EAGLE BLUE A TEAM, A TRIBE, AND A HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL SEASON IN ARCTIC ALASKA
By Michael D'Orso
Bloomsbury Copyright © 2006 Michael D'Orso
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-58234-623-2
Chapter One Dave
The first of November, almost a week since the Sox won the Series, and Dave Bridges still can't wipe that grin off his face. It's his birthday today, his fifty-first, but that's not why he's smiling. The door to his hutch of an office is festooned with photos of Pedro and Manny, of Damon and Schilling, the hugging and weeping that swept across Boston, the sweet taste of redemption that only someone who grew up in New England could possibly fathom, much less feel. They're showing highlights on ESPN, and Bridges is soaking it in, the sound muted on the little TV he keeps in a corner as he files a form for some outgoing freight.
He hears the faint drone of an approaching aircraft. The late-morning Wright Airlines flight up from Fairbanks. He grabs his work gloves and hunts for his hat. Winter won't be here for seven more weeks, but the temperature's already dipped below zero and the limbs of the spruce trees that circle the airstrip are thick with a coating of soft autumn snow.
Bridges zips up his Carhartts, all weathered and ragged and torn at both knees. His wife, Diane, shakes her head whenever she sees them, says they make him look like he's homeless, asks him why not buynew ones. Bridges just smiles. Why waste money on new overalls when these are just fine? They're warm, and they're sturdy, and who cares how they look? He knows it sounds corny, but his Carhartts are like a dependable friend, same as that beat-up Ford van parked out front, the junkheap he picked up for 450 bucks at a school district auction some five years ago. Sure, the thing looks like a wreck, dented and rusted, cracks in the windshield, a paint job the shade of a jar of cheap mustard. But it gets the job done, just like the Carhartts. And what Bridges likes best is there's not one thing phony about either of them.
A knock at the door, and an old man shuffles in. Bridges has never seen him before. He's Native, probably visiting family or friends in the village. The old man says he'd like a seat on that plane coming in, says he needs to get over to Birch Creek. He fishes a torn, wrinkled check from his coat pocket, hands it to Bridges and asks, "Is that enough?"
Bridges studies the worn piece of paper, a government check for seventy-five dollars. He adjusts his eyeglasses, touches his mustache with the tip of a finger, glances back at the man. He prefers not to hassle with two-party checks, but in this case he says it's okay. Something about the old man's eyes tells Bridges he can trust him. Not like the woman who pokes her head in the office a few seconds later. She's Native, too. Her breath smells of bourbon. She talks fast and too loud. She says she's left some packages on a bench in the terminal's front waiting room. Says she has to run uptown for a couple of minutes, asks Bridges to keep an eye on her stuff till she gets back. Bridges picks up his keys, says nothing to the woman, who leaves as abruptly as she appeared.
"A couple of minutes?" he says, shaking his head and pulling his office door shut. "Who is she kidding? Don't pee down my back and tell me it's raining."
He walks into the front room-the "lobby," as outsiders might call it, the tourists who show up every couple of weeks, often doing no more than step out onto the ice of the runway to pose for each other, snapping some photos to prove they were actually here, above the honest-to-god Arctic Circle, then hurrying back to their seats on the plane, huffing and rubbing their hands to get warm. The more daring among them might actually climb off until the next flight, make their way into the village, ask where they can get a hot cup of coffee and learn that there's no place in Fort Yukon that sells coffee like that, no place that sells anything hot to drink or to eat besides Cheryl's Cafe, which is down toward the river. But good luck finding Cheryl's unless someone shows you the way, past the school and the town's old Episcopal church, through the woods, up a couple of snowmachine trails, beyond Kevin Solomon's place with its yard full of dogs and its outhouse a couple of steps from the door. Take a left just past Kevin's, where the trail bends toward the banks of the Yukon, another hard left and you're there, at the green clapboard house with a satellite dish the size of a Volkswagen perched on its roof. Cheryl will fry you a burger on her countertop grill-the same plug-in kind they sell on TV-or she'll fix you some chicken fingers and fries. She's got cold cans of soda she keeps in the fridge. You can sit at your choice of two tables, unless Cheryl's kids are doing their homework at one. If your timing is right, her husband, Earl, might spoon you a bowl of his homemade moose soup or give you a piece of some dried caribou. And, yes, she has coffee, though it's not on the menu.
