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Old magazine story helps remembrance of Bush life

  • Author: Michael Carey
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 15, 2016
  • Published August 17, 2016

This is the cover of the February-March 1948 issue of Pageant magazine, which included the story “Adventure at 50 Below Zero,” about the Carey family and their 1940s life at Lake Minchumina. (Courtesy Michael Carey)

My parents were once featured in a national magazine. I discovered this digging through a suitcase of their papers, which included a photo copy of a story in Pageant titled "Adventure at 50 Below Zero." Pageant was a general-interest nonfiction publication with a circulation of 350,000 in 1949, a year after the story was printed. The publisher did not accept advertising and depended on sales for revenue.

The copy looks as if it was made years later. Who made it? Don't know. I am confident my mother, Mary, did not. She would not have invested the time. Too busy with work, family — the relentless call of responsibilities. My dad, Fabian? Maybe. He was a pack rat. Most of the material in the suitcase was his: correspondence with friends, fur houses and legislators; pages torn from newspapers; receipts; pink slips; football betting sheets and envelopes stuffed with canceled checks.

Or maybe some friend of the family found the piece, copied it and passed it along.

Why a story about my parents? Pretty easy to figure out. Writer Edward Stanley needed colorful content, and life on an Interior Alaska trap line, where temperatures actually did reach 50 below, fit the need. The how is more difficult to grasp. Stanley did not fly to Lake Minchumina and sit down to a moose-meat dinner with the Careys — my parents, my younger sister Kathleen and me. He didn't interview my parents over the phone. We had no phone. Conceivably, he could have done a Q and A by mail. But that would have been time-consuming for a reporter on a deadline. So maybe Stanley was in Alaska on vacation — or looking for stories — and while in Fairbanks met the young couple and was charmed by their tale. He would have especially liked the idea that Mary was a New Yorker who had learned to chop wood and snowshoe.

Stanley made a number of errors. His account of Fabian's service in the Alaska Scouts during World War II is a bubble off. My parents met in Fairbanks, not Rampart. My parents' nearest neighbor was not 30 miles away.

Nevertheless, the story rings true. Stanley captured day-to-day life in the Alaska Bush in the '40s – the subsistence living that required hunting, fishing, gardening, berry picking and wood cutting. He also understood that fur trapping is punishing, repetitive labor in an unforgiving environment.

Stanley does a nice job describing why my mother came to Alaska. Mary wanted to live where a woman with a nursing degree could make a difference in her community. New York was too large, too troubled, too complex for a single individual to have much influence. In the spring of 1940, she boarded a train for Seattle, where a steamship bound for Juneau awaited. From the steamer's deck, she watched mile upon mile of North Pacific rainforest pass by, interrupted by occasional fishing villages and the regional trading center, Ketchikan. This experience introduced her to the contrast between Alaska's size, proverbially twice that of Texas, and its modest population of 75,000 — roughly half that of prewar Yonkers, New York.

The story closes with Stanley quoting my mother: "We live each day fully. That's what makes it (Bush life) so wonderful." This is Mary's voice. Reading this quote and others from her, I realize how brave she was to marry into a life she could not imagine before she arrived in Alaska.

My family, all of us, idealized the Minchumina years in retrospect. The movies my mother took intensified our idealized view: There we were, taking on the wilderness under my Dad's experienced guidance.

After we moved to Fairbanks in 1950 so I could attend school, life became more difficult for all of us. My sister suffered a prolonged illness. Our house burned. The price of fur declined and trapping became a bad investment of time and money. The construction work Fabian pursued in the summer paid well but was episodic: long hours one week, few hours the next. After a winter of accumulating debt while Fabian awaited a spring union call, my parents no longer opened the mail. Bills piled up on the desk in the living room. The return addresses — the grocery store, the shoe store, the doctor's office, the heating oil distributor — seemed accusatory. When Mary returned to nursing, which she pursued for more than 20 years, our finances improved. Slowly.

Fabian brought several of his sled dogs to Fairbanks. Chained to stakes in our yard, their indolent confinement, their loss of purpose, made them seem morose. Fabian claimed his dogs could smell snow coming. Maybe so. They definitely became restless and noisy during the cool, overcast days of late fall when snow seemed imminent. Do dogs dream? If so, these malamutes dreamed of bright, cold days in harness pulling Fabian's sled toward the Alaska Range, their master encouraging them from behind on the runners.

My sister died recently. I am the only one left to remember my family and the life we lived. It's strange to see myself as a character in a Pageant magazine of yesteryear, all the other characters gone. But the story does help me remember who we were and what we did. I am grateful for that.

There is so much I don't remember but know only through the movies, my parents' papers, and anecdotes, including this one my mother told her friends.

"Michael was 5 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 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 finger prints. Every time he climbed into the cache he ate a Hershey bar. The soap was atonement."

I was a precocious sinner — and precocious in my desire to atone. The cache, the candy bars, my family are gone, but the search for atonement continues.

Michael Carey is a Alaska Dispatch News columnist. He can be reached at mcarey@alaskadispatch.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com

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