Searching for a Persona in the Permafrost

SEEKING purity, on the snow of the Tanana River, I thought of going on with the dogs. Going on could mean the afternoon's jaunt could end in tragedy as in Jack London's ``To Build a Fire'' or in the emancipation of surviving in the wilderness. It must be the license of young men to be tempted by that thought once in their life, to disappear into wilderness and try it, or forever hold one's peace with the McDonald's and the malls. I turned the three dogs and the little sled around. I had not come to Fairbanks, Alaska, to seek holocaust in the permafrost, but as a young man does, a persona: a person I could be for the rest of my life that would make me immune to the daily treadmill of life in the lower 48. ``All right then. I'll live with this life,'' I said. From that moment on, I made peace with myself that I did need a life more manicured than the stark ranges in front of me.

I wasn't disappointed in myself. Back in Fairbanks, I was No. 1,002 on the Teamster's bench, applying for a job as radio operator on the pipeline. They were up to No. 632. Another week in that room of big coats and camaraderie and hopeful employment, with my new FCC license in pocket; I could soon enjoy the caribou and dust storms at a station on the North Slope. I could slip into my new persona as ``communicator.''

I had come up through the Inside Passage as a deck passenger, hitched a ride through the Yukon, and arrived in the boom town of Fairbanks with $23. I walked three miles out to the woods to the address of a friend of a friend, in the walk-in-freezer temperature of late September. There I announced my intentions, judging properly the hospitality of that lonesome land, and proceeded to buy three dogs from the man on credit.

They were good people, a sturdy biologist and his wife, and they accepted me with the gravity of knowing I might spend the whole winter: for what could they do? It was the unwritten law of neighborliness in a dangerous environment.

I had thought first of modeling my persona on that biologist, respectable in the Canadian equivalent of L.L. Bean clothes, who seemed at ease in his A-frame at a calm 10 below zero. He told me my new lead dog's name was ``Tree Trunks.'' Anyone who could give a dog such a name was a likely candidate for my persona of communicator, I thought.

But his glamor faded slightly when I met the editor of the Fairbanks Daily News, with Lapp boots and Swedish name, who landed a ski plane behind his office. As I was applying for a job, I was told by someone he had once crashed on his way home to a remote lake. His radio out, he had built a fire and melted his bent propeller back in shape, then flown home for supper.

``Mention it,'' said the person. ``It might get you the job.''

It did; but when the editor said, ``Go for it,'' I dropped him as a candidate for my persona. Had he said, ``Hitch up the dogs, son,'' or ``Get the frost off those pages,'' I could have borne it. But, ``go for it'' was too commercial an adoption for me.

It was temporary work covering three weeks for the night editor, who monitored the UPI wire as it opened in the morning in New York. I also did some rewrite work for him, while he entered the Iditarod, the big sled race to Nome. I wanted to meet that boy. Perhaps he could turn me on to how I should wear my name. He turned out to be a brave kid, but no one out of a Jack London novel. He said Iditarod was a ``stark raving crazy thing of a race,'' which was pretty good. But he also told me he was from New Jersey. No persona there. Everyone in Fairbanks was from somewhere else.

Walking around Fairbanks, I discovered a real-live building, an old log barn in disrepair. My heart leapt. Perhaps ``Jack'' had passed it as he set off on his raft trip down the reaches of the Yukon. I kept that barn in mind against the daily life of a city, as a remnant of the fictional truth.

My number came up at the Teamsters but they didn't need any more radio operators. A boss told me I should reapply for a truck driver, but my number would start over again at 1,672. So it was back to the wall and the benches. The boss was no candidate for a persona, but he did say, ``Don't turn into a sourdough - sour on Alaska and out of dough!''

I still thought ``Tree Trunks'' and ``stark raving crazy thing of a race'' were top contenders for people I admired who could express Alaska in speech. I wanted to be someone who talked well too. I began defining what I wanted in a persona: Rugged, humorous, cultured, intelligent, a good story behind me (a legend if possible), good-looking! Whatever it was, I wanted to become untouchable by the treadmill society I felt I had left.

I decided to sneak into the old derelict barn by the river and sleep in there. I'd get some vibes on where to look next for a persona. Old wood, sunburned and snow-dried, has always talked to me. A night in my sleeping bag might help in my search to find the hero in myself.

The roof had holes and I could look at the snaking of the northern lights. An old bed was in there, and I had snuck past the house, gone in, and rolled out my bag. I was drifting off to sleep when a string of electric bulbs snapped on and the door burst open. A lady with white hair made for me - without a shotgun - but her eyes put me under arrest.

``You can't sleep in here,'' she said. ``Are you a smoker? This place will burn down.''

I assured her I wasn't a smoker at all, never was, sitting up in bed in her barn.

``Well then. You'll freeze out here. Get in the house.''


``Get in the house, pilgrim.''

I was too surprised at ``pilgrim'' to notice her shooing me into the house, right to a hot bowl of soup and blankets she made up on the couch. She insisted merrily and madly - as if I'd walked off a gold claim and was frozen. I thought she must be mad.

``So this is the way people react in Fairbanks?'' I asked.

She told me she was a widow; had grown up in the mines; had been a schoolteacher out there. She now had this house in town and her husband's Beethoven collection. And she told me about her church, and asked me what price she should get for his camper parked in the drive. She wanted me to look at it that night. She had stories to tell me.

``But you don't know me from Adam.''

``You young pilgrims. How are you going to teach the next generation of schoolmasters, if you don't know what's what? Someone has to show you how it was.''

``The next generation of schoolmasters?'' I began to see her point. She was quite lovely. She was an elderly woman who had simply seen me creep into her barn and didn't want the barn to burn down.

``You see, I don't have anyone left - I lost a son and a husband in the same lifetime. My son was a Navy pilot. Now....''

Before I caught the midnight flight from Tokyo to New York, which picks up strays in Fairbanks, this shocking lady treated me like a native son. She had me to lunch and she drove me in the camper before she sold it to mining sites north of Fairbanks, where she had grown up. I began to think that ``native son'' had something to do with my persona. But that first night, as I accepted her blankets on the couch, I thought also that ``pilgrim'' suited me fine. Later, when I went over her life as a schoolmistress, I thought even better of ``teacher of the schoolmasters of the next generation.'' Hadn't ``Jack'' done that?

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