The Free and the Brave

I wouldn’t be quite the man I am today if I hadn’t grown up in a rural Alaskan village. Moose Hole added a perspective to my formative years that would have been impossible to replicate in any other setting.  Its remoteness and rusticity have colored my outlook on life until this day. 

The village didn’t have a single street light until my late teens.  The closest clinic was 76 miles away.  The nearest traffic light was 210 miles away.  The fire department, which was only functional if the neighbors weren’t out at fish camp, consisted of an improvised mix of garden hoses, fire extinguishers, and a lake water bucket brigade.  Except for the occasional passing State Trooper, there was no police presence in Moose Hole at all.  There was no Chamber of Commerce or Better Business Bureau to complain to when the Cleaver sisters threatened to put you in a headlock if you didn’t listen to their Amway presentation.  Children on their walk to and from school frequently experienced dangerous run-ins with bears, mother moose, and rabid escapees from Jake Flemblaster’s squirrel menagerie.   The closest thing to an animal control officer to be found in Moose Hole was Klondike Clancy who was always eager to donate his expertise with the Ruger .44 magnum that swung from his ever present gun belt.  During the winter, everyone knew to keep one eye peeled for wannabe musher Sally Blunt.  Without warning, Sally had a tendency to burst out of the brush in the oddest places, lashing her mongrel dogsled team onward with a pink foam swimming noodle.  Cross-country skiers or firewood cutters would have just enough time to hurl themselves out of her path before the yelping pack would go careening by with inches to spare.  In short, Moose Hole provided all the adventure a kid could hope for.

I loved every minute of it until that fateful day when my parents finally gave my downy derriere the swift kick which toppled me out of the nest. When I landed with a resounding “kerplunk,” I found myself sitting disheveled and confused on a college campus near Indianapolis. To my dismay, I soon discovered that my new environment was much more lonely and savage than Moose Hole had ever been.  To assuage my homesickness, I began to entertain the other residents of the freshman dorm with stories of back home.  As a result, half of my friends began to regard me as some sort of a feral nut case, while the other half revered me as a living legend who had strode out of the sunset after surviving a harrowing ordeal in a primal no-man’s land.  All of them, however, shuddered at the thought of being forced to live in such a God-forsaken outpost as the Moose Hole I described. 

So taxed was their credulity, that I periodically found it necessary to defend myself against charges of making it all up.  In all honesty, their comic reactions to my narratives did present a fertile breeding ground for fictional tall tales.  Nevertheless, as you can imagine, I made a point of conscientiously resisting the temptation to prevaricate.   Exhibiting Herculean self-control, I restricted myself to only embellishing the isolated details which I determined to be particularly lackluster.  Since then, as my readers can attest, I have matured into a responsible and serious journalist who has abandoned even such marginally ethical forays into hyperbole.

However, in spite of my best efforts to describe the excitement that had enriched my childhood, it was incomprehensible to my gape-jawed freshman listeners how I had managed to survive those years without dying of sheer boredom.  They wondered if I had used a lot of drugs or drunk a lot of beer to compensate for the absence of skateboard parks, movie theaters and basketball courts.  No, I told them, I hadn’t ever gotten around to it.  There was too much fun stuff to do.

Not that drugs were unknown in our enclave.  In fact, Skeeter Moss was notorious for experimenting with mind altering substances.  We once found him passed out in his uncle’s cache with a soda straw protruding from his left nostril and a bottle of trapline lure spilled all over the front of him.  He was stoned for a week until the right side of his face swelled up like a beach ball and they rushed him to a doctor in Fairbanks. Evidently, while he had been happily snorting lure by means of a straw up each nostril, one straw had become plugged.  As a result, poor Skeeter had accidentally huffed the whole lure-laden straw up into his sinus area where it had become lodged.  There it began to serve dual functions as a time release muskrat urine dispenser and infection incubator.

But I digress.  After wondering how I could stand the boredom, my college friends would do a sudden mental flip-flop and express surprise that Moose Hole didn’t somehow disintegrate into anarchy.  I guess my description of Klondike Clancy, a civilian, sauntering about while wearing an actual handgun in plain sight evoked stereotypical images of spaghetti western brawls and Ozark mountain feuds.  Quite the contrary.  The insipid statistic was that our village never experienced a single violent crime.  Why, if any Moose Holian had ever contemplated committing such a thing, one quick glance at big, hairy Clancy pre-emptively rehabilitated them on the spot. 

After considerable reflection, I have decided that it all boils down to a difference of world views.  My college friends had come from a mentality that considered comfort, convenience and security to be necessities.  I had come from a mentality that placed self-reliance and elbow room higher on the priority list than having life handed to me on a silver platter.  As a kid in Moose Hole, my imagination was captured by heroes vastly different from the ones which must have inspired my college friends.  When I went outside to play with my friends, we reenacted the exploits of Daniel Boone and Robert Peary and our very own Gomer Clodhopper who lived in a sod-roofed cabin that canted precariously out of the sphagnum moss down by the river, and claimed to be the “fust white feller ter drop a tree in these hyar parts”.

