Monday, October 14, 2019

#32: Meeting Alice

I don't believe in ghosts, but I met Alice the summer of about 2012. I was researching Skagway: It's All About the Gold and getting frustrated by everyone's ghost stories. Finally, on a dare, I stormed up the stairs of the Skagway Inn.

\Skagway Inn

Alice's Door
I arrived at the top of the steps full of scorn, stepped into a hallway, and took a quick right, steering for the room at the end, the one I knew had windows overlooking Broadway. I'd always been curious. But when I passed the dress forms standing politely by, hallway decor, the hair on my neck and arms went straight up. What's this? I can't say the experience was unpleasant; more curious than anything else. I continued on but an energy came gunning down the wall so forcefully I staggered back. Goosebumps riddled my skin. 

Okay, this is crazy. You're a writer, you're susceptible. You had an imaginary playmate once. The girl downstairs just got you all worked up. I tried again. This time the hair on my arms BUZZZZED. 

Shake it off, I said and turned the other way, poking my nose in the other empty rooms without a problem. See? Just my imagination. Back I went. But just as I approached the dress forms waiting for me in the hallway, the hair on my arms again shot up and the energy I'd encountered earlier pushed hard. Again I staggered back. The hair on my arms settled down. The energy went away. I stepped forward. Yikes. We were in a dance across some invisible line at the dress forms, skin hair rising and falling. The predictability astonished me. Okay, so there's no shaking this off, I said. And I more or less told Alice I was coming in, not to cause harm but because I was feeling nosey.

Whoever she was (I don't believe in ghosts), she did not want my nose in her business. The resistant energy increased with each step, like a steady wind intensifying. I managed to make it to the door, and was startled to sense her standing about two feet away. I was further startled when she suddenly glided kiddy-corner to a doorway leading out to the sun porch, the one with all the windows visible off Broadway. She was leary of me, reluctantly tolerant. I stepped in.

An old bedstead stood before me. Left of the bed, by the door, a nightstand--and a small 1898 book. Intrigued, I picked it up. Alice vanished, everything normal. Curious, I set the book down and looked around.  But as soon as I let go of the book, she was back, energy chaotic in the corner. So too the hair on my arms and neck. I picked up the book. She vanished. Bizarre. I put it down. She came back. I did this a couple of times, the predictability of it--as in the hallway--astonishing. What did touching the book have to do with the price of rhubarb? Then came the realization that in my wildest imagination I could never have come up with anything so remotely absurd. All right, Alice, who are you? 

She hovered at the door-way into the sunroom on high alert. I felt badly. I just want to snoop. I took a step toward her. In a wink, she slid into the sunroom. I followed, stepping through and passing a blue dress hanging on a coat rack. She retreated around the bay windows of her room to a corner I couldn't yet see. I kept going, though concerned by her mounting panic--at least that's the way it felt. I stopped the instant I "saw" her.

She was standing on a single bed, "looking" like the stereotypical woman scared of a wee mouse, cowering on a kitchen chair in red high heels and a mini skirt. Only she wore period dress with buttoned shoes and standing om a bed. What am I to do with this? I wondered. Me, who doesn't believe in ghosts. What follows makes no sense at all, and sane people must conclude I'm nuts. But, God's truth, this is what happened.

I backed away from her, even as she came off the bed in a frantic attempt to get past me. I was so rattled, I paused at the doorway. I didn't want her to mow me down. What then? She squeezed by me so closely I flattened a hand against my abdomen and went up on toes in an effort to give her room. Her tumultuous energy pressed my spine against the jamb, and before I could catch my breath she beelined up the right side of the bed, against the nightstand and full-length mirror on the wall. She eyed the door across the bed--as if to sprint across the mattress at any moment and escape. And this is where it got weird. I started talking to her.

In my head.

I wanted to know why she was hanging out in a room for (maybe?) a hundred years. The front structure of the Skagway Inn had been the original home of Skagway's only Jewish family in 1919. But the owner had expanded over time, bringing in brothels and cribs and other gold rush haunts, adding them to the original in order to accommodate his growing family. Was she part of the gold rush, then, with a sad history in Skagway's early, very seedy days? Why couldn't she just get on with her death or life or whatever it was that confined her here to this space. Isn't it  boring? I asked.

The upshot was that she calmed down, and then totally shocked me by following me out of the room. One step beside and behind me. Seriously. Down the hall, down the stairs, out the side door, through the garden, across Sixth Street. We stood on the boardwalk, staring at each other. Only she wasn't visible. What in the world? I asked, looking back at the inn and her room out front, the sunlight bright in her sunroom.

She seemed bewildered to find herself outside. I sure was! I'm going to the library, I told her, not knowing what else to do. Do you want to come along? She did not. I know, I said, let's go talk to my boss. He'll know what to do. I pulled out my cell, put a call into Trent, not exactly a conversation anyone ever has with their boss. But I knew he was into Skagway's ghosts. He was. He said to bring her down to the office. But when I told Alice what was up, she vanished. Gone.

