By Bill Skiff
For five weeks in August, I washed dishes in an Alaskan deli. It had been years since I had been a “pearl diver” for any length of time. Pearl diving is a reference to the old days, when dishwashers sometimes found a pearl in the bottom of the sink after washing plates on which oysters had been served.
This summer, my dishwashing was in Wasilla—Sarah Palin’s town. Although I did not have the opportunity to see Sarah, I did see Russia.
The Lumberyard Deli is owned by my son Todd and he is always looking for cheap help—I figured room and board was a fair trade. Moose burgers, fresh salmon and the use of a little cabin were a great exchange, especially when it meant I could attend my granddaughter’s second birthday.
I like working in the deli because I get to talk with all the local characters and hear their stories. The ones about how they came to Alaska and why they stayed are fascinating, but the ones I enjoy most are the ones about their life experiences.
Take Pete for instance. He is a short burly guy in his late 60s with a wild scraggly beard, snapping brown eyes and facial skin like tanned leather. He drinks coffee by the gallon.
Pete came to Alaska as a young man and stayed because he liked the wilderness and the laid-back lifestyle. He soon realized that to get the most out of the Alaskan life he would need to learn to fly. He took flying lessons, then bought a plane he found sitting in a field. After much repair work he started flying and eventually earned a living as a bush pilot.
Then he got married. Soon his wife wanted to learn to fly. After teaching her, they spent a lot of time in the air together. Then one day she got in the plane, flew away and never returned.
In one day, his wife left him and took his plane with her. To this day he says he doesn’t know which one he misses the most.
Ed is a more sophisticated guy who worked as a guide on an Alaskan’s cruise ship. His job was to point out mountain ranges and ice formations and locate wildlife for the tourists.
One summer, the weather was very bad. Fog hung on the mountains, obstructing not only the hills but any game that wandered down to the shore. In short, there was nothing for the guests to see … or for Ed to talk about. The tourist trade came to a standstill.
One day in a staff meeting, Nellie, a guide, said she knew how to fix the situation. When asked what her plan was she said, ‘’Never mind, just look at the shore next time you pass Moose Point.”
When Pete went by the point he looked—and there stood a moose. The tourists whipped out their cameras and began snapping pictures. The moose, however, was Nellie in a costume. With word that the animals were back on the shore, business picked up.
After a few weeks, Nellie’s appearance became so routine that Pete and the other guides paid little attention while the tourists continued their frantic picture taking.
One day, as the boat rounded Bear Point, the tourists ran across the deck and began waving and shouting as they stared at the shore. When Pete glanced over, he saw Nellie dipping her antlers in the lake as usual but this time was different—there was a bear behind her. Nellie had not seen it and the bear was getting closer.
When Nellie finally caught sight, she started running. As the bear approached, she picked up her front legs and ran faster. The tourists went wild as they had never seen a moose run on two legs before. Pete told them it was a new kind of hybrid moose. Soon, the bear was so near that Nellie climbed a tree with the bear in close pursuit. As the predator closed in on Nellie, she started to take off her antlers to further defend herself.
Then it happened: The bear reached up with his left paw and jammed the antlers back down on Nellie’s head and said, “Nellie, if you don’t keep those antlers on, we are both going to lose our jobs.”
Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at [email protected]