"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa
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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ah, Wilderness were Paradise Enow

Enough with the loaf of bread and the jug of wine. I'm still on my New Year's diet. Instead...


A Nikon Coolpix under the full moon,

An SD card, and a stable tripod,

Clear night sky and cool crisp air,

Ah, Wilderness were Paradise enow.






With thanks to Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald for prompting the words.

The Rising of the Moon

When I was many years younger and had housework to do in the little house I rented in Anchorage, I would put a 33-1/3rd album on my record player and turn the volume as loud as I could stand it. Then I sang along with Tommy Makem and Clancey Brothers as they sang songs of Ireland.


Moon rise, Jan. 29, 10 p.m. Photo by available moonlight.

One of my favorites was By the Rising of the Moon, a song of hope and brotherly courage for yet another doomed Irish rebellion. I liked it because it was easy to sing along with, and the volume drowned out my voice in case I was off key or hit a sour note. I did not, at the time, have any neighbors within hearing distance.

Today, the song is played widely in Ireland.


And hurrah my boys for freedom; 'tis the rising of the moon".
Tis the rising of the moon, tis the rising of the moon
And hurrah my boys for freedom; 'Tis the rising of the moon".

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Case of the Sinister S'mores

I recall with distinct clarity and great pleasure my first ever taste of S’Mores, though at the time I thought my heart, along with other body parts, was going to break. Initially I had politely declined the offer, but my mentor in matters S’Mores would hear none of it. She assured me that the gooey combination of graham crackers, warm toasted marshmallows and the resulting melted chocolate was, in so many words (and there were many), “to die for.”


Well now, how could I possibly pass up such a promising treat, especially when I looked into the enchanting green eyes of the one making that promise—which I could barely see because it was really dark around that wimpy bonfire. And cold, too.


Using an extra long willow switch for safety, she carefully toasted the marshmallow near the glowing embers of the fire that was built just for that purpose. You see, it didn’t start out to be a campfire. It was built for the express purpose of over-dosing on sugar. That squishey white thing skewered on the end of the stick caught fire only once and from having watched the preceding proceedings, I think that one may have set the record for the fewest times incinerated.


When she deemed it done to perfection she hastened to the makeshift table and assembled the confection by the romantic light of a double D-cell flashlight. Then with all the pride of a master chef presenting her finest culinary creation, my first S’Mores was offered up to me for my enjoyment. She served it with her gloves off, no less. She was willing to suffer for her art. Did I mention how cold it was that dark night around that puny fire?


I, too, removed a glove from my hand. I was willing to suffer for her, too, art or anything else. Carefully I took the S’Mores from her hand and, while she watched in anticipation, bit off a portion and began to chew. My first thought was that it was a good thing all the caps and crowns and plastic in my mouth, courtesy of having spent a hugely unfair number of hours in dentists’ chairs, fit real tight because there was a rock in the middle of the treat. Or maybe the graham crackers were very old and very petrified, perhaps a leftover from the Pleistocene era.


No, that didn’t make sense because everyone else around that teeny fire had been enjoying their S’Mores, and surely my green-eyed friend would not have saved the worst of the graham crackers for my first experience. I knew her well and there was not a molecule of chicanery or guile in her slender body.


Wait a minute. I could distinctly taste the graham crackers as I chewed around the rock, well aware that two large and lovely green eyes were watching for my reaction. Was that a sparkle of mischief I detected, or just a reflection of that dinky fire?


Steady as she goes, I reminded myself. This could make or break your relationship with the lass. My tongue found the marshmallow, which seemed to be more or less intact, and because I really don’t like marshmallows I swallowed it quickly so I wouldn’t have to taste it any longer than necessary. I dared not spit it out—it would have snuffed the miniscule fire—and surely the lovely Ashley would see me perform the scurrilous deed. Besides, I still had the rock to deal with and I was concentrating hard on that.


Surreptitious glances at all around the fire revealed no obvious signs of guilt, but then it was really, really, really dark. And cold.


