Michael Carey: A look back, all the way to the trap line

The kid who grew up eating moose meat in the shadow of his father's trap line is a senior citizen. He turned 70 on Nov. 17. He enjoys the geezer rate in museums, on buses and when ordering breakfast at Denny's Friday morning with graying friends.

I was born on a cold day near the end of a great war that reshaped the world. The local paper, announcing my birth, spelled "Carey" wrong but cheerfully noted the new parents were happy with their first baby and planned to keep the little guy. I am glad they did.

Looking backward, I feel a deep sense of gratitude. Not just for getting this far but for the people who were so good to me on the way. I wish I had sent more thank-you cards. Too many who deserved them are dead.

I had opportunities I could never have imagined. And went to places that when I was young existed in books. I was the boy from the provinces who wanted to see New York -- and did. I can still recall my first day on my own in the city, age 18, sitting on the floor in Grand Central with a duffel bag waiting for a train. Sunday morning the station, the dimensions of a cathedral, was almost empty.

I didn't have a charmed life but I did have wonderful luck. How many kids sat next to a wood stove absorbing old timers' stories about winters where the temperature reached 60 below, men mushed across the wilderness in the dead of night and the grizzly bears came in only one size -- extra large? Some of these stories were true. Who else came home with his high school buddies Elstun Lauesen and Pat Carter -- a copy of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" in his back pocket -- to be greeted by a dad who laughed and said, "Well, well, well, if it isn't the intelligentsia?"

When I think of Fabian, a Larry Hart lyric runs through my mind: "Thou swell, thou witty, thou grand." He was tall, muscular and handsome in a setting that put a high premium on manhood. None of these physical gifts went to his head, which he filled with books while alone at night in his trapping cabin. He was a firm believer that life is an absurd proposition: Look out, your gifts can become your curse. He was thoroughly irreverent when encountering pretension -- including the pretension of high-school boys quoting Kerouac. I wish he had been happier. Marriage and money were difficult for Fabian, burdens that became heavier as he aged.

My mother was far more serious, far more demanding. Life was difficult business, she taught. My dad's irreverence was an annoyance. As a trapper and construction worker, Fabian's paychecks arrived irregularly, and when they did come, she felt he put too much of them into his Super Cub, which he used to reach his trap line and explore Alaska. Mary Carey was a professional woman, a public health nurse who arrived in Fairbanks in 1940 to fight a measles outbreak. She was a striver determined to make the world a better place. She admired Eleanor Roosevelt and read liberal books and magazines like The New Yorker. She was an idealist -- and paid the price for unrealistic expectations of those close to her. I admire her courage, especially the courage required to raise toddlers in the woods.


She drilled into my head her belief that everyone -- everyone -- deserves respect no matter how humble their circumstances, how limited their abilities. I never forgot this.

One of Fabian's friends, Clarence Boatman, was an former cavalryman who had served in Montana at the end of the Indian Wars. He could remember when news of the Custer massacre swept through his hometown in the summer of 1876. I can remember reading about the death of Stalin as reported by the newspapers in 1953. At age 8, I could make sense of the papers but my vocabulary was limited, my pronunciation flawed. What was "intrigue," which I pronounced "intergoo"? The Kremlin was full of "intergoo."

Regrets? Who doesn't have them. My mother told her friends a story about our years at Lake Minchumina near the trap line. "Michael was five when I noticed he had developed an unusual interest in the cache next to our cabin where we stored food. The cache was raised, on poles, and most every day, Michael would climb the ladder from the ground to the door and disappear inside. After a while, he would pop out and scurry down the ladder -- with a wrapped bar of Fels-Naptha Soap in hand, which he presented to me. This made no sense until I received a bar in a wrapper covered with chocolate fingerprints. Every time he climbed into the cache he ate a Hershey bar. The soap was atonement."

I know a lot about seeking atonement, even more about searching for forgiveness. I spent much of my life looking for forgiveness. For what I did not know. This sounds like minor-league Kafka, yet it was real to me. Ultimately, I walked away -- simply walked away -- from whatever drove this destructive search. I suppose it is hard to believe a man could decide after years, "I'm not doing this anymore," but I did. Fortunately, I had a gifted guide to freedom in Arnold Bernstein of Greenwich Village, an experienced psychotherapist. Bernstein taught me, "Don't mistake what you are feeling this moment for the rest of your life." Good advice. He also gave me good advice when he said, "Nobody is the same person 24 hours a day." Put your feelings into words, Michael, he told me. It was the hardest thing I ever did.

My visits to Bernstein's office were far, far in the future the day I was born 70 years ago. I was warm and loved Nov. 17, 1944. That was more than enough for an infant who knew nothing of the world around him or the world to come.

Michael Carey is an Alaska Dispatch News columnist.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Michael Carey

Michael Carey is an occasional columnist and the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.