When my mother was a child in Michigan it was a big deal to go even two miles to the nearest market, so when she and her cousin, Patty Jo, decided to bike to the nearest big city, six miles away, they thought they were on an epic adventure that even their grandchildren would talk about.
How could they have ever pictured one day living in a remote fishing village in Alaska with only about thirty residents and no roads, right on the edge of civilization? Talk about an epic adventure! Patty Jo was a single mother with two sons, Mark and Alex. My mom had five kids--I was only six, but my older, city cousins made a big impression on me and I never forgot them, Mark in particular who always looked out for little girls who could have gotten run over in the rough play my older brother and his pals indulged in.
To my delight, Mark recently left some wonderful comments on my blog and agreed to write a guest blog of his memories of my Grandpa Frank. And here it is. (My comments are in brackets.) Enjoy! Tara, A Daughter of the Walrus.
MARK'S GUEST BLOG:
I told Tara I'd write a little something about Uncle Frank. He was actually my mom's uncle and Tara's grandfather, but we always called him Uncle. I have no idea when Frank and his wife Pat moved to the Chuck [Meyers Chuck], but when my brother and I arrived on our first ever floatplane ride he was there to help us.
Now I'm telling bits of stories from nearly forty years ago so Tara can separate fact from fiction. Frank was a legit 7 foot 2 man [actually, either 6'4" or 6'6"] man with hands like bear paws. I think he was close to 70, and I was told that he was one of the old school Montana loggers back in the day with longsaws instead of chainsaws. If you ever saw his house in the Front Chuck--it was gorgeous and big with log beams that ran the full width of the house--you could never deny any of his logging abilities. He built the house!
"How'd you get the beams up there, Uncle Frank?" Soft chuckle...."I put 'em up there."
He really looked like Santa Claus and never once over several years did I hear him raise his voice. He was a gentle giant.
I caught my first king salmon with him which weighed out at 28 lbs. At nine years old I thought I was going to get pulled from the boat and begged him to help me. Each time he'd just chuckle, look me in the eye and say..."It isn't my fish." I love that now, knowing he made me fight for what was mine and I didn't need help. Holding up the salmon I could proudly say....I caught it.
Then there was his woodchopping ability. In the bush everybody helps each other out and wood is a giant commodity when there is no electricity. Alex and I chopped wood every day but it was hard for a young woman and two boys to keep up with. I can't remember who would bring us wood [Tara's dad], but when it comes it's still in the tree trunk, cylindrical shape [called rounds]. Maybe 2 1/2 x 1 1/2 feet? [Depends on the size of the tree, or log.] Slightly bigger than a 5 gallon bucket.
You roll them from the boat to the woodshed and when you begin to cut you use the back of the axe to hammer a wedge into the log, splitting it in two. Then you use the axe on the halves to split them into about three pieces a side producing six normal looking fireplace logs that I get around the corner here in Chicago.
Anyway, Frank comes over to help us catch up. From the start to finish with the wedge might take me 20 whacks at the wedge if hit clean, then another 20 minutes to bust out 6 logs. We had been told watching Frank chop wood was something else, so we were excited.
He taps the wedge into the log with the back of the axe head, so it's upright on its own, and with one hand smashes the wedge, spins the axe and two swings left and two swings right, chops the halves as they are falling!!
Never, never, never have I seen anything close to that since.
Me and Alex immediately wanted to become loggers so we could do it, too.
He does about 20 of those for us and takes off in the McKee Craft. I didn't even include how quick he'd turn a cut log into kindling. We were set for a month in a half hour, if that.
The last is just a story I was told with him in the room. When I looked at him he just chuckled and nodded. Good enough for me.
So the story went, and this was 30 years before eating hotdogs and garbage was all over TV, he and Pat went to a steakhouse where if you could finish the big 84 or 74 (I don't remember exactly, but a Fred Flinstone steak), your entire meal was on the house.
This is one of those stupid bets that takes 3 hours for some dumb, big guy to get the last 20 bites down while sweating over his plate and taking water breaks. Frank apparently calmly carved through it like a normal meal and asked for seconds!
I don't know how true it is but hearing he and Pat tell the story together and seeing the glimmer in his eyes as he nodded at me will be forever priceless. I hope Tara gets the picture of me and him up. Everyone should get a chance to see my Uncle Frank.
Those are my favorite memories. Just remember when you read these blogs of Tara's, they're being written by the granddaughter of Frank, one of the true original Alaska bushmen.
A silent, sanguinary foe gathers its reserves and grows into a mighty invasion force, striking in the heart of winter when least expected....
As kids we were accustomed to practically living in the water in the summertime, but not when an eerie, rusty sludge marred the clear water with long, bloody streaks and smeared the beaches with its sticky slime.
We knew that harvesting shellfish wasn't allowed then, either. Once inoffensive, tasty sea creatures were now poisonous. We heard adults talking about "toxic algae blooms," "lips going numb," "paralysis," "vomiting," "death."
One of my little brothers, growing up hearing this talk, said to someone who offered him a locally harvested shellfish dinner: "Forget it! You think I want to end up with ESP?"
