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.” .”

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

p2632583707-o460419907-3 copy

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 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.


Anna Bortel: A Teacher is Born – 2

Chapter Two

Anna wagon

David, Anna, Millie Bortel

When Anna was four, her parents built a house on an acre of ground on Napoleon Road, at the southeast edge of town. They felt this would be a better place to raise their three children. Anna cherished the two-story, yellow frame house with a broad porch across the front and shutterless windows. This house with four bedrooms, an attic, a basement, and a two-car garage was built for $5,000 in 1927.

House - doc size

House on Napoleon Road

Delicate white-flowered spirea bushes clumped beside the house and all along the front and side yards. In the springtime, Anna would scamper across the driveway and out by the ditch to pick white and pink- flowering spring beauties. The sprawling green lawn was a wonderful place to play, and after supper on pleasant summer evenings, David, Millie, and Anna would beg their mother to wait to do dishes so they could play baseball while it was still light. Each time, their mother would tolerantly agree; then, instead of waiting for their help, she would wash and dry the dishes before the lengthening day’s-end shadows pushed the children back into the house.

Millie and Anna shared a bedroom upstairs. Their father had used his decorating skills and painted a double oak bed with pink enamel. Going beyond the basics, he put decals on the headboard, with a fluffy, white rabbit over Anna’s side and a bushy-tailed squirrel over Millie’s. In this bed, the sisters would talk about the day’s events, laugh, and share their hopes. Before snuggling under the soft blankets, Millie would say to Anna, “If I’ve said or done anything to you that is wrong today, please forgive me.” In return, Anna would ask her sister’s forgiveness. Even at these young ages, they practiced the principle of “Do not let the sun go down upon your wrath.” Before saying “good night,” they would take out their treasured chewing gum and deposit the wads on their individual flat bedposts.

Their brother’s room held an air of mystery. David’s edict of “NO TRESPASSING BY SISTERS” set the stage for their fascination. Anna would put her eye to the keyhole in the door of his room. Trains dominated his attention. Railroad timetables and paperwork, made out by brakemen in a real train caboose, lay fastidiously sorted on his desk in his make-believe railroad office. He’d collected these treasures from his friends, the railroad men who stopped on the pullout near the Bortel house, while waiting for another train to pass. Anna’s eyes moved to the wall by his bed where he had a special light switch. David had fixed a block signal, such as one would see at a railroad station, on the airing deck outside his second-story room. The train engineers were aware of his block signal with red, amber, and green lights, and when a train clattered by at night, awakening David, he would flick the switch on and off and the engineers would “toot” back a greeting.

When David was thirteen, an congenial engineer invited him to put a big locomotive into action. The family sat around the dinner table listening spellbound as he elaborated on the grand event.

“I pulled 100 cars!” he burst out. “The crew was amazed when I released the air brakes, backed to take up the slack, and put on the sanders and started forward.” The baked chicken and mashed potatoes sat untouched on his plate as he continued. “Firing up the boilers came natural to me.”

Along with his room, David also put his bike off-limits to his sisters. One summer when he spent two weeks on Uncle Newman’s farm, Anna decided it would be her golden opportunity to learn how to ride a bike. David would not have to know she’d borrowed his. Up and down the hard-packed graveled driveway she practiced. After some tumbles, and fighting the frame bar that extended from the seat to the handlebars, she felt brave enough to venture out onto the road. Traffic was not heavy on the paved road and she relished the feel of wind playing in her short bobbed hair.

After she accomplished her goal, her father heard the stuck-in-a-rut tune of “Won’t you please get Millie and me a bike?” One afternoon while helping her mother can cherries in the basement, her father’s voice boomed down the stairs, “Come quick! Look at this Blue Racer!”

They flew up the steps, thinking there must be a snake outside. But, instead, there was a beautiful new blue bicycle!   Anna jumped up and down, hugged her father, and shouted, “A bike! A bike!” No more riding David’s boy’s bike anymore. She and Millie had a wonderful girl’s bike.


 When the corn stood ripe in the field with golden-brown silk, Anna and two neighbor children decided to try their hand at roll-your-own cigarettes.

“I can find matches and newspaper in the kitchen,” Anna volunteered. “Then let’s climb up on the building behind the garage.”

They took along newspaper, and carefully formed cigarettes with corn silk from the adjoining cornfield. Furtively, they lit their clumsy rolls, coughed and sputtered.

“Anna! Come down at once.” Anna’s father’s firm voice interrupted their concentration.

The children looked at each other in astonishment. How did he know they were up there? Smashing out cigarettes, they climbed quickly off the hot, rough roof. Instead of delivering the anticipated lecture on smoking, they heard about the concern over fire and the safety of the buildings. This was the beginning and ending of Anna’s smoking habit.


