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Friday, 13 November 2009

The Treachery of Threads and Clay

By Jeanne Waite Follett

Daring, forbidden and messy, it was the most fun kids could have growing up in South-central Alaska. Right up until the funeral, that is. The funeral took the fun out of it in a miasma of bloat and coarse black thread.

Bordered by the Aleutian Range on the west, the Alaska Range in the north, and the Kenai and Chugach mountains to the east, Cook Inlet is a 180-mile-long estuary that pierces Alaska at its the southern coast. Nearing its northern terminus, the inlet splits into two fingers and Anchorage sits on the point between those fingers.

On the western side of the inlet stand the four, active, snow-covered volcanoes of Augustine, Iliamna, Redoubt and Spurr. At the end of that chain is Mt. Susitna, or the Sleeping Lady as she is called in folklore. Presenting the profile of a reclining woman, long hair flowing from her head, the Sleeping Lady is said to be waiting for her warrior lover to return from battle. I have often thought of the volcanoes as her guardians, gushing geysers of steam to warm her and spewing shrouds of soft ash to blanket her as she sleeps.

Mt. Susitna lies directly across the water from downtown Anchorage and the water between the two teems with tens of thousands of chinook, sockeye, coho and chum salmon, and the beluga and orca whales that chase them for food. Luscious razor clams spawn and live in the sandy beaches.

While stunning in its beauty, it was not the view that inspired us kids to bicycle several miles up KFQD Road and through the upscale subdivision of Turnagain by the Sea with its brown and green and yellow and blue ranch style homes and neat yards, black-topped roads and cement sidewalks.

We pedaled beyond the houses to the bluff overlooking the gray waters of glacial-ground silt mixed with seawater to a vacant lot where we would ditch our bikes in the shoulder-high grasses and alder bushes, then climb down a narrow drainage ravine to the mudflats a hundred feet below the bluff.

“Mudflats” is a misnomer. Much of the tidal plains are made up of rocky or sandy beaches, interspersed with beds of gray, gooey, sticky, wonderful clay. That’s what drew us.

We never took our shoes off when we walked on the clay. We always thought that this time we could stay on top of the clay and not get dirty. “This time” never came, even when we tried walking on the slippery algae patches that grew atop the muck.

If we stood in one place and shifted our weight from foot to foot, the clay took on quicksand-like properties, sucking in our feet and trapping us. Sometimes we could escape on our own but sometimes we had to be rescued by our friends or slip out of our shoes and then dig them out of the goop. The thirty-foot tides that scoured the mudflats twice daily were an added element of danger.

Before heading home we stopped at a freshwater creek and cleaned off all traces of clay from our jeans and shoes. The clay flats were parentally-forbidden territory, but they were so much fun and their lure so consuming, we could not understand why and thus chose to ignore the admonitions.

* * *

Television came to Anchorage during the winter of 1953-54, and my younger brother and I mounted an intense campaign to acquire one. Finally we were told that if we would be in bed and remain quiet by nine o’clock every night for a month, our parents would purchase the prized appliance.

We were in the last week of fulfilling our promised behavior when, lying still awake in our bunk beds near the back door of our log home, we heard voices outside and could see flashlight beams darting about in the dark.

Jim and I stayed quiet, not wanting to have to start over for another month. That coveted magic box of black and white moving pictures was within reach now.

We heard our parents go to the back door and speak with the men outside. Soon our mother came and asked if either of us had seen Gary Lund that day. I kept my mouth shut, suspecting a trick designed to buy our good behavior for yet another month. Then she explained that Gary was missing and the men outside were searching the creek and pond behind our house for him. Neither of us had seen him.

Gary’s body was found at low tide the next day entrapped in the clays of Cook Inlet near where the high railroad trestle crossed Chester Creek. The trestle was another forbidden area that lured us kids like fish to bait.

My favorite aunt insisted on taking us to the viewing at the funeral home. We parked against the curb and walked up the sidewalk to the neat, white, home-like building on a quiet side street in downtown Anchorage. Soft rain fell as we walked under the green canopy that covered the last eight feet of the walkway and up the steps with the black wrought iron handrails.

A number of people milled about McKay’s Funeral Home. Men stood on the porch and smoked while women huddled together inside and dabbed at their red swollen eyes with lace-trimmed handkerchiefs. There was very little conversation, and it was subdued.

