Northwest to Alaska
Chapter Eight

by Peter S. Oleson

We were back on the road again and had no particular place we had to go or be. We had our canoe on top of the camper and had brought almost everything we owned. I had left my vinyl collection with a friend back in Ketchikan, to be mailed up later, when and if we found what we were looking for. I had a list of all the VW dealers in the state and Soldotna seemed to be the destination of choice, being in an area of the state that had a climate, hopefully, that was not too forbidding or as wet as Southeast or Kodiak.

We took our time, stopping in Juneau for a while, continuing by boat to Haines. Then it was back onto the gravel and across the border into Canada. We stopped wherever it looked like there might be a good place to fish. There were a lot of places that looked that way. We hopped from town to town and campground to campground, eventually ending up in Dawson, Yukon Territory. We had all been there before. The town isn't very big and there is still a lot of gold mining going on there. The town itself, though, caters to tourists. They have become quite adept at separating fools from their money, and they got a little of ours. They may have gotten more that a little of Andy's, he never would 'fess up how much he lost playing blackjack at the casino.

We moseyed on into Alaska and made our way up to Fairbanks for a few days. It was a pretty lethargic trip and I can't help but notice that it reads that way. We avoided public campgrounds for the most part, preferring secluded trails and pull-offs at small lakes and streams. Andy had this weird habit of parking his truck right alongside ours, I mean within a couple of feet. Nobody for miles around, all the room in the world and Andy three feet away. Toward the end, I'd try to park between trees, but even that didn't work. He'd back his camper in behind me so we were door to door. Eventually, I had to resort to public campgrounds to get some semblance of privacy.

On the way from Fairbanks to Anchorage, we made the mandatory stop at Mt. McKinley and spent a day on the school bus looking for wildlife, like all the rest of the tourists. By the time we got to Anchorage and looked up Steve C., I was pretty much fed up with camping. After spending the Fourth of July there with Steve and Sherry, we headed for Soldotna to check out the employment situation. Andy ran into one of our old friends from Ketchikan and the two of them split off to go their own way. I believe they ended up in Kodiak for a while, but both of them ended up eventually returning to their respective "homes".

I applied for work at the VW dealership, but it didn't sound too promising. We ended up working in a salmon cannery. Diane in the egg room and me in the "slime line". In the egg room they salted down and boxed salmon roe for shipment to Japan. In the slime line, we had to catch all the fish that the automatic cleaning machine screwed up. Sometimes that was a lot of fish. They were supposed to come out with their heads, fins and intestines removed, but at times they would go through sideways or backwards and the resulting mess was our problem on the slime line. Sometimes the machine had a conniption and we couldn't keep up. I still have this vision of some housewife opening a can of salmon to find a salmon face staring up at her.

All the other people working on the slime line were from the Philippines and jabbered all day back and forth. Most of the time they were probably laughing at me, they had done that work for years, and I was all thumbs. The place would shut down at noon and we all got fed for free. Huge amounts of food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I didn't know anyone there but Diane, so I figured that the two of us would go sit with the guys I was working with and shoot the shit. I figured wrong. They didn't want any white people at their table and went out of their way to make sure I didn't misunderstand them. So we went over and ate with the white people. Kind of an awkward situation, the white people wondered why we wanted to sit with the Filipinos.

On days that no fish came in, we got to sort cans in the cooling shed. Thousands and thousands of cans of fish that had to be individually inspected to make sure they sealed properly, then packed in cardboard boxes to go to the distributors to be labeled. If they didn't seal, we could take them home to eat. I didn't really want to eat any. I'd seen some pretty crappy looking pieces of fish go past me in the slime line, and even if I hadn't, after looking at fish all day, I sure wasn't wild about eating any. That job lasted maybe a month. The only thing I would miss about it was the food, they sure fed their people good.

