Sunday, November 07, 2004

Chapter Two

If dreams were thunder
and lightnin' was desire
this old house would have burnt down
a long time ago.

There has long been a tradition practiced throughout the ages called "marriage of convenience."

Not based on love -- but need -- a kind of marital barter system, utilizing the age-old economic concept of Supply and Demand.

A single man, in this part of the country where the winters are fierce, needs to be taken care of because his days are long when it's not winter. When the sun comes to spend summer vacation up in the higher latitudes around the arctic circle, there is no night time. He blazes stubbornly down on the tundra, and allows the gentle, hard working residents to grow crops in record time, a speeded up time, to make up for the shortness of the growing season. Kohl crops, like cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, and squashes, like zuchini and yellow crooked neck, all grow under a never setting sun that is positioned straight overhead, pouring down light and heating up the permafrost of a perpetually frozen ground underneath the top soil, heating up the air, all the way up to the 90s, and this sudden intensity allows the crops to grow to giant sizes, if left unpicked.

Farmers grow large fields of hay to bundle, to feed the large animals all winter long. There are fields of potatoes that make it to market to feed the population all winter long. Tomatoes multiply like rabbits and what doesn't make it into the pantry, is sent to market. Summer is a busy time. And this is why it helps to have an extra pair of hands at home, who not only can cook three squares a day, but who can put in a garden, who knows how to can and pickle and make preserves to put up a nice pantry for winter. Someone who can keep the place neat and relatively clean,
organized, take care of the bills, darn socks, patch holes in sleeves, knit hats and mittens and scarves to keep the cold out. It helps to have someone who knows how to cook wild meats and fowl, from field to table, plucking ducks and grouse; someone who is able to dress out a moose or caribou or bear carcass, carving out steaks and roasts, grinding up the leg meat of the hooved beasts with rennet into hamburger, all destined for the deep freeze.

One bull moose that can weigh up to 1600 pounds could yield a thousand pounds of that much weight in meat and feed a family of four or five all winter long. A moose cow that weighs half that can feed a couple like George and Martha, and when George's hunting skills add in a black bear and a caribou to the total, they have enough to feed not only themselves all year, but all the hired hands as well, from late spring to late fall.

Living on the land is hard work and it sure helps to have an extra pair of hands, especially out in the field when the weather takes a turn for the worse and every person has to drop what ever it is they are working on at the time to run to the fields where they can lend their extra pair of helping hands.

That's why George married Martha.


Martha liked this cabin. It wasn't too small to be cramped. It wasn't too large to take care of, either.

It was old, but as it was made with fine white spruce trees, which George had fallen himself on his own land and then had them skinned of bark, sanded smooth, notched to fit perfectly together and then lined with putty to fill in the chinks, the log cabin worked well enough to keep out the wind and cold, making it a very comfortable home all winter long.

The cabin had been built by George's own two hands, with two stories, two small bedrooms upstairs, a downstairs with kitchen, dining room table and living area with a big hearth fireplace on the south wall, and a woodstove in the back of the downstairs room against the east wall, which fed heat into the upstairs rooms.

In later years, George had even figured out how to install plumbing for sinks, bathtubs, and toilets. He first installed a downstairs bathroom, but then decided it would be more convenient to also have the luxury of an upstairs bathroom, so he didn't have to trip down the stairs in the dark on his increasingly more frequent night runs.

The cabin was all open downstairs, with no walls separating any of the areas and the front facing west was full of windows, which Martha particularly liked. She could stand at the sink and look out onto the sun light as it filtered down through the leaves of giant birch trees and spruce pines, scrubbing fine silt off her potatoes, just dug up from the garden outside, on the south side of the house, where it received warm sunlight, almost 24 hours a day.

She could sit on the couch, on the end nearest the fireplace where it was warm all winter and do her knitting and darning, watch the sun set early in the winter afternoons, watch for squirrels and birds, keep an eye on dinner, keep busy, keep warm, while staying useful.

She didn't mind it a bit that the cabin had been built by George for his bride of forty years ago, his First Wife. There were still pictures of Mary on the mantlepiece and on the hallway wall leading up the stairs. Mary seemed to bless this house and her kind eyes always watching gave Martha a kind of unexpected comfort, a sense of company, through the long hours and days and months that Martha needed to fill up, mostly alone.

Mary had been a beautiful woman. She had some strong Swedish genes from her ancestry that gave her platinum blonde hair, the real kind, not out of any bottle, and high cheek bones, penetrating blue eyes, and thin lips. She looked strong, too.

And, as George never tired of telling Martha, she was The Perfect Wife.

Too bad she had to die first.