 Anna thrived on relationships and social life. She and her best friend, Betty Smith, played house with their dolls beneath the back porch. Other days, they shaped mud into pies, and decorated them with ripe red seeds from the asparagus bed. Mud felt good between their toes, too. On very hot days, the tar would come up on the asphalt road in front of Anna’s house, and they’d take off their shoes to squash the tar bubbles with their big toes.   After amusing themselves for a while, they’d go to Anna’s house where her mother would clean their feet with old rags and turpentine. In late summer, the two girls would scratch their legs and arms climbing the prickly thorn apple tree. The bumps and bruises didn’t thwart Anna’s explorations and adventures.


 Growing up in the Depression did not adversely affect the Bortel family, but made an impression in other ways. For example, it wasn’t uncommon to hear a rap at their back door. Anna would peer out the window and see a “hobo.” Her father tried to explain the “Depression,” and why men were out of work. The Bortel house, 500 feet from the New York Central Railroad tracks, seemed to be marked as a charitable stop. This was no surprise. Mildred Bortel would always offer the strangers a tasty plate of leftover meat, potatoes, and a thick piece of homemade bread. The ragged men with despairing eyes would slump on the cement step between the house and the garage, and quickly and quietly fill their empty stomachs.

One time as Anna stood curiously, but safely behind David, she noticed a hobo’s toes poking out of his shoes that were tied onto his feet with frayed cords.  “Wait here on the steps,” Mildred instructed the tattered man.

Within a few moments, she was back with an extra pair of her husband’s footwear. Truly, she took to heart and demonstrated, Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. . .” Before she sent the men on their way, she would hand them Christian literature as food for their souls; sometimes a religious magazine, a Sunday School paper, or a story tract.

Excerpts from “’A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory” and “’A’ is for Anaktuvuk: Teacher to the Nunamiut Eskimos.” 

All text is Copyright © Naomi Gaede-Penner. All Rights Reserved.  All photos are Copyright@Anna Bortel Church. All rights Reserved. 



Anna Bortel: A Teacher is Born


Chapter One

            On May 10, 1923, a warm spring day with blooming white spirea bushes and fragrant purple lilacs, Anna Marie Bortel was born to Clifford and Myrtle Crosby Bortel in Grand Rapids, Ohio, a small, quiet river town. On that day, Clifford, who worked as an exterior and interior decorator, was wallpapering in a farmhouse across the Maumee River. With his wife’s imminent delivery due date, he made an unplanned trip home for lunch in his black Model T Ford. Myrtle, tall and usually slender, was indeed heavy with child, but showed no symptoms of the grand event. Clifford hastily downed a bologna sandwich, cranked up the Ford, and sped back to wallpapering.

The wallpaper paste was barely mixed when he received a phone call. “Come home right away!” urged Myrtle. “I’ll call Dr. Drake and my mother.”

Clifford hopped into his Model T and careened into the driveway in less than the anticipated twenty minutes of driving time. As was the custom in those days, rather than rushing to the hospital, Dr. Drake made a house call, and around 3:00 PM, ushered Anna into this wonderful world.

“Her name is Anna Marie,” the new child’s mother matter-of-factly informed Dr. Drake. Grandma Anna Crosby proudly held her namesake in her arms.

After assisting in this miracle of birth, Grandma Crosby took Anna’s three-year-old brother, David, and sixteen month-old sister, Mildred, home with her to allow the new mother to regain her strength and concentrate on her newborn’s needs. Actually, Mildred, already pensive and shy, posed no problem, but David, an explosion of energy, would have depleted the new mother’s energy reserve.


            During these times, bread sold for 9¢ a pound and milk for 56¢ a gallon. A new Ford cost $295. Gas to run it was 22¢ a gallon. Whooping cough and tetanus vaccines came into existence; however, they must not have been widely used since later all three children contracted whooping cough.

President Harding held office and just that year he had pounded a ceremonial spike into the ground to complete the Alaskan Interior rail line. Weakened by the tour to Alaska, yet ill for only a week, the fifty-seven-year-old president shocked the nation when he died on August 2, 1923.   Subsequently, Vice-President Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as President of the United States, a nation whose population had grown to 111,947,000.


            Living with an older brother and sister had its hazards. One day while talking on the phone, Myrtle heard a clinking sound coming from baby Anna’s mouth.

“Helen, I will need to call you back,” she said, quickly concluding her conversation. Normally a soft-spoken woman, Myrtle sternly inquired, “What’s going on here?” She then spotted the open button box. Upon investigation, she discovered that David and Millie had fed the baby, buttons.

