When you wish upon a star, it makes no difference who you are

Posted: Friday, May 21, 2004

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Have you ever wanted to make a wish upon a star? There are many to choose from. There are 70 sextillion of these sister suns as seen through the most powerful telescopes. That is a seven followed by 22 zeros. That is more than all the grains of sand on all the beaches and deserts on this planet Earth of ours.

Jerry Nelson was a very good friend of mine. I first met him when he was mayor of Yakutat. He encouraged me to come to Yakutat to run a cold storage and fish processing plant there. From 1972 to 1976, I was involved in buying salmon and halibut and crab in one of the most beautiful spots in Southeast Alaska. Behind the town tower two of the highest mountains in North America, Mount St. Elias and Mount Logan. Only Mount Denali is higher. On the outer coast lie open sandy beaches running for 60 miles southeast to Dry Bay.

In the mid 1970s, Jerry was appointed to serve as the head of an important corporation whose headquarters was in Anchorage. It was called the Community Enterprise Development Corporation. Its purpose was to help rural communities all over the state.

Jerry invited me to join him on a trip he was making to the far north to discuss the opportunity of establishing small fish processing plants.

We first went to Nome by jet and then by small plane to Golovnin. When the discussion ended, we boarded the single-engine plane and in the dark, still winter air, with a bright moon shining, we passed over the frozen tundra. The moon was so bright we could see the land clearly below. We arrived at Unalakleet.

Jerry had already made housing arrangements for himself and had other business to conduct, so I bunked in a community hall. It was on the second floor, over a fire station I believe, and several others were laying down on cots to spend the night.

Two Eskimo men were close by. They were talking quietly together. But they weren't conversing about the latest news of Unalakleet or Nome. A celestial object had caught their attention. It wasn't a star but something that sometimes is equally impressive and bright to the naked eye in the night sky. One asked, matter of factly, "What do you think of the Kahoutek comet?

The comment struck me as special. Not only are men and women interested in material things, but also about things of the spirit and imagination and often of the heavens.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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