On the right side of the room, on a bier decorated with numerous vases of flowers, was a carved oak casket with gleaming bronze handles. At the urging of my aunt, we approached and saw Gary laid out on white silk. He was dressed in a new suit and shoes and from the neck down looked as if he were ready for Sunday church.

From the neck up it was another story. His freckled face was bloated and huge stitches of coarse black thread sealed his lips and eyes shut.

This isn’t right, I thought. She shouldn’t have brought us here to see this.

At 12 years of age, I could not understand why I thought it was wrong of my aunt to take us to the viewing, although I suspected that her motives involved teaching a lesson to me and my brother, as well as to her own son, who was my brother’s age.

The clay flats of Cook Inlet lost their allure after that, but whether it was from the viewing of a young boy’s drowned body or the onset of my teen-age years and changing thoughts about what was fun, I do not know. I knew, though, that my feelings had changed towards my aunt.

* * *

Ten years later, on the afternoon of March 28, 1964, I stood once again on the bluff overlooking Cook Inlet, although this time the bluff was several blocks inland from where it had been in those days of bicycles and clay. The evening before the Pacific and North American tectonic plates had ruptured far below the gooey clay and rocks and soil, and a massive earthquake measuring 9.2 had shaken the life and innocence out of Anchorage and its surrounding areas.

Mixed with groundwater during the shaking, the soils and sands liquefied and the clay became a perilous lubricant. Great slabs of Turnagain by the Sea fractured and tossed dozens of homes and their occupants on a treacherous, one-way, roller coaster ride to the murky cold waters of Cook Inlet.

Unbelievably, the Good Friday earthquake of March 27 took only 13 lives in Anchorage and only 131 lives total.

Now a 22-year-old news reporter, I stood on the new bluff the morning after and stared at the tumble of ruined homes on that topsy-turvy landscape before me. Acres of debris floated on the water in the distance. I had escaped death twice during the five and a half minutes the quake had terrorized us, and I had to move from my damaged apartment downtown as soon as the National Guard would let me go into the ravaged area.

My numbed brain resisted the sight before me. Somewhere in that unholy calamity, volunteer search and rescue teams were crawling through the destruction looking for living and dead. Somewhere down there, my 16-year-old brother and other teenagers were salvaging possessions for those who had lost their homes. Aftershock after aftershock continued to shake the area, increasing the danger.

I stood on the new, raw bluff for a long time thinking about our days of foolhardy fun and of the coarse black thread that insulted the freckled face of a young boy.

When at length I turned my back on that geologic chaos, it was forever. I have never returned to it; I don’t need to see it to remember it.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:35 AM | Permalink | Email this post


A great story. Thank you. You write very well and it is a pleasure to read.

What a traumatic thing for a child to go through. I think your Aunt's motives were to protect you, but she was wrong to force you to see a sight that would haunt you forever.

I was 17 when I attended the funeral of a classmate who had drowned. This was during WW II and they had postponed the funeral so his brother (who was fighting overseas) could get home. The full body was displayed and my classmate's skin had darkened with an ugly leathery look. I will never forget it and I vowed I would never have an open casket for my relatives if I could avoid it. I am ancient and I can still see his body in my mind as I am sure you see Gary's.

What a powerful story,Jeanne. I especially appreciated the attention to detail in every sentence.

"A number of people milled about McKay’s Funeral Home. Men stood on the porch and smoked while women huddled together inside and dabbed at their red swollen eyes with lace-trimmed handkerchiefs. There was very little conversation, and it was subdued."

Beautifully written!

A great piece of writing, so many
messages..how we all hated people who were after us not to smoke, to watch the traffic, to come home early, to stay away from these kid or that boy..why didn't they mind their own business, etc..living in Alaska alone must be a life story for those of us who grew up in midtown Manhattan, great places with dangerous elements..funerals always draw us in; at least those of us Irish and remembering them from children..your description was so
vivid, I could smell those smokers as they hugged us kids outside Boyertown on 60th st off 9th avenue, l950s..thanks for sharing, makes me want to visit Alaska even more..write more...

A great piece of writing! I would enjoy reading more about your experience in the Alaska earthquake...if you are so inclined.

Exquisite writing and a compelling, dramatic story. More, more!

Jeanne - An incredibly well-told life story. Thanks - Sandy

Wonderfully written....I would love to read more as well. Thanks for posting.

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