Chasing memories of Christmas in the dark and the cold …
I moved to Fairbanks, Alaska in the early fall of 1961.
Other than having worked on the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Michigan, I had no salable skills. But after five years at U-M, I had a hankering to get somewhere as far as possible away from the academic world of Ann Arbor.
I liked the Arctic, having lived for a time with the Inuit in Cape Dorset, on the southwestern coast of Baffin Island, just west of Greenland. So when I was offered a job as sports editor of the Daily News-Miner it took me about two days to buy a warm pair of boots and get my butt off to Fairbanks, population at that time around 10,000 – a place with “50 bars and 49 churches” as the guy in the cab told me on the ride from the airport.
Fairbanks lies low in the valley of the Chena River, surrounded on three sides by hills. In September, the sun in those parts starts sliding down in the middle of the afternoon. Shortly past quitting time, the folks at the Billiken Bar are well into their fourth snort. By supper time it’s fully dark.
Shortly after I arrived, the editor of the paper quit, and the publisher told me I now was both sports editor and manager of the four-person newsroom. I asked if he were going to give me two salaries for two jobs. He reached into his shirt pocket, turned off his phone-sized hearing aid, and explained, “Son, I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” I was angry enough to quit for a moment …until I looked outside and figured it was going to be a long winter and I was a long way from home.
The staff photographer was a great big guy with a lantern jaw who had been the cameraman for several of the Disney nature movies. He came complete with a pet wolf that he had raised from a pup. When he married the blond stripper at the Timberline Club, we were all jealous as hell. Unreasonably, however, she objected to the wolf sleeping on their bed and threw them both out of their apartment – “Drug my gear out and throwed it into the street,” Bill told me.
So Bill and the wolf moved in with me, two humans and a wolf in a small bed-sitter overlooking the river. For a couple of days, the wolf and I walked around each other stiff legged and I didn’t sleep much. But then I started feeding him his supper when Bill was out on assignment, and pretty soon we were all part of the same pack.
By the time Christmas came around, it was dark the entire day, with only a dim glow behind the hills to the west. It was minus 10 during the day and maybe 20 below at night – a lot like it was here in Michigan last week. That was OK just as long as there wasn’t any wind, but a five-mile-an-hour wind at five below will freeze your nose and ears pretty quickly. In fact, my editor once drove our car into a big snowbank one night and we had to smash out the rear window, put on our Mackinaws and start walking. A guy came along, picked us up and told me my ears and nose were frozen bright white. As they thawed out, they hurt like hell.
What with the dark and the cold, I started feeling pretty sad and lonely. And that got worse when I got a moonlight job bartending at the Timberline Club. The exotic dancer was called the “Satin Doll,” and she unwisely got into a fight with the biggest crook in town. One night when I came in, I found her on the floor with a big pool of blood around her. So I got in my shift … and got my story and photo for the paper all at once.
I covered his trial. As I was leaving the courtroom one day, he beckoned me over to the witness box. “You ever get nervous when you walk by the alley, boy?” he asked. I didn’t say anything, but I sure looked every which way when I walked home that night.
The days passed, and pretty soon it was Christmastime, and I was still sad and lonely. I had joined the community chorus earlier that fall, and our big number was Handel’s Messiah. The night before our big performance, Bill and I got an axe and went out into the bush to cut a Christmas tree, just like I had always done back at home with my parents. I gave it a big whack … and in the intense cold all the branches fell off in a heap. “Some Christmas,” I thought as we trudged back to our room.
But the performance was a big hit. The auditorium was bright and warm and the punch strong. Somebody had given us a haunch of caribou meat, so when we got back to our room it smelled better than prime rib. The wolf wagged his tail when we opened the door, and we three settled down for our Christmas feast … one pack together, bright and warm inside, one Christmas Eve with sudden friends for a little while out of the cold and the dark.
And a better understanding of how Mary felt with Joseph and the animals as she hugged the Christ child on that cold and dark night so long ago.