by Peter S. Oleson
Out here in the woods, we lived most frugally. I certainly didn't want
Diane to have to go to work. I wanted her to stick around the house and
take care of the babies. Mothers should suckle their children. That is
the way it should be. I was never breast-fed. Did I miss it? How could I
know? My children all were. Raise your children properly, and maybe they
will have that little extra chance that might make the difference. Am I a
chauvinist? Does the fact that I think women with children, as well as the
men who fathered them, owe those children a huge debt make me somehow
something ugly? I don't think so. The proof is in the pudding, and only
time will tell. This ain't about laws, this is about honor.
I think that one of the reasons things seem so out of control these days is
that we have a pretty pitiful bunch of parents out there. Certainly not
all of them, but the culture seems to make it harder and harder for
borderliners to cope with life and children. All too many seem to be
content to let their children's teachers and the television take the burden
off of them. So the teachers babysit, and everyone proceeds at the pace of
the slowest. Children get shuffled around from household to household with
no one wanting to be the enforcer, the warrior. Jeez, I'm preaching again.
The gathering of our little family tribe here in the Northland was soon
transformed from a uniting to deal with grief, to a rejuvenation. New
children, so many things to do, we kind of leaned on each other to provide
a slingshot effect. A few years of adversity overcome added a lot of
character to all the characters gathered up here. Mom and Dad managed to
sell their cabin and are still using that income to bolster their social
security and retirement pay. My sister and her husband, Willy, built a
fine house and sold it, hopefully deriving income for many more years.
They all eventually moved back to Wisconsin. We stayed here. We had our
last child, Alaric, just before they left. I reasoned with myself: if it
was so good, how come I left there? How come I was so glad to get out of
Wisconsin? We stayed, and I'm glad we did.
Everything proceeded smoothly until 1986. The bottom fell out of the
economy here that year. I had some problems dealing with Glen at work; the
relationship working with a relative, however attached, didn't help. I
sold the old house to him the year before, so, when his new shop was built
there, I found myself driving from way out here in the boondocks to back
where I used to live. It really wasn't that, though, there just wasn't any
money being spent in the state. The price of oil was way down, companies
were downsizing, it got pretty bad economy-wise up here: record numbers of
foreclosures and bankruptcies.
This may be where I need to clarify some things about Alaska in the latter
part of the 20th Century. Because of the Constitution of the Sate of
Alaska and the situation with the oil companies here, the operating fund of
the State is almost totally dependent on the selling price of oil. This
is also tied in with the "Permanent Fund", which is so misunderstood by
people who don't live here. According to the Alaska Constitution, no
person can own the mineral rights of the State of Alaska. Only the State,
as the representative of the people, can own the oil, coal, or whatever is
below the ground upon which you live. (With the exception of some
pre-statehood grants.) That means that if you live on top of a pool of
oil, and you own the land that that oil is under, you can't sell that oil,
you can't collect a cent for your fortunate position. That resource is the
possession of the State of Alaska, and indirectly, of the inhabitants of
the State of Alaska. Therefore, all residents of the state should share
equally in the division of that portion of the resources of the State that
are sold, should they not?
In the State Compact with the Federal government, that split is 90/10. Of
the percentage of the royalty charged to the oil companies, the state of
Alaska gets 90%. That is one of the real problems with the development of
the oil field at ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). There is a lot of
oil up there, but the US government wants to screw with the split. They
don't want Alaska to get 90%, which is what we were promised under the
Statehood Act. They want a much higher percentage for themselves. I have
heard the figures 10/90 and 50/50 bandied about.
Anyway, of that royalty on the oil that the State gets, a fixed percentage
is invested for the people of the State, and from that fund, every year,
after adjustments for inflation, and a "hold harmless" clause for people
with welfare payments, the people of the State, who can't profit from the
ownership of valuable resources, get a share of what the interest of that
fund realizes. From a socialist point of view, it makes perfect sense.
But America seems to be a country given to greed. Be aware of what
happened to the last country that screwed with people of principles on this
continent. Don't tread on us. We got a goddamned contract. What we may
not have anymore is a State Government with the backbone to insist on
getting what we are supposed to get. There are those in government who
maintain that a small piece of the pie is better than no pie at all. I say
we should keep the whole damned pie and leave the oil where it is until
it's value makes it into a chip we can bargain with.
Where was I going here? Remember, the governor we had before our present
one was elected from the Alaskan Independence Party. (Remember Eastern
Europe?) Sadly, though, the constant influx of people from down below has
begun to turn Alaska into just another state. You can tell whether people
think they're Alaskans or not just by listening to them for a few minutes.
A lot of them can't help but talk about how they would have done something
"back home". They come up here and immediately go to work to turn the
place into wherever they came from. Every year more of the old timers
check out. So we have kind of a double society here, one part being people
who want this place to stay like it was, and one part doing everything they
can to turn it into just another state, grab all the money they can, and go
"home". It really is a sad thing to watch. They all say that they love it
here and that the people are so friendly and quaint, and every year there
are more and more of them.
We have been thinking lately about retreating to the Pacific Northwest,
but people in Idaho and Montana report that the same phenomenon is
happening there, only more so. People with a little money are fleeing from
urban areas to places that they consider "safe". They buy up the upscale
houses and drive the price of real estate out of sight. Assessed value
goes up and consequently taxes follow. People who have spent their whole
lives in out of the way places find they can no longer afford the modest
lifestyle they have gotten used to. There is ill will between the classes.
There is ill will between the races.
Twenty years ago, we didn't have stoplights, we didn't have fast food
joints, when you went to the market you saw people that you knew.