Speaking of sphagnum moss, Rory Smithers, was the only one of my childhood friends who refused to play our “stupid games”.  There was nothing personal about it.  He was one of those reluctant Alaskans who thought that anything originating in Alaska was stupid.  His father, Roland, was a biologist with an energy consulting firm whose company had sent him to Moose Hole to “assess potential aerobic methane oxidation in a boreal Sphagnum-dominated peatland, and establish the viable biomass of methane oxidizing microorganisms in relationship to their probable controlling environmental factors, such as water table depth, soil temperature and pore-water methane concentrations”.  I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded important.  The point is that both Rory and his mother chafed at their exile and worried every waking moment that their friends “back in America” would think they had become Neanderthal Eskimos whose dinner preparations consisted of mashing whale blubber with a rock.

Therefore, Rory wanted nothing to do with pioneer role-playing games.  No indeed!  On the rare occasion that we could persuade him to come out and join us, he insisted that we play things like “The Six Million Dollar Man” or “Starsky and Hutch”.  You can guess who always got to be the Bionic Man.  Back then, Moose Hole could only get one TV station.  It had such poor reception that every show looked identical—faceless silhouettes jerking robot-like across the screen, barely discernible through a blizzard of static.  As a result we had but a vague awareness of these popular shows. 

Other times Rory would wheedle us into playing games in which he could impersonate his own real-life heroes.  He would make us take the part of ordinance violators while he became an intrepid building inspector or IRS agent or health board official.  We were supposed to dig a hole in a place that wasn’t zoned for digging, build a clubhouse that didn’t meet code, ride around on unlicensed bicycles, open an unapproved lemonade stand or some other equally horrendous crime.   Rory would let us get almost finished, then he would pompously arrive on the scene with a clipboard to save the day.  His day-saving consisted of fining us heavily.  If we didn’t give him whatever we happened to be carrying of value, up to and including the shirt on our back, he would promptly throw a bucket of water on us, then taser us with a hair dryer before dragging us away to the dog kennel which served as our prison.  It wasn’t hard for us to play our part convincingly since we had no clue about building codes or zoning regulations or suchlike.  We couldn’t have pretended to keep the law if our lives had depended on it.  As a matter of fact, we thought Rory was asking us to participate in some sort of futuristic science fiction scenario that he had dreamed up. 

Usually those games ended in an argument.  We would protest that his unfair law presupposed that we were so stupid and irresponsible that we had to be treated like a baby.  Inspector Rory would bristle and slowly enunciate that it was all for our own protection, and did we know who we were talking to in that tone of voice?  We would reply that, yes, we knew exactly who Mister Smarty Pants was, and if we were stupid enough to build a shoddy clubhouse and install a poorly constructed wood stove in it, he should grant us the dignity of being able to burn it down around ears without his regulatory interference.  We demanded the right to break our own neck if we were stupid enough to drive our three-wheeler too fast without wearing a helmet.   In fact we insisted that we be the ones responsible for our own actions, stupid or otherwise, and that our well-being really wasn’t any of his darn business unless we hired him to babysit us.  The inspector would then pound on his clipboard and holler that we were big fat jerks who had better be grateful that he was trying to introduce a little civilization to our backwater corner of Redneckia.  We stood our ground, invoking our constitutional rights and informing him that he was a retarded dork head whose jurisdiction we did not recognize.  He would counter by suggesting we would be well advised to shut our booger faces and pay our fair share of taxes for the privilege of being so efficiently managed and protected.  Being fed up with Rory’s version of civilized society, we would revolt, hold him down, and give him a noogie or a wedgie.  As we ran off to play Daniel Boone, Rory would run squalling to the Maternal General’s office to tattle on us. 

Come to think of it, Rory had the same mentality as my audience in those college dorm bull sessions.  If I had to do it over, I would have simply kept my mouth shut.  Some things just can’t be explained to another person who lacks the proper frame of reference with which to grasp the concept being discussed.  Either a person is raised as an independent, self-sufficient type who knows at least three ways to make a fire or they aren’t.  Either a person has been taught that real water doesn’t taste like chlorine or they haven’t.  You’re either comfortable eating things that you personally picked off of plants or you aren’t.  You either understand that a firearm is a useful tool that can be dangerous if used irresponsibly or you consider it the sum of all fears.  Either you know how to operate a Dutch oven, a handyman jack, a pair of knitting needles, post-hole digger, a splitting maul, a rolling pin, a snow shoe, a hay hook, a canning jar, an Ohio blue tip match, a butter churn, and a calf castrator or you don’t.  In an emergency, either you know how to quarter a caribou, perform the Heimlich Maneuver, fell a tree, rebuild an engine, field strip a Colt model 1911, operate a ham radio, and make birch syrup or you don’t. 

If you don’t, I’ll cross my fingers for you that you never lose your electricity or your government assistance check.   But if a disaster occurs, it will be somebody like me who will dig you out of the rubble and shoot the looter who is pummeling your wife with a half empty gasoline can.   Then I’ll share my canned moose meat with your starving family.  That’s just the way I was brought up.

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