"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Friday, November 11, 2011

In the Attic

Girdwood, Alaska, winter 1966

The carburetor lever on the little Quaker pot-burner oil stove was turned up as high as it would go, but the 20 below zero temperature outside was winning the battle.  Ice was forming in the corners of the wet floor, so I was scraping that along with years of built-up tobacco spit as I cleaned the one-room cabin (running water of the run-and-haul-it kind) that would soon be my home in the historic gold mining town of Girdwood. 

Old Billy Sproat surely had used a spittoon, but his aim had suffered greatly as ill health and age advanced inexorably to death.  Now there was an inch-high mound around the battered wooden table where he’d sat and chewed Copenhagen for decades.

I used a metal dust pan and a garden hoe as I worked.  In some places, the tobacco layers came up in huge chunks, revealing old-fashioned narrow floor boards beneath the dark brown mess.  Finally, I poured fresh warm water into the mop bucket, added Pine Sol, and mopped up the last of the reeking filth. 

I decided to leave the heat turned up high so the floor would dry overnight.  I emptied the mop bucket outside, donned my winter clothes, and stepped into the unheated storage room attached to the main room.  I climbed up the makeshift ladder nailed to the wood planks next to the door, released a hook that held shut a half-door to the attic, and crawled into the dark space.

A myriad of pin-point lights shown through the corrugated tin roof, evidence of the many holes punched through when Old Billy shot his .22 caliber rifle at the squirrels rummaging overhead.  Carl, my landlord-to-be, planned to patch these multiple holes as soon as the weather warmed enough that tar would spread.

I pulled a flashlight from my parka pocket and turned it on.  Most of the stuff up here appeared to be junk—old clothes, dusty cardboard litter with remnants of spruce cones, and bat guano.  Piles of bat guano. 

I stepped from joist to joist, bent-over under the low roof, careful not to miss and wind up in the room below.  The flashlight beam caught an old streamer trunk in its light. I headed in that direction, crawling on my knees the last few feet until I could pull the chest toward me.

Holding my breath to avoid inhaling the dirt and dust, I lifted the lid and looked inside.  There was a folded patchwork quilt on top, apparently made of sewn-together three inch squares cut from mens woolen trousers and coats.  I lifted it out and set it on a few 2x4s piled next to me.

On top of another similar quilt was a red lacquered box, much like a large jewelry box.  I propped the flashlight against the hinged edge of the trunk, took off my gloves, and opened it.  Inside that was a smaller box covered with blue velveteen.  I lifted its lid.

I recognized the contents immediately; I’d seen a similar thing every time I’d passed the hall table in my grandparent’s home back in Detroit.

A carefully folded narrow blue ribbon, barely more than an inch wide, was joined at the center of its circle by a shield in the same color, embroidered with thirteen white stars.  Below the shield was a gold eagle, wings spread, and suspended from that was a gold bar inscribed with the word “valor.”    Beneath that was a star.

At the center of  the five-pointed star, surrounded by a laurel wreath in gold and green, was a replica of Minerva’s head, with “The United States of America” embossed in gold around her.  I turned it over and saw “The Congress to William Samuel Sproat.”

The accompanying citation, folded and unfolded many times, was almost illegible. 

Old Billy, living alone with no known relatives or friends, spitting tobacco juice on the floor of the oldest inhabitable cabin in Girdwood, punctuating the ceiling and roof with .22 caliber ventilators and leaks, had been awarded the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest honor for valor,  in France during World War I, 1918.

(The story above is fictional, the result of a writing prompt at a former instructor's site.  Only the description of the cabin in which I lived from 1966 to 1973, the cleaning process, the bullet holes in the roof, and the two old quilts are true.  I posted it here today to remind everyone about the sacrifices our military personnel have and are making on our behalf.)


  1. What grit you had, living in a cabin like that. I have a friend in Fairbanks who lived ruggedly for a few years with her husband when they first went to Alaska around 1970. They are still there, living quite comfortably in a lovely home.