Beneath the Ropes in King Cove

 

            The old sailor’s knot collection banged against the wall above the sofa, where at eight months pregnant, I was trying to get some rest.  Teachers had been decorating for the school Halloween party, but now they and their neighbors were out in the wind propping up a wall that had blown out of a nearby home.  The people didn’t expect the pregnant visitor from the city to help hang pumpkins or hold up the house, and for that I was both disappointed and grateful.

            The local village nurse had stopped by twice to check on me.  It was evident that she, like several others in this tiny community, would be glad when the weather cleared and I could be flown out of town.  I had only been here two days, but as a union organizer for the teachers’ association, my presence was uncomfortable for many.  Being with child made me all the more a concern.

            Why had I decided to book a flight on Reeve Aleutian Airlines fromAnchorage toCold Bay, and then charter a three-seat little number to fly me on to King Cove – 600 air miles fromAnchorage at the end of theAlaska Peninsula?  My office had received a distress call from a teacher living here asking if the state teachers’ association would help organize a union for the less than a dozen educators serving this fishing village.

            During this unpredictable season of the year, why did I think that in my “condition” it would be wise for me to make this trip?  Wisdom had very little to do with it. TheAleutians were my “beat”. I was determined to show “them”, whoever they were, that I could keep going just like the Energizer Bunny. This was before the Family Medical Leave Act made pregnancy compatible with continued employment.

            So with a briefcase full of membership forms, model bylaws, and newsletters, I boarded the Reeve Electra and headed forCold Bay, the flight hub for planes servicing about a dozen or so small villages nestled among some 300 islands arching 1,200 miles from the Alaska Peninsula out toward Kamchatka inRussia.  The isolated islands separate the North Pacific Ocean from theBering Sea.      

            At theCold Bay airport, I met up with a school principal from another Aleutian village, who also flew a plane.  Hired him to take me on to King Cove, thirty bumpy air miles away.  I realized I was in for a new experience, when my pilot did not choose to land the plane on what looked like a flight strip.  Instead, he flew toward the village and began buzzing houses.  When no one came out, he turned to go back to the landing place.  A lone truck was traveling on the one road.  The plane buzzed the vehicle until it turned around and headed back to the field.  Now my pilot landed his trusty craft.

            A young Native Alaskan couple pulled up in the truck.  The bed was knee deep in dead ducks.  Sure, they’d take me into town, but the only place to sit would be on top of the ducks.  Gamely, waved goodbye to my educator pilot, climbed aboard the pickup with suitcase and briefcase, and nestled down with the birds.  The weather was closing in, but I figured it would clear again when the pilot returned to pick me up the following afternoon.

            When we pulled up at the village school, no one came out.  In fact, if I remember correctly, the door was locked.  That can’t be.  But I do know that I never got inside the school.

            “The superintendent found out you were coming,” it was explained later, “and no one wanted to be seen as the one who called you.”

            Understandable, I sighed.

            It was the superintendent himself who finally greeted me – and informed me that there was only one spare sleeping place in the village that night – at his house. 

            “How generous of you,” I smiled, wondering which idiot in this school it really was who arranged for my arrival but not for a place for me to sleep.

            I was ushered to the superintendent’s home, and then abandoned.  Before leaving, the gentleman explained that he had collected the ropes hanging on the living room wall over many years.  He had served in several Alaskan village schools and the display represented just about every nautical knot known to a sailor.  I studied them like a good visitor should, and noted that they were about two or three inches thick, wind-worn and ominous.  I had no idea how much noise they would make whipping against a wall until later.

            It started with some gentle thumps.  The ropes swung slightly and tapped the thin boarding.  Looking more closely, I could see that the knots had left many marks from previous encounters with this hapless wall.

            The day wore on and the wind worsened. By two in the afternoon, the clouds were thick and the place was in virtual darkness.  Teachers stopped by, one or two at a time.  They showed me that the old, weather-beaten houses were connected together by narrow, wooden hallways.  This was teacher housing.  To get from one house to the third, one had to visit the people living in the second.  It made for one long, skinny community.  Little privacy, but a lot of neighborliness.  Everyone was excited about the upcoming Halloween party.  October 31 was the following Monday, but Saturday seemed the much better day for the community celebration.

            The wind whirled and whistled, but everyone seemed happy and snug.  Visiting several families along the way, I was ushered through the hallways and homes to meet a couple near the end of the trail.  What a surprise: it was the young man and woman who had given me a ride into town in their truck.  They and three or four teachers were plucking and skinning ducks.  Never before had I realized that ducks came in one of two types, “pluckers” and “skinners.”

