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Still Remembering Daddy – Alaska – The Trip Of A Lifetime – Or Was It?

Still Remembering Daddy – Alaska – The Trip Of A Lifetime – Or Was It?

I am re-posting this piece from last year with a few minor edits and add-ons for Father’s Day because it says it all! What more can I say?

What I remember most about my dad when I was small was the trip of a lifetime he took his family on when I was four years old.  We were going to Alaska to homestead – my father, mother, two older sisters, my younger brother, and me – the soon to be middle child! Of course it was an adventure for the kids. We were too young to be of much help – four of us under the age of  seven with one still in diapers – and not smart enough at those ages to be leery of the quest. I’m sure it was an adventure for my dad. That’s the way he looked at life. My mother, on the other hand, must have been out of her mind to allow such a caper and I’m sure most of her family told her that, not mincing words!

The trip over was the first leg of our journey. Mother and Daddy would sometimes drive all night with the four children sleeping and playing in the back of the flat bed pick-up-truck-turned-camper. No seat belts for us! 🙂 We quarreled along the way vying for our turn on the treasured spot on the window between the front of the truck and the camper. We each got thirty miles and we thought that was such a long time! Sometimes we would stop and camp overnight in the house trailer that was being pulled along behind us and was planned to be our home for the next five years when we arrived  at our homestead in Homer, Alaska. My dad didn’t do things in a small way! Surely they had house trailer dealerships in Alaska. What was he thinking pulling a house trailer from Louisiana to Alaska? I’m sure the gas prices were a lot less then and it was probably less expensive than getting a hotel room for all of us. Kinda like a RV trip today!

We would stop for picnics along the way. To this day the smell of Ritz crackers and potted meat make me queasy! I remember my dad eating sardines and crackers and I guess that is how I learned to like them. There wasn’t as much variety  in the late fifties as it is today – not as much pre-packaged food and probably not as many fast food restaurants. It would have been a little inconvenient to pull that contraption through a drive-thru anyway. Picture that! 🙂

We would run through the tall grasses along the highway picking wild flowers. That was the day my mother had to cut off all my long dark hair because I had broken out with poison ivy and poison oak sooooo bad! I guess we picked a little green foliage to go with our flowers. Oops!  🙂 Why I had to be the only one to break out with it is beyond me.  Calamine lotion was the best and probably only medicine on the market at that time and I was lathered with it religiously! I can still smell it.

I remember arriving at our homestead and watching our trailer being pulled up the hill on that muddy dirt road with ruts deep enough to be buried in to its resting spot at the top and getting stuck a few times along the way. That would be our home for the next few years. Daddy cleared the piece of land around it for a yard. He couldn’t very well let us play in the woods. There were to many scary things out there – bear, moose, lynx, porcupines! He made us a swing set from trees he cut down and trimmed up, locating it in a clearing close enough so my mother could see us from the porch as we played. He carried provisions for us on a back pack a mile and a quarter up the hill from the highway, made sure we had plenty of drinking water from the spring in the woods, and he battened down the hatches.

Then he was gone – for about two weeks – and that is such a long time in a child’s eyes. Someone had to work to make the money. My mother was an RN but also had the four of us to take care of. The solution was for him to work away at Quick Log, if I remember correctly, for a couple of weeks and then be home for a while before going off and doing it again. My mother was very brave living up there alone while he was away. She kept a watchful eye on the moose that would amble into the yard at times and even gave them names. Like a mother hen she would gather us up around her any time she sensed a predator near the home site. Us? The kids? Well, like I said it was just an adventure for us. We had no fear!

Our homestead was  eleven miles from town and our vehicle was parked at the end of our mile and a quarter road close to the highway because sometimes the road was not in the best shape to drive up and down the hill, meaning, mostly we stayed on the hill. It didn’t matter to us. We didn’t have video games, TV, telephones, movies to go to, or friends next door to play with. What we did have was books, each other, and the whole outdoors to play in.  We would have picnics and  go berry picking for cranberries and moss berries. More were probably eaten on the spot than put in our pails.

