I was cleaning the guest bedroom last weekend and came across the old gray, waterstained shoe box that I knew held treasures. Upon opening it, I saw a bunch of letters held in a bundle by a sticky …
I was cleaning the guest bedroom last weekend and came across the old gray, waterstained shoe box that I knew held treasures. Upon opening it, I saw a bunch of letters held in a bundle by a sticky old rubber band that snapped the moment the letters were picked up. They were the letters my dad had written to me when I lived in rugged Alaska with my first husband from 1980 to 1983. There were about forty of the artifacts...as the written word on paper has become. The letters were still in their original envelopes, displaying a variety of fifteen and twenty-cent stamps and addresses to places we’d lived in Delta Junction, Seward and Fairbanks. Realizing the need as of late to feel close to dad again, I carried the box downstairs to the living room, grabbed a cup of coffee, cuddled in a corner of my floral loveseat, and began to pour through them.
Reading letters forty years after they were written is like spending time with dad, mom, my brothers, my sister-in-law, and even the dog once again. I remembered the loneliness and how I yearned to receive the letters and how then all life stopped for those minutes when I delighted in reading them. My dad’s humor is throughout, along with narratives about my home town of Hoyt Lakes, projects, car shopping, the future in mining, struggles with weight, and love of his family. Three of the original five in our family have died but I could feel dad’s deep love coming through the veil of time....to me, his only daughter.... “the girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead.” It was a ditty he often sang to me.
My dad was a mechanical engineer at Erie Mining Company, a salaried position with quite a bit of job security. He also was largely a jack-of-all-trades. He worked on various projects, refusing to “hire out,” in order to save money. It was the way it was done back then. Dad just took his sweet-time and made many jokes about mother being the foreman, to ease his tendencies to procrastinate. Throughout the letters, dad was working on putting a bathroom with a shower in the basement. On January 9, 1980, dad wrote, “The project continues and I’m charging mom $24 an hour for my expert carpenter/plumber/electrician work but she won’t pay me....she’s a tough employer. I’m going to file a union grievance pretty soon.” A few days later he added to his letter.... “If the union has settled the grievance with my employer since I’ve been gone I’ll continue to wire the project, otherwise I will start picketing. Another item I demand is FM music while I’m working. There’s a female announcer with a sexy voice on WEVE and I enjoy listening to her and the union backs me to the hilt.” Finally in the fall of 1982, when bathing in the tub had worn out its welcome, Dad wrote, “My project is nearing completion and I’m sorry to see it end but soon the sheet rock will come and I can finish over Thanksgiving vacation because mom is getting a tiny bit excited as she sits on the bottom step with towel and soap.”
Dad and I had a tradition of driving to Knife River on the North Shore to go to Russ Kendall’s fish store. On very rare occasions he would take “a mental health day.” On one occasion he said he was thinking of going down for a fish, told me to skip school and we’d sneak out east of Hoyt Lakes down the Moose Line Road. “Yippee!” I loved those rides with just me and dad and years later I can see he did too because he wrote, “I wanted to go to Knife River for a big trout but no one cares for the ride and I missed your company so I have not gone yet, but one of these days I’ll go.” Dad loved getting my long, detailed letters and often took them to share with his coworkers who found it unbelievable that we had traveled to Alaska in a rusty 1966 Delta Oldsmobile and were living in a sod-roof cabin, salmon fishing, hunting and white-water rafting. On December 12, 1980, he wrote, “I’m going to look in the catalog for a camera for you, that’s how much I want photos of everything you’re doing. It’ll be a Kodak point and push model...nothing elaborate. I just ordered one for you from “clunky Wards.” (Montgomery Wards) I’ll pack it up and ship it, like I said, a point-and-push type coming next week.” I wonder where we mailed that film for developing, now that I think back.
It’s also really fun to read how inexpensive things were back then. In a letter dated February 1981, dad writes, “Mom quit the milkman because he was charging us $1.16 for a half-a-gallon and she bought a gallon in Virginia for $1.94 yesterday. When I mention the cost of the gasoline to go and get the milk she gets angry with me.” Also in that letter, “JC Penney has 1/2-inch electric drills on sale now for $40, they’re usually $65. I’m tempted but really don’t need it.” I always remember getting so excited when dad would put “Lucky Bucks,” a $20 bill, in with his letters and say here’s some hamburger money for you. We were never able to afford to go out for dinner and twenty dollars covered it then.
My mother, a first-grade teacher, had been taking Norwegian rosemaling and folk art painting classes in Virginia at the Owl’s Perch in the Thunderbird Mall. In one letter, while indulging in a Jim Beam highball he added, “If mom gets high it’s from breathing that paint and mix. Jim Beam doesn’t help much and the combination must be 150 proof. I’m moving out of this chair before I pass out,” he says. “You should see all the beautiful things mom is doing here in her new hobby. She’ll show you one day.” Today, my house has so many painted treasures created by mom.
His running comments about Erie Mining Company (later known as Reserve) remind me that our lives here on the Iron Range have always been shadow-cast with uncertainty about the future of taconite mining. In January 1983, during a shutdown, he reports, “This country is really bad now. Erie is going to open in April, but only for those with whiskers and I’m not sure how far back they’ll go. Rumors have it 1968, but it’s not official. The younger employees do not know what to do.”
In April 1983, dad was interested in buying a new car and wrote,” Today I might go to Cook to get a price from Simonson Chev/Olds on that beautiful Caprice in their lot. It lists at about $12,700. Wow!” Then comes my favorite letter with his hilarious account of buying a car. “Whenever you leave an automobile agency and the sales person has smiled at you and offered his handshake... you are surely screwed...because you have just signed on the line and are now committed. I hate those moments. Face reality though, you buy a car once in 3 to 10 years and are not experienced with the tactics these car guys practice every day, so be extremely careful, and even then you might get the old corn-cob in the butt. The best defense or offense is to pit one dealer against another and use remote bank financing from a dependable bank. Of course banks can screw you too, so you must be careful from the front and the rear...just like a squad in combat. Automobiles are a pain, and yet a guy can hardly do without one up here. I’d rather ride a bus, train or plane except they don’t go when and where I want. Old guys like me should have nice cars to screw around with because youth is gone and there isn’t much to look forward to in this life. A nice car lends some solace to a guy passed middle age. I know that it is not much but I have everything else I want except health and I’m fighting for that....oh yeah one thing I forgot... grandchildren, but I can’t do anything, just pray.”
That was the last car dad bought and it was a deep-burgundy beauty with plush seats, purchased from Jim’s Chevrolet in Aurora because he under-bid the Cook boys by $437. Dad died at age fifty-seven that August. I had felt the urge to come home from Alaska for a visit and was there with the family when a massive stroke took him. I was only twenty-one years old and am grateful for those years with him. Over the course of decades I often felt he would have been disappointed in many of my choices....that is...until I read his letters again. They are my 2022 Valentine’s gift from dad.
1 comment on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here
Saturday, March 5 Report this