Mary's sudden and unexpected passing from an aggressive cancer diagnosed too late to treat had left George a widower. All those years together and he'd never really appreciated all Mary had done for him, till she was gone. Now all of a sudden, all this land he had acquired throughout his life, his real estate business, his home, his very existence seemed so ... empty.

He had spent the last forty years buying up land, clearing it, selling it at double its value, acquiring more and more, till he had become known secretly amongst the town folk in that tiny community of Moose Creek as "The Land Baron."

George knew that land was the last gold left on the planet. He knew all this acreage around him, covered in virgin forests, filled with bogs, wild berries, and wild life, would someday fetch princely sums. Nobody wanted to clear land, it was back-breaking work. Or build roads to the land, for access. Not many people knew how to (or wanted to,) dig wells or dig out holes to lay down a septic system.

But George did. And he knew people would pay big money for a few acres to call their own, if it was already cleared and ready to be built on.

He charged for his services. He could buy big swaths of uncleared land, for 25, 50 dollars per acre, several hundred at a time, then clear it, build an access road to it, parcel it up and already, he had doubled or tripled its value. If he went even further with improvements, he could increase its real estate value by ten or twenty times.

So he did. He had been the proud owner of slightly less than 100,000 thousand acres, making George one of the largest land owners in the state, after the State of Alaska and the Native Corporations -- that is, until he bequeathed a total of 60,000 acres, divided up neatly and given away to trusts in honor of Mary's life, to Mary's favorite charities and even to some of her relatives.

George was very, very sorry he had not taken better care of Mary while she was alive. He felt guilty at some of his old-fashioned ways when dealing with her. Making gifts of the land they had acquired while they were married, through the hard times, seemed the right thing to do now. He gave until it hurt, till he could appease his guilty conscience that he mistook for giving thanks in celebration of Mary's life.

Besides, he could always acquire more land. George "Aquisition" Barnard, he would be known as some day, he thought proudly. A philanthropist of high regard in the community.

George had always made it a policy to keep his overhead as low as possible. This frugal practice was what had made the game so rewarding and to him the road to riches had seemed so simple: he always hired men and boys out of work, poor, eager to make enough money to live on throughout the winter and pay them next to nothing for their 12-hour days that stretched non-stop into many weeks, for three or four months at a time, and sometimes longer, weather permitting.

He owned his own equipment, bought from a long and varied list of gold mines with which to mine out his various acquisitions, for pennies on the dollar, from a "going out of business sale," "bankruptcy sale," "estate sale," "state auction," all for a song. He was able to purchase much of his land that way too, when the state would sell off entire tracts by sealed bid. He knew people. He used his financial heavy weight status to swing deals his way. Relentless, he never stopped. And lately, his tracts of improved land, "ready to build" land -- were fetching upwards of $5 - $7,000 per acre -- each parcel turning George a net profit worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

George was proud of the fact that he was a very rich man, a business man, a self-styled Real Estate Tycoon, even going so far in his mind to fancy himself a Perfect Man.

George knew he was a Good Catch.


Martha knew about clearing land. She knew all about getting untouched, stubborn ground that had been happy to lay there undisturbed for millennia, and by sheer will power and back breaking work, coaxing it with equal determination to the point of accepting crops or a house or a barn.

She had grown up on a farm. She had been born and raised in another place that was traditionally subjected to harsh winters and short summers, a place that made its living on crops, in North Dakota. She had come from a long line of pioneering women, a heritage of Germans, Danes and Swedes, and she was strong, both in will and in muscle. Determined. Independent. Martha had a strong back bone.

Till she got pregnant with Abe, at the peri menopausal age of 44.

She had been married, but her husband had died, leaving her with a farm to run by herself. She was suddenly alone, for the first time in her life, and broke, not knowing where the tax money would come from to pay for the farm, the few farm hands they had hired over the years that had stuck with them through droughts, early snowstorms, and hail damage throughout those many years, sadly all had to be let go.

Except one. A cowboy. A new guy. A little younger than Martha. Still fit, but tired of the trail, looking for a place to hang out for the fall, to make a little money to add to his summer's wages, so he could travel around the country, seeing places he'd never been to before in his lifetime, without being worried how he was going to eat.

He took a fancy to Martha's cooking right off the bat and ended up staying a little longer than he had planned at first. He was getting too tired to bust cows and drive herds on thirty-year-old saddle sores, had ended up at Martha's farm one day by pure accident, evidently not six months after her husband had passed away.

