(This short story won first prize in MAIL CALL JOURNAL's 1998 HISTORY ARTICLES & SHORT STORY COMPETITION, General History Category.) 

"ALASKA,"(c)1998 DC Strack, accompanying artwork, (c)2001 DC Strack.  All rights reserved.


by D.C. Strack

I remember the way he used to look at me. This was back in the days before we were married, of course. He had a way of staring at me, as if he was looking right through me. I wondered what it was that he saw in me that could possibly have been so deep that his eyes would go unfocused, so deep that he would quickly turn his head in embarrassment when he noticed I was staring back his way. I was older so he must have felt I had the upper hand.

I was older. You see, that was the problem. I had just passed my 31st birthday when this upstart 25-year-old went and declared his love for me. "Declaration" perhaps isn't the best word. In our 61 years together, I don't think I ever heard Carl, dear Carl, declare anything. He was so soft-spoken. He just calmly told me that he didn't want me to go to Alaska.

Yes, that's right...Alaska. In 1933, there were not the kind of easy opportunities that there are today. Now, if someone decided they'd like to go to Alaska, they'd just need to save up some money and go. No, not even that. They could take one of their awful credit cards and charge their way to Alaska. It would probably take a few hours and if they didn't like it, they could just fly back on the same plastic that carried them over the thousands of miles. It was not such an easy decision to make in those days. We didn't have plastic. I don't mean the credit cards, mind you. We didn't have plastic. Our world was one of wood and glass, dirt, cloth and leather. Everything was real. If it wasn't real, we didn't trust it. We didn't trust what they said on the radio, we didn't trust banks or contracts. We didn't trust anyone or anything you couldn't hold in two strong arms. We learned who and what to trust rather quickly in the big downturn. As a country schoolteacher, my wages were often paid in potatoes. I don't blame anyone for this. The country school district kept records of how much money they owed me but couldn't pay. All I had for certain was IOU's and a contract that said I could keep teaching. In the meantime, the local farmers would bring their produce to my house. Most of them, although they'd never had education themselves, thought it was a good thing for their children to learn to read and write. Of course, I kept working in that one room schoolhouse and the money turned out to be real in the end, but by the time I got it, the worst was already over. Those potatoes were a bit more "real" and they were what pulled me through.

No, if you couldn't see it, then you couldn't very well trust it. That could be a big reason why I wanted to go, but also why I stayed. I didn't see much future for a single teacher like myself in "outstate" Minnesota. If I were going to grow old alone, at least I would do it in a romantic place; some place where being a strong-willed and tough woman would count for something. Perhaps I would find others there like myself, and in the end I wouldn't be alone. All I knew about Alaska was from a few travel books I'd seen and the newspaper article advertising the need for teachers. There was a shortage of teachers in Alaska then, for understandable reasons. I imagined a land full of lumberjacks and Eskimos, tall timber and bear. There I would stand, at the front of a class full of boys. I reasoned that Alaskan women must all come from the "lower 48" full-grown, and like myself, with something to prove to any and all concerned. No girls would likely be born in Alaska. The masculinity of the place would surely overpower normal genetic odds as children developed in the wombs of their cursing, spitting mothers. So, anyway, there I would be, telling a room full of boys, age 6-13, all with full-grown beards, about the importance of reading should they ever plan to visit a city and why it was not appropriate to chew tobacco in class unless they shared with everyone.

I wasn't scared in the least. Actually, this is a half-truth, not quite halfway to a full lie. If I had gone to Alaska and actually faced my first northern winter as a single woman surrounded by monosyllabic men I would have been fearful, I'm sure. The "idea" of Alaska didn't scare me but the corresponding reality probably would have. Still, I would have gone. Nothing would have kept me away simply because, when I made my decision, I saw nothing with the power to keep me in Minnesota. My schoolhouse was small, with gently rolling farms stretching into the distance all around. It was pleasant in the summer and deathly cold in the winter, with beautiful flashes of autumn and faltering springs. But it was not "wilderness" anymore. Not long after this time, "Little House on the Prairie" began to gain popularity with many girls in the area when it was still considered to be fairly recent state history. Their grandmothers would then ask them about what they were reading. Having heard a bit, they would then set the little one on their knee and tell her that they would have written it themselves if they hadn't been so busy cooking and cleaning and baking and killing chickens. Never mind the fact that they couldn't read or write. In truth, they had no need for such a story at all because that tale was the adventure that all our grandparents shared.

My generation was different. We had it easy. Oh, yes, we still killed chickens and made sauerkraut by placing earthenware crocks full of cabbage in the cellar (or lacking a cellar, in a hole in the ground), but we didn't worry about Indian raids, usually had enough heat in the winters and could rely on neighbors a few miles away should we need help. Most of the folk on neighboring farms even spoke English. And so the stories I had heard convinced me that the frontier was the place to be. Of course Canada was much closer, but I didn't want to go to another country entirely. Alaska was the last frontier of America, America in the old sense of the word when South America meant everywhere "to the south of America" and the Mississippi River was only the first boundary which separated us from the mythical "east" of which I knew little. I hadn't actually seen pictures of Alaska, either, but I knew there were great pine forests, glacier-cooled streams filled with salmon and the Northern Lights, blazing warmth into human souls even as human bodies shivered through long, arctic winters. If there were any cities in the 49th state, I didn't give them much thought. For better or worse, I was going to Alaska.

