Lum: Busman’s holiday in Alaska
In October 1962, my ex-husband Burt, our barely 1-month-old daughter Skye and I drove from the A-frame cabin we rented on what was called the Burma Road and across the snag-filled Khyber Pass to travel the 10 wilderness miles to Hal Post’s cabin.
Hal was a friend from back east who had encouraged us to drop everything and move to the 49th state the year before. It was probably some “men’s work” that needed to be done because Hal was with us, or maybe they were hunting for moose.
Actually I looked forward to this outing, although there were even fewer amenities at the cabin than in the A-frame by the school where Burt taught 13 children in eight grades — in neither place was there electricity or water or any heat except wood stoves. Batteries were expensive — at the Post cabin we didn’t even have a radio.
But it was a change of scene for a couple of days, and I didn’t have to wash diapers in melted snow (though I’d have to deal with that later) and — yeah — didn’t have to cook because we had brought K-rations.
The whole Anchorage area was crawling with military, and there was a brisk business in surplus. Burt had bought several cases of World War II K-ration dinners, which came in unmarked brown boxes. According to the Internet, the brown boxes were the earliest models, making them around 20 years old — homesteaders don’t need no stinkin’ expiration dates.
You knew that you would get a four-pack of cigarettes (we had only home-rolled at home), a packet of chocolate, crackers and cheese, maybe a tiny tin of fruit, a book of matches and — ta-da — the entree, which was marked “MEAT.”
Until you rolled off the lid with a key — like opening the old Spam cans — you didn’t know what you’d gotten. Needless to say, the bartering was fierce, made even more exciting if one got unfiltered Camel cigarettes while someone else was stuck with Kools and thus more prone to trade away the favored spaghetti and meatballs if a cigarette swap was thrown in.
I remember Hal arguing with Burt — probably after they had consumed half a bottle of booze — about whether it was better to be dead than red (slang for communist), Burt taking the red side, Hal the dead and I steering clear of that conversation.
There had been rumblings about Cuba on the radio. The army’s Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base were just a 15-mile spit away, and the air was full of loud booms, practicing.
Even more perilous was a Nike missile site located a scant 10 miles from our homesteads. When Burt and I had pulled into what looked like a parking lot with the 33-foot house trailer we had been hauling for 29 days, we answered a knock on the trailer door and were greeted by an armed guard holding a snarling Doberman pinscher on a very short leash.
When the guard ascertained that we were just a couple of harmless beatniks, he gave us permission to park the trailer as long as we needed to. We didn’t find out until later that it was a missile site, built to protect the bases in Anchorage and defend against attack — Russia is right next door, as you know. Sarah Palin can see it through her kitchen window in Wasilla, and Wasilla was the nearest settlement to our land.
When the time came to return to the Burma Road School, we found that all hell had broken loose. We didn’t have email, Twitters, tweets or even telephones, but word could fly faster in the wilderness than it does now on Facebook. We were barely out of the vehicle before neighboring homesteaders rushed to report that we had just missed the Cuban Missile Crisis.
We had come within a gnat’s ass of war, and our neighbors were ready to get out the backhoes and start digging bomb shelters.
You would think that homesteaders out in the wilderness would be more complacent than city-dwellers at the prospect of war. All of a city’s vital juices — power, communication, provisions, finances — could be cut off in an instant, whereas we homesteaders had ample supplies of moose quarters hanging in sheds, smoked and dried salmon, our own lakes and springs for water, cans and jars of fruits, soups and vegetables that we stocked by the case and — most important — enough homebrew-making supplies to keep us in beer until the end of the world.
Instead, we felt like sitting ducks, surrounded by forts, bases and missile sites. No wonder there had been so much extra booming when we were at Hal’s cabin.
I can’t say I’m sorry I missed it. There’s nothing like a newborn baby to knock the socks off your fear level, and I would have been as terrified as anyone else.
All’s well that ends, but I always thought the U.S. made a mistake by answering Castro’s plea for help with the aborted Bay of Pigs, sending him straight into Russia’s waiting, open arms.
Su Lum is a longtime local now sadly too antiquated for a weekend in Havana and too lung-shot to enjoy a Cuban cigar. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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