He didn't care if she couldn't pay him. Her vittles and a bed roll in the old bunkhouse kept him happy. And she needed help, in more ways than one. He knew how to mend fences, how to clean out the barn, how to take care of the animals. There had been no crops planted to harvest, as that is when the husband had suffered a heart attack, which was lucky, because he'd never been on a combine in his life. But he knew all about animals and didn't mind caring for them. Just as long as Martha gave him three hot meals a day, that was all he needed to keep him happy. Her food was so much better than the shit he had eaten for most of his life, as the chuck wagon cooks never, ever were good for nothing. What they did to food was criminal, he thought. He had heard there were good trail cooks, he just hadn't ever been fortunate enough to meet any in his lifetime.

So, at this point in his life, tired of following dumb cows and hearing their endless moaning, tired of living in saddles, Martha's food and a dry, warm bunk was more than he could ask for.

He didn't stay long in the bunkhouse, however.

Pretty soon, Martha was frantic, embarassed, too old she thought, betrayed by her body and sad, broken heart, missing her husband, betrayed by the doctors that told her early on, for several years after she got married, that she could never have children, it just wasn't possible. So what was this? Now what was she supposed to do?

At first she thought she may be entering menopause, but it was clear after a couple of months that the sudden free-flying vomit accompanying her meals and terrible smells of cooking that were making her sick at her stomach, her inability to keep anything down, be near any kind of food, for the first time in her life -- she knew -- she must be pregnant.

By the end of the third month, she was sure, as she looked at herself in the mirror and saw the little pillow growing under her navel and she was never so frightened and excited in her life. What would her relatives say? Her neighbors? She would be shunned by everyone. She would have friends no more. There wasn't any way to say this was her husband's. No possible way she could feebly attempt that explanation -- the timing was all wrong.

The only thing she could do was hope for the best reaction when she told the man who gifted her with this frightening but blessed miracle.

But, the cowboy was no help at all.

She saw him riding out on his pinto, heading south, early the next morning after she had told him the night before, so early, the sun hadn't even had time to stretch and yawn.

Martha sold the farm as quickly as she possibly could, wearing larger skirts to hide her belly. She told her friends and relatives that since she was now alone and could no longer manage the farm on her own, it was time for her to start a new life in a new place. She told them she'd always been fascinated by the stories of wild life, gold mines and auroras in Alaska, so that's where she decided to go.

A trunk of books, a trunk of pots and pans, a trunk of clothing and bedding, and she was on her way.

She had enough money from the hasty sale of the farm to live on for several years if she was frugal, time to give her a good view of the northern landscape, time to raise her son to toddler age, when, she hoped, she could then go out and look for employment. That was her plan.

She had heard good money could be made as a camp cook. Long hours, long weeks, no time off, for months at a time. Most crews took off winters, but enough money could be made during the times of operation that one could live on that till the mines were functioning again. Sometimes, if necessary they could arrange for a substitute to come in and switch shifts for a few weeks at a time, every few months, but that was about the extent of their bending. The miners worked hard, many, many hours a day and all they wanted was good food to keep them going and a nice place to lay.

All Martha wanted was a place to raise her child and enough work to keep her busy, to keep her mind occupied.

Martha got a room in a little town at the time, called Fairbanks, right downtown, where she would be close to the news and the doctor. She worked all winter and spring, knitting, sewing, keeping herself busy while she waited for the birth, making baby clothes.

She was lonely, but had her baby growing inside, which she talked to often. She sang to it and rocked him in an old, hand-made rocking chair, left behind by the last tennant. She was scared but determined to bring this baby into the world by any means necessary.

This was her blessing. Her very own miracle. She was so thankful, she wasn't even mad anymore that God took her husband away.

She kept her eyes on the classified ads in the local newspaper, and on the bulletin boards at the grocer's, the arctic entrance ways to all the businesses, like the bank, the baker, the laundry. She found many ads for camp cook and she wrote letters to apply for these jobs.

It seemed that most of these men wanted a woman that not only would cook, but also do laundry and some even suggested that if the cook was comely enough, and friendly enough, maybe they wouldn't mind providing a little comfort on occasion, if requested.

But ... Martha didn't do laundry.

One reply was written by all the men together in a small camp a little bit farther north, on the other side of the mountains. They used humor in their letter and Martha liked that a lot. They also sounded half-starved and described how they were so sick of each other's cooking and so hungry that their "belly buttons were rubbing against their spines."

These men would do. This camp would be a pleasure to work in. All they wanted was food.

So even though this employment had come through a lot faster than Martha's original plans, she felt sorry for the hungry men and wrote asking if they could wait for her for another month, so she could give birth to her baby and then she could come fatten them up on her farm cooking.

Farm cooking. Those two words sealed the deal.

