APRIL 2006 – NO. 5
Messages Worth the Waiting
With email goes the Alaskan mail skiff.
Three years ago, a bush plane circled and swooped, landing on the beach at our Alaskan fishcamp. A man stepped out, toolbox in hand, and set us to work. Together, over the next day and night, he helped us anchor an antenna on our corrugated aluminum roof, wire the linkage box, connect a mass of coiling wires to outlets and extension cords, alter the settings, re-adjust the antenna, until the magic moment: he hit the key, the light went green and it was Go.
Nothing is the same. I come in from working the fishing nets stinking with salmon slime, scales stuck to my skin. I've been working on a sea and mountainscape where I can hardly see evidence of another human being. Suddenly a smooth, cultured voice from the computer welcomes me — "Thanks for joining us!" — then launches into a warning about the snarl on Highway 75 through Chicago. As I peel off three layers of sweatshirts for the 40 degree June temperatures, the weather comes on: "clear skies, 89 degrees, high humidity, chance of thunderstorms and showers tonight, lows in the seventies."
The first time, I smiled, registering the cultural and geographical gap. But in the three summers since, I have almost stopped noticing. The anachronisms of living out in the Alaskan bush in this high-speed technological age are so constant I am rarely startled anymore. Paradox is routine. We fish as fishermen have done for centuries — in small skiffs out on the open ocean — but we use the best monofilament nets from Japan. Our skiffs are now custom-built aluminum instead of wood, but we use outdated outboards no longer made because we can actually still fix these ourselves. When not fishing, I work on a laptop, taking breaks to run to the two-holer outhouse which is stocked with The New Yorker, Christianity Today, World Press Review. I cook trendy dishes — blackened salmon with feta — on my turn-of-the-century Olympia oil stove, literally one of the last ones made, and then clean the stove top afterwards with pumice that washes up on the beach from volcanic eruptions across the Strait. We have a phone, of sorts, but this "instant" communication often takes 20 minutes to get a single call through. And now, I add to this list: though we are confined for three to four months to a roadless far-north island, population eight, without a bathtub, shower, or toilet, we can now instantly chatter with nearly anyone and freely wander the invisible, limitless paths of the internet.
The connection has been essential to my writing life and my husband's other job, but there is a cost. The best day of our week — mail day — is ruined. For 30 years, apart from the radio, the mail run was our only contact with any world outside our island. Every five to ten days someone was elected, weather permitting, to skiff to Larsen Bay, a tiny village of 100 seven miles away, a job requiring good weather and at least two hours. As days passed in our own hermetic world, the need for news and other voices would gather silently, gather at the backs of our throats, like the remembered taste of a lemon drop. By day five or six, it was more than a taste — it was on our tongues, and we spoke: "Isn't it time for someone to get the mail?" And when the designated driver eventually set off, we called from the shore, "Bring me back some good mail!" charging them, we hoped, with potent powers. We set up watch over the waters of the bay, looking for a skiff rounding the point bearing all the rest of our lives — letters from family, friends, colleagues; rejections and acceptances of poetry, articles, book contracts; new school clothes; birthday presents.
"Is that a skiff?" the anxious watchman queries, leaning toward the window.
"No, that's not ours," says the first one to grab the binoculars, peering intently. "That's Haugheys' on their nets."
"I see another one, right behind it!"
"Let me have the glasses. I'll check."
Once it returned, sometimes after an entire day away, no matter what work was underway, all labor ceased, everyone crowding through the doorway to the prize. When the boxes and garbage bags were emptied and sorted into piles, a profound silence settled upon the living room as each one sprawled on the couch, on the floor, at the kitchen table, intent upon letters in hand, poring over news magazines, newspapers, the quiet punctuated with sudden laughs, gasps of surprise, each one calling out his news:
"Christy is getting married! Can you believe it?"
"Really? Good for her. It's about time!"
"Justin is going to camp this year. Lucky guy!"
