While I was in college I did several things to earn money. It was always great when FLOT (Fairbanks Light Opera Theatre) had a show. They paid the people who played in their pit orchestra about $50, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that I could go to the on-campus weekly movies for 50 cents. I also typed people’s term papers for a dollar a page.
After a semester of this, I decided that I needed a “real” job, and applied for work at the library as a clerk. I was hired almost immediately, since I displayed a real talent for understanding the Library of Congress catalog system. I kept that job the whole time I was in college. The hours were flexible, and in the summer I got hired on as a full time person for shelf reading so I could afford to stay in the area and not have to fly to my folks place for the summer.
Since many of the clerks at the library were full time students, there were a lot of us. One of my co-workers was a guy who was going to college on the GI bill. He had managed to escape with his life and all his limbs from the Viet Nam war, and appeared to be psychologically intact also. He was an ex-Marine, and I never met a more gentle and soft spoken person.
He did show a tendency to be a little jumpy when there were sudden loud noises, but he was nothing like the ex-Ranger I met when I was 15. That guy would disappear into thin air if you dropped a pan in the kitchen. And he warned everybody not to come up behind him and surprise him. I saw him accidentally knock someone to the ground and put him in a chokehold when the guy came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder without warning. They should have given those guys some demobilization when they came back.
Anyway, I worked with J regularly. Quite often we were the late night clerks, one of us at the circulation desk and the other at the Reserve Room desk. We fell into the habit of walking over to the student union and having tea after we closed the library. I honestly do not have the slightest recollection of what he was majoring in. It doesn’t matter, he was well read and liked classical music. He came to all the orchestra concerts, and could talk about the music knowledgeably.
One day in late January, he came up to me as I was shelving books upstairs. He asked me if I was interested in going on a hike.
“A hike? Why would anyone go hiking now?” I asked in puzzlement. The average temperature for the last few weeks had been around 35 below zero, and only in the last few days had it risen to about 10 above. I had not yet been versed in the joys of cross country skiing, and was still more a Californian than an Alaskan in regards to when I liked to hike.
“Well,” J replied. “I have 40 acres down on the Salcha River and there is a small cabin on it. I like to go down there and live during the summer. It is quiet, and I can read and fish and come up to Fairbanks pretty easy. One of the guys I know that stays down there all year came to town a couple of days ago and says that a bear seems to have waked up from hibernation early. Bears like that are usually hungry and in a bad mood, and this one doesn’t seem to be any different. He has been breaking into people’s cabins and tearing them up looking for food. I’d like to go down and check to see that my cabin is okay.”
I stood there in the nice warm library, and thought about what it would be like to go walking off through the snowy woods down by the Salcha River, which I knew was 40 miles down the highway towards Delta Junction. I sort of hemmed and hawed a bit. J interpreted this as worry about the bear.
“Oh, don’t worry about the bear. Part of the reason I want someone with me is that if there’s another person along we are likely to talk and make more noise than one person. That way if he’s out there he’ll get out of our way and we won’t run into him. But just in case we do, I have a good rifle and I’m planning on taking it along. You won’t be in any danger.”
“Except for freezing to death,” I thought to myself. Actually, I hadn’t thought about the danger posed by the hungry, testy bear at all. I was still enough of a greenhorn that that hadn’t even occurred to me. There was something sort of insulting about being invited along because I would be a good noise maker.
In spite of my misgivings, I agreed to go. I figured it would be a good adventure. It was then that I realized that this was no ordinary date. I received instructions about what to wear (“Make sure you wear longjohns and layers”) and what footwear was appropriate (“Do you have mukluks? Good. No hiking boots.”) We agreed to start off bright and early on Saturday morning, before the sun was up, so that we would have maximum sunlight for the walking portion of our journey.
During the succeeding few days, the temperature plunged back into deep sub-zero. Even though the danger of the bear still being awake had been pretty much eliminated by this turn of events, J still wanted to go make sure that his cabin door was shut and nothing had been in the cabin searching for food. We decided to go on down anyway.
He collected me at the dorm in his rather ancient pickup truck. He inspected my clothing, and made sure I had an extra pair of dry gloves in case the ones I had on got wet. “It would be better if you had mittens, but you ought to be okay, I think. We only have to hike a mile and a half.”
We hopped in the truck and headed off down to the river access. There was a play in rehearsal and I was the properties mistress. Set building was behind, like usual, and there had been an all-hands work party the night before. We had put in a very late night working backstage and I was still pretty sleepy from my late night, so we didn’t talk much on the way down.
After close to an hour of driving, we arrived at our destination and pulled off the main highway. The cold hit me like a clenched fist in my solar plexus as I got out of the nice warm truck. As I watched J get his rifle out of the rack behind the seat, and check his ammunition, I began to question my wisdom. I knew I couldn’t really back out at that point, because there was no way I would be able to stay warm in the truck for the couple of hours it would take him to make the round trip on his own. I knew he wouldn’t want to leave it running that long. J shouldered a rucksack, and we proceeded to walk up the river.
