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Yeah, that's me. On my honeymoon in Alaska. At Valley Park Elementary in Ketchikan playing with the same wooden blocks I did when I was five years old. (1999)
There's a story I've told people all my life. At this point I assume it's true, but truth be told, it may be a gross exaggeration and/or distortion of what really happened when I was a child.
My father wasn't around a lot at when I was little. He worked in places where we weren't and at times he seemed more myth than man. I remember my mother talking about how I was once walking down a street or through a store and asked every man we met if he was my father. She was embarrassed.
When my dad came home I had to reconcile the man he was with the man I thought he would be. But this isn't supposed to be about my dad as much as it is about my yearning to be where he's been.
I'm going to tell you about a postcard that probably never really existed (Mom, Dad, help me out here). This is from a long time ago when my dad worked in Alaska. When he worked in Barrow. He was employed by the Bureau of Land Management as a surveyor, measuring the tribal lands that belonged to the local Inupiat people.
When he was in Barrow, he sent my mom a postcard. Part of the short note he'd written her was his discovery that in Barrow there was a beautiful woman hiding behind every tree. The picture on the postcard was an aerial view of Barrow, three hundred miles inside the Arctic Circle. Two hundred miles from the nearest tree.
We lived in Alaska for a short time — I spent half of first grade going to school in Ketchikan. Being there was like magic. One of the few moments from my childhood that seem too fantastic to have actually occurred to the likes of me.
On our honeymoon, Candy and I cruised in Alaska, and our first port of call was Ketchikan. I arranged in advance to visit my elementary school, Valley Park Elementary. There is a whole other story about why this school made such an impression on me. The super short version is that it was a free school.
Candy and I got a tour of the school, saw some kids, talked to a couple teachers, but it was the wooden blocks that floored me. The same wooden blocks that I had played with as a child. When I saw them, the surge of emotions was crippling. Like that scene in Amelie where the guy finds the old, dirty tin of toys and mementos that he hid behind a wall as a child.
My skin is gooseflesh now simply remembering the feel of the floor beneath me as I sat there playing with the blocks, fingering the worn edges and rounded corners from the scads of years and hundreds of children's hands. Holding those blocks, remembering them more from the way they felt than how they looked, I didn't want to leave. Candy was very patient.
After Ketchikan, we moved back to Michigan. Some time later, maybe that spring, maybe in the summer, our family gathered in the large living room of my grandparents' farmhouse so my dad could give them a presentation about his time in Barrow. He had a slide projector and a screen and everything. I remember the shuck-shuck sound as he switched from slide to slide of a land without trees, a land on the ice. There were stark houses against a sea of white. There was a freshly slaughtered whale and his description of eating whale flesh.
I was amazed.
I was only six or seven years old when I sat on the floor of the farmhouse watching these otherworldly images of what my dad had seen, what he had experienced, and I was jealous to have not seen it myself. I wasn't in Alaska for even six months, and even though that short time transformed me in ways I'm still discovering decades later, I felt cheated because of what I had missed.
Believe it or not, when we planned the honeymoon, Barrow never crossed my mind. It wasn't until a year later that I realized how close I'd been and that it may have been my last chance to see the Arctic Ocean.
But now I'm going back to Alaska.
And I'm headed to Barrow.
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