or geography, but I did enjoy my classmates! Interestingly enough, as an adult, I enjoyed teaching geography and at home I constantly pulled out maps.”  Anna Bortel Church

School as an Inconvenience

At age five, Anna Bortel’s parents enrolled her in kindergarten on the campus of Bowling Green Normal school, a teacher-training school, now known as Bowling Green State University. Every afternoon, there was naptime on sundry colored pieces of carpet. “Why do we have to rest when we’re not tired?” She wondered.

Lying still was inconvenient when a myriad of other possibilities existed. Her eyes would run around the room as she waited for the slow clock hands to make twenty minutes pass. Then one day, she found a distraction: a silhouette. Jimmy, a rotund boy lay flat on his back with his legs outstretched. Sunlight streamed in from the windows and accentuated his high, round stomach. For the longest time, the mound remained absolutely still. Then he coughed. The shape heaved up and down, and the legs made sharp jumps. Time went by more quickly as she anticipated his next move.

School as a Tragedy

Anna frequently raised her hand when the teacher asked for a volunteer. One day this resulted in tragedy. It was her turn to clean the fish bowl that held a school of guppies, swimming merrily around in circles. Another student and Anna carefully carried the bowl to a dimly lit basement room. Brooms, mops, and cleaning supplies stood at their sides as they made their way towards a deep sink. Tipping the bowl on its side, they conscientiously held their hands over the lip as the water slowly flowed through their fingers.

When they refilled the bowl, Anna suddenly noticed in horror and exclaimed to my classmate, “There are only three fish left! What happened to the others?”

Sadly, they trudged back to the classroom. “What will we tell teacher?” Anna whispered. Tears filled her eyes. She felt sure she could never be trusted again.

Embarrassing Information Learned at School

One day when the Bortel family had guests for a noon meal, Anna seized the opportunity to share what she thought was a wonderful rhyme that a schoolmate had taught her. She proceeded to repeat,

Mary had an alarm clock

                        She swallowed it one day.

                        Now she’s taking castor oil

                        To pass the time away.

Grinning in delight, she looked around the table. No one laughed. Her parents looked down at the napkins on their laps, although muffled chuckles slipped out from their down-turned faces. Anna sensed something was wrong. Later, when they explained the purpose of taking castor oil, she understood her blunder.

 School and Bullies

Although Anna rode the school bus with David, and at times had stood behind him when fearful, she soon tackled life’s provocations on her own. For a number of days, she found herself confronted by Harry, a plump red-haired boy. Continuous wooden benches, worn smooth and shiny by years of transporting children, ran around the perimeter of the bus. Harry deliberately seated himself at the opposite end of the bench seat from where Anna always sat. Each school day, the scenario was the same. Harry smirked at Anna and gathered up all the force of his stout body. Planting his feet firmly on the floor and pushing off from the bench’s end, he would come blasting towards her. She braced herself, turned her back, and clung to the seat, hoping her fingers wouldn’t get stuck in the gum, commonly disposed of beneath it. Chortling, he would slam into Anna, pushing her toward the front of the bus.

At breakfast one morning, Anna told herself that this would be the last day for such humiliation. When Harry climbed onto the bus, she glared at him. He smirked. She prepared herself as he launched himself towards her. The human cannon ball gained speed. Anna’s heart throbbed in her ears. After the impact, Anna jumped up, grabbed his stringy red hair with one hand and pounded on his head with the other. His freckled face contorted in surprise. He winced. Anna turned red and breathless. When she finally released her grip, he meekly retreated to his spot near the back of the bus. Anna never had trouble with him again.

For years, Anna did have trouble with a guilty conscience for giving him such a beating, even though her take-charge spirit would come in handy when she beat on uncooperative oil stove fuel lines as a school teacher in Alaska.