With a leaden heart I recalled that only the captivating Ashley had been at the table when my first S’Mores had been prepared. No, not my Ashley. I could not, would not believe it. Bind me to the main mast and lash me with a cat o’ nine tails, I refused to believe such a thing of her.


Oh, man, there was something on that rock! I could feel it slithering off the hard surface when I ran my tongue across it. Now what should I do? The fair Ashley stood across the wee fire from me and there was something disgustingly sludgy coming off that cold, hard rock and it tasted like…….chocolate. Chocolate? How could a rock taste like chocolate? Oh, yeah, there was supposed to be chocolate in S’Mores. Okay, now I’d located the chocolate and it was stuck to the rock.


***


Which brings us to the detecting part of this tale. Who did the dastardly deed? Who was the malicious miscreant? Who fulfilled the felonious feat?


Elementary, my dear Watson, so to speak. All the clues were right in front of my face and the comely Ashley was innocent. Our devotion to each other was spared any malingering hint of festering doubt.


The clues were these: it was really dark and it was really cold and the fire was no larger than the head of a matchstick. Well, okay, I’m exaggerating a bit about the fire. So what happens when you put all the clues together? What nefarious doings have transpired? Who the heck put the rock in my first S’Mores?



Why, the lovely Miss Ashley put it there. You thought I said she was innocent, didn’t you? Indeed, she was innocence personified.



It wasn’t a rock after all. It was a slab of frozen Hershey’s chocolate bar, cast into granite by the sub-freezing temperatures, unmelted by the medium rare marshmallow that had been toasted in the dark over a penurious fire.


I am gratified to report that by the time I had deduced all this the chocolate had thawed enough in my mouth to be broken up into pieces smaller than those that could choke Sue the T-Rex and said chocolate was thereinafter swallowed by yours truly.



And, more importantly, the bonny fair Ashley remains my very favorite six-going-on-seven-year-old neighbor, the eldest of her siblings, the sweet social butterfly, the builder of exquisite and exotic S’Mores. I thanked her for her creation and assured her it was every bit as good as the peanut butter sandwich she had once prepared for me.


I did, however, have a few things to say to her daddy about his cheapskate fire, so if he does it again I sure hope it’s bigger than the one he built a few weeks ago on that dark and cold night when I fretted my way through my very first S’Mores.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

On a winter's day...

January.

Mid-winter.

Saturday afternoon.

Severe clear skies.

Temperatures around zero.

Perfect.

Everywhere I went today, people were out enjoying the things winter has to offer.



Chugach mountains reflected on the water and ice of Turnagain Arm at slack tide. Ten miles to the right of this picture is Alyeska Ski Resort, and certain to be packed with skiers and snowboarders on a day like this.



Now a docile creek near the Hope cutoff, in the summertime Sixmile offers up Class V rapids.



Sun glistens through the hoar frost on birch and cottonwood trees, upstream at Sixmile Creek.





Fishing on both sides of the Kenai River in Cooper Landing, humans on the left, bald eagles on the right. See them? Eagles in the trees on the right, the human below them across the river.


How about now? On the right, top of the big cottonwood. A couple miles down the highway, mushers were hooking up dog teams for a trip along the Resurrection trail, and into the mountains.


The trumpeter swans are still hanging out at the mouth of Kenai Lake.



Then at Trail Lake in downtown Moose Pass, skaters and hockey players enjoy the winter sunshine. I'm sitting in my truck taking this picture--on the ice of the Lake. I'm not on solid ground, and neither are the vehicles you see. Snowmachiners take a right turn here, travel up to the headwaters of the lake, gun it up steep Trail Glacier, and find themselves on the icefields and glaciers on top of the mountains.



A tired hockey player.


Another view. It's up that way the snowmachiners travel.


Around the corner, these snowmachiners have returned from a steep climb to Carter and Crescent Lakes.



A few miles further away, my neighbor circles for a landing in his Super Cub.