He meant PSP: Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, which is caused by a toxin produced by a dinoflagellate (a tiny sea organism). Shellfish can digest them without harm, but when humans eat the infected shellfish the result can be deadly.
Some think that you can tell if clams, mussels, etc., are poisonous by holding one to your mouth and seeing if your lips go numb, but the truth is PSP symptoms only arise after the shellfish has entered the digestive tract (sypmtoms usually occur within thirty minutes after eating infected shellfish).
The dinoflagellate that causes PSP is similar to but not the same as the one that causes a red tide. PSP can be found in clams, mussles, etc., in Southeast Alaska at any time of the year, whether or not there's a red tide. On the other hand, the red tide is made up of algae which produce a harmful neurotoxin that can cause permanent illness and seizures that can result in death.
My grandfather told the story of being stuck on a boat far from help when the entire crew was crippled by shellfish poisoning. He was forced to watch one of his companions suffer a horrible death. After hearing that story my mom refused to harvest any clams or shellfish at any time of the year, which was perhaps just as well.
The menacing, undulating red skin on the sea has always fascinated me. In my mind, as a kid, the color tied it to a "rock opera" we used to listen to all the time we were growing up in the wilderness. It was Jeff Wayne's Version of The War of the Worlds based on H.G. Wells' Martian invasion story, narrated by Richard Burton. Our uncle Lance had recorded it onto cassette for us and it became such a part of our lives that we sang the songs from it is as we played in the woods and on the beach.
"No, Nathaniel, no." My sister and I harmonized the part of Beth who believed in possibilities for the future despite the Martian devastation. "There must be more to life/there has to be a way...."
My brothers, on the other hand, loved to imitate the murderous Martians' chilling war cry: "Ullaaah" to creep out my mom.
As the story progresses and the Martians take over Earth, the description of a charred, post-apocalyptic world fit well with what we saw around us: The burned down cannery buildings and twisted and mangled machinery bleeding its rust into a Martian red beach.
It sank so deep into our psyches from repeated listenings that I think it's why, in my oldest brother's trapping log when he was a teenager, he counted not how many marten he'd gotten, but, rather, in a Freudian slip, recorded: "I killed two more Martians today."
I do wonder what future historians would make of this trapping log with its specific and accurate description of the area. How could they not conclude that the Martian Invasion had occurred in the remote fastness of the Alaskan wilderness? And that a teenage boy had taken on the red planet warriors single-handedly.
The eerie factor to the red tide has grown in recent years. Ever since 2015 we've found that the days without red tide are now the exception.
It used to be a rule of thumb, that we grew up reciting at the same time we learned "A before E except after C," that the months with the letter R in them, the cold months, were safe from red tides.
Now the red tide is surging against the logs of my floathouse in the middle of winter. The pictures I took of the red tide to accompany this account were taken this month. Red tide in January! It would have been unimagineable when I was a kid.
Every time I look out my French door and see the sinister red swirls, I can't help thinking of a silent, stealthy army gathering in strength to take over the planet.
And I keep hearing Richard Burton's voice: "Across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded the earth with envious eyes...and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us."
In my column this week for www.capitalcityweekly.com I describe my chimney misadventures in a story titled "Procrastination Doesn't Pay." It will appear Wednesday the 18th of this month.
The above photo is a shot of the entrance to the little tidal bight where our floathouses are anchored. As you can probably tell, we won't be going anywhere any time soon. Which means we can't get more fuel for our generator. We're rationing gas, and only running the generator two hours a day, which doesn't really allow anything to charge fully, including my brand new tablet! So my online presence will be limited until we can fuel up again.
I want to thank my sister Megan for putting up the last message (the beautiful photo is one of her own and shows her artist's eye), my brother Robin for taking time out of his busy job at the shipyard to get the new tablet programmed and sent out to me, my brother Jamie for intercepting it when it was almost, accidentally, shipped back to Ketchikan, and my parents for making it possible for me to get a new tablet before I'd planned.
And thanks to my readers for being patient, and everyone who left encouraging and supportive comments. I appreciate them very much!
We've hit winter, there's no doubt of it, and the cold has been a beast. No running water! That's never fun. In addition, my wood stove decided to act up. I wound up climbing onto the roof to clean the chimney, which turned out to be problematical when we found rot in the ladder that lies on the roof, that I had to climb and stand on. I'll also have to repair the stove since it has a crack in the back of it. Nothing like having your back door wide open to air smoke out of your house when the temperature is in the low twenties.
In other news, good this time, Mary Catherine Martin, managing editor of a Juneau-based paper called Capital City Weekly, just hired me to do a column based on my blog. The first column comes out the first week of 2017, on the fourth. (www.capitalcityweekly.com). It has some original content not found on my blog, including why I'm called "A Daughter of the Walrus."
I intend to continue with original posts here on my blog, too, as soon as we get more fuel. Thank you again, everyone, for sticking with me.
P.S. I was walking up the frozen beach and found this odd creature. It's transparent like a jellyfish, but with two little fins instead of stingers. And it's pretty much all mouth and stomach (with an undigest bullhead in it). I've never seen anything like it wash up on the beach before. Does anyone know what it is? Incidentally, the discolored band around it is where my hand held it.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)