As soon as we would get used to having Daddy gone – here he would come, showing up at the oddest hours – home again. The first time it happened, he came in the middle of the night. I could hear him and Mother talking in whispers as I woke from sleeping. I remember being scared. I knew it was my daddy, but it was a scary feeling for some reason. I snuggled back under the covers being very quiet. I think back now and wonder if it was him I was scared of or just scared because he had been gone for so long and at my age it was hard to remember him.

The next morning when we woke up he had prizes for all of us. Mostly just little things – like juicy fruit gum. It didn’t take much to make me unafraid! I still think of him when I smell or chew juicy fruit gum. He was home for a while taking care of the property, proving up on the land and bonding with his family again. Then…it was time for another trip off to work.

When he was home, we traipsed through the woods to the spring after him for the drinking water. He would fill our five gallon water cans with a few cupful’s of water that we would drag back to the house following him while he carried two full ones. He made us feel as though we were really helping. We all trailed along behind him as he dug a well, built a smoke house – he was determined he was going to shoot a moose and smoke the meat – and he did! He planted a garden that grew prolific with that green thumb of his – that I did not inherit.  He built a chicken coop and brought home some chickens. A lean-to was build onto the side of the trailer, giving my mother that much needed extra room.  I don’t ever recall him being upset with any of us. I think he just went with the flow and let my mother deal with child-rearing. My brother said she just let us go and let God take care of us up there on that hill.

He took the time to show us animal tracks and explain what animal they belonged to. He taught us how to gather horsetail to feed to the ducks he had put in a pen, and then he let us name them – which wasn’t a good thing because he planned to fatten them up to eat! We were not happy when we learned what the fate of our ‘pets’ would be. At night we would sit up while my mother read stories and he would play chess with one of his friends that lived down the hill from us. I remember Daddy teaching me how to play chess when I was five years old. I wasn’t very good at it then, but he made me feel like I was and I probably didn’t really win any of those games he said I beat him at.

When our dog – Licker – tangled with a porcupine he saw the terrified looks on our faces as he said, “Helen, go get my gun.” Instead he spent hours pulling the quills from her muzzle to keep us happy. This was a very time-consuming and dangerous task as he cautiously snipped each quill to release the air and then pulled out the quill. I know he feared that Licker would turn and bite him because it was a painful ordeal for the dog too.

Sometimes I wonder how he learned all this stuff – how to travel to Alaska and homestead with a wife, four small children and one born a couple years later during spring break-up – and keep us fed and clothed and happy. We spent five years in Alaska and even though he lived until I was in my forties, those years are the best memories that I have of my dad. I think he was happiest while he was there. I think we all were!

Elle

Do you have some favorite memories of your Dad?

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About Elle Knowles

Elle Knowles lives in the Florida Panhandle with her husband and off-at-college-most-of-the-time son. She has four daughters, one son, and eleven beautiful grandchildren. 'Crossing the Line' is her first novel. The sequel 'What Line' is a work in progress. Recently published is Coffee-Drunk Or Blind - a nonfiction story of homesteading in the Alaska wilderness with her parents and four siblings, told through letters by her mother and remembered accounts from the family.

10 responses »

  1. Love the word homestead….the whole piece has a Steinbeck feel to it.

    We would run through the tall grasses along the highway picking wild flowers. That was the day my mother had to cut off all my long dark hair because I had broken out with poison ivy and poison oak sooooo bad! I guess we picked a little green foliage to go with our flowers. Oops! 🙂 Why I had to be the only one to break out with it is beyond me. Calamine lotion was the best and probably only medicine on the market at that time and I was lathered with it religiously! I can still smell it.

    This is such a visual…i can see you proudly galloping with your bouquet oblivious of what’s to come.

    When you said no seat belts at that time. I recently read…never knew it before…Ralph Nader is responsible for them becoming law

    I’m sure your dad is pleased at such a tender tribute 🙂

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  2. What a childhood you had. That is the stuff that storybooks are made of. 🙂

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  3. What a lovely tribute to your father! . . . and homesteading in Alaska sounds like fun (in spite of all the hardships).

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