The old man takes a seat in a hard straight-back chair by the window, scanning the gray late-morning sky for that incoming plane. Another man slumps on a bench by the door. His eyes are shut, his jaw stubbled, unshaven, his hair dirty and matted, his coat held together by swaths of duct tape. He hears Bridges walk into the room, turns his head toward the sound. He grunts, gathers his thoughts. His tongue is heavy, his words slurred by liquor.
"What ... time ... does the plane ... leave for ... Chalkyitsik?"
"Kenny," says Bridges, "I've told you three times now. It doesn't get here till one thirty. It won't leave till about one forty-five. And if you're not sobered up by then, you ain't getting on it."
The man's chin drops back down to his chest. Bridges has known Kenny for more than two decades, all the way back to when Bridges taught school in Chalkyitsik. Kenny was a nonstop drinker back then, and little has changed. He stunned Bridges one summer, showing up unannounced at the wedding of Bridges's big sister, in Maine. This was back in the pipeline boom days, when money was flowing like oil up here, and Kenny got a wild hair to surprise his friend Dave. No question it was a surprise. Kenny showed up with the best of intentions, but promptly got plastered. He was still three sheets to the wind when the weekend was over and Bridges was packing his truck for the drive back to Fairbanks. How could he not offer Kenny a lift? They didn't get far, though, before Bridges could see that this just wouldn't work. Kenny couldn't stop drinking, and when he drank, more often than not it turned ugly. Bridges finally dropped him off on the roadside just past Montreal. To this day he's not sure exactly how Kenny got home. He figures he must've just stuck out his thumb till he made it clear across Canada to Whitehorse, then up the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks, some 3,500 road miles in all. Then the last leg, of course, as always, by air, with a stop in Fort Yukon, then on to Chalkyitsik. However he did it, Kenny's still here some twenty years later, still drinking, still flying, still finding his way home.
Kenny turns to the old man, asks if he'd give him a dollar for a drink from the soda machine. The old man looks at Kenny, turns and gazes back out the window. The old man is Native, like Kenny, but that's where the bond ends. It's Natives like Kenny who give the old man a bad name. In the eyes of the white people living downstate-not all the whites, certainly, but more than a few-those sad, sorry drunks stumbling out of the bars on Two Street in Fairbanks or Fourth Avenue in Anchorage, passing out on park benches, panhandling passersby for spare change or a cigarette, they're all just alike. Savages. Hopeless. Better off back in their villages where they belong.
The old man wears a ball cap with the legend NATIVE PRIDE stitched on the crown. Eskimos, Athabascans, Yupiks, Aleuts-Natives all over Alaska wear those words on their shirts and their hats and their jackets. For some, the words mean very little. For others, like the old man, they are holy. They're righteous. And they're slandered each time a Native man is arrested for beating his wife. Or the wife goes to prison for knifing her husband. Or someone like Kenny shows up like this.
Bridges stops for a second to check his geraniums. They're under a grow light, on a table set up by the door to the bathroom-two rows of clay pots aligned like sentries. Come next May they'll be ready to put in the ground, along with the cabbage and carrots and onions, and nasturtiums and marigolds, impatiens and snapdragons and whatever else Bridges might find a good deal on at the greenhouse sales they throw every April in Fairbanks. The small yard surrounding his cabin, just up the road from the airport, is bare at the moment, bone-white with its blanket of snow. By the end of the winter that blanket will be close to four feet deep, maybe five. Then, come late spring, the melt will begin, the ice in the river will break, the sounds of its bucking and heaving resounding like dynamite throughout the village, and Bridges's front yard will explode with the colors and blossoms and tendrils of spring.
