Michael Carey: Class of '63 never imagined Alaska of '13

I recently attended my 50th high school reunion in Fairbanks. The gathering painfully confirmed how much my classmates and I have changed. A waggish friend eyeing the crowd said "Who are all these old people?" But we were not the only ones who have changed in a half century. Alaska has too.

Some of the change is readily quantifiable: The 1963 population was perhaps a third of today's, the economy of yesteryear was dependent on military spending, population turnover was more rapid, especially given the large number of seasonal workers, the road system was shorter, the reach of government limited, and telecommunications were not only limited but far more expensive. (How about $9 for a three-minute phone call to New York City?)

In 1963, the last of the miners who stampeded to Dawson, Circle, Nome and Fairbanks could be seen on downtown streets. These men and women remembered the hardships accompanying the search for gold "back in one," my ancient neighbor Shorty Harbell's blanket characterization of yesteryear. The hardships of 1901 taught this generation modest expectations. Feel like washing your face after climbing out of bed in the morning? Just stick your head in the creek. That was good enough for any sourdough in "one."

Today, the Last Frontier is a land of affluence. Not that every Alaskan is affluent -- poverty, especially rural poverty, remains common and so are street people (whose predecessors camped within walking distance of my parents' house.) But the signs of affluence are everywhere. The large houses, some of which have garages for three or four cars. The diversity of shopping venues with goods from all over the world. The exceptional restaurants, which are part of a golden age of cooking in Alaska. The prevalence of homeowners with snow machines, four wheelers, boats and other watercraft in their front yards. The expensive vacations as far away as Australia and China. The winter homes in Las Vegas, Palm Springs, and Phoenix.

In the early Sixties, garages were something of a rarity except for people I thought were rich. These people -- the local banker, contractors, insurance agents, mining company executives -- were comfortable but not wealthy. I had no concept what wealth meant until I went away to college and met kids who had gone to prep school. One of my friends' parents had a summer cottage on Lake Canandaigua, near Rochester, New York. The cottage was bigger than any Alaskan home I had ever seen.

Merchants usually had a limited selection of goods, and when they ran out, resupply was weeks away. Mail order? Sure, the big catalog companies served the entire state, but three day service from New York or Chicago was unknown. The good restaurants offered well-prepared dishes from the traditional American cookbook, but you were not going to see menus with six or eight different salads and a variety of vegetarian dishes. Nobody had heard of calamari -- or the many spices available at bodegas and other ethnic outlets. Food along the highway system could be especially bad. Overcooked beef was a specialty -- as were soggy pies featuring a red, blue or yellow gelatinous filling that roadside cooks passed of as strawberry, blueberry, and lemon.

I don't think I knew anybody who had the money for a vacation except a couple of my Dad's construction-hand friends, bachelors, who saved their pay checks for Christmas in California or Arizona. You certainly could not borrow money for a vacation before credit card companies and financial institutions filled Alaskan consumers' mailboxes with card and cash offers. During the winters of yesteryear, construction workers and other seasonal workers with families -- my Dad Fabian for one -- went into debt to the grocery store, dry goods store, drug store, the dentist and other professionals. They ran up tabs and paid their debts in the spring, plus interest, when they finally returned to work or, in the case of trappers like my Dad, sold their catch -- marten, lynx, fox, mink and perhaps beaver -- to a fur buyer.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was a dream Willie Hensley, Emil Notti and a few others Native leaders incompletely foresaw, and nobody foresaw the wealth and opportunity the claims act would bring to Native corporations and their shareholders after they became Alaska's largest private landowners.

Nobody imagined the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. Free money from the state of Alaska? You're dreaming. In my childhood, the territory sent old-timers like Shorty Harbell modest checks for "old age relief, but after the old-timer died, the administrator of his or her estate was expected to pay back the territory if the estate contained anything of value that could become converted into cash. (The territory did not get much back. Sourdoughs with a half-century in Alaska who died worth less than $200 were common. One itemized estate record I saw included a list of the old-timers socks under the heading "socks, holes. Value 10 cents.")

The oil industry, the source of most permanent fund money, was exploring statewide and had made important finds on the Kenai Peninsula, but oil's contribution to the economy was modest - as was oil's political power in Juneau. When I left Lathrop High School, I had never met anyone who worked for the oil industry.

In the Sixties, politicians, newspaper editors, academics and a few others with visionary tendencies talked about the future. They only thing they agreed on -- change was coming. They certainly were right about that, even if the specifics escaped them.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.