"9-1-1, What is your emergency?" So started every memorable night as the only 9-1-1 dispatcher in an area the size of the state of Oregon. As the Public Safety Dispatcher for the City of Bethel, Alaska, each phone call was another opportunity to learn something else. All too often, those lessons were harsh, brutal realities. What can one human do to another when shit hits the fan? How fast can nature kill you in Alaska? Sit at the 9-1-1 console at the end of the earth for a few days, and you will have some answers.
Bethel is just about the end of the earth. To get to Bethel, you have to be very determined. It is not somewhere you pass through to anywhere else, unless your ultimate destination is one of the Native Alaskan villages scattered across the Yukon Kuskokwim delta in Southwest Alaska. There is nowhere to go from Bethel except back to Anchorage. No roads lead to Bethel. The only way in or out is by air. No trucks haul goods to Bethel. No power or phone lines go out there. The town is self sufficient in ways that would make urban planners in the lower 48's mutter ceaselessly into their lattes before writing the entire affair off as insane. A town where 70 percent of the homes have no water or sewer lines? Where only one road is paved, and all the others get maintained by road graders? Where taking your honeybucket down to the slough each morning is standard operating procedure? Where there are three seasons, snow, mud and dust? Nothing in Bethel works according to any rules you take up there with you. The third day I was there, I muttered to Roger "This place makes its own rules." The day I left Bethel, 5 years later, nothing had changed. Only Bethel rules work in Bethel. Anything else will probably get you killed. Shit is real up there.
Imagine a town of 6,000 or so. Most homes are fairly small, and every building is up on stilts. The tundra is permafrost. One does not build directly on permafrost, whether it is a bank, a house, a school, or a good road. Permafrost melts. (Oxymorons rule!) But permafrost doesn't stay melted in Alaska. It refreezes, but never in the same place from which it melted. Everything shifts. If the house is on stilts, these changes take place below the house, and it only needs to be adjusted ever few years. Oh - how does one adjust a house? One picks it up and resets it on the stilts. Or, as often happens, the entire house is loaded on the back of a truck and driven across town, to be dumped off at another lot. A new set of steps is nailed together, the front door is unlocked, and the family is resettled. Since homes in Bethel often serve as family hubs, relatives coming in from the villages expect to stay with family while in town. But they aren't always in the loop.
Cab drivers in Bethel are more than familiar with someone getting into their cab at the airport and saying "Take me to Tommy Joe's house. It's green with a red roof and he lives down by the police station." The driver then begins to cruise the area, looking for Tommy Joe's house. Since this is Alaska, the odds are pretty good that this search is happening in at least dusk, if not full on night. And if you are mentally ticking over cab fare as the search goes on - well, that's another one of Bethel's rules. Cab fares are determined by zone, not mileage or time. If you get a ride from the airport, your fare will be 7 dollars, regardless of where you go, or how long it takes you to get there. And you will not have that cab to yourself. Because of the zone system, a cab driver packs in as many passengers as will fit on each trip. You will be squeezed in along with the stinkhead buckets, bingo bags, unrestrained children, guns, dead animals, etc. that get transported beside people in Alaska. Tends to make first time visitors a bit unsettled. You get used to it. Or you don't.
I was a cab driver for 6 months in Bethel. When I arrived there, it was with the intention of getting settled, then enduring the process to become certified to teach in Alaska. (I am certified as a Teacher of English and as an Elementary Education teacher in New Jersey). However, a month as a substitute disabused me of that notion. Teaching to the test is job one and only, as far as I can see. Each classroom was filled with the props that I recognized as corporate packages, designed to sell corporate packages to school systems struggling with problems that go far beyond "Johnny can't tell a verb from a noun." Fuck real education - let's set up a system where we decide arbitrary measures of achievement, then demand those arbitrary numbers be realized by massive amounts of time and money spent in having kids color in bubbles with number 2 pencils. And since we want to prove fiscal responsibility - let's grade those arbitrary measures with a machine that can only read well-colored bubbles. So what we are REALLY testing here is someone's ability to color in bubbles. But I digress.
Instead of a teaching license, I got a chauffeur's license. I had to get an Alaskan Driver's License, then be road tested by the Cab Inspector (an employee of the Police Department, who were nominally in charge of the cab industry). The road test would consist of being given 5 destinations in town, sequentially, and successfully arriving at each location undamaged and unlost. I have a degree, summa cum laude. I took many of the standardized tests necessary in this modern life. That road test was the most difficult I have ever endured. "Delta cottages", "Flagpole", "Blue door", etc. I passed, and began driving the streets of Bethel.
