One frigid night in Fairbanks, Alaska, with the northern lights dancing in the sky, I, along with my husband Bill, were on our way to the Cathredral on Peger Street to pick up Father Plamondon, an old Alaskan Jesuit priest whom I had known in the bush. When I reached the Jesuit residence, I was a little bit apprehensive because I had invited him to a dinner party at our small cabin. I had also invited several graduate students from the university. For the past several years I had regaled these friends with "Plamondon stories". I wanted them to meet the real thing!
From all appearances, Father did not look like a priest. He was tall and burly with curly gray hair and wire rim glasses. Under his parka, he wore a red plaid flannel shirt, black work pants and brown scruffy boots. He looked like a logger from the northwest or a longshoreman, but certainly not a priest. As he stepped into the car, he greeted me with that warm smile and it seemed as though it was only yesterday that I had spent a summer with him in Kotlik, Alaska. Kotlik is a small Yup'ik community nestled where the Yukon delta meets Norton Sound in the Bering Sea.
As we cruised down University Ave. on our way to the little cabin on College Road, a police cruiser sped by with sirens blowing. "Follow that cruiser Bob!", he shouted in his loud, booming voice. I really didn't want to do that since our car, which had been named TAB (Thereandback) had been inherited from others who had left the University and I wasn't too sure that it was even registered. But nevertheless, I followed the cruiser at breakneck speed till it reached an accident scene on Farmer's Loop Road. Plamondon jumped out of the car and ran over to the Officier. "How can I get one of those lights...it would be perfect to put on the steeple of my church to guide hunters home in the dead of winter!" Yup, that was Plamondan!
During the 1968-69 school year I had been a Jesuit Volunteer high school teacher at St. Mary's Mission further up the Yukon. During that winter, Bishop Robert Whelan had visited the Mission and wanted to know if any volunteers wanted to extend their stay and spend the summer in Kotlik. He had received a request for two CCD teachers from the resident priest in Kotlik. My room-mate Ann Harrington (Harry) and myself jumped at the idea. We had seen Alaska in the winter...but this would be an opportunity to see it in the summer. So, in early May, we boarded a float plane and made our way to Kotlik. Father P.'s living quarters were attached to the side of the Church. We would be staying in a small cabin beside the church, that had neither electricity nor running water. We hauled our water from the Yukon for bathing and then later, we emptied our honey bucket into the same river.
It was soon obvious after our arrival that Father Plamondon really didn't want us to teach CCD. Every time we brought up the subject, he would steer us in a different direction. He had some really strange ideas. He was thrilled that Harry knew how to play the organ. He had us put up strobe lights in the Church and when Harry played, a magnificent light show would begin. "I bet the Moravians (their Church was across the river) can't put on a show like this!", he shouted in glee, " We'll have the whole village here on Sunday morning!"
The following week when the float plane arrived from Anchorage he was beside himself with excitement. "Look what arrived on the plane...seed potatoes. Do you know what we all are going to do tomorrow? We are going to plant a garden and show these people how they can grow their own food!" The next morning it was Harry and I cutting the potatoes as well as tilling the hard permafrost soil. As we planted the seed potatoes, the village children watched us with wide eyes. Soon we had a whole crowd of villagers, both young and old watching at which point old Father P. decided to give them a little sermon about the "loaves and the fishes"! Harry and I just "rolled our eyes". This guy was too much! The following morning, when Harry and I rolled out of our sleeping bags and walked over to the Church, we noticed that our garden was in disarray. Do they have groundhogs here in Alaska? What we soon learned from the village children was that many families the previous night had boiled potatoes for their evening meal! So much for growing spuds!
One Saturday morning, Father P. said he had a magnificent surprise for us. Just like at home, we could have a "real shower" that afternoon after we had done our chores. With that he showed us a real modern shower off the kitchen. Knowing the Church had a generator that produced electricity, I guess we just assumed that he also had running water. We were a little bit miffed he hadn't shared this information previously. We couldn't believe our eyes...a real shower...we hadn't taken one in a year. Knowing that a reward was soon coming, we bustled over to the church and swept and scrubbed the floors. After lunch, Father P. brought out all these tin buckets. "Girls, now what you have to do is fill up all these buckets from the Yukon, we'll heat them up on the stove, and then I will rig a pulley up over the shower and attach a bucket to it. You can have one bucket to get wet and the second to rinse off."
The following Sunday morning, right after Church and breakfast, Father P. asked whether or not as little children we had gone on Sunday drives with our families. Both of us concurred that we had. "Today, we are going to take the little skiff and go down river for a Sunday afternoon drive. You girls can make the sandwiches for our picnic lunch." Harry and I were always up for adventures and this sounded like fun. Although the skiff really didn't look sea worthy, we jumped in with our tin pails filled with our spam sandwiches, peanut butter crackers, and can of peaches. Thank goodness, we only traveled two miles down the river to an abandoned village. There, Father Plamondan had us spread our Hudson Bay blanket out on a slight incline. As we ate, Father P. said he wanted to show us something. As we climbed further up the hill, we could see the remnants of broken caskets...human bones laying around. Because of the permafrost, caskets are just placed on the ground, rather then buried. Imagine, having a picnic lunch in a cemetary! Shortly, thereafter, it was time to go back to Kotlik. Not to our surprise, the outboard motor didn't start. Having no oars, Harry and I scouted the shore till we found some pieces of driftwood that we thought could be used. The traveling was very slow... and then Father P. came up with a marvelous idea. There was a rope on the boat...couldn't Harry and I take turns pulling the boat up river? And that's how we got home that night! Later in bed, exhausted and a bit grouchy both Harry and I agreed that we had to get away from Plamondon. If we stayed, we'd go batty. Several days later, we heard from a villager that he was traveling to the village of Emmonik. There was a Catholic Church in that village so we knew someone would take us in. Without further thought, we asked if we might "hitch" a ride with him. Anything was better then staying in Kotlik! But Emmonik is another story....but I'll save that for another time.
Winter, 1968/69 St. Mary's Mission, Lower Yukon River
Repost a previous response using the “Let’s Recycle!” theme. It can be from your Gather archives, your computer documents, or anywhere else you store your creative thoughts. Post poetry, prose, a memoir, nonfiction, or an essay.
"Growing Spuds", recycled from a Gather post, February 10, 2007.