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One of the most beautiful places I lived while in Alaska was on Popov Island in the Shumagin group, located ten miles offshore south of the Alaskan Peninsula. To the north the saw tooth, snow capped Alaska Range served as a majestic guardian that protected our home from bone chilling Arctic winds blowing off the Bering Sea. Across the azure and white flecked channel to the west, Unga Island sheltered our community, Sand Point from the rolling swells moving up the Aleutian Chain from the Kurile Islands of Russia. And to the south-southeast our village was protected from the open expanse of the North Pacific by Nagai Island. Popov was an emerald set in blue, in the center of a crown of green velveteen islands.
It is no wonder that these islands hosted many small communities during the 1800s and early 1900s. There were a dozen villages, supported by fishing, scattered through out the archipelago. Bidarkas, sailing skiffs/ships and later steamer packets plied the waters delivering freight, mail, along with winter supplies and then back hauling salted cod fish and salmon for world markets.
Pirate Cove, Andronica, Apollo, Unga, Squaw Harbor, Cigarette Cove, Korovin, Chernabura, Big Koniuji, Little Koniuji and Sand Point were all inhabited by meteorologists/fishermen of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. All earned these two degrees simultaneously over a life time while taking life from the sea and giving up their kind to the sea. In that idyllic setting, a misprojected forecast could often lead to a permanent demotion for the prognosticator to a `far and distant shore'.
When I arrived in the Aleutian area in 1969 as a state school teacher in the one room school at Belkofski, I came from the Midwest where I did not need a degree in weather forecasting. While it is true that the farmers of the world are akin to the fishermen in their dependence on weather, a misforecast by the former may lead to economic catastrophe but not necessarily to death as in the case of the latter.
Most transient newcomers such as teachers, state troopers, and cannery workers tried to learn something about the local weather forecasting business but were generally far behind even the youngest native resident. To live on the Aleutian frontier was to live in the weather. It enveloped us and governed our work and lives.
Everything came and went from our village by boat or plane and those two forms of transportation depend a great deal on passable weather. Boats were usually delayed only a few days, holed up in a bay or harbor to wait out the blow, but the planes, locked into ridged weekly schedules, could be delayed for weeks by a regular series of cyclonic storms marching up the Aleutians from the Sea of Japan.
The most beautiful days were a dead loss -- as far as any work went. Those on the inside gazed through windows and longed to be out, and those on the outside just wanted to bask in the sun as zephyrs touched lightly on cheek. A perfect day was rare and even the most determined employer often succumbed to these natural Labor Days. . .
To the unknowing mind and inexperienced eye it looked like one of those perfect days might easily extend into the next, but that almost never happened. At some point, light and variable winds would set a course, long swells gathered strength and shards of mist would move silently through the passes and peaks on Unga foretelling the end of tranquillity.
On more than one occasion, Johnny B., the oldest fisherman in the village, would drop by our home at the end of a pristine day, to tell us to secure our worldly possessions for in that day he had detected the signs of a mighty storm. He was never wrong.
Like those rare days in the Aleutians, this summer has been nearly perfect and I wish that it could last forever. Mother and I have settled into a comfortable routine. The days have flown by -- relatives and friends have come and gone -- and I have finally started making some money with my computer. This summer has been cool and calm -- not hot and hectic, nor so new / uncertain as it was in the summer of 1995 when I first arrived for my indefinite stay.
Sister Adelaide came during June to be with Mother and I went on a trip to Argentina, with the Rotary InterDistrict Teacher Exchange Program. When I got home there were some changes. The husband of Mother's best friend had died suddenly. Mr. Smith had been a good friend of forty years and had helped take care of the house and car for Mom before I moved back home. Mother seemed to take his death in stride -- part of the natural cycle. And yet, the idea that Mother was taking this death so calmly drifted silently though my mind like the cool white fingers of mist that crept over Unga before a storm.
A few days after returning from Buenos Aires, as I walked down the canned fruit and vegetable aisle at the local Hy-Vee in Raytown, Missouri I suddenly realized that it had been months since I had bought any fruit cocktail for making Jell-O.
When I first came back home to care for my elderly, house bound Mother some fourteen months ago, she had come into the kitchen on a regular basis to help out. One of the things she could still do was make the Jell-O -- after the can of fruit had been opened. She had been in charge of that, frying of fish and directing the preparation other special dishes. Before my summer trip we had shared a certain satisfaction in the teaching/learning of some favorite family recipes. I wondered if our eating habits had changed so much in recent months?
In late August Mother seemed anxious to be more active. She has gained some weight with regular, if not uninspired, home cooked meals and now felt the need for some exercise. She had talked about cleaning out some parts of her desk all winter, had drifted in her determination during traditional spring cleaning but was finally moved to action -- perhaps running on the energy generated by the approach of the end of the summer.
The cleaning went well and after a few days she determined to move on into the bathroom and clean out the vanity. I was at work on my computer in the basement office just below her living area. I heard the walker scrape across the floor -- not roll, then a crash as the bathroom door hit the back stop, and a dull double thump as her body and head hit the floor.
I was upstairs and at her side in just a few seconds. Here was a situation I had been preparing for with the Red Cross Home Care class. A quick visual check showed no unusual position or bleeding and she was conscious and breathing. She remained calm and stayed in place while we did a more thorough check. She had been bent over almost double working on cleaning the bottom drawer when she lost her balance, so she had not fallen far. There was a small scrape on her hand from the door latch but nothing else. I helped her up and over to her bed and realized she would not have been able to get there by herself.
At the end of August we celebrated a birthday with a special meal. An unseasonable cool mist had invaded the Kansas City area but we had determined not to let that dampen our spirits. Mother's illnesses causes a tremor in her hands but she does as much for herself at the table as possible and that includes putting the dressing on her salad. During this meal for the first time in a year and a half, she flooded her salad bowl with dressing. We laughed it off and I took the extra dressing onto my salad. And then the same thing happened with the barbecue sauce she was putting on her steak. . .
William R. Eubank has taught in Alaska, China, Hong Kong, Texas, Mexico and Argentina and has served on local and state school boards. He has contributed to "Caregiving" (a national newsletter for persons caring for an aging relative found at: http://www.caregiving.com/ ), "the Warbonnet" (a publication of the Santa Fe Railway Historical & Modeling Society found at http://www.ATSFRR.com), and is Webmaster at One Crossroads Place BBS and serves as Web Librarian for the Gibson Digital Library.
Copyright 1996 William R. Eubank
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