Land of the Midnight Sun Part 4

Part 4

The Aftermath

Once again I must remind the reader that these memories are more scribbles than compositions. I am in the middle of teaching a class on writing life stories and am practicing what I preach. I’m trying to get it down and make it sensible. Help me by commenting, please. In Part 4, no names or detailed descriptions of people are included for reasons that, I trust, will become apparent.

The earthquake happened in March, 1964. By fall 1964, dad was transferred to South Carolina. We did not stick around long enough to be a part of the whole rebuilding of Anchorage. I’ve wondered if our departure so soon afterwards, (my not being there to witness the rebuilding,) has complicated my efforts to move past this area within my heart where my emotions seem stuck on ruling my brain. Emotion and memory don’t always work logically. Memories, for better or worse, manipulated for survival and subjection.

Of course, there was more going on in life than quakes. The houses in Eagle River were falling apart, literally. A government contractor built them all and everyone living where we did decided to file a class action suit against the government and our neighbors elected my dad as their spokesman. This was not a good thing. Daddy was a Captain in the Air Force and as an officer, I guess, you weren’t supposed to sue your employer. To say this caused him some stress is an understatement.

Also, one of our neighbors in Eagle River had my dad cosign (?) to have her husband committed to an insane asylum. The woman and my mom were pregnant about the same time and she occasionally babysat me. Her husband believed their baby could fly and he would drop the baby on its head, which I witnessed once. Committing someone to an insane asylum was no easy task for my parents and it took a toll.

To top matters off, the base commander and dad did not get along whatsoever. But that didn’t stop him from going ahead in the class action suit against the government or disagreeing with the base commander in front of a multi-stared general so that they could all live during a flight tour. Saving lives doesn’t always earn you brownie points. His lesson is for us kids is: “It’s easier to pay the price knowing what you did was the right thing to do.”

When dad recounted this story to me a few years back he said that during that flight with the commander and general he felt something snap within his brain, like a twig. He said it hurt bad and he’s wondered if that was the start of what was, many years later, diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. I remember him wearing an eye patch for two weeks at least once before he could fly again. That was so his vision would equal out. But as a kid, I was oblivious to most of the layers of stress my folks were under.

After the quake, we immediately moved from Eagle River back on base. One day I was downstairs. The building, the same four-plex, same unit we’d lived in twice before, had three stories and I was playing in the basement. The basement consisted of two rooms and I was in the off-room with the adjoining door open. The basement was all either concrete or cement: gray floor and painted white bricks of the walls. There were no windows down here. I think some units had windows, seems I recall John’s unit having basement windows, but not this one.

Left to right: Gerald II, my dad (Jerry) holding baby Tommy, and me, right before we left Alaska. Photographer must be Eileen Williams (otherwise known as Mom.)
Left to right: Gerald II, my dad (Jerry) holding baby Tommy, and me, right before we left Alaska. Photographer must be Eileen Williams (otherwise known as Mom.)

Alvin and the Chipmunks sang School days, school days, brand new golden rule days on my record player. I danced and sang with them. I had the words memorized. I could come down here and not disturb my mom and my baby brothers. Suddenly the ground started to shake and it shook and shook and I was so scared of being buried down there alone, being buried, being swallowed. I screamed, “Mom! Mommy!”

It was another aftershock.

I cannot recall if my mom didn’t or didn’t come down to get me. My memory ends with me still screaming. I can say I never played down there again.

Nevertheless, I still loved Alaska—the mountains of Alaska, the wildflowers and animals, although I didn’t get to see much of that on base. All my friends on base had moved away. I spent that summer catching bees from the neighbors flower garden inside glass jars. The easiest bees to catch were the ones that crawled way up inside the snapdragons. Sometimes I’d watch s the older neighbor boys shoot off dandelions from a little canon. That was boring to me.

Anything beat a day at the base nursery. That’s what they called Day Cares back then, nurseries. All the noise and strange kids, some of them mean. The only good thing there was the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show they let us watch on a big screen. Mom bought me a Mr. Potato Head and I took him and his box of attachments with me and did my best to keep to myself there.

Talk about our move occupied my parents conversations in those days. I didn’t like that either. Alaska’s state flower is the forget-me-not, although I vividly remember fields of fireweed and the occasional bluebell, I loved the tiny forget-me-nots more and more as moving day approached. I vowed I never would forget Alaska, my friend. She might have gotten all broken and crooked but she hadn’t meant to hurt any body, I knew that didn’t I, and at least she hadn’t moved away on me. She was still here, and that meant a lot to me.

Alaska was the constant companion, the imaginary (?) friend, the only friend I had left. Dad was often gone and mom was busier than ever with my brothers. There wasn’t even the mean girl that bit me who lived next door to us in Eagle River left to play with. I hated living back on base. I yearned to move back to the mountains.

My mother, on the other hand, after the quake, hated Alaska worse than ever. She delivered my brother Tommy during the summer of ’64 and she was ecstatic about dad’s transfer to South Carolina. Dad, true to his nature,  decided we’d get there by driving across the country.

I can hear readers judging me as one troubled little kid at that point and reading this over I’d have to agree. I had some issues and denial was one of them. These are issues that can stick to a person; but still, I don’t think my personification of Alaska was as crazy as it sounds. My relationship with nature expanded over time, not disappeared.

Anyway, we were scheduled to leave Anchorage early that fall when all the other kids were starting school. Dad intended to beat the first snow. But September came. I would have been in third grade. My parents packed everything in a frenzied haste. If it wasn’t something we’d use camping along the way, they shipped it ahead to Myrtle Beach. We lived with the (ugly) base furniture for a few weeks before leaving.

I confess that for many years afterwards, a part of me blamed what happened next on my mom’s intense hatred of Alaska and another part of me always figured it was Alaska’s last attempt to keep me. Alaska didn’t want me to move away like everyone else. Her and I, we were bonded. I understood.

Note to readers: the housing development we lived in up in the mountains above Eagle River I could not find when I visited there around ’93. Perhaps all those houses that were falling apart were demolished. It looked to me as if where we once lived is now swallowed within the National Park. If anyone knows different, please let me know.


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