And those crusty ol' sourdoughs didn't even seem to mind if there was a baby in the camp, treating him as an oddity, a freak show, as none of them had ever been around a baby before; or a big gold nugget unearthed to gaze upon intently, as their insides thawed, and the blood of beating hearts began to pump baby love through their veins.

Martha made a lot of money cooking for those miners. They loved her. They took a real shine to Abe. Even though he was already a stubborn little red headed man at three, they still treated him like a baby, carrying him around, his feet never touching the ground whenever the men were in camp, passing him from one to the next.

They even fashioned a little hard hat for him to wear when they took him on rides on the ore carts on Sundays. He would be beaming in his little overalls and hardhat, bright blue eyes peeking over the top of the cart, chubby hands clutching the edge for dear life, his squeals of delight as he rode on his own private roller coaster, barely heard over the crushing clatter of the wheels on the tracks.

Zoom! went Abe. Vroom vroom! For hours....

And so Abe was loved and raised by everyone in the camp. Being so far away from civilization, he was home schooled by his mother and any others in the camp who might have an interest or particular knowledge in one subject area of his study. Abe was smart. He studied hard, helped out the miners when he could, the situation becoming one of symbiosis: a great learning experience for Abe, courtesy of the rest of the camp, an extra set of hands to help out the miners when needed, and a woman who didn't mind being in a camp with little or no luxury, cooking for half a dozen life long, craggy friends, who just liked to spend their lives digging holes in the dirt.

About the time Martha and Abe had spent their first summer season with the men, they were so enamored of their new family, they knocked off early for the first time ever after fall had arrived to build an actual cabin with several rooms inside, with enough space for Martha and her child to live and cook and conduct classes.

During the winter, the men worked inside to build a sleeping loft for themselves, so they could come inside and warm up by the fire after dinner was served, taking turns reading out loud; so they could all sleep under the same roof. It made the men feel better, to be close enough to the M'am and the Boy, to protect them while they slept.

They had become a real family. They may have been an odd family, but with emotional ties and true compassion for one another, just like in any other.

One day Abe was a toddler, banging into walls and tree trunks, chasing squirrels; the next he was 18 years old and itching to drive himself away to college. He had an interest in geology of course, but also of law. He wanted to help not only these miners, the only family he had ever known, but all small, independent miners so they could legally retain their claims to work and this had lately become a source of major irritation for all concerned.

Big Business had discovered the vast wealth hiding in Alaska, under the snow and ice and had crept in to ravage the state's resources, sucking up all claims and deeds owned by anyone in their way. Heavy, expensive equipment, paid for by Big Oil razed the land looking for precious resources. Little mines were sucked up by big mines. It seemed all the big companies had ties to Europe and beyond, with banks of attorneys eager to shout the little guy down.

Even though he thought the miners were getting to a point in their lives where they ought to start thinking about knocking off (surely they had mined enough by now to live very comfortably for the rest of their years,) Abe felt it was still their choice and they should have a say in whether or not they still wanted to work their claim, for how ever long they desired. It wasn't fair that big business was coming in and kicking the little guy around and he wasn't going to tolerate it if he could help it.

He'd given them his brawn. Now it was time to lend them his brains. They were his family.

Ah, but the best laid plans ... Poor Abe was not able to finish even his third year of college. As Abe approached the legal age of manhood, his mother, now 65, had announced she'd had enough of camp life and wanted to move back to civilization.

In reality though, the miners had decided it wouldn't be worth the battle to try and fight these big rich companies who would suck them all dry of everything they had worked so hard for all their lives, but decided instead that it was time to call it a day, force Martha into an early retirement, take their grub stakes and head on down to the Lower 48, to fan out across the country, a couple wanting to fish off the coast of Mexico, a couple wanting to dig around in the Bad Lands for other precious and semi-precious stones, and a couple wanting to open up their own businesses down in Texas and Louisiana.

They all felt it was time to go spend their ride down the other side of the roller coaster a little bit closer to where they had come from originally.

Abe thought maybe his mother, who was still strong and able, would need some company to keep her occupied, to help keep her busy, to feel needed, by taking care of him.

Sure that his mother probably did not have much money left to live on after sending her son to school, Abe sacrificed his college plans to give back to his mother what she had given him all those years in camp, love and attention. Since "the Uncles" were all moving away now anyway, he dropped out of school and got a job that would support them both.

They got a small place together in town. It was old but still hooked up to the steam heat generated by the plant that had run heat to all the original homes built after the turn of the century.

Martha wasted no time putting in a garden in the front yard, inside the picket fence and she hung a bird feeder on the great aspen right outside the kitchen window.

Once again she had a place of her own to call home.