I haven't seen her since. I've returned to her room many times over the years. But it's always empty. Where did she go? What did she do?

Here's the truth. I don't know, but she's been calling me whenever I return to town. It doesn't matter I hang my hat, she finds me. "Brenda!" she calls in audible voice, always startling me. Usually it's in the evenings when my mind is on something else. Many times in the middle of the night, waking me up, sometimes so persistent and urgent I get up and try to find her. She sounds like she's in trouble.

Tell me, what am I to make of this? I don't believe in ghosts. But I met one. And she keeps calling.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

#31: Just Booked My Tickets to Skagway!

Brenda Wilbee at 34 below
MY WRITER FRIEND DAWN and I just booked our tickets for another wild spree in the North. This time we're flying to Whitehorse. So much to do in the capital of Canada's Yukon, where it's much colder than Skagway 90 miles south. We'll enjoy the hot springs, swimming pool, Beringia Museum, and, if luck holds, attempt to drive the pass down into Skagway.

Now why would we want to do that? It can be whiteout conditions at the border! I've been stranded before, holed up in my car with a sleeping bag and granola bars, waiting for the snow plow to come through. This time I'll take some of Whitehorse's chocolate red wine and cheese. It's actually kind of fun. Seriously.

Border at Skagway AK
If we get to Skagway without driving off the road, a walk down Broadway will reveal signs at just about every window, creatively announcing CLOSED FOR WINTER. So why are we doing this?

Because not everything is shut down, and everywhere you look beauty will knock you off your feet faster than black ice. 

I've always loved Skagway in the winter; Dawn got her first taste last year. It's not just the pristine beauty of the place. It's the people who live in this far-away, isolated town of 1,000--that sees more than a million tourists come through in the summertime. Fifteen hundred summer workers go home in the fall and all winter a smattering of restaurants stay open to serve the local hard-core residents.

Coffee at the Sweet Tooth, lunch at Glacial Smoothies, dinner at the Brew Co. Other places stay open as well, thank goodness. The library. Radio Shack. Liquor store. Grocery store, bank, post office. The Clothes Rush to replace the mitten you lost.  Thankfully, the 22 jewelry stores are shuttered.

And there's always friends to visit, historical archives to poke about in, rock painting at the O'Donnell's, senior lunch at the white church, Knit Wits at Grandma Ginny's, alley driving with Miss Bea. The town matriarch, Miss Bea has stories of every era and everyone, hidden in plain sight, in every nook and cranny. I need to catch up on how the wood wars are going and what new sinkhole has emerged. Thankfully the 22 jewelry shops are shuttered.

If you've got nothing to do the week of January 9, 2020, I'd love to introduce you. You can accompany me on my pilgrimage to Harriet Pullen's old hotel, once the swankiest in all of Alaska.

All that remains is the chimney. And this is why Skagway is so cool: A ghost town of the 1898 Rush with all of today's amenities--crawling with good people that outnumber the ghosts that still haunt. But that's another story...

Monday, June 17, 2019

#30: Rest and Restoration

I WAS FEELING A BIT OF BURNOUT from juggling two jobs and still fretting about lack of hours, a rather chronic problem I was heartily bored with. Too, I was far from home and a prevailing sense of isolation and loneliness was taking its toll. But then Chilkat Float Tours of Skagway treated everyone at Alaska Excursions, where I worked part time, to a ride down Taiya River.
Can a day be lovelier? A lazy river, salmon spawning, eagles soaring, sun looping through a cerulean sky, hang gliders adding color to a glacier glinting off the horizon. Everywhere I looked the raw wilderness spread forever, untouched and pristine as the day God made it, gently lifting me into a place of peace.
Hang Glider Above Nelson Glacier
Steve and Hunter
End of the Float
“Hey! Anyone lose $10?” Our guide pointed to a ten-dollar bill floating on the river’s surface.

Rest. Renewal. Reassurance. Someday I'll go home, but I'll take with me this moment of time and abundance.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

#29 - Friends Forever

Collage of Norma, Brenda, Sandy Jr High
Norma Miller, Brenda Wilbee, Skagway AK 2019

MY BEST FRIEND from junior high days came to visit me in Skagway. I'd moved to Ann Arbor, MI, in the mid-sixties, a skinny little thing from the beach outside Vancouver BC. My younger sister Tresa and I went to a two-room school, where we played four-square under a tin roof, and I memorized all the kings and queens of England. Ann Arbor was a whole different story.

My family landed in a country fighting over racial injustice. I watched the news in horror as Governor Wallace of Alabama ordered the water hosing of people, watched as they were peeled from their hold off lamp posts, skidded on their backsides down sidewalks, rolled like sausages in the streets. I entered a junior high where the racial tension ran high.

