Alaska for Real: Lessons learned at the end of the world

When I signed the book deal to write a memoir about my childhood growing up in the burned ruins of an old cannery way out in the wilderness, I thought it would just be a matter of writing down the memories in chronological order.

 

But almost immediately I came up against a problem. Just writing down the events didn’t even come close to capturing the all-encompassing mood of those years. I have never felt anything like it anywhere. Where could I go, what could I do, to bring that feeling back into focus so I could put it into words?

I searched through my music albums, some on cassette, and found ones that had been playing in the background of my childhood. Sure enough, as I listened, memories flooded to the fore and I hastily jotted them down so I wouldn’t forget them.

I found ragged kids books that I read when we lived at the cannery and that had somehow survived the passage of time. They, too, brought back memories.

But the mood of living in the old ruins still remained elusive.

Ruins. That was it! What I needed to be reading and watching were end of the world, post-apocalyptic stories!

Because that was what it had felt like, with our family completely alone in the wilderness surrounded by the charred remnants of a bygone civilization. My parents could have told us kids that the rest of the world had been destroyed by nuclear warfare with only small pockets of life left on the planet and we would have believed them.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Reading book after apocalyptic book and throwing in a few TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know It) movies for good measure. Stories about poeple cast upon their own resources without any infrastructure or government aid to support them, with little training or preparation. That sounds about right.

As I kept reading, I began to notice things that the authors didn’t get right about living in the post-apocalypse. For instance, time.

When we lived there, cut off from society and the fast-paced, technology-driven, ever-changing present, time stopped. One summer we lived in the only remaining cannery building, a tiny, one-room cabin with two small lofts for bedrooms. It was just one summer, but all seven of us, looking back, remember it as being some of the best years of our childhood. That wasn’t just from a kid’s perspective; my parents felt that way, too.

Another thing. The characters in these books are remarkably fastidious even when they know that their options for food have dwindled down to almost nothing. I read book after book in disbelief at the way characters tossed out food that had “spoiled” because it had been in the fridge or freezer without power for a couple days.

Seriously? We had no fridge or freezer in those first years and our food sat around for a lot longer than a couple days without benefit of an electric chill. We ate everything put in front of us because we knew more might not be coming. To this day my brothers prefer rotisserie chicken because it has a hint of that well-aged-meat flavor that brings back fond childhood memories of mom’s cooking. As anyone living at the end of the world knows: food just gets more comforting with age.

Another thing I notice in these stories is how often people give up and quit. No. Just — no.

You don’t quit when there’s no one to come to your rescue, when there’s no social safety net. Waiting for help isn’t an option. As children we understood that without it ever having to be said. On the other hand, when we had kids visit us from the nearest village, they, like the characters in these books, didn’t pick up on the obvious.

In one situation after another, when we found ourselves — as kids living in post-apocalyptic ruins tend to do — in life threatening predicaments, our friends gave up.

I remember looking down incredulously as a friend, who was about my age, laid down in the creek and refused to keep going to get to the other side and safety because her feet had gone numb from the icy water. “If you lay there you’ll die,” I told her through chattering teeth.

She refused to move, shivering and crying as the water swept around her. “I can’t go any farther. I can’t. It’s impossible.”

Despite my complete bafflement at this argument, I did the only possible thing, since we were completely on our own. I picked her up and carried her the rest of the way across the slippery, rock-strewn creek that seemed miles wide, my own feet completely numb and without feeling, my spine compressing and my knees wobbling under our combined weight. We made it to the other side. Because that’s what you do at the end of the world. You survive.

You know how Tom Hanks says, in “A League of Their Own,” “There’s no crying in baseball!” Well, there’s also no quitting at the end of the world.

At any rate, these post-apocalyptic novels have served their purpose in helping me get the mood and tone right. Here’s the opening page of my memoir “Raised in Ruins” which begins with a slogan on T-shirts once sold at the Meyers Chuck store: “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.”

Excerpt from “Raised in Ruins”

Meyers Chuck, Alaska: Spring 1980

We were supposed to be a group of intrepid families braving the apocalypse. Our unified mission: to homestead the ruins and resurrect and transform them into an off-the grid, self-reliant wilderness community.

The adults spent long kerosene-lamp-lit hours poring over the maps, studying the remains of the old cannery that had burned nearly half a century ago. They marked out where each home would go, the supplies they’d need, the school they’d build. They figured out how they would barge fuel in, what kind of generators they’d need for electricity, if they could arrange a mail drop way out there in the wilderness far away from all human industry.

We children overheard the talk, but we didn’t discuss it. Personally, I felt like I was overhearing plans for moving aboard a generational ark ship that was going to explore and colonize deep space.

My family of seven in our tiny, 13-foot Boston Whaler skiff, overpowered by a 50hp Mercury outboard motor, went alone on the reconnaissance expedition.


• Tara Neilson lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.For more about the memoir, see www.alaskaforreal.com, under the category “Raised in Ruins.”


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