I remember vividly how long it took to graduate from twelve years of public school. And the three years that followed, until I turned twenty-one, seemed to take as long as all the previous years. There is something magical about twenty-one apparently, because time then speeds up, increasing incrementally throughout the years until one day you wake up and find yourself eligible for Social Security and Medicare and you ask, “How the blazes did this happen?”
Forty-four years ago (gasp!), when I was twenty-three, I quit my white-collar work in Anchorage and moved thirty-six road miles south along Turnagain Arm to a small village called Girdwood. Once a bustling placer mining settlement, Girdwood in 1965 was then the site of a fledgling ski resort called Alyeska. At that time, the permanent population of Girdwood was about a hundred people, with almost as many dogs.
A part-time weekend job working for Werner, who held the only food concession available at the lodge, expanded into full time work, and very soon I found myself his breakfast cook. While happy to be out of the “big city” (Anchorage, pop. about 102,000), I was also very worried about being able to support myself. Included in my luggage in the move to Girdwood were a number of unpaid bills, most of which had to do with my inability to stay out of book stores and the discovery that I could buy books by mail. I began a concerted effort to pay off those bills as quickly as possible, and took on another job as part of that effort.
That part time job was at a restaurant-bar called the Double Musky, located across the valley from the ski resort. Every Wednesday and Saturday nights, I cooked sirloin steaks over charcoal in the fireplace, and on Sunday afternoons, I helped prepare a buffet. At that time the owners were Julian and Catherine . Living in an eight by twelve foot shack with no water or plumbing and allowing myself only twenty or thirty dollars to live on a month, my bills were soon paid off.
L-R: Carlene, Julian, Gullible
A week ago I was in Tacoma visiting with a girlfriend from those long ago days. We hopped on a public transit bus for Snohomish, Washington, which is about an hour north of Seattle. A phone call and a short ride later, we were on the deck of Julian’s home to celebrate his eightieth birthday. Now remarried to a lady named Ruth, he lives in a semi-rural area with three goats for lawn mowers.
As with most of my friends from those days, he has opted for the same hair color as the rest of us, but little else has changed with Julian. He has the same happy-go-lucky sense of humor, booming voice, and never-met-a-stranger attitude. One of the guests, in fact, was a young man working in communications that Julian had just met and dragged to his party.
Some other Alaskans were there, too. Polka Dan, who long-ago had kept us all dancing polkas and waltzes and Schottisches at the Musky, as we called it, sat in the gentle sunshine of early evening, played an antique concertina and swept us back in time more than forty years.
Mike's cioppino with an Alaskan flavor
Mike from Alaska brewed up a huge pot of cioppino, a fish stew derived from Italian cuisine, but added an Alaskan flavor with halibut, spot shrimp, steamer clams, and red king crab. Served with slices of garlic bread topped with Parmesan cheese, we ate while seated on a warm sunny deck as the goats mowed the lawn or dozed on a shed roof. Surrounded by Julian’s old and new friends, and listening to his outright, bald-faced, shameless lies about me when I worked for him, I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate his milestone birthday.
One of the lawn mowers taking a break
Those lies? It was my mission, back in those days of cooking sirloin steaks over charcoal in the Double Musky’s fireplace, to wean my friends off of “well done” and closer to “medium rare.” One night, claims Julian, someone ordered a well done steak. As the story goes, I stood up, handed the cooking fork to the customer, and told him to cook it himself if he wanted it well done. That’s Julian’s version of the story, and he loves it.
I have my doubts about its veracity, thinking it must have been said to a good friend IF I said it at all, but in honor of a long-time friend who just turned eighty, I’ll let him tell it his way.
Three days after Julian’s party it was time for me to head to Sea-Tac for the flight back to Alaska. The fifteen days I had been away seemed like months, and it took a while to realize why. In those fifteen days, I had crammed in so many adventures and activities that time had slowed way, way down—crept along like a snail on Prozac as a writing instructor of mine once said. It’s a clue, a lead, as the detectives say, to this mystery of time.
In two short weeks, I had visited with my brother and his family, met my new grand-niece, learned from my nephew about making wines in Walla Walla, sipped the finest rose´ I have ever had and not only because it was from my nephew's new winery...
...photographed historic buildings in that old gold rush town...
...and gasped as a huge sea lion surfaced next to the small boat I was on, apparently as startled as we were.
I’m not done yet.
(Miller Brewing company can't sell Red Dog beer in Alaska because this saloon has the name registered.)
I visited the old underground city of Seattle, ate Thai and Indian cuisine for the first time, visited the Almond Roca outlet store, ate and fell in love with naan, visited with several friends from long ago who remain close friends today, sat with my brother drinking Stella beer and eating hummus on pita chips as my nephew poured samples of his new wines in a picturesque bar in downtown Walla Walla, had a writing instructor tell me my essay was “dynamite,” discovered my traveling laptop was the slowest thing in all creation, enjoyed an afternoon’s drive along the coast of Tacoma...
Coastal areas around Tacoma
...wandered around the Olympia Farmer’s Market and learned the “Fresh Washington Apples” had been in storage for seven months, ate fish tacos, photographed breeching humpback whales...
And more. I missed Nancy, another friend from those days. She hadn't yet returned from three weeks of hiking in Utah.
But probably the most important thing I did was to tell my friend Carlene that she had saved my life by keeping a box of letters I had written to her in 1965 while she was attending college in Colorado. Those letters documented all the things I was going through—good and bad—before and after that move to Girdwood. She had given them back to me afteralmost forty years. Remembering some of my emotional woes from those days, I could never read them. Then, three years ago, when life had body-slammed me to the canvas and I was slipping into a dark abyss, I took that box of letters from the bottom drawer of my desk and began to read them. I stayed up all night reading those sixty-some letters.
When I was finished reading, I thought about what was between the lines, those things unspoken but now apparent, and my life changed forever. She saved my life, not only that night, but my whole life. She made it possible for me to change my perception of my life as it had been from the beginning, and to appreciate it for the adventure it has been and continues to be.
She said she often wondered if her life had made a difference to anyone. She had never found a cure for cancer, for example, she said. But when I told her in detail how she had saved my life, how all of my writing these past few years would never have happened but for her saving those letters, and what a difference she had made to me, she said, “Thank you.”
The famous rhododendrons of Washington state.