The snow was quite deep. Under the trees it was only knee deep, but there were drifts that were waist deep out in some of the open areas. The going was not very easy. In some spots what looked like a nice solid drift turned out to be snow piled over a hummock of shrubby brush, and you could fall through and wind up chest deep in loose snow. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but the cold sapped my energy pretty fast. J was right about the gloves. They should have been mittens and my hands started getting very cold. Once enough snow had fallen into my mukluks my feet started getting cold too.
“How hard could it be to travel a mile and a half,” I wondered to myself. I had thought I was in pretty good shape. J stopped once and pointed out the bear tracks that crossed our path. They were impressive in size. Once we came across a pile of scat, but it was frozen solid so J didn’t seem too concerned about it.
I was beginning to think that I should have been certified insane when I agreed to this adventure. It was beautiful, though, with the low winter sun glinting off the snow and making everything look like it had been dusted with glitter. Then we arrived at the cabin, a small low cabin built of logs, chinked with moss and mud. There was a small window in each wall, and a door, which was still shut tight, much to J’s satisfaction.
He opened the door and ushered me in. “How are you doing?” he asked, as I stamped the snow off my boots. I told him I was pretty cold. He looked at my cheeks and checked my hands, and told me I was in no danger of frostbite. He put the rifle on the rack over the door, and broke out a nice down sleeping bag from one of the metal footlockers in the cabin. He spread it out on a bunk bed over on one wall, and told me to get my parka and boots off and climb in there while he made a fire.
“Once it gets warm, I’ll boil some water and we can have a cup of cocoa and eat a sandwich before we have to start back.” He busied himself with the stove, splitting some kindling and laying a fire. Once it was going, he went outside and filled a metal pan with snow, and set it on top of the stove to melt.
I shivered in the sleeping bag. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, electing to sleep instead, so my blood sugar was low. Plus, there was a big psychological component to the fact that I could see my breath freeze as I exhaled. J threw another sleeping bag on the upper bunk, and crawled up there while we waited for the fire to beat back the chill of the little cabin. He leaned over the edge so we could talk.
I started to wonder if I was ever going to warm up, and I think I may have even whined a bit about it. J offered to come down and share the bunk I was in, and maybe that would get me warm faster. I agreed that this sounded like a good plan, and so we rearranged our positions, pulling both bags over us like comforters. It made it a lot easier to talk, too. The water melting in the pan on the stove started to hiss, and J got up to add more snow and feed the fire.
When he came back to our nest, which was finally starting to feel cozy to me, talking started to seem like an extraneous activity. I don’t remember who made the first move. Probably it was me, I was pretty forward in those days. We found ourselves gently kissing each other, and things progressed rapidly and quite satisfactorily from there. The fire finally began to take the chill off the room, and I discovered it was quite novel and pleasant to have so many layers of “wrapping” to remove in the pursuit of our desire.
Later on, we did have some hot chocolate, and eat some sandwiches. I was starting to entertain the fantasy of staying the night in the cabin in the woods, but I was disabused of the notion fairly quickly. “We have to start back,” I was informed.
“Why not just stay here and enjoy each other for a while?” I asked, quite reasonably, I thought.
“If we leave the truck out there too long it will not start. Then we’ll have to hitch-hike back to town so I can get a friend to bring me back down here to try to get it going again.”
“How would you do that?” I wanted to know.
“We’d bring a generator down here and run it for a couple of hours to run the circulating heater. I need to study for an exam, I don’t want to spend tomorrow getting my truck back to town. We may have left it for too long already.” He began to fret a little. We donned our clothes, and he damped the fire, put away the sleeping bags and tidied the place up quickly.
The walk back was easier, we had already broken a path. The urgency we felt about the truck situation, and the fact that the sun was definitely very close to the horizon made us keep the pace up. The great circulation that had been stimulated back at the cabin and the speed of our walk out kept me from feeling cold, too. I was grateful for that.
When we got back to the truck, it complained bitterly about being required to start. But it eventually did, albeit recalcitrantly. We headed back to town. We did not want our day to end too quickly, and so J drove up on a hill outside of town where there was a nice view of the Chena River valley. We sat there and watched the lights for a while. Then he took me back to the dorm and dropped me off.
A few weeks later he informed me that he was transferring down to the Anchorage campus. I was too young, he told me, and not ready to settle down while he really was seriously starting to think that way. He wanted to settle down with me, but didn’t think it was fair to expect me to make such a decision before I was ready, and he definitely didn’t want to watch me as I played the field. He told me that would be too painful, so he was going somewhere else. He figured that after a while he would be able to forget that he loved me.
I thought it was terribly unfair that he didn’t even give me a chance to decide for myself whether I was ready to settle down. I thought perhaps I loved him back, and felt that I ought to at least get to think about settling down with him. He was adamant in his decision, however, and left for Anchorage soon after.
I suppose that he was right. He was probably a lot more serious about me than I was about him. But I have never forgotten him, or that intensely passionate afternoon. I wonder sometimes, if that little cabin is still there, and if the gentle, sweet man that owned it ever found someone to share it with him.
I hope so. He deserved happiness.