Norma Linebaugh, Brenda and Tresa Wilbee
Norma, Me, Tresa
To make matters worse, my mother took me into the allergy clinic at the University of Michigan Hospital where residents were allowed to treat me without supervision. I ended up covered head to heel with uncontrollable eczema, an unsightly, itchy mess that on a good day looked like my skin had been turned inside out. Only my face remained unaffected and I thanked God everyday for that small mercy. I had two friends: Norma and Sandy Bird. The two stuck by when no one else did, and I've treasured their companionship and easy acceptance ever since;  they allowed me a sense of normalcy in a difficult world.

I've lost touch with Sandy, though I'd love to find her. Norma and I kept in touch. My family left Ann Arbor after my father got his PhD. We moved to Iowa, but every summer, as had been our habit, we returned to the West Coast. Between our junior and senior years, Norma came to hang out. We were in each other's weddings, and the last time I saw her was 1985. A long time to go until Skagway 2019.

She arrived by plane, a beautiful sunny day--and I spent a week showing her around and introducing her to the gang.

First on the list, of course, Miss Miss Bea and alley driving. "If you live here long enough," the town matriarch tells Norma, "you end up a little crazy. We're going to go look at the results of DOT being in town too long!"

I drove us down to the ferry slip and eased over to the guard rail. Yup. What up with that sign? Haha!

You can't of course come to Skagway without a trip to the Yukon. Judy Mallory and I took Norma up to Whitehorse, YK.

Norma Miller and Whitehorse, YK, pool
Whitehorse, being a real town meant we had our errands. Norma duly traipsed around with us while we stopped for my chocolate red wine at the liquor store, picked up some art supplies for Miss Bea at the Dollar Store, groceries at the Super Store, lunch at Big Bear Donair. We saved the best for last, of course--an hour at the Whitehorse Recreation Center. Judy and I collapsed into the hot tub. Norma actually went swimming! We were both impressed.

Lily Pad, Skagway AK
But it was in the evenings, tucked into the Lily Pad where I rented (my room the upstair's dormer) and Norma A&B'd (her window the other one upstairs), that I found something stir in my soul. She'd brought a picture album of Slausen Jr. High; and I discovered while pouring over those old pictures that, while she and Sandy were my only real friends, other faces became familiar, and rather pleasant, sometimes amusing, memories bubbled up from deep in my head.

"Oh, yea!" I'd say, discovering Dana all over again, "this is the girl who liked to 'fall asleep' under the tanning light and blister her face!" Yes, a fad. We had our own self-destructive behaviors back then.

Or, "oh my gosh, that's Jackie Smith! She still play the French Horn? Gordie and Louis Stout, I heard Gordie playing the marimba on the radio one day, one of his own compositions. They must have both gone into music."

"Oh, I know!" I said, "what about Bob Streeter? He was going to cure cancer. He was adamant about it." I'd actually never forgotten Bob. Only how to spell his last name, apparently.

Norma was a little fuzzy. Bob didn't go to the school reunions but she'd heard he was a doctor in the Carolinas, maybe. Maybe Virginia.

"Were you in my French class?" I asked. "When the teacher came up and clobbered me from behind."

Norma hadn't. I filled her in.

I'd been sitting in the front row. I sat as I normally did, shy, head down, quiet, minding my own business, when WHAM! I first heard her walking up the aisle behind me; next thing I knew she'd hit me hard, slamming me forward over the desktop, the bridge of my nose smacking the desk edge. My glasses went flying... I actually saw stars, I think, but it was the humiliation that horrified me. All around, stunned silence. Stunned. Frantically, I tried to not cry, blinking back the tears. I could see, blurry on the floor in front of me, my books and papers, an eraser, a pencil. I was in such terrible pain I couldn't move. Why-- What-- The teacher went on as if nothing had happened. I felt sympathetic glances, and began to calm down. Finally, the bell. Everyone got up and quietly traipsed past me. Carefully they skirted my scattered things. Someone retrieved my glasses, set them on the desk. I carefully put them on. And then along came Bob Streeter. He gathered up the rest of my belongings while I struggled to rise. He gave me a hand.  "Where's your next class?"

"Mr. Hart's. Science."

"I'll carry your books."

I'll never forget how he kept the crowds from crowding me, casting worried glances at my face. "I'm sorry," he whispered, settling me in.

From time to time I've tried to track him down, curious. Did he become a doctor? Was he trying to cure cancer? Never did find him; turns out I'd had the wrong spelling of his last name. Strieter, not Streeter. Duh.

Norma and I spent some time googling him, finally tracking him to L.A., where he has a history in cancer research and is a pulmonologist. I was glad to see he'd persevered. I was really glad to see his picture, the kindness that still dwells in his eyes and his gentle, compassionate nature undiminished and evident. He probably has no memory of that terrible day in French class. It's mine to treasure.

