Painter has led a life of adventure

On the Waterfront

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2004

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Rie Muñoz has truly lived a life of adventure. She is one of the great painters of Alaska.

As a young wife, she traveled with her husband, Juan, to serve as a schoolteacher on King Island. For anyone who was not a resident, it was indeed a bleak setting. It was a rocky outcrop in the middle of the fierce Bering Sea, where the houses were perched on stilts on the side of a cliff. It was the winter home for a brave settlement of Eskimos.

In the summer everyone traveled by oomiak to Nome. There was no airfield on King Island, only a tenuous line of support by a once-a-year visit by a supply ship. A marvelous book and operetta entitled "King Island Christmas" tells the tale. Now only vestiges of the houses remain, since King Island has been abandoned for a safer more secure home near Nome.

I have always been fascinated by an earlier experience Rie had during World War II. She was 18 when she left Holland with her 16-year-old brother, Piet, in September 1939. These were perilous times although for a few months it was called "the phony war," since the armies of Britain, France and Germany didn't move in the fall and winter months.

Rie and Piet were on a ship called the Bloemendam. It was carrying an unusual cargo. There were 2,000 yellow canaries in cages in the hold and a heavy, burly man was in charge to keep the birds clean and fed.

The unexpected happened in the English Channel. An ominous shape appeared, a German U-boat, which ordered the Bloemendam to stop. The Germans boarded and checked the cargo, and then allowed the ship to proceed. As the Bloemendam neared New York, it was announced to the passengers that in addition to the canaries, it also had the crown jewels of the Dutch royal family.

Rie and Piet, who were born in California, had to return to America in order to allow their Dutch parents to return as well. This was a difficult time for anyone to enter America as an immigrant, and many from Europe anxiously sought refuge. Because Rie and Piet were American citizens, their parents were entitled to legally apply to enter if their children were physically in the United States.

But their parents' paperwork and travel plans took too long. They were scheduled to leave from Lisbon, Portugal, in mid-May of 1940, but just before they prepared to leave Holland to start their journey, the Germans invaded.

The next time Rie saw them was after the Normandy invasion in June 1944, when she was a member of the U.S. Army stationed at the German village Garmish Partenkirchen, where she worked on a publication, "Pass Time." It was for American troops on recreation and rehabilitation leave. She was an artist for the paper.

And so that brings us to that fateful first visit to Juneau, where she jumped ship on its way to Skagway and resolved to find a job in Alaska before the ship returned to Juneau on its way south. She did, at the Juneau Empire, and that is history.

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

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