Seth Kantner: Bush students learn that one person's junk is another's tool

Around AlaskaBy SETH KANTNERMarch 9, 2013 

Seth Kantner working with Kotzebue Middle school students

KOTZEBUE -- Recently I volunteered at Miss Jurs' fifth-grade class, something I've done off and on this winter. I went in this time planning to show slides of West Africa: of kids sifting through dumps, dismantling radios and phones to sell the tiny bolts and nuts and screws, and those same children fashioning tin cans into funnels and lamps and watering cans.

It all started with Miss Jurs talking about her "deconstruction zone," a box of old torn-apart electronics and appliances and cameras she uses to teach her students how things work -- an idea straight after my own heart, and straight from my past, too.

As kids my brother and I didn't have electricity, so our first love of electronics was to go to the village dump and tear AM radios and CB's and electric motors apart, to see how all the magic inside worked, and then make things from the parts.

My first trip to this fifth-grade class, I told them we needed to make a light to look for a wounded brown bear. The kids didn't know me. They gathered around, interested. I filled them in on the story.

One fall hunters had slightly grazed a bear with a bullet and for a few days the bear had hung around our camp along the river. My daughter was 5 years old and she liked to roam around outside, playing in the leaves on the hill and picking cranberries. I was worried about that bear showing up again.

In the evening at dusk I spotted the golden shoulders that bear had coming across the tundra. I hid under my dad's log cache. The dusk kept getting darker and the bear closer and closer, camouflaged in all the new brush to the north. My vision is terrible in low light and the bear was dark brown except that bright patch. Once in awhile through my binocs I caught a glimpse of golden fur. I kept staring and blinking and staring. Finally, I was pretty certain a bear was standing in front of me.

I peered through my scope and fired. The bear dropped, thrashed around and disappeared in the dark, back the way it had come. I ran up to the house and started flinging junk around -- trying to make some sort of spotlight out of kindling, AA batteries, an old reflector, tape and wire.

"Ready?" I asked the kids.

They were wide-eyed. "Yes!"

We dumped a box of junk on the carpet. "We need batteries," I told them. "We need some sort of a bulb. We need wire to get the electricity to the bulb. We need to hurry; we have to find that wounded bear. It'll suffer and the warm meat will rot if we wait until morning."

I snipped a power cord off a smashed radio, wired it to a bulb socket and an AC bulb and plugged it into the wall. It lit up. The students were impressed.

"Are there wall sockets on the tundra?"

"No."

"Okay. Save the wire. We have to keep trying. Do we give up?"

They were tense and excited. "No!"

"We never give up."

We tried a bunch of bulbs and wires and various batteries. Nothing would work. My hands were shaking -- from too much coffee that morning -- but it added to the wounded-bear affect. I knew we were running out of time, too. Miss Jurs had only allotted me half an hour. I repeated, "Do we give up?"

"No, we never give up."

While I scraped the terminals on a Makita drill battery, I filled them in on the rest of the story.

Upriver, that night, I'd scotch-taped four AA batteries and a broken spotlight reflector and bulb to a stick of kindling, then used alligator clips and wire to make it come to light. I headed out on the tundra in the pitch black alders with a shotgun and my little lamp turned off to save power. When I got close to where I'd shot, I clipped the wire on.

Every few steps one of my alligator clips jumped off, plunging me into darkness. "Yoo-hoo, Mr. Wounded Bear?" I didn't really say that, but that's about how pathetic the whole search seemed. Actually, I was somewhat sure I'd made a good shot and if I could ever find him in the dark that bear would be dead in the brush.

In the classroom, finally we broke pieces of plastic out of a phone to wedge wire against the drill battery terminals. We connected that to a four-wheeler taillight bulb, tied twine to the battery to hang it around my neck and wired the bulb inside a flashlight reflector and taped that to my hat. It wasn't very pretty.

Someone flipped the lights off. Our contraption sent a beam of light across the dark room. The kids were enthralled. Miss Jurs' fifth-grade class was prepared to go look for the bear.

Ten years ago my light worked about the same. I found that bear in the brush. My wife and daughter helped skin it in the dark night.

The second visit I made to the classroom, I told the kids we had just lost our prop washer off our outboard motor. Plunk -- in the river. Right after breakup; ice was flowing and floating beside the boat.

"Want to dive down under the ice and swim for it like I did when I was a teenager? Or should we make a magnet out of nails and wire?"

The kids were excited about making things out of junk -- especially something electric -- so we started making an electro-magnet with a long stick and wire and a 20d nail. It took awhile; once again things were not working out well. I kept suggesting that if we failed, we'd need one of them to swim in ice water and feel around on the bottom of the river.

"We never give up," they reminded me.

Finally we had a working magnet. I blindfolded our first volunteer, Brian Stalker, so he couldn't see down into the river -- and then had him lie across the "boat," which was actually a table, and reach that stick with the nail taped on the end down into the "water."

I assigned another volunteer, Deborah Stein, to be the "current." She caught on instantly; she gently pushed the bottom end of the stick back and forth, making it harder for the blindfolded boy to line up with the steel washer lying there on the carpet.

The students were keyed-up and mesmerized. It was a great success. We had to keep throwing that washer back over the side so other kids could have a shot at rescuing it. It was fun. Those kids sure are fun.

This latest class visit, we intended to see those slides of Africa, but I forgot them at home. So instead I told them stories of bandits and police in West Africa -- and how it was hard to tell the two apart, both groups liking to drag nail-filled boards across the road in front of your vehicle and then suggest you might want to give them a "gift."

Cadeau is the West African French word for gift. The class caught on right away. The kids were fast, laughing and picking up on to the humor of using naily boards in that manner. A few of them said they were going home to "ask Mom for a cado."

By now they probably have. I hope I haven't started anything. I just wanted to show them a different view of stuff some people might call junk.

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska; email him at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

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