It’s usually taken more than a birthday to get me home
from Alaska to southwestern NY, but that was when I
was younger and would live forever. My mother had 2
sisters, and they, along with the wife of the brother
closest in age to my mother, were like second and
third mothers to all of my siblings.
One of those aunts turned 80, and a surprise party was
organized by one of her daughters (my cousin). How
that would be arranged, I wasn’t sure. With my aunt’s
extended family extended across the US, and she
knowing just about everyone in her town, I didn’t know
how people would show up without her knowing – but
didn’t really care. It would be a good time.
Then I found out the ruse was conceived because my
aunt’s granddaughter – my cousin’s daughter – was
getting married the day before. So that meant a
wedding on Sat, followed by a birthday party on Sun.
This looked even better.
If I ever saw my second cousin, she would have been in
a crib, since I was gone to Alaska by the time she was
born, and I don’t remember seeing her on trips home.
That lack of association might make one think it would
be a ho-hum wedding, but it was anything but. I was
able to sit with my 86 year old aunt (my mom’s sister)
during the wedding, which took place in the church
where she, my mom, and all their siblings were
married. A church were many of my cousins were
married – with myself and my brother serving as altar
boys for their weddings.
As my cousin walked his daughter down the isle, he
cried like a broken-hearted school girl. This was
only the start of the wedding, and his emotion brought
many there to tears. My cousin’s always been a
blue-collar worker, taking over a dairy business from
his father – my mother’s brother. This guy was giving
his daughter away, and it was clearly a mix of sadness
and joy that swept over him. You don’t see that too
often. There was raw emotion in that church – emotion
that was, I think, amalgamated across the entire
congregation on both sides of the wedding – even among
those like me who were only marginally attached to the
event. This was my family – albeit extended family –
joining lives with another family. Not just two
people getting hitched with their friends there. It
was the kind of event I think rarely happens in
Alaska, since so few people there have the extended
families like those in rural NY. What a privledge to
reconnect with that.
As I sat with my aunt, I noticed her hand on the edge
of the pew. I saw a hand that looked just like my
mother’s did. Funny how you remember those things.
In my discussions with her and others, the theme of
“there’s no jobs around here” came up several times –
like it has ever since I can remember. If there were
lots of jobs here the area would grow – and change.
It’s ironic the area I called home stays “home”
because it doesn’t change. And the reason it doesn’t
change is the economy seems to have been generally
depressed ever since the oil came and went.
I’ve heard alot of talk about looking for oil here
again. It’s where the first real oil boom occurred
not just in the US, but the world. It’s where
Rockefeller and Standard Oil started. In essence,
it’s where modern day America, Ford, and the wars in
the desert over oil started. The oil came and went.
When it was gone, there was little left here to keep
people, so they left. Wildcatters left for new oil
finds. When the oil was gone, the area returned to
farming and light industry – it’s hallmarks today. No
Microsoft’s here. NY state voters make sure of that
by taxing themselves “to death”, as they say,
discouraging industry and new residents from moving
there through the highest taxes in the country. State
sales tax, county tax, school tax, state income tax,
etc. They have ’em all. All of these negatives end up
keeping the place the jewel that it is.
Earlier in the day, we spent time out at “the farm” as
we call it. It’s the place where my mother and all of
her siblings were born. A place where my brother and
I would shoot baskets and eat everything in sight, at
a place almost as familiar to us as our own home.
Now, two generations later, the children of my cousins
do the same thing. Shooting baskets at a place as
familiar to me as it was to them. Same basketball
hoop, same barn, same milk house. My aunt remarked
how gratified she felt that her family still felt as
comfortable as ever coming to farm and knowing they
felt home there.
I started talking to one of my oldest cousins. I
worked with him just before I came to Alaska. He was
10 years out of Vietnam, and I was the same age as he
had been when he’d been drafted, but just a college
boy with no practical skills. He could really lay it
on, but I knew I was screwing up with some of the
mechanical things, and so took my lumps.
Now he’s a grandfather with the patience of Job. I
started asking him questions about the history of how
the farm buildings were constructed. That led to more
questions about our family history at the farm. His
wife got cranky that we were already late for the
wedding reception, so I moved us out before it got
I later was able to catch him at the end of the
evening with more questions and answers. All
questions I could have asked my mom, but somehow it
wasn’t important to me when she was alive and I was
My sister took me home to Bolivar after a great party
taking part in an extended family gathering. Many of
my siblings talked with second cousin’s whose name I
didn’t even know, having had the priviledge of
participating in our extended family while I’ve been
away for 25 years. My cousins like having a cousin in
Alaska, and one even reads my blog, which was a
surprise and a comfort to know I’m somehow remaining
connected to my family in rural NY.
On the way back from Bolivar to Washington, DC, I blew
a tire on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. With 18-wheelers
zooming by a few feet away at 70+ mph, I put on the
little donut spare tire, and called the rental car
company to see what I could do. I certainly didn’t
want to go all the way from Clearfield, PA to DC at 50
mph – the limit of the spare tire donut. I was given
the option of going to State College – the closest
rental car place – for another car.
The rental place was at the airport, not far from
Beaver Stadium, where at about 13 I watched Bob Torrey
play fullback for Penn State. Bob was from our high
school, and a legendary figure having come from our
tiny school to play at PSU and then in the NFL for a
I’d called ahead there, and the car agent had the
paperwork ready and I was in and out in 5 minutes. He
even helped me move my gear to the new vehicle.
I made it to my brother’s in time to throw batting
practice to my nephew that evening. He and I had some
great time together throwing a baseball around and me
catching up on what his life is all about at age 8.
Pretty much baseball and school and American Idol
I awoke at 3 am and headed to Reagan. You’d think the
nation’s capital would be buzzing at all hours of the
day, but I saw hardly any traffic – or even vehicles
for that matter – most of the 1.5 hour drive in.
After 5 hours to Seattle and 3 hours to Anchorage, I
stayed the night with a friend and got up yesterday to
attend the final course needed for my north slope job
– the North Slope Training Cooperative class. It’s an
orientation to working on the slope, with alot of good
pointers on how not to get fired. Don’t speed while
driving. Wear arctic clothing when you get on the jet
in Anchorage. Don’t drink any alcohol on the way to
Deadhorse (return trip drinking is fine). If there’s
an animal on the road, don’t honk or drive around it
or anything. Wait till it walks off the road. If a
caribou lays down to take a nap, you can take a nap.
A good class. I’m ready to go.
Mark Stopha and Sara Hannan
Alaska Wild Salmon Company
Wild Salmon and Salmon Pet Treats
4455 N. Douglas Hwy
Juneau, AK 99801