With all that’s wrong in the world today, it’s therapeutic to focus on the positive and count our blessings. This could be especially true for those of us in advanced years, who remember what life was like when glaciers were closer and Alaska was not yet a state.
In 1946, when I was one year old, my family moved to Alaska from Pennsylvania. We arrived in Seward in late March via DC-3 aircraft.
Forsaking the amenities and relative comfort of a city like Pittsburgh to build a life in a frontier town like Seward was an abrupt change for my parents and 12-year-old sister. At that time Alaska’s entire population was about 100,000, and Seward’s was less than 2,000.
My father was drawn to Alaska because of its wildness and mystique. But he had more pragmatic reasons. His employment in the defense industry ended at the close of World War II, and he learned that there was plenty of work on Seward’s docks as a longshoreman.
In the mid-1940s, Seward was Alaska’s principal port. Almost everything for the territory came through the small town’s docks by steamship, and my dad had all the work he could handle.
I think my parents were grateful that Seward already had public services comparable to Anchorage and even Seattle, such as electricity, telephone, plumbing, water, sewer and even garbage collection.
We had dial telephones, and our service was on a party line. Calls to homes were identified by the number of rings. I think ours was three. Although no one would admit it, it wasn’t unusual for folks to listen in on others’ conversations. Town secrets didn’t seem to last very long.
In 1948, my mom opened a music studio and was one of the town’s first private piano teachers.
Television didn’t exist, so radio was our main source of evening entertainment. Newsreels at the movie theater also linked us to the outside world. There was one local radio station, a library, hospital, post office, jail, civic center/gym, one school, two grocery stores, a barber, a bowling alley (opened in 1948), a few restaurants and shops, a meat market, two clothing stores, a local newspaper, dusty gravel streets, and my mother often complained that there were more bars than churches.
Food shipments to Seward were sometimes delayed at sea, so we had to be careful about items that spoil, such as eggs. At our chosen grocery store, Seward Trading Co., I recall there being only a couple of brands of bread on the shelf. Food was also delivered to homes, and my mother listed that item simply: “bread.” Milk came from a local dairy with a location appropriately named “Dairy Hill.”
We used fuel oil for cooking and heating our home. My mom didn’t have a clothes dryer, so wash was hung out on a line when it wasn’t raining.
Absent TV, computers and video games, as kids we spent most of our time outdoors — summer and winter. In summer we crafted spears, bows and arrows and slingshots from alder bushes; built forts, climbed trees; made up games; and when we were a bit older, climbed Mount Marathon. In winter we went sledding, ice skating and had epic snowball fights that included construction of elaborate snow forts.
Back then, Seward had a curfew for anyone under 18 years old. When we were about nine, a friend and I summoned courage and sneaked out of our houses on the night of the summer solstice. We boldly roamed around the sleeping town for several hours and managed to get back into our homes without detection. Most residents didn’t lock their doors in those days.
I guess what struck me on our night out, when it didn’t get dark, was how days don’t really have beginnings or endings — that we create those divisions.
The first and most important transportation artery originating in Seward was the Alaska Railroad, completed in 1923. As everyone knows, it was vital to Alaska’s development, including the establishment of Anchorage.
Construction of the Seward Highway seemed to drag on forever. Seward folks fortunate enough to own cars could travel over a rough and rocky road to Moose Pass, Hope and finally Cooper Landing. By 1948, they could drive all the way to Kenai — a section of road later named the Sterling Highway. But the Seward Highway to Anchorage wasn’t opened until 1951.
On my first road trip to Anchorage in the 1950s, I stared in awe at two “skyscrapers,” the McKinley Building, later named the McKay Building, and the L Street Apartments, today called Inlet Tower Hotel and Suites. Having left Pittsburgh at age one, I’d never seen structures so large.
Today, as I easily access information on my computer, peruse amusing Facebook posts, stream a vast assortment of videos on my flat-screen TV; become distressed after misplacing my iPhone; wander brightly-lit supermarket aisles that display countless varieties of bread and breakfast cereal; heat my coffee in a microwave oven; ride a bicycle with a battery; tune the radio past a score of FM stations, I think about that simpler time so many years ago and count my blessings — those of yesteryear, and those of today.
I can’t recollect my parents complaining about our life in Seward. They had persevered through the Great Depression of the 1930s. For them, Alaska was probably a refuge and promise of a new beginning. In later years, my sister and I would be eternally grateful that they brought us to what was then a rather unknown, far-flung place. I think my two children, both living in Alaska today, feel the same.
It would be great to be around when humans colonize Mars; to see the day when most diseases are eliminated; when we begin to show more kindness to the environment and each other. But I believe I have lived during a good period of time, and in an ideal place.
On a fundamental level, however, I don’t think there is a “best” time or place to live. I learned that from my parents. You try to make the most of wherever you are, whenever you are. It seems obvious, but I think we sometimes forget that simple axiom. For the better part of five years in furtherance of my career, I lived in pancake-flat Houston, Texas. Hot. Humid. Crowded. I discovered bicycling and made it work.
Undeniably, it’s extremely hard to look past COVID-19, the Ukraine war, inflation, homelessness, urban violence, racism, political divisiveness and other troubling issues — to hold up one’s head and make the best of things. But I believe as human beings, we’re built to do just that. We prove it every day in myriad ways.
For many of us, it’s easy to block out current woes by looking backward. But as poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “forever is composed of nows.” We’re fortunate to live in a special place where our “nows” can be quite extraordinary.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.
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