And so I told Carl. He didn't mean so much to me then and I assured myself of this when I told him. I was very matter-of-fact. "I'm going to Alaska," I said, with a firm nod. He got that far-away look in his eyes, gazing at me, as if into my very soul. He was pondering my depths again. And then with the calm tone of reason he asked me simply, "Are you sure that's a good idea?" and suddenly, with those words, I wasn't. I knew that he had been "in love" with me. I had first realized it a few years before, when I was 27 and Carl had been 21, a full 6 years younger than myself. Of course he was still six years younger, and always would be, for that matter, but he had barely known me at first and I told him so. Now at 25, a very respectable marrying age, his affections could not be brushed aside so easily. He didn't want me to go and his simple question threw me into frustrated indecision.

Carl didn't have a beard. He was not tall. He was athletic, but not in the way a lumberjack is athletic. He had been a skilled shortstop on the local baseball teams. Carl had first hoped to be a farmer but his father, a stubborn old German, had promised the entire farm to Carl's older brother, a stubborn young German. With little hope of establishing his own farm, Carl had planned to be a teacher, but marrying me was as close as he ever got. He would have been a wonderful teacher. His soft voice could have convinced the rowdiest of boys to sit up straight (times and students were different then, I'm afraid). He was gentle and strong. Working on the farm had given him toughness and losing that farm to his brother had taught him humility. He was a wise man who did well with whatever was entrusted to him. If he had been responsible for a classroom full of students, I'm sure they would have learned a lot from him. And Carl might even have coached baseball.

But such was not to be. The stubborn old German let him know that teaching was "verboten." Never mind that Carl's options were limited; teaching was "woman's work." And so he had become an apprentice baker. Not a flashy job, but even in the worst of times people would need bread. This was important, as the "worst of times" were a very recent memory. If he could buy flour, he could make bread and if he could make bread, he could someday have his own bakery. With this as his goal he got up at four o'clock each morning and baked. Of course, it wasn't his bakery, but then it wasn't my school either. I was proud of his hard work and realistic ambitions.

No, he couldn't be brushed aside anymore. While I romantically saw myself as some adventurous schoolteacher, ready to fly (only figuratively) off to Alaska at a moment's notice, the life ahead of me seemed wonderfully exciting. But now I had to consider Carl. He was not wonderfully exciting but he was wonderful. It was wonderful that he never got angry. He certainly wouldn't hit his wife as so many husbands in the area did in those days. It was wonderful that he could listen to me for hours on end and then give me a single sentence of honest and wise comment. And it was wonderful how he looked at me, staring deeply and lovingly. We were married, against my better judgement, just a few months after I gave up on Alaska.

I was very concerned about the age difference. I talked on and on to him about my fear that we would be the target of gossip, as he was six years my junior. He said only that I worried too much. And in the end he was right. In all our years together, our ages didn't make a lick of difference. By the time I was graying at 40, his 34-year-old hairline was in noticeable recession and we even began to look about the same age. From then on, age was never even an issue. When you're young, age is a fairly good indication of experience and maturity but beyond a certain point, it seems to me, we all tend to stop learning anyway. That's why we make the same old mistakes over and over. The benefit comes only if we understand that wisdom can be found even in those who are younger than ourselves, and quite often with more regularity than we'd care to admit. And Carl was the wisest man I ever knew, at any age.

Oh, if only he were here now. I miss him so. Even in the end, in the pain of cancer, he never got angry, always listened intently and stared into me with his bright blue eyes. He saw something in me. He said that he had seen it from the very beginning. I don't know how he would have phrased exactly what he saw in me. He was a man of few words and his wisdom was never of the "eloquent" variety. But I loved that certain way he looked at me. I was always fleeing from myself, trying to prove myself, hustling and bustling around. When I did slow down enough to look in a mirror, I only saw an increasingly older and grayer woman who could never quite give him the affirmation he deserved, who could never quite express her feelings for him. After all those years together, with him lying on the living room sofa, deep in the pain that would bring his life to an end, it was my time to turn away in embarrassment. He was staring at me again. He gently took my hand and I started to cry, as I finally understood what he saw. Though my own view of myself had changed over the years, this boy who had unwisely fallen in love with me at 21 was still looking into my eyes and seeing Alaska.


(This short story won first prize in MAIL CALL JOURNAL's 1998 HISTORY ARTICLES & SHORT STORY COMPETITION, General History Category.) 

"ALASKA,"(c)1998 DC Strack, accompanying artwork, (c)2001 DC Strack.  All rights reserved.

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