What's two thousand plus air miles when your only sister is getting married? Let's just leave aside her questionable decision to abandon Alaska for Florida's sunnier climes. Family loyalty outweighed lame-o life choices.
That was why, although none of us had ever had a burning desire to visit the Orlando suburbs a good portion of our Alaskan extended family headed south to my sister Megan's wedding.
My second youngest brother Robin and I shared a companion ticket and were among the first to head south, leading the Alaskan invasion of Florida.
Our jet left Ketchikan for Seattle on Thanksgiving Day, which meant there weren't a lot of lines and no waiting--but it also meant the people manning the Alaska Airlines desk didn't know what they were doing. They sent Robin and me to the wrong terminal, to catch our plane to Phoenix, three times. On the third time some kind security personnel stopped us and directed us to the correct terminal. By then we had only minutes to catch our flight and we ran through the airport in a pre-9-11 sprint. On our dash toward the open door of the jet, a flight attendant slapped a boxed Thanksgiving dinner into our hands and we skidded into our seats moments before the attendants went into their safety spiel.
That night we landed in Phoenix, but the people we were to stay with (friends of our aunt and uncle, Shirley and Herb), weren't there. We tried calling them, but got no answer, and were just figuring to spend the night in the airport, which was practically empty, when it was announced that there'd been a bomb threat and the airport was closing.
The friends finally showed up--there'd been some kind of mix-up in our meeting instructions--and they lavished friendly interest on us and took us to their home for the night, and the next day, on the way to the aiport, gave us the fast, fast tour of Phoenix.
So far it was quite an acceptable adventure for two kids in their twenties from the bush.
But that was nothing. On our first drive on Floridian soil, on the Interstate, we passed the scene of a drive-by shooting.
Welcome to Florida.
MEGAN'S MEMORIES: One thing I do remember that stuck with me was Dad and Robin fluffing out the tulle and flowers that Cousin Pam let me use for decorations. We had them hanging from the railing on the back porch and they were all squished and needed to be fluffed, and here are these two macho Alaskan bush men fluffing flowers, ha,ha!!
And how it truly was a family affair, we didn't have any friends at all, just family from Florida, Alaska, Michigan, etc. and everyone pitched in to help. Pam made my gorgeous three tier cake, and provided the decorations that she had made for her own daughter Heather's wedding just a few months prior. Jody [an Alaskan cousin] took all the pictures, Mom did my hair, and of course everyone brought a potluck dish. Aroon [her daughter] was my little flower girl and Erik [her stepson] the ring bearer.
What I remember was stepping into my sister's beautiful home that she and Rob, her Jamaican/Irish fiance had built, and seeing the most gorgeous wall murals, one of a waterfall in the entranceway and the other of a sunset on the sea over the fireplace, that Megan had painted.
It was good to see that, despite her busy life and romance, she was making time for her art.
Of course the Alaskans wanted to do two things while we were there, right away. One was to hit the beach and the other was to do some shopping--the prices and selection were unheard of in Alaska.
Going to the beach was our first priority, we couldn't wait to wade into the warm waters and luxuriate in miles of sandy beach. But first we had to get there. With us were my Uncle Rory and Aunt Marion and their two daughters LeAnn and JoDean (Jody), who had always been a part of our life in the bush. Even when they moved to Ketchikan, they were always a part of our life and hosted Megan and me for a few years of city high school experience (two years for Megan, one for me) and helped fund Megan through college.
Before our invasion of Florida most of my family had been at Rory and Marion's and we'd watched Trains, Planes and Automobiles, laughing our way through the story of Thanksgiving travel gone horribly awry. We always loved quoting from movies and one favorite quote was when John Candy and Steven Martin ended up driving on the wrong side of the highway directly into oncoming traffic without knowing it and some friendly motorists on the right side tried to tell them they were going the wrong way. We loved to quote Steve Martin, "How do they know what way we're going?" And imitate John Candy's miming of tilting back the bottle and smirking at the helpful motorists.
Well, Megan and Rob set it up with us to meet up at the beach and gave Rory, who was driving, instructions on how to get there. But halfway there someone remembered that they'd forgotten something at the hotel. Rory turned back and we passed Rob and Megan as they headed for the beach.
Rob yelled across to us: "You're going the wrong way!"
Everyone in the packed car yelled, on cue, "How do they know what way we're going?"
