Life in Bethel, Alaska

The End of the Line …

Google Maps content is not displayed due to your current cookie settings. Click on the cookie policy (functional) to agree to the Google Maps cookie policy and view the content. You can find out more about this in the Google Maps privacy policy.






After days...

“It’s good on your blog?” said the nurse over at Bethel’s diabetes prevention. Her name is Shujin.‘God,’ I thought. ‘I hardly ever consider it; and anyway, whoever has the time?’


She shook hands with forthright power.
What people, these Chinese. To somehow get into the US and with fixed determination get a good job as a registered nurse. And imagine: fluent enough to judge good from my bad writing … and all in a second language!

I guess she is elite; what with the ferocious effort needed to graduate from a Chinese ‘meat-grinder’ university. She’s not alone in her achievement; tens of millions of other Chinese have Shujin’s capacity. Each can easily eclipse the average American of today, what with a full 80% of Americans not being so fit for much. This nurse is very fit … and with the beauty of youth as well.


The Economist magazine tells me this week that China’s Huawei is the biggest communication kit maker in the world, with over 60,000 researchers like our nurse, and 47,000 patents. All founded by one man with $5,000 in the 1987. Rather like Silicon Valley, no?!


This day in Bethel, Shujin, RN, represents nothing less than the greatness of future China.


Me? I still can’t remember how to get into my own blog …. 










A day in Bethel

   Snow machines would screech by, all lights and usually a cheery wave. Cars were a constant. Despite Bethel being remote, remote, it was still after all a part of the US of A.


   I often had to wait in the super sub-zero to get across the ‘super highway’ grandly named Chief Eddie Hoffman. Cars are mobile heat machines, and oft a time they would gingerly pull to a stop. All was ice, and any situation could leave a driver helpless while the vehicle slid and killed someone out there on foot.


   One store break I jumped a taxi to get to the egregiously far post office.

“My son has just been found - dead!!” exclaimed a passenger. A teenage boy found frozen to death in a Bethel park. Another 16-year old had snow machined in from a village 400-miles distance, before he too keeled over dead on arrival. I spoke with a man, the father of another lost teenager, a school sports star who had tragically taken his own life. Arriving at AC a day before me was Gil, who hailed from Palm Beach. Now he was gone. “Howling at the moon” I was told, as if by way of explanation.


   I walked on in the big freeze, my body on the edge of freezing down. My wan endeavour was to recover old form, and one afternoon I sort out Bethel’s only (sort of) gym. Any activity outside was highly problematic and at minus 9 degrees F, and a further minus 30 in wind-chill, I came upon a little Yupik kid playing in the snow happily with a toy tractor. He waved at me with the biggest of possible broad smiles!


   “You look cold,” said another, a chap wearing a nice Colombia jacket from AC! I was walking sideways against the bone-breaking wind at the time, and crablike I had come upon a party digging a grave. Rare indeed, as in Alaska the ground is frozen hard as iron. You could have dropped a sub-compact down the huge, deep hole they had dug, very forbidding. But I liked the US flag there, crackling on a high pole.












In the freezing village

   I counted it an immense privilege to be here at all. My belly was full (pilot bread) and I was on station in what might be among the US’s last functioning ethnic cultures. Therein lay my real mission.


   But my freezing, dust covered rooms … All told it would take 42-hours of scrubbing to get just half the rooms adequate. The only time available was between scheduled work shifts. And usually, and I was too dog tired after a shift. Quite a change from being a somewhat famous (or was that infamous) professor. Five days a week from here on out, I must clock in like millions of other blue collar workers throughout America - those lucky enough to be in work in a time of high world unemployment. My half hour clocked out lunch break might include the famous working fare of America, a Bologna sandwich.


   The only reason I was working in America at all, harks back to that long list of folk who’ve run up against me at some point or another. 22-years before I was living behind a couch with son Geoffrey, then 9-years old. 22-years later couch owner Rex was AC’s company president … and what a company! Alaska Commercial sits in history as America’s most historic functioning retailer.


