By Donald Proffit; Epicenter Press, 2023; 262 pages, $16.95.
1970 wasn’t a good year to finish college. The Vietnam War was escalating, more men were being drafted, and graduates lost their student deferments when they received their degrees. A lottery system based on birthdate determined who would be drafted. Donald Proffit drew a low number. Unless he received conscientious objector status, went to Canada or jail, or admitted to the military that he was gay (he didn’t), he was going to war. Proffit’s memoir “Hardship Alaska” is the story of how he obtained that status, where it took him, and what happened when he got there.
Proffit begins in his senior year at Westminster Choir College, near Princeton. Knowing the draft awaited him, he devoted growing efforts to being granted CO status, going through the appeals process for five months before reaching his goal. He could avoid military service, but he had to serve the country in a nonviolent fashion, in what the military defined as a “hardship post” (hence the title) at least 85 miles from his home. Proffit lived in Pennsylvania. He took a job in Alaska.
After driving up the Alcan back in the gravel days, a story he tells well, Proffit arrived in Anchorage on Halloween 1970 and took his position with Alaska Children’s Services, working as a relief counselor for two church-run children’s homes. From there Proffit’s employment situation grew somewhat undefined. He shifted between facilities, sometimes witnessing abusive treatment of children, who themselves exhibited extreme behavior.
Then he was abruptly let go and sent to a lower-paying job with the Episcopal Church. There he met Father Chuck Eddy and his wife, Mary, who became lifelong friends and confidants, and who were the first people in Alaska he came out to. Both feature prominently in the ups and downs that follow, and their kindness and counsel would help guide Proffit through some difficult times.
Other than the Eddys and couple of others, Proffit mostly kept his sexuality to himself, even though he had lived fully openly at home. Desperately in love with a college classmate, he didn’t consider himself in the market anyway. Proffit’s letters to his intended, which were saved, are reproduced here, bringing an immediacy to the events he lived through, and casting a light on the combination of confusion and certitude that so often compete for dominance in a young man’s mind, as well as the longing inside that same young man, who doesn’t want to be alone in this world. It’s hardly unusual.
With the Episcopal Church he handled crisis housing for families and also helped open a nonsectarian coffee house where the resident Anchorage beatnik crowd would gather. The church dealt with many people who washed up in Alaska, sometimes on the run. One of those men fooled the naive Proffit into being the driver on a scam, and later held a gun to him. Father Eddy’s unexpected intervention prevented the worst.
The stress of that incident led Proffit to a brief mental breakdown, one that, with the help of the Eddys, reoriented him in a better direction. And he took yet another position. After a year-and-a-half helping with the neediest and sometimes unruliest residents of the state’s largest metropolis, he spent his final season in Point Hope, working as a music director for the St. Thomas church.
It was during that long summer that Proffit learned of the epidemics, the loss of rights to their own lands and languages, and the cultural upheaval that the Iñupiat endured following the arrival of Americans. It made him realize how foreign he was. How it would be understandable if he were rejected for being something else that he couldn’t help, an American. Yet he was welcomed in.
“Have faith,” Donald Oktalik, the village patriarch and the church’s priest tells him.
“I didn’t have faith‚” Proffit writes. “I was a doubting Thomas working in a remote Arctic church named after the very same questioning apostle.”
Yet faith of its own particular kind is what he found there.
That Proffit is gay is important to the book, and his experience as a young gay man in Alaska, comfortable in his sexuality but aware of its inherent dangers, navigating a potentially hostile place like 1970 Anchorage, brings a missing perspective to Alaskan literature. However, readers should not view this book purely through the lens of Proffit’s sexual identity. There’s so much more here.
From a historical perspective, Proffit offers glimpses of two parts of Alaska that could almost have been on different planets then, and both physically changed today. He saw Anchorage before its population surged, and the community at Point Hope before it was relocated. And he provides a personal account of being draft age, in college, and against the war, finding himself on one side of a national fault line not of his making.
The true struggle faced by Proffit however, in his mind and at times in his work and daily life, was his commitment to his pacifism, and to understanding what this commitment required of him. At the beginning, he couldn’t clearly define something he only felt: not just that the war in Asia was morally unjustifiable, but that for him to participate in any war would violate his core moral principles. But when he was forced to define those principles in order to stay out of a war he morally opposed, he had to understand what brought him to this conclusion. And as the book progresses, long after he has come to Alaska, he continues to ponder how he can live out his belief in nonviolence. Having a gun pointed at him makes him realize just how difficult such a stance truly is. Following his thinking on this subject is a dominant theme in this book.
“Hardship Alaska” is a coming-of-age story set against an Alaska that was itself on the cusp of adulthood, told by someone whose Outsider status was more than most he met ever knew. It’s a unique and valuable piece of writing.