Marion, in the front passenger seat, mimed drinking.
MEGAN'S MEMORIES: And who can forget the driving the "wrong way" fiasco? Rob REALLY must have thought my family was as cuckoo as they come, his first introduction. He didn't say much, but for awhile after we passed you...going the wrong way...he didn't say anything, just had this strange confused look on his face, like...What have I gotten myself into?
Meanwhile, after we finally met up at the beach and indulged ourselves in the extremely uncrowded warm waters, having the beach almost entirely to ourselves, we finally went shopping. And found that we were famous. Everywhere we went we heard the local Floridians, bundled up in their winter coats, talking about the crazy Alaskans who'd gone swimming when it was only 70 degrees out!
We also went to a reptile farm, bought gator jerky, and my cousin Jody, who was terrified of snakes, was picked out of the tiny crowd of mostly Alaskans, by the snake handler, to get close and friendly with a long, scaly reptile--which promptly got sick on Jody.
I was carrying my niece Aroon and while we were on a bridge looking down into a sluggish pond where baby gators were bred, I perched Aroon on the rail to give my arms a break. Rob immediately relieved me of my babysitting chores--apparently he didn't trust the Alaskan aunt to keep the kid out of the alligator pit...of course this was directly after the "Wrong Way" incident, so perhaps he had reasons for his doubts....
MEGAN'S MEMORIES: I remember the day before the wedding we had to go to the mall and Rory drove (why, I don't know!) he handled the traffic like a champ, although the parking lots were full and the traffic was insane---it was around Thanksgiving, after all!
We stopped at a party supply store and got paper plates for the dinner portion and tiny plates for the desert plates. But, when it came time to eat the cake at the wedding, no one could find the desert plates! We all swore we remembered getting them, but they were gone and Rory ended up volunteering to run up to the store to get some more. I have such a nice, generous family!
Rob, whatever doubts he may have harbored, arranged for his prospective in-laws to have an airboat ride on the St. James River, which all of us enjoyed. It was wonderful to get away from the world of people and be on the water again, though the airboat was noisier than any boat we'd ever been on. Also, we saw cattle standing knee or belly deep in the river--something we hadn't seen from a boat before.
The wedding day was gorgeous as family began showing up and reuniting and meeting for the first time. Marion, who'd grown up in the remote bush with five brothers, and had been a successful commercial fisherwoman most of her life, hit it off with Rob's sophisticated Italian sister-in-law, Maria, taking the European cheek-kissing in her stride.
The ceremony took place in the backyard, chairs lined up to form an aisle, lined with flowers that the guys had more precisely than artistically arranged.
My dad walked Megan up the aisle as we all looked on and Jody took pictures. Megan wore a classy white suit, while Rob, waiting with his Aunt Mitzy who was conducting the ceremony, wore black slacks and a white dress suit.
Aroon and Erik despatched their duties with aplomb, Megan and Rob said their vows, kissed, and it was on to the cake!
A cousin who worked for Disneyworld Park management, arranged for us to get in at a discount. Some of us spent time in Disneyworld, but all of us ended up at Epcott.
Since it was around Thanksgiving the place was not crowded and we never had to stand in line. On the other hand, some rides and areas were closed. And the rides that were running sometimes broke down.
We were all in one ride, inside the famous Epcott "Golf Ball," when it came to a halt in a dark passage. Workers ran to and fro with flashlights trying to find the problem and fix it. Rory, several cars back, suddenly gave a crow call.
I called back.
This sent the workers mad. Not only did they have to fix the ride, but a flock of crows was trapped in there somewhere.
We tried to eat our way Around the World, but our stomachs and wallets weren't up to the challenge--though I think Robin and Jody came close to pulling it off.
I loved the odd, B-movie world of the sets, everything made of plastic and foam, mimicking the real thing. We wandered from Italian steps to cobblestoned England, to a Japanese pavilion. We stopped in Germany, Mexico, Morroco and finally--it was full night by then and the faux-countries seemed more real, less plastic--we reached Canada, which brought on a wee sense of homesickness.
We'd all wandered the world, splitting up, to finally meet up again to watch the fireworks display. The Alaskan family had come to Florida, and may not have conquered, but we'd seen one of our own married, braved the beach, fended off gators and sick snakes, and stood now watching the fireworks celebrate our adventures.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)