            I pulled up a chair and started plucking, stuffing feathers into a big plastic bag for later disposal.  After proving myself on the pluckers, they showed me about the skinners.  Sticking in a knife just so, one can open up the skin and just slide the feathers and skin right off.  Neat.

 

 

            I learned that some of the ducks had been “harvested” after they flew into the side of the cannery.  Someone left the facility’s outside light on after dark and the ducks flew right into the wall, knocking themselves out.  Here the unlucky navigators were, being plucked and skinned by a pregnant organizer from the city.  Humiliating for them; but for me, exhilarating.

            And the wind continued to blow.

            That evening, after scurrying through the hallways back to the superintendent’s home, it was time to rest.  The available sleeping place was directly under the hanging ropes on a relatively comfortable couch.  I can’t say I slept well.  But at eight months pregnant, I hadn’t been sleeping well for a long time.  It was the rope banging that began to get to me.

            The next morning, the superintendent and his wife cheerily left for school.  I could see from the window that they were having a difficult time staying perpendicular in the weather, but off they went.  And I stayed home.  No one invited me to the school.

            But good organizer that I was, I jotted down notes from the people I had met the previous evening.  It was only to be a one day and night visit, but I had taken names, left membership materials, and talked shop with several of the faculty during the duck plucking.  I was anxious to catch the plane when it came to get me later that afternoon.

            The rains came, and I noticed from the window that it wasn’t necessarily hitting the ground.  No, the rain seemed to swoop close to the ground, take a sharp turn upward, and screech down the wooden sidewalk, carrying all matter of rubbish with it.  This was not good Piper Cub weather.

            The first teacher to sneak by that afternoon informed me that my pilot had radioed the school to tell me that he wasn’t coming back as scheduled.  Might be a day or two, was the message.  Bad weather.

            The second teacher to drop by ushered me to the house next door to spare the superintendent my presence when he returned from school.

            The third teacher came screaming to the door, pulled it open, held on for dear life, and slammed it shut.

            “I lost Mary,” she hollered.  “I lost Mary.”

            The excited educator was wide-eyed, scared and covered in mud. Shaking and pacing, she explained what had happened.

            Mary was five.  Mary was in kindergarten.  Our teacher knew that Mary would need assistance getting from the school van to her front door in this wind.  The teacher got out first, reached for Mary – but the wind caught the child and blew her away!

            “No kidding, blew her away,” the teacher repeated.  “I ran and stumbled and finally caught up with her.  All I could do was fall on her, grab her, and begin crawling back to her house with her under my arm.”

            “We made it, but good Lord.  It’s windy out there,” she panted.

            We all agreed, it was windy.

            That night, was duck soup.  Literally.

            As a number of teachers and parents sat down to partake of the stew, a shout came up.  A wall had blown out in another family’s residence.  Men and women jumped up, headed outside toward a pile of two by fours, and grabbing them, rushed down the row of connected dwellings to help prop up the endangered house.  They did it with such precision, that I couldn’t help believe that this was a frequent occurrence, and one for which everyone knew their roles.

            That’s when I decided to find my way back to the superintendent’s quarters and lie down.  The ropes were madly flailing around, banging the wall and tangling themselves up to make even heavier thumping-engines.  The superintendent and his wife rested peacefully on the other side of the wall.  Apparently, they had slept through worse than this.  “Old Salts,” I muttered.

            Morning came, bless the Lord.  The sky was still a deep grey. There were some little white caps in the cove, but the rain had died down.

            I was beginning to bond with this community.  Almost wished the rain would reappear, but that was not to be.

            A teacher did appear, however, and told me that there had been a radio message: a float plane was due in here pretty quick to pick me up.  Had to get down to the beach right away. 

            “Grab that suitcase – and what is that, a brief case? Come with me.” 

            “Most people out here travel with backpacks,” he added, unnecessarily.

            The plane appeared, landed on the water, and taxied up to the beach.  A skiff took me out to meet him.  It wasn’t my original pilot.  He had sent someone else with a different plane.  But it all worked out fine. 

            Climbing on the plane and settling my gear in the back, I looked out and saw that several people had come down to the water to wave me off, including the village nurse.

            I waved wildly so they’d be sure to see me. The pilot turned the plane around, clumsily sputtered out to sea, and noisily lifted off. 

            It was just a tiny fishing village down there.  A scene on a postcard.  But for me it was now more than a spot on a map.  I knew some of the people, and they had been good to me.  It’s been thirty years since I took that flight.  And I still remember my pluckers and my skinners, the thumping of heavy sailor’s knots, and the afternoon “Mary just blew away” in King Cove,Alaska.

 

1986 words

Published in Alaska Women Speak

Summer 2008