Closer, closer, checking wind direction (the Follett Field wind sock hangs limply) and making sure no one is skiing or walking on the runway.


And, he's down, right in back of my house.




As for me, after I finished delivering the last of the mail, I backed up to the woodstove and watched the sun kiss the mountain ridge from the comfort of my living room....


..looked out one of my kitchen windows to see if there would be a sunset to photo....

...then took a nap on my living room couch. "I'll be safe and warm on winter's day..." (with apologies to the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas).

January.

Mid-winter.

Saturday afternoon.

Severe clear.

Temperatures around zero.

Perfect.

And something for everyone.


(I need to get out of the house more often. Apparently my muse has been out there playing along with everyone else, leaving me bereft of words for days at a time. I haven't even been able to reply to e-mails. I just sit here at my computer and stare at the Galapagos Islands calendar I got for Christmas. ;<) )

Monday, January 18, 2010

Aftershocks, Part 4, Strategic Amchitka

(Note: Last month I published three parts of this continuing saga about a small island in the Aleutian Chain of Alaska. Part one told of my father's return from WWII, part two about the invasion and occupation of US territory during that war and the establishing of a forward operating base on the island. Part three related the underground nuclear tests detonated on Amchitka Island. In this part, Amchitka is once again called into service by the country.)


Part Four: Strategic Amchitka


The general was in deep doo-doo. He had managed, with his insistent views on the future of warfare, to anger not only his immediate superiors, but other branches of the military as well.


Criticism after criticism of a short-sighted military system poured from the general’s mouth, until he was ordered overseas to Hawaii and Asia, mostly to get him out of the adoring public’s eye and off the front pages. Returning with a 324-page, the brigadier general predicted the United States’ next war would be with Japan, and that they would mount a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. That was in 1924.


Moi. Hard hat, steel-toed boots, and Carhart jacket. Right in style for a construction worker in Alaska.



He still couldn’t keep his mouth shut, charging that senior officers of the Army and Navy were incompetent and guilty of “almost treasonable administration of the national defense.” For that William “Billy” Mitchell court-martialed and convicted of insubordination, and suspended from active duty for five years. Mitchell resigned, but continued advocating for stronger airpower. Today, he is considered the father of the air force.




Speaking before the Congress in 1935, Mitchell said this:


Japan is our dangerous enemy in the Pacific. They won’t attack Panama. They will come right here to Alaska. Alaska is the most central place in the world for aircraft, and that is true either of Europe, Asia, or North America. I believe in the future he who holds Alaska will hold the world, and I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”


About that and many other opinions, Mitchell was shown to be correct. Fifty-three years later, Alaska was once again selected for testing a new defense system. An island so far off the western mainland of Alaska that it would be in tomorrow were it not for a jog in the International dateline, was perfect for the project.



Quiet and peaceful Amchitka Island, called back into service of the country.


In between the time Gen. Mitchell spoke to Congress and 1988, this is how Amchitka Island figured in the defense of the United States:


1. Early in WWII, Japanese enemy forces invaded and occupied the farthest islands in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, giving them a foothold from which they could have mounted attacks on the west coast of the US. Amchitka Island was next in their plans.


2. U.S. forces set up a forward attack base on Amchitka Island and drove the Japanese from Attu and Kiska islands.













WWII gun mount. A short distance away from this mount, I found live 50mm machine gun ammo in the bottom of a foxhole, the metal clips still in place but the webbing that held them in a belt had rotted away.

3. In the late 1960s, three underground nuclear tests were detonated on Amchitka by the Atomic Energy Commission.


The site of the largest underground nuclear test on Amchitka, and the lake formed by subsidence after the detonation.

In 1986, a massive clean-up of WWII materiel was accomplished on Amchitka, leaving only those buildings that could be of historical significance.


A chapel built by servicemen during WWII.



And in 1987, phase one of a $67-plus million dollar contract was awarded to a joint venture of three construction companies for a project on that same island.