“Anna likes them,” explained David, his brown eyes wide. Millie patted Anna’s stomach with her pudgy hands. And, so in this and other less risky ways, they enjoyed caring for their bald-headed baby sister.

When Anna was six months old, her father was offered a partnership by Mr. Long, an elderly man who owned a wallpaper and paint store in Bowling Green, a larger town about sixteen miles east of Grand Rapids. Consequently, the family left their little town with its beautiful dam and old flourmill, and purchased a home on North Prospect Street, about a mile north of the store. The Grand Rapids house was rented for $2.00 a month; later when Clifford raised the rent to $2.50, the renters moved out.

Excerpts from “’A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory” and “’A’ is for Anaktuvuk: Teacher to the Nunamiut Eskimos.”

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

You’ll Find Her in the Garden

Mom and Windmill

Mom with a windmill reminder of her Kansas farm roots.


I can see my mother in the garden, with red bow in her silver, knotted hair; hoe in hand, her skirt fluttering in the gentle breeze. A garden hose stretches taut along the dusty driveway to the garden where potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, and frilly leaf lettuce have optimal growing conditions. Root crops grow well in Alaska’s sandy soil. However, even with fertile silt and a tall fence to keep out salad-seeking moose, the vegetables must mature quickly; the frost-free season between early June and mid to late August is much too short to unhurriedly bask in the midnight sun.

Ruby Leppke Gaede’s roots originated in the wheat fields of Kansas, where she was accustomed to sticky summer heat, waving fields of grain, and a sun that leisurely settled at the end of the plains. What a shock to transplant her to Alaska, where she’d followed my father with his medical practice in 1955.

GGaede w Mark in Garden by Hospt naomi80-R1-E023

Grandma Agnes Gaede/Mark Gaede in the Garden by the Tanana (Alaska) Native Services Hospital

In the village of Tanana, along the Yukon River, she staked out a garden. Sweet peas in a myriad of brilliant colors intertwined in the wire fence surrounding the garden. Potatoes, cabbage and carrots sprouted within these confines. She tried tomatoes. The Athabascan Indians laughed! The abbreviated summer culminated her hopes in an early harvest, and she was left with green tomatoes and frost-wilted vines.

A brief year’s relocation to California in 1960, allowed her warm weather crops to flourished. Her appetite for fresh produce extended to the peach and mulberry trees in our backyard, as well as the plethora of fruit stands in the San Joaquin Valley. After years of Alaska canned fruit and vegetables, she was in the Land of Milk and Honey, or at least of watermelons, apricots, and plums.

In 1961, my father accepted an offer on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. This time, she settled onto an 80-acre homestead. After hand-clearing 10 acres with my father for an airstrip, Mom planted a garden. The contest was not only with the diminished growing season, but also with the ever-encroaching grass, chickweed, horsetails, and other persistent natural vegetation.

Garden beside by chicken coop

Moose-protected Garden near the Chicken Coop on our Gaede-80 Homestead

The gardening tradition sprung forth in her children. My mother stored seed potatoes beneath the basement stairs. In spring they’d go wild, sprouting like octopus.   Mom would cut the potatoes into chunks, each with an “eye.” Mark, my little brother, fascinated by this basic level of horticulture, would tag along after her. He’d grab some potatoes, then enthusiastically and randomly dig holes around the driveway, much like an Alaskan Johnny Appleseed. Potato plants sprouted in the oddest locations, which was a source of delight for Mark.

Even when a plant yielded massive potatoes in the favorite cat litter area, Mom forbade him from ever planting there again.

Over the years, my sister, Ruth, has remained on the homestead. At one time, she had a designer garden with burgundy, periwinkle, and white Bachelor Buttons playing in the fence; and strawberries growing in careful rows. Delicate purple Violas bookended the lacey carrot-topped rows. She tried peas, which scarcely developed peas in the pods before the Alaskan growing season skidded to a halt.

It’s been twenty-five years since Mom died. The rotted log fence around the garden has long ago been dismantled. My siblings nudge me into reality. Mishal corrects the facts, telling me that in the beginning Mom didn’t wear skirts; instead, she tucked blue jeans into tall, black rubber boots, and wore rubber gloves. Mark says that carrots weren’t always plump and crisp, and that radishes were wormy.

Nevertheless, sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I see my mother chopping the chickweed, pulling closed the cauliflower leaves, and thinning out the carrots – in a billowy skirt and a red bow in her hair.

Cabbage in wheel barrow

A fact: Mom DID grow huge cabbage — enough for many servings of borscht!


(Adapted from first printing in The Peninsula Clarion, May 2001.)

(Published in The Country Register, Kansas, May/June 2016 issue)

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