I drove the evening shift, 4 to midnight or so. I began driving in June, so midnight meant as much daylight as near evening down here. I would often finish a shift by turning on my headlights to drive home. Most cab drivers in Bethel work like maniacs all winter, frequently violating the maximum driving hours per day ordinance. They would then "go home" for the summer, returning in the fall like ass backwards swallows to Capristrano. Home was probably either Albania or Korea. The Korean population in Bethel is significant. Koreans own many of the cabs and most of the restaurants in town. Albanians are fewer in number, but still represent a good part of the non-native population. With 65 percent of the town listed as Native Alaskan, that meant that English was a decidedly second (if not 4th or 5th) language. As a cab driver, this was amusing, frustrating, and ultimately just a nuisance. When I left the streets to become a dispatcher, however...
Anyway, driving cab in Alaska was a joy during the summer nights. The sky in Alaska is the most amazing thing I have ever been honored to see. As a life long star gazer - the open sky overhead in Alaska was a dream come true - almost. Out on the tundra, a little glance goes a LONG way. On clear days, we could see to the mountains that walled us off from Anchorage and civilization - and they were 70 miles away! (Of course, on the other side, there were another 300 air miles still to go...but who's counting?) I saw eclipses, double and triple rainbows, a bolide that still hitches my breath when I recall watching it blaze overhead seemingly just out of reach, then exploding just above the horizon...sun dogs and the aurora borealis. But again, even the weather makes its own rules. Thunderstorms are rare in Alaska. Thunder snow can, and does happen, and is absolutely mind-shattering when it does, but the usual summer evening grumbler is just not on...usually.
One evening, I was taking a grannyclutch to Bingo. 4 older Native ladies, in their kuspuks, clutching their bingo bags, chattering away in Yup'ik (a language best described as the verbal outpouring of 2 half-drunk pissed off cats- at least to this East coast ear). Suddenly, thunder rolled and the grannies began to wail. I don't speak a work of Yup'ik, but granny wails are translatable by anyone. They were terrified! One begged me to pull over. I rolled to a stop on the side of the road, and the ladies cowered in the seats, trying everything that they could do to roll up into little granny balls on the floor. They trembled and wailed while (at best) middling thunder rumbled off at a distance. These women were survivors. Their faces were chiseled with decades of life in the Arctic tundra. They survived floods, blizzards, earthquakes, the loss of their way of life, the devastation of their traditions by the arrival of others, yet a thunderstorm that would not have disturbed a child back East had these ladies gibbering in their seats. Looking back, I realize that they are a perfect metaphor for anyone trying to make their way in Bethel. Even the most usual of things becomes outsized, grotesque and fearsome when seen so far from its familiar context. A simple summer thunderstorm became a monster from the worst nightmares. A night out becomes a tragedy that lasts through the following spring. A kid playing games becomes frost food for wildlife, and gets top billing for a few days as "What's new and happening around Bethel?"
For more information on the Yup'ik people of Alaska - click here. I deeply regret that my time there was not spent in closer personal contact with these amazing people. There is much there to be learned, but the barriers to getting those stories were insurmountable. Language was the first and foremost hurdle. I love words, and languages usually come fairly easily to me, given enough exposure. 5 years was not enough to scratch the surface of Yup'ik. It is a language shaped by the environment into which it is spoken. To my ear, it is filled with harsh, bitter, snapping sounds, like the sounds of ice in the winter. Lots of gurgling and back of the throat noises, the kind you make when you don't want to open your mouth wide (as is usually a good idea when it is minus whatever outside). When stories are told, there are few common references. Hearing stories of fish camps, whaling from kayaks, seal hunting and eating... the stuff of fantasy worlds to someone from southern New Jersey. But the teller of these fantasy stories was right there in the room, demonstrating the paddling moves that brought him to the whale, or miming running an ulu though the salmon in preparation to hang it outside from the drying racks that graced each dooryard area. Cognitive disconnect sets in early, and lingers far past its usefulness. Nothing makes sense, and you quickly disabuse yourself of the notion that it should. The Yup'ik language just adds aural emphasis to this. Those are people, yes, And their mouths are moving, and sound is coming out, so they must be speaking, but...what IS that noise? Add to this the permanent sense of disorientation that you experience when the sun is no longer reliable, and you have the makings of a truly epic chemical free major mind fuck that lasts as long as you are in Alaska.
So, if you have gotten the impression that Bethel, Alaska is a place like no where else on earth, with its own unique challenges, tragedies, and victories, you got it right. I am going to link a few shots that I did not take, and was not present for, but which I can affirm truly represent life as it was when I was there - FACE OF BETHEL CLICK HERE