"Oh man, I wish I could go!"
"The Olympics started last week. Look, here's the gold medal count for every day."
"That's so tacky!"
"Shelley was accepted at Cedarville!"
"I knew she'd get in."
"Laurie's going to Spain with Mother next month!"
"Good for her! Her first trip overseas."
The air was thick with reportage and response. When we were done, an hour or two later, we returned to our work lighter; we had not been forgotten.
The mail watch always intensified midway through the summer, before the internet. My four school-aged children went on high alert for the arrival of the JC Penney back-to-school catalog. Each could choose $100 worth of new clothes. The anticipation was noisy.
"When's it gonna come?" Elisha, seven, wails as we sift through our weekly stash of mail, just hiked up from the beach.
"Sorry, it's not here yet. Maybe next week," I say, trying to sound sympathetic. We've already played out this scene for the last two weeks, and I know several more will ensue until the magic book appears.
"But it's July 10! It should be here by now!" Isaac, nine, sighs.
The day finally arrived. Duncan, the bearer of glad tidings of mail, strode casually into the house with the weekly box and garbage bag. He winked at me, which I knew meant not only that JC had arrived, but it also meant a call to battle stations.
"I got it first, so I get to look at it first," announced Noah, eleven, as he carried it aloft to his favorite corner of the couch.
"I'm after him! I call it!" shouted Isaac, shadowing him, his hands trying to touch the pages.
"Why should you be after him?" Elisha protested, appealing to me with wide eyes.
"We'll go in order of ages," I said calmly, as though the speech were rehearsed, which it was. "Naphtali, you get to start, since you're the oldest and since you're not fighting over it. Noah can go next, then Isaac, then Elisha. Here's the timer. You get 15 minutes each." I plunked the red tomato timer down and walked away. Then, I suddenly remembered the last part of the speech. "If you can't take turns, the book goes away — and no one orders anything."
Each of the three boys, as his turn came, like a dog with a bone, snatched up the encyclopedic tome and disappeared to meditate over its glossy promises. They agonized over the choices, discussed the relative merits of one pair of pants over another, questioned me about sizes. They wanted to order right away, but I made them wait, knowing they would change their minds, teaching them not to buy impulsively.
"These are the only new clothes you're going to get for awhile — make them count," I admonished. "Be sure."
Two weeks later, confirming everyone's choices yet again, I phoned in the order, an hour-long ordeal on the barely-functioning radio-phone. After that, it was a red alert on every mail run. At the return of nearly every skiff, they ran down to the beach, breathless, to greet the delivery, their faces a wide-eyed question mark. When the treasure finally arrived, it meant holiday cheer and, as quickly as the bags could be ripped open, an immediate fashion show.
The first year of our internet connection, it all played out the same — at first. The same panting anticipation for the catalog, but my then 13 year-old son and 15 year-old daughter, after perusing its pages, set it aside and shopped on the internet instead. The next year, they did not even wait for the catalog. The two middle boys are following suit. My two youngest will never handle a catalog as the others did. What once felt extravagant, more than enough to both create desire and fulfill it, is now not enough.
Is all of this trivial, simple nostalgia, or something more? Catalogs are no longer taken to the outhouse, where their pages were viewed over and over, a tradition in rural places for 150 years. We are all on email, every one. We hold out for certain people, still send occasional handmade cards, write with calligraphy pens, decorate a few envelopes ....
Three seasons later, we still watch the horizon for the skiff rounding the corner, we still crowd the house when the mail is marched up from the beach. It is sorted in a few minutes now — our one letter, five bills, last month's magazine — and it is mostly quiet afterwards, as we quickly disperse, disappointed. There is little news to sing out, no reason to speak back, no promised book to argue over. How will I tell my two youngest sons of the wonder of words and pictures that have traveled far to reach us, that we carry in our own hands across the water — messages worth the waiting, messages worth answering?
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