The Derbs—Mr., Mrs., and Missy—spent two weeks in Alaska. Here are some random observations.
Positively the last family vacation. Most people who visit Alaska nowadays arrive on cruise ships, which seem to get bigger every time I see one. Juneau’s harbor is a cruise ship parking lot. There were five of the behemoths there when we flew in.
To further magnify the impression, metropolitan Juneau is a small place: one highway, a few dozen city streets, a few thousand people. With five cruise ships in harbor, cruisers surely outnumber city residents.
We weren’t on a cruise. Our primary purpose was to see Junior, who is stationed at Fort Richardson outside Anchorage. He only gets weekends off, and that not reliably. If the Army wants him on a weekend, they’ve got him. So we flew out for two weeks, Thursday to Thursday, encompassing two weekends to maximize the opportunity to see Junior, leaving weekdays for exploration elsewhere—Juneau, for instance.
The military gods were kind. Junior was free both weekends, so it was more or less a full-family vacation: probably our last, Mom and Dad told each other … although that’s what we said the previous two times.
WW2 on U.S. soil. The battle of Attu in the Aleutians was the only WW2 battle fought on U.S. soil. I read it up in the Anchorage Visitor’s Center while the women were shopping for tchotchkes.
Good to be reminded that suicidal fanaticism didn’t come into the world in September 2001.
Only 33 years of living and I am to die here. I have no regrets. Banzai to the Emperor! … At 1800 took care of all the patients [in a field hospital] with grenades. Goodbye Taeki my beloved wife …
(From the diary of Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi; May 30th, 1943.)
First Folk. Alaska, like the rest of the U.S.A., is afflicted with the horrid blight of diversity, though not the usual kind. There aren’t many blacks, and the few I met were IWSBs from commerce or the military. I didn’t meet any Hispanics, though rumor has it the feds are shipping some of this latest tranche of Central American
teenage gangbangers unaccompanied minors to Alaska.
No, this is the oldest style of American diversity: aborigines among whites. The aborigines in Alaska are Eskimos, of course (or whatever we’re supposed to say nowadays—don’t ask me). Seen in the streets of Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau, they are a sorry lot: the men bleary-eyed and toothless, the women morbidly obese.
Are things better out in the boonies? Apparently not.
Endemic rape, sex trafficking and appalling levels of domestic violence: Why the US and Canadian Arctic is one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a woman.
Some 37 per cent of Alaskan women have experienced domestic violence.
Sexual violence is 12 times the US average while rape is four times.
Rapes and murders in isolated villages often go unreported and unsolved.
A University of Quebec study found that alcohol abuse is endemic.
(Headline in Mail Online, September 1st, 2014)
But hey, at least Alaska has some diversity! Think how unbearable things would be without it.
Boxing the compass. From Fairbanks we took a tour up to the Arctic Circle, just to say we’d been there.
Dad and Mom used to live on London’s Isle of Dogs, just across from Greenwich Park, where the famous observatory stands. We have a photograph somewhere of Mom standing astride the zero meridian. Well, now we have one of her astride the Arctic Circle.
Me: “OK, Honey, now we just have to collect the Antarctic Circle, the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, the Equator, and the International Date Line for a full set!” (Mom rolls eyes.)
Toyland. Sitting in the restaurant on Douglas Island looking out through the window across the channel to Juneau, I watched the seaplanes taking off and landing (sea-ing?). They do so at the rate of one every few minutes.
Idly watching them, and with an assist from a third glass of the excellent Alaska ale, I did one of those cognitive flips—like the wire-frame cube illusion—suddenly seeing the seaplanes as toys. I’m sorry, but of all the objects in the world that are not toys, seaplanes look the most like toys.
And Alaska gets to you in that way. The strangeness and improbability of the place summons up recollections of childhood, when everything was strange and improbable.
The improbable capital. Juneau itself, for example, is the only state capital on the American mainland not accessible by road. I didn’t know this before coming here and didn’t believe it when told, so I drove north on the city’s one highway to see for myself. Sure enough, 40 miles out the highway turns into an unpaved track. There’s a barrier across it, and a sign (riddled with bullet holes) saying END. Same thing at the southern end: I checked.
Locals told us that there are occasional efforts to move the state capital to somewhere less improbable and more central, but the state legislature won’t vote the funds. Good for them: Brasília is not a happy precedent.
Gypsy paradise. The average age of a cruise passenger is 50-plus, it says here. Watching them milling around the streets of Juneau, I’m surprised it’s that low.
I got to chatting with one of the help at our hotel, an H-2B from Bulgaria. (That’s a seasonal guest-worker visa. Heaven forbid young Americans should have to do menial work in their vacations!) Bulgaria, like Romania, is cursed with a big Gypsy population. My new friend was soon telling me Gypsy horror stories.
Then, nodding to the window through which could be seen platoons of cruise folk doddering up Juneau’s steep streets: “If they ever find out about this place they’ll be swarming here. It’s Gypsy Paradise!” He made the universal pickpocket/Gypsy gesture, dipping his hand down with fingers together and thumb stuck out.
I hope I haven’t opened a floodgate there.