After that, we took up temporary residence in the city campground in Kenai. A nice little campground right in town. They don't allow itinerants there anymore, I suppose that real tourists are better for the local economy. I checked back at the VW dealer and got hired. There was a little problem the first day I showed up for work, though. I had dropped off my resume and checked back with my hair stuck up under my hat. Bill was a little surprised when I showed up for work with a ponytail. He got over it. Bill was from Switzerland, as was his wife Charlotte. There were two other mechanics working there: Jeff (who I would introduce to my mother years later as: The biggest pervert I ever met), and Glen (later to become my brother-in-law). There was Bill's son Peter, and the after school helper Norm. Kind of a mom and pop dealership. Bill and his family lived behind the shop on the Kenai River, Glen lived with his family in a rental house right in the parking lot.

Diane got a job at the airport in Kenai, so as soon as the weather started cooling down, we had to find a place to live. We spent that first winter on the Kenai Peninsula in an eight-plex one block from the bluff in Kenai. It was pretty small, but it was warm and there were no rats. I bought a little black and white 12v/120v television set and we watched television for the first time in three years. We also bought a little car so we could both drive to work. We began to find a new groove.

The Kenai-Soldotna area is very much different than Southeast Alaska. There is no where near as much rain, and that is reflected by the differences in the vegetation. No towering Sitka spruce and no cedars of any variety. Most of the trees are spruce or alder, although there are a few others. The Kenai Peninsula also has the highest per-capita population of Vietnam Era veterans in the country. With the Kenai Mountain range taking up the eastern half of the Peninsula, Cook Inlet bounding it on the west and most of the rest of the land under the control of one government entity or another, people here are really not far from whatever recreational environment they could desire.

Things proceeded pretty well until January, when the typical winter commerce slowdown forced the newest employee, me, into unemployment. I hung around the apartment for a couple weeks but it drove me batty, so cold and dark most of the time. I think I collected two unemployment checks, the only two I have ever gotten. Diane switched jobs about that time, also. She started working at a small Mom and Pop laundry just north of Kenai, for a delightful old couple. I started looking for work again. In a couple weeks, I found another job at a small repair shop almost across the street from where Diane was working. Very convenient.

Winter slowly worked its way into spring and I was at work on that day in April when I got one of those phone calls that you wish you could go through life without. It was my sister in Wisconsin. Eric had been in a motorcycle accident and he was dead, please come home, we need you.

I told my boss that I had to leave, and I didn't know when I'd be back. I phoned Diane and told her and went out and sat in my car and wondered what I should do, what I could have done differently, but I was in shock and nothing at all made the least bit of sense. It was only a few minutes until Diane hopped into the car and we could hug and let the tears come, just the first of many.

There really wasn't any choice, I had to go back. We went to the apartment and told the manager what had happened. She was sympathetic; just go, we'll work it out when you get back. Grabbed a few clothes and the checkbook and headed for the airport. Plane to plane to plane, no sleep, just dread and despair for hour after hour through the night. The turbulence didn't even bother me, what could have happened?

We got back just in time to head for the funeral home to pick out a casket. Listened to the facts, what there were of them. He was riding with some friends, in the lead, and he never took the lead before that day. A car turned in front of him without signaling and left him with no options. He laid the bike on it's side but hit a patch of gravel that threw him chest first into the car. He laid on the ground and drowned in his own blood. The paramedics got there in time to catch him before his heart stopped, but his brain was inactive. At the hospital, Dad, between a rock and a hard place, told them to pull the plug, and it was over. Just like that.

Funeral details and stories of individual grief are pretty much universal, I see no reason to go into them here. Suffice it to say that it was indeed a dark day in the Oleson family, and we all bear the emotional scars. I worried myself sick about where he had gone, he wasn't in his body anymore, he had to be somewhere. Diane and I flew back to Alaska and we haven't been back since.

A month or so later, I had a dream. I was driving a car and I looked in the rear view mirror, and Eric's eyes looked back at me. He said " It's OK, let it go, I'm fine." Goodbye, my brother, my friend.

Peter S. Oleson

From [poleson@ptialaska.net]