Sometimes now I go there and don't see anyone I recognize besides the
employees. The 80's and especially the 90's have brought all that up here,
even to this little town. We got a damned K-Mart, can you believe it?
More stoplights every year, and more chain stores and junk food. Some of
the kids are even calling themselves "gangs". Shit, there I go again,
getting ahead of myself.
Oh yeah, the Permanent Fund checks got here last week and I once again
used the children's to prepay college tuition and put the rest in the bank
for them. I don't think it's a good idea to give children a bunch of money
to piss away. Over the years, those checks dug us a well, put in our
septic system, brought us electricity and allowed us to add on a new
kitchen/bathroom. I don't know where we would be if we didn't have them, I
like to think that we would have gotten all that stuff done anyway, but
everything costs so much money nowadays.
We owe the whole sorry mess to the late Spiro Agnew who, in the early
70's, as vice president, cast the deciding vote in a dead locked Congress
split 50/50. That legacy of the Nixon administration gave us the Alaska
Pipeline, our current problems with native sovereignty, the mess that has
become of control of our fish and game, and eventually the Exon Valdez
debacle. Surely, oil has changed the face of Alaska more than any other
thing. We got lots more people, lots more jobs, lots more money for
everybody. I just can't help wondering, though, what it would be like now
without that ill-fated administration. Enough politics.
Back to 1986; I didn't have a job. I didn't have unemployment, I had
no income at all. I went to every stupid place I could find to make a
dollar and I couldn't find anybody that wanted me. I sure as hell didn't
fit in with the oil crowd. I had vowed earlier that I would never
prostrate myself before big oil. Because of the fact that I had been a
subcontractor, I had to deal with the whole mess as if I were self
employed. I had no real problem with that, but I owned my own house. Just
go out there and try to get some help from your government if you own
anything; even an unfinished little cabin with an outhouse and a few old
In Funny River in 1986, I retreated once again from the mainstream. I had
a decent chainsaw and my strong back, and no income at all. The first
thing we did was cash in our whole life insurance policy and get a tiny,
tiny term life policy. Then, I sold all the guns that I could. It's a
very cold slap in the face to realize that you ain't got nothin'.
I was reduced to cutting firewood for a living that winter. We owned
enough land that we could harvest all the trees in the adjoining rights of
way. I cut wood for hours each day, then, I would split it and load it on
the truck. It took all of a day to do that much of it: the cutting,
splitting and loading. The next day we would drive to town and sit in the
parking lot of the local grocery store and put up a sign on the truck:
Wood For Sale. I remember that winter so well, it was the end of my
cock-sureness, and the beginning of my realizing exactly what "fatherhood"
could mean. I used to take the kids ( Molly and Althea) along to town to
sell the wood. I figured that they would help if they stood in the parking
lot and looked "waif-like", and they did.
One weekend, just before Christmas, I felt particularly low, and this era
of my life was conducive to that. I had all these children and a wife to
support and no money at all coming in. We had given up putting an asking
price on the load of wood. We were too desperate to put a price on it.
Why ask for $100 when you would settle for $50? Why $50? It was enough to
pay for the gas to cut the wood and get to town and back. It was cash, and
cash could buy a few groceries. A couple of loaves of bread and some
peanut butter, and a little gas. And maybe a bottle of vodka.
On that day, an elderly couple stopped and talked to us for a while. They
agreed to buy the load of wood we had and led us to their house. I
unloaded and piled the wood, and they paid for it. Then they gave the two
girls each a doll that the old lady had crocheted the clothes for. I was
very glad about that, for I had almost nothing to give them that year.
(Thank the powers that be for relatives.) That was the Christmas that
Althea gave me a shiny rock that she found in the driveway as a Christmas
present, all wrapped up and her hopping up and down while I unwrapped it.
I still have that rock, and whenever I am really down, I take it out and
think about what it means. I keep it in a little box with what's left of
my worn out wedding ring, the slugs I dug out of the animals that I killed
and my old earrings from the Ketchikan days. My medicine box, well hidden,
but always near.
I lost a lot of my faith in myself that year, I couldn't support my own
family. I started drinking whenever I could, which wasn't real often, but
I anticipated it and reveled in the feeling of nothingness that it brought.
I began to construct a little place in my mind where I could go to escape
from the feelings of worthlessness and despair that I had. A place where I
re-wrote history, where nothing ever went wrong.
A long, long winter that was, although snow was late in coming. It was
the winter of my discontent. I questioned everything about the way I had
handled my life. I took to sleeping on the couch downstairs, feeling
unworthy of a loving wife. Hard stuff to explain, that feeling. I had no
idea at the time, but I had sunk into a state of depression that was to
plague me for the next ten years. I stayed down there on my couch all that
winter, wanting to be upstairs with Diane, but feeling so unworthy. I
don't know what she felt, but I can imagine that she felt neglected and
unwanted. Emotions; can't live with 'em, can't live without. Mine seemed
at times to be out of control.
End of chapter 11.
There were a few things that happened in Alaska since the last chapter that
maybe someone might want to hear about.
This morning it was -20 Degrees, the full moon beaming, bright as a
headlight. A foot and a half of snow.
Moose all along the rights of way munching brush.
Louisiana Pacific announced that they will be closing the pulp mill at
Ketchikan. I should be happy about that, but it's a big blow to the town.
After 2 hours on the phone today, I located my new Dell notebook. It will
be delivered next Monday. Second day air shipped on the 19th. Let's see,
that's the 9th day after shipment, yup, I'm still in Alaska.
Peter S. Oleson