Su Lum: Slumming
September 7, 2011
In the early 1960s, on our Alaskan homestead in the wilderness, we had no electricity, no running water and, of course, no telephone. The few most affluent of our distant neighbors could afford generators, powering minimal electric lights and black and white TVs. A big night out was a five-mile drive over the horrendous “Burma Road” to our nearest neighbor’s homestead to watch The Beverly Hillbillies, but even the elite were phone-less.
In these days of email, cell phones, twitters and tweets, our lack of communication seems prehistoric. Snail mail, between the nearest post office (Wasilla!) and what we called “The Outside,” could take many days, if not weeks, and the 10-mile drive to our mailbox, 30 miles south of Wasilla, could take up the better part of a day, winching our way through the mire, so we didn’t just “go pick up the mail” on a regular basis.
The woods were dotted with scattered homesteaders, many (including ours) so remote that we never crossed paths with one another, but everybody knew everyone else’s business and dirty laundry thanks to the greatest gossip and rumor source on the planet – the nightly Northwind radio program.
Broadcast from Anchorage, Northwind aired messages to people in the wilds at 6 p.m. and again at 9 and everybody – unless they were too poor to afford batteries – listened.
We couldn’t afford to waste our precious batteries listening to music or national news (we heard about the Cuban missile crisis through the grapevine), but we were, without fail, glued to the crackling radio at 6 and 9 every night.
Messages were written down or called in to the radio station, with the strong possibility that the announcer couldn’t read the writing or the phone message had gotten garbled in transit.
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“To Bob and Jerry at Big Lake, meet us at 5 (or maybe that says 4, I can’t read it) in Palmer tomorrow. John (or Jean, I think it starts with a ‘J’),” would be a typical message.
“To Martha on the Burma Road, I saw a really big black bear behind your outhouse when I was flying over your place, so watch out. Tom.”
“To Julie at McKenzie Point, the truck parts still haven’t come in so I’ll be in town a couple more days. Love you, Bill.” Yeah right, the old truck parts ruse – not the first time, Bill. Onto you Dude.
“To Burt and Su at Goose Bay, we’ll be out for the weekend so get out the homebrew. Alex and Callie.” Groan. No way to reply, nowhere to hide and down to our last precious case of homemade beer.
From Northwind we learned of babies being born, of sad deaths, of hunting successes and bear attacks, of bush pilot plane crashes and narrow escapes, of people found who had been given up for lost, of car accidents, of hospitalizations, sickness and amputations.
You couldn’t miss the second show because more messages were added as well as corrections of the first readings.
“Heard on Northwind you had company this weekend, heard on Northwind your aunt was tearing it up in town (‘town’ always meant Anchorage) again, heard on Northwind that Molly had twins.” We knew a lot about everybody-it was better than a gigantic party line.
If you want privacy, move to a big city. In the wilderness that is the last thing you’ll find.