On January 5, 1988, a Reeve Aleutian Airways 737 jet landed on World War II airstrip and ejected a planeload of construction workers on the tarmac. I was one of them, and I would be there every single day, but for two weeks in June, until the 23rd of December, when another Reeve jet piloted by a guy nicknamed “Cowboy” took the last of us construction personnel back to civilization.



South hanger from WWII and Reeve Aleutian jet landing.
"Don't say we didn't warn you." Two page letter from the construction company. We also had to undergo finger-printing, and a background and security check before we could be hired.

Fields of lupine along the military road to the far north end of the island.

WWII military housing quonset with hanger in distance.

(to be continued)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lies

(Sometimes a writing prompt will push the muse in an unexpected direction.)

I lied. I lied again and again and again. And then I lied some more.

My lies were those of commission and omission. My lies were both selfish and altruistic. Often the lies came easily: I need only to say the opposite of what I was thinking or feeling. Sometimes, though, I had to pause and invent new ways to lie.

If lies alone are to determine our state of mind when we die, I most certainly will die an agonizing death, roasted by the facility of my words, gutted by the depth and breadth of my deceitfulness, forever doomed to trudge Dante’s circles of hell. I don’t think it works that way, however, and I don’t envisage such a fate because of lies.

Despite all the lies, my conscience doesn’t keep me awake at night, which might imply I don’t have a conscience, but I know for certain that I do, just not about the lies. Guilt doesn’t gnaw at my soul, and I can look others straight in the eye and claim I did no wrong when I lied. Other guilt is another matter.

“In the eyes.” That’s how it all started, when I looked my husband straight in his brown eyes, down deep into those kind eyes that now showed bewilderment and concern. “What happened?” he asked.

“You just had a reaction to some medication,” I answered. That part was mostly true, what we had at first suspected was the cause of eight days of psychosis following surgery. The lies came next: “It’s okay. Don’t worry. You’re going to be okay.” He was not. He most certainly was not. He would never again be “okay.” He was going to get a damn sight worse, and that was only the beginning.

Three years later, three years of ever-increasing lies later, his eyes were shallow and opaque, their depth all gummed up with the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease.. When I looked into them to lie, the deceitful words ricocheted back at me. His essence, the things that made him the man I loved, were gone. I stopped looking into his eyes, hoping to avoid the boomerangs of self-serving but altruistic lies.

“It’s all right. There’s nothing there,” I said when the hallucinations had the television heads speaking to him, or moose on the front deck, or a crew of men waiting for their boss—him—in thirty below weather.

“It’s okay. Teddy’s okay. See? That’s him right there.” His ravaged brain knew otherwise. He’d heard the screams during the night, and no words, true or false, would convince him that his temporary hospital roommate had not died during the night. He would hear the screams until his brain no longer recognized or translated sound.

“We’re fine. Really. We don’t owe any money. Everything is fine.” That one was mostly true. Except the unspoken worry—how I going to pay for his care and keep him in Alaska where I could visit him.

On and on and on the lies dripped in, as easily as saline solution through an intravenous tube. They served double-duty, meant to calm and reassure a man who literally had lost control of his life, and to make things a bit easier on me.

The lies of omission came naturally, though some subterfuge was required. I only had to keep my mouth shut. I began to withhold more and more information. I would not tell him he had an appointment with the neurologist until the scheduled day as his anxiety at leaving safe confines of home would keep both of us awake all night. I would not tell him the true state of his condition; he could not grasp the concept anyway. I did not tell him I was taking him to Arizona where he would be placed in an assisted living home near his grown children. By this time, he no longer knew my name or who I was, though we had lived together thirty years. He didn’t recognize his home.

And then I told the biggest lie of all: “I love you.”

I still loved a much younger man, a strong and humorous man with great common sense and a lingering bit of the bad boy to keep me interested. But this shell? How could I? This wasn’t the man I fell in love with, the man I married. I didn’t know this stranger. The love had long since morphed into crushing responsibility and obligation and duty, and for that failing, that dereliction of vows, I might yet have to atone.



Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Missing

My best friends have been missing and mygodican’ttellyouhowmuchihavemisssedthem. I can almost pinpoint the time of their departure, and that gives me some insight into why they disappeared. My best friends, you see, are my words.


For several days while reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I was in awe of his words, how he examined each one for its multiple identities, weighed each one to determine its power, studied the provenance of each one, and wondered, “What if?” Then, he set each on its own journey, a journey that—as Robert Frost wrote—was a road less traveled. Inside the front and back covers, I noted numerous page numbers where lay examples of words put to their finest use:


“He returned to his sleep, and behind her, the girl dragged the same thought up the steps.”


“…Rudy’s voice reached over and handed Liesel the truth. For a while it sat on her shoulder, but a few thoughts later, it made its way to her ear.”


(about painting windows black in wartime Germany) “…he confiscated the window light from enemy eyes.”


“As she crossed the river, a rumor of sunshine stood behind the clouds.”


And,


(about playing the accordion) “His arms worked the bellows, giving the instrument the air it needed to breathe.”


The list goes on and on.


Not until several days after I finished reading did I notice how restless I was, how hollow, how scattered in thought. I recognized the symptoms. A writer without words is pathetic. I searched everywhere. I looked at photographs old and new. I read words old and new. I compared their disappearance to that of a lost love. Mostly, I moped about the house and waited. I was sure my words were hiding, awash in embarrassment, shunning the light of Zusak’s words.


Today a high pressure ridge found a meteorological weakness and came screaming down from the north. On the ice caps surrounding Seward, it caromed through glacial crevasses, skittered around shark-toothed mountain peaks, and tumbled into the valleys, all the while honing its cutting edge. Then, through with playing in the mountains, it swooped down on the defenseless city of Seward as if to scoop up the puny buildings of man and take them out to sea.


With it, though, it brought some of my words. I picked them up along with a few groceries, a library book, a purchased book, and a textbook, as I attended to business in that seaside town. I was glad to find those missing words, cold and wind-blown though they were. After several weeks without their company, I’ll take them in any condition.


Right now they are huddled around the woodstove in the living room, thawing out and considering their next move. Perhaps it would help if I removed The Book Thief from the top of my desk where it has been for weeks. While I wait for all their relatives to return home, I can almost imagine their glee the next time they keep me awake all night. For now, I imagine their apology. But, even here, Zusak said it best:


“When Leisel left that day, she said something with great uneasiness. In translation, the two giant words were struggled with, carried on her shoulder, and dropped as a bungling pair at Ilsa Hermann’s feet. They fell off sideways as the girl veered with them and could no longer sustain their weight. Together, they sat on the floor, large and loud and clumsy.


“***TWO GIANT WORDS***

“I’m Sorry”



No need for apologies, friends. Come back and all will be forgiven. But please, don't ever leave me like this again.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Leftovers

I paused on the bridge over Kenai Lake in Cooper Landing this afternoon just long enough to snap a quick shot of swans that are spending the winter here. Those white lumps next to the icy shore are swans. The gray lumps are their cygnets.

I apologize for the lack of focus in this picture. I have a good excuse, too. I mentioned stopping on the bridge over the river, right? No traffic, just me. I pushed the button to roll down the passenger window, then held the camera up and got ready to shoot the scene just where the brush parted and the swans could be seen.

One last peek in the rear view mirror before I depressed the shutter to focus--and I saw an 18 wheeler beginning to cross the bridge right behind me. No time for half-down to focus, snap the shot and move it, Gully, before you're road pizza.

Voila! Fuzzy photo. Besides that, I broke my favorite Nikon Coolpix AGAIN, and I'm using a substandard replacement while the good one gets sent to the camera hospital.

A little further down the road, at my last mail stop of the day, a frosty saddle spoke of better days.



