My mom always read us books when we were kids: The Hobbit, Anne of Green Gables, The Five Peppers, Louis L'Amour's Down the Long Hills, and so on. Many children, of course, have this experience and it's a wonderful one. But my mom went one step further. She wrote a story that we all, including our cousin Shawn who visited every summer, had a starring part in. She titled it, "The Wanigan Kids" and it was, by far, our favorite story to have read and re-read to us.
A wanigan, in SE Alaska, is a small (usually one room with a loft) cabin built on a float. The wanigan in the story was a real one that my grandfather had built for him and my grandmother to live in while they built their house on land in the village. My sister Megan, who turned five years old after we moved to Alaska, had her kindergarten lessons in the wanigan, taught by our grandmother.
All of us kids loved to play around the small, floating cabin. In the story my mom wrote, all of us kids were in the wanigan, with our "rescue dog" Laddie (our Uncle Lance's dog that we loved), napping, when an unusually high tide and strong wind tore the wanigan free of its mooring lines. And just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, when we woke up we were far away from home and about to have some exciting adventures.
Little did we know that one day this story would more or less come true.
When my brothers were old enough to start school, my dad and my Uncle Lance built a one room home school for the five of us kids. Lance, barely out of school himself, tutored us for a while, as did a close family friend, and a couple who came to try out bush living, but then moved on. We older kids had no problem with school on our own, even with little supervision, but my little brothers, who'd had zero experience with what was involved, flat out refused to learn. My mom tried everything and became more and more concerned when they made no progress.
That's when she and my dad decided to tow the wanigan, which had become ours after my grandparents moved into their new house, to the nearby village where there was a school with eight kids, all grades. My mom and the four of us youngest kids would live with her in the wanigan and finish out the school year in the village, while my oldest brother stayed behind with my dad to keep things going at home.
The wanigan, up to that point, had been our first home school, guest house, and wash house. It used to be filled with steam from clothes hanging on the line while we had our baths below in a tin washtub filled with water heated on the barrel woodstove. The cabin itself was only ten feet by fourteen feet--not much bigger than some bathrooms. It had a fairly good sized porch that was stocked with firewood. One end of the room had a brief, built in kitchen counter and sink without a faucet. (We used rainwater, or hauled water from a nearby creek.) There was a small table against one wall, a couch that my mom slept on, the woodstove, and the loft where all four of us kids slept, wedged in tight. On the back deck, reaching by a sliding wood door, was the outhouse and outdoor shower. In addition to the five of us living in such tight quarters, we had my high strung Cocker Spaniel, Lady, with us.
We were all set to have our first experience with a "real" school.
On her own again, my mom dealt with the inevitable village feuding and getting accustomed to parent/teacher meetings while being a single parent to four kids who were adapting to a larger social scene.
Her biggest problem was the lack of discipline or even learning at school. I remember very well my first day of school after we moved in the wanigan. We walked into the high-beamed school in time to see kids jumping off the upstairs loft railing onto piles of bean bags below. Sometimes the bean bags exploded. No one seemed to care. The kids had also tied a rope around one of the beams and used it to swing from one end of the school to the other, their feet landing on the chalkboard and leaving chalky prints behind. They ran around shrieking and laughing and throwing things at each other.
My little brothers were enthralled. So this was what school was about! No problem, they could excel at this kind of untrammeled chaos. The teacher in question didn't seem to have a clue how to teach one grade, let alone all grades. Since my sister and I were far ahead of the other kids through our love of reading, we were often assigned to do the actual teaching to the younger kids and even our peers. My grandmother, who was the teacher's aide, became the de facto adult in charge and also did most of the teaching.
My mom spent much of the school year trying to get the teacher to actually teach so that the move would be justified.
But I'll write about our school adventures another time. For now, what I remember most about those wanigan days was reading Zane Grey novels at the tiny table by kerosene light, listening to music on a tiny, battery-powered tape deck. One night, my youngest brother Chris, who has the highest pain tolerance on earth (he fell asleep once while being drilled on in the dentist chair), had a terrible earache. For him to cry because of pain was extremely alarming. My mom got the flashlight out and made the long trek through the dark, spooky woods to the telphone on a tree at the other end of the village to call a doctor and find out what could be done. I held Chris on the couch and told him stories and sang until I was hoarse. Every time I'd quit he'd get restless and whimper and I'd come up with another story. It was frightening for all of us kids, since we never got sick, but happily, Chris recovered quickly.
My dog, Lady, was extreme in her affections toward me and couldn't stand for me to be out of her sight. My mom had to give her a lot of attention to make up for the hours when I was in school. One day my mom went to visit someone and locked Lady in the wanigan. Shortly afterwards Lady tracked me to school. She stood outside the door and howled and barked hysterically until the teacher let me go to her and calm her down. It wasn't until my mom came to get her and take her back to the wanigan that it was discovered that she'd torn the couch to shreds in her fury at being left behind and had jumped through the window over the sink to make her escape. We learned to never leave her alone.
Another time the school had a punk rock/school spirit day where we were all supposed to dress as outlandishly as possible for the day. My mom had a field day with me, dying my long blond hair bright red with food coloring, using tin foil for adornment, a garbage bag for a skirt, a dog collar for a necklace and, of course, my knee high rubber boots to complete the picture. There was a prize for the one voted most "punked out" given by a school officila who'd flown in by floatplane from Ketchikan to do the honors. I won handily. It was a puzzling moment in my life, to be awarded by school officials for a sort of anarchy against school discipline, but I went with it.
We had skunk cabbage fights in the woods, kelp fights down on the dock, spitball wars and paper airplane wars in school. We raided the apple orchard that was on the way to school and got belly aches. In other words, we found out exactly what we'd been missing by not going to a "real" school before this. As to progress in school learning, that was virtually non-existent--though we did learn some nifty computer games--despite all of my mom's efforts with the teacher.
Even after we'd had our real life wanigan adventure, and towed the wanigan back home at the end of the school year, we never tired of my mom reading us "The Wanigan Kids" story that she'd written for us years before.
Photos: 1., The wanigan when my grandparents lived in it. My oldest brother is sitting on its side deck, my sister and I are on the log beside it. We loved playing around it. 2., My sister Megan having her kindergarten lessons with my grandmother in the wanigan. 3., My sister won a statewide school art contest with this colored pencil drawing of the wanigan. 4., Me in punk rock attire standing on the back deck of the wanigan. 5., The wanigan.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)