   “Go to Bethel, George,” Rex had advised. “Lots of nice people.” That’s all it took. And now I was standing amid the bone cold vistas of the capital of Yupik America. I was floundering about the freezing village until Jack, a friendly native, handed me a heavy Canadian Snow Goose parka. What a blessing!


   Some daylight had eventually emerged. The Snow Goose together with some of my old Northern Outfitters gear from the Millennium, allowed me to hesitantly edge myself out the door, bundled like a spacewalker out into the low minus 30 temperatures (not including wind-chill). Such was the intensity of the whiteness, that even just brooding inside threatened snow blindness. Sometimes the wind had snow drifted up to the door’s handle.


   My new home had a flag pole out front. There was the red of the US banner showing, the rest being stuck fast to the pole. ‘Liberia’ I would tell the mystified folk of Bethel. The crackling iced snow under boots would lead to the sudden consciousness of breathing. The only sound was crisp crunching footsteps under a still high, hunter’s moon. 9-minutes was all the time I had to reach the store without injury. It stood lit up in the distance like a landed spaceship. If the route brought me into the wind, then I would all but fold. Up would go one gloved hand, up to cover my face.








A Log Cabin

   The truck came to a halt and we rolled out the vehicle and into the frigid air. I was breathing in the chill air some 50 degrees lower than Anchor-town, now far, far behind.


   David, the manager was like a high altitude mountaineer, forced his way through snow piled high snow and up a ramp. At the top he kicked open the door to a wooden house. Inside was lit by the sinister light of a flickering torch. Sinister shadows were cast, showing a frozen, almost polar world. Gloves twiddled at some electrical box hammered into the log wall.


   “Seems we’ve got a malfunction here, George.” We moved on, each step brought down clouds of ancient carcinogenic dust from rafters high above. The floor ahead was a sheet of thick ice. In its midst stood a solitary bathtub. So satanic did it appear, that it could have been a scene from the awful movie ‘Saw.’ A frozen pipe stood out. It’s pre-freeze up drip had created a huge ice pan of fetid water, a huge black stain covered half of the tub like lung cancer.


   “Well then, George,” David greeted though his facemask. “Welcome to your new home!” I vaguely waved a bleak acknowledgement. “We’ll fix it up for you, nice and dandy, just like Boston.”


   We were back … back twiddling wall electrics while unseen, off someplace, there was the muffled roar like that of a banshee. David kicked a second door, and then a third. There it was -- the furnace. The flames could be seen through a tiny window, leaping about utterly uncontrolled. What with its strange hissing noises it looked ready to explode.


   What was that I’d heard? Six Alaskans had been found dead, poisoned by their furnaces, had said the wireless. No problem, the door was cracked open a little, allowing in a blast of the super sub-zero temperatures of the outside. air. That done, there was nothing more.


   I was left sitting alone in the semi-darkness on a semi-broken chair. A form had been left for me to sign. The Company needed to know if their policy on settling me in had been fulfilled. With this was $100 of mandated arrival gifts;- 2-pounds of hard tack Pilot bread, apparently a local specialty since the late 19th century, a Gideon bible, and a water treatment machine (also broken).


   I was in need of liquid drinking water, apparently no easy thing in Bethel. I spied a light through the frosted window and so ventured forth into the crystal clear of a star-studded night. I bashed on the neighbor’s door. Sincerely, I hoped somebody would hear me … Already I was freezing down. A 6foot 8 giant manifested in the doorway. I vaguely waved to the cement-like sacks stacked up. “The water,” was all he said.


   I stumbled back to my new home, took a swig of the slightly-off water, and for a moment felt a modicum of peace. Then the furnace, instead of blowing me to kingdom come, did something even more unnerving -- It stopped. The only other sound was the alarm of an electric dog collar, which had screeching throughout, but unheard in the broader chaos. The temperature of home quickly plummeted. I placed my Chinese sub-zero sleeping bag onto one of the bald, filthy mattresses lying about, and thus took my fitful sleep of many dreams.





---- on the flight of Era Aviation




Hope from the Land

of the Polar Bear

Democracy Reaches

the Kids


Documentary Film