Mid-January. The days are getting longer by a couple minutes now, but we are still in deep winter. January and February often bring the most bitter cold as the the mercury in the thermometer takes a death plunge, but right now the temperatures are above freezing. Rain has visited us several times in the past week, melting snow and turning driveways into ice rinks where packed snow thaws and freezes.

Yet, the swans remain at Kenai Lake, and an old saddle reminds us that in four months the outfitter will once again be saddling his horses and taking folks on trail rides through the mountains around a turquoise lake.

Friday, January 8, 2010

And in this corner...

...weighing less than you'd expect because half his tail feathers are missing, with a wing span of a couple feet, and a beak capable of inflicting severe injury, hailing from Moose Pass, Alaska, is that pugnacious pugilist--Pulchritudinous Pa-a-a-a-a-blo-o-o-o, the Meanest Parrot in the West.



Pulchritudinous Pablo sports a pink bruise beneath his left eye from his encounter with his previous opponent.


And in the other corner (outside), hailing from Anchorage, Alaska, weighing in at god knows how much, standing 30 inches at the shoulder with legs 21 inches tall, and measuring 60 inches from nose to tail, is that feather-pulling attacker, herculean husky-shepherd mix, Kibosh Ko-o-o-o-o-a-a-a-a.

At a post-fight meeting this morning, Pulchritudinous Pablo, upon spotting his opponent, set up a screeching caterwauling and immediately tried to exit his cage, obviously intent on attacking the subdued Kibosh Koa, which leads us to wonder who was the aggressor yesterday....

Thursday, January 7, 2010

If Only

How many times in my life have I rued a misfortune, a mistake, a calamity? How many times have I said, “If only such and such (insert appropriate words here), this could have been avoided..”


The scene of the crime


My youth was filled with those questions, those laments:


If only I’d gone looking for my missing husky that night, I would not have found her dead alongside the highway five days later.


If only I’d been a few seconds earlier, a few seconds later, that drunk driver would not have turned the corner and smashed into my parents’ car, and I would not have a compression fracture in my neck.


If only I’d kept my emotions under control and my mouth shut, I would not have broken my own heart.


On and on the list went, from petty embarrassments to disasters of magnitude, I would obsessively apply the microscope of "if only" and torture myself with an un-changable fate.


Then one day, I recognized how close that last call had been. The bear didn’t attack though I was standing ten feet from it. The small plane didn’t crash when the engine quit, but started immediately when the pilot switched fuel tanks. The house didn’t burn down because I arrived home in time to douse the smoldering blaze on the couch. The moose didn’t stomp me though he held me at bay for thirty minutes. I didn’t drown while attempting to water ski, even though I couldn’t swim and I’d swallowed half the lake.


Those—and many, many more—were the “if onlys” that tilted in my favor, and my life has been full of them. I pay special attention to those, store them up to recall for when the scale tips the other way.


Today, another. I am taking care of a large shepherd/husky dog named Koa while her owners vacation. I am well aware that Koa is determined to eat Pablo the parrot, and have taken great care to keep Pablo in his cage when Koa is in the house.


Busy with a cleaning project in the laundry room off the garage today, I forgot Pablo was sitting on top of his cage. I took Koa off her chain and let her in the house, then turned back to the laundry room.


Koa went upstairs, and too late I remembered Pablo was not safe in his cage. I ran up the stairs and saw no green and yellow parrot on top of his cage, nor in it. A few steps more and I saw feathers scattered around the floor.


Pablo's tail feathers

I yelled at Koa and she disappeared back downstairs. “Pablo,” I said. From the living room I heard a squawk—a very tenuous but indignant squawk. I picked him up, checked him for injuries and noted that half his beautiful tail feathers were missing.


Koa ventured upstairs, ran down again when I glared at her. Then Pablo subjected me to several minutes of plaintive cries as he poured out his fear and unhappiness while I made attempts to calm and reassure him. Pablo went into his cage to recover. Koa’s been outside ever since.


This time, “if only” went Pablo’s way, though I’m sure his tail is smarting. His sense of dignity has yet to be restored.




Bad dog, bad.