Norma had come my last week of a two-month winter reprieve to the far north. Slowly I began letting go of the fun and friends with her at my side, enjoying so much the fun evenings we shared, holed up in the Lily Pad while the wind whistled around the house. Together we looked back forty-five years, at all the old pictures of past lives that took on the present as one by one Norma caught me up. Many were dead: Mr. Gabrian,  David Wheelock, Jan Soefield. Others were alive and doing well for themselves: the Stout brothers, Jackie Smith, Karen Rice... Bob. Pursuing his passion. I hope one day he manages to be part of the puzzle to a cancer cure.

Junior High is Ann Arbor MI was tough, that's for sure; and racial tension still runs high in this country. But time softens when we look back. Good memories, friendly acquaintances, a kind boy, Sandy, Norma. She and I had a fun week, that final week in Skagway. Friend to the end, and still a friend, I don't think we'll wait so long to see each other again!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

#28 - Formline Design and Native Drum, An Art Form 1,000 Years Old

Skagway News Front Page Feb 9, 2009

SKAGWAY'S TRADITIONAL COUNCIL recently held a class on Tlingit drum making, immersing me at least into an art form a thousand years old: Formline Design. I hate to admit, but all my life I've looked at Northwest Coastal Indian art as "seen one, seen all." My eyes glanced right on past to the next thing in the gift shop or museum. I no longer do this. Formline design, I've discovered to my chagrin, is composed of three basic shapes: the U, the ovoid, and S. And by using these three "lego" pieces and endless variations, you can create images of intricate sophistication.

the 3 basic shapes of formline design
I would have known this had I taken the time to linger and study the drums, totems, dugouts, paddles, and masks I'd grown up with as a child living on the Pacific coastline of Canada and along Washington State's Puget Sound. Never too late to learn, though, and better late than never. 

The drum making was almost immaterial. Abel Ryan, our teacher, a master carver from Metlakatla, AK, hurried us past the construction to the art, where he proved to be a master teacher as well. But first, the drum...

Judy, Abel, Tom, I think a guy named Dennis--making Indian drums
We were given a kit that consisted of a long string of sinew, a 15" hoop, and a pie crust of elk hide that had been soaking in water for how long I wouldn't presume to know. This we were supposed to stretch to make the hide thin. Thin meant a delightful vibration and echo when done.
Brenda Wilbee making Indian drum
Right off, I'm hit with the fact that I don't have the necessary chest muscle or hand strength to sufficiently "stretch" a circle of elk hide that's close to 20" in diameter and an eighth of an inch thick! And how I am supposed to get a grip when it's all floppy and wet? Anxiety kicks in. My efforts will not yield a playable drum. Alrighty then, I think, switching gears. I'll focus instead on the art. In the meantime, keep stretching.

Backside of Indian DrumTen minutes later, we move to the sinew. This, too, has to be stretched. A slippery trick and one that wears out your fingers.

Now we're roping the hide to the hoop, using pre-drilled holes around the "pie crust" edge--12:00 to 6:00, 1:00 to 7:00, 2 to 8, and all around the clock, trying to keep the sinew taut, the hide centered--lacing, tightening, tying off. Not a job for sissies.

Finally, formline design. Three shapes. Oh my gosh. 

My spirit animals are bear and buffalo. The Coastal Indians, however, had no familiarity with the buffalo. Bear it had to be, and I determined to create a face-on view. But with just three basic shapes? How? I was flummoxed and frozen. "Help..." I begged.

Brenda Wilbee's sketch of bear face done in formline drawingAbel started doodling. Three minutes later, he handed me the foundation I needed for my first foray into unknown waters. That night I took his design home, scotch-taped together four sheets of paper, and started in with pencil--and eraser.

Another kick of anxiety. I could not make my bear face symmetrical to save my life. I took what I had to class and Beau Dennis, a Tlingit man, offered me tracing paper and taught me a trick of flipping it over and tracing my pencil line directly onto the drum skin. Flip, flip, and I had the faint outline of "Big Bear."

The end of our third class, many people were finished with the painting of their designs, many of us were not. Mine was not done.
Indian drums

The problem with my bear--even when I got it's eyes painted in--was that it looked a bit like Felix the Cat clock. All I had to do was paint in the 12-3-6-9 in the eye sockets and add a swinging tail. So I went over to Betsy's every afternoon for a week and the two of us offered suggestions back and forth.
Added blue and framed the drum  |  Betsy hard at work with Abel Ryan  |  Painted the nose
added the blue  |  Betsy Albecker  |  Abel Ryan  |  painted the nose

Brenda Wilbee's Drum
At last, done!

Hibernation is over
Wake up, Bear. Open eyes.
Needing food, chow time!