His bees will arrive about that same time, the two boxes he orders each year from a dealer in Fairbanks, who buys them himself from a bee farm in California. They come about five thousand bees per container, each container roughly the size of a shoebox. It's like Christmas for Bridges, the day those boxes show up. He loves the exquisite ritual of it all, preparing the two hives he keeps in his yard, each with its broad wooden platform and fitted tin top and interior network of brood rooms and frames. He loves fishing out the lone queen in each of those boxes, each queen encased in a small plastic bulb. He soaks the queens down so they won't fly away, then places each one into her hive, where the other bees follow-the workers and drones. Then he sets up a chair just outside his back door, where he sits every day after work, through the spring and the summer, mesmerized by the show. Who needs TV, he asks, when you've got something like this? The worker bees hovering over the garden, floating off toward the blossoms in the shade of the forest, feeding on willow and lupine and the purple-red fireweed that bursts up from the ground in the warm July sun. And the drones, coming and going with nothing to do but have sex with the queen. He never gets tired of watching the bees flying back to their hives so laden with pollen and nectar they can hardly stay airborne, banging smack into the fronts of their boxes, where they fall to the platforms by the dozens, stunned for a moment, then stand and stagger into their hives like drunks coming home from an overnight binge.
Some of his neighbors think Bridges is nutty, Old Dave sitting out there for hours just watching his bees. But nobody laughs when the honey starts flowing, sometime around August. It's all Bridges can do to find enough jars to keep up with the syrup oozing out of those frames. One season he jarred nineteen gallons. Nineteen gallons from only two hives. He's got friends back in Maine who refuse to believe it. But that's how everything is up here in the Arctic. So extreme. Everyone knows how cold it can get this far north-the record low for the village is seventy-five below zero. But what most people don't know is how hot it can get in the summer. The highest temperature ever recorded in the state of Alaska was right here in Fort Yukon, in August of 1915, when the thermometer hit one hundred degrees on the nose. A neat trivia fact Dave will sometimes lay on visitors is that Hawaii's record high temperature is the same as Alaska's-one hundred degrees.
The flow of honey he gets at the end of bee season is just another example, Dave says, of the climatic extremes up here. Think about it, he says. Bees work and they mate in the day, when there's sunlight. Well, there's always sunlight in the summer up here, twenty-four hours a day in mid-June, so the bees just keep going and going, breeding and feeding all day long, every day. At the end of August it reaches its peak. The honey flow is insane, and so is the bees' birthrate. By the first frost of September those ten thousand insects Dave began with in April have become fifty thousand.
The sad part is having to kill them all after that first frost sets in. They'd eat all the honey if he let them remain. Besides, there's no way they could live through a Fort Yukon winter. So come each September Bridges puts on his sweatpants and netting and gloves, and he smokes down the hives. Then he pulls out each frame, thick with thousands of bees, sprays them down with a mixture of water and sugar so they can't fly away, then scrapes them into a large tub of water and soap, where they sink to the bottom and drown.
He can hear the naysayers now, the animal rights people, PETA and such, outraged at the slaughter of innocent bees. There's so much for those people to protest up here in Alaska. The netting of salmon. The shooting of bears. The trapping and skinning of beaver and mink. Just last week there were marchers in Anchorage dressed up like wolves, dispatched by a New England-headquartered group aroused by a government plan to thin the state's wolf packs by shooting the beasts from the air. What Bridges wants to know is how many of those marchers have had to hunt a moose to put food on their table. How many have seen what a lone wolf can do to a caribou herd or to a cow moose and her calf? Bridges has seen it. He's watched a wolf kill, and he'll tell you it's not pretty. No swelling strings, he says with a half smile. No strains of "Born Free." How many of those people, those protesters, understand life as it's lived in a place like the Arctic? That's what he'd like to know. How many could make it through one winter up here? Make it the way that the Natives do, the ones who still live the traditional way. Bridges has lived among the Athabascans for nearly three decades now, more than half his life, and his awe and respect for the skills and the knowledge the Elders pass on to the younger among them, those who still choose to live off the land-his respect for that process, far from fading with time, has continued to deepen with each passing year.
Excerpted from EAGLE BLUE by Michael D'Orso Copyright © 2006 by Michael D'Orso. Excerpted by permission.
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