When was the last time you visited the place you grew up?

John Truslow launching a weather balloon

Just yesterday I visited Shemya, Alaska! (in my mind)

I consider the “Place where I grew up” to be the place where I finally transitioned from kid to young adult. That happened when I was 20 years old; a soldier freezing on an Aleutian Island just at the end of the Cold War.

Shemya, Alaska. 350 miles from Kommandorskyie, Russia and 1500 miles from Anchorage. also called The Rock, and The Black Pearl of the Aleutians.

I went up there as a shallow, boy-crazy, self-centered girl worthy of the stereotyping my blonde hair was gaining me. But soon I had to create a way to stay sane, and since there was absolutely nothing out there externally that was helping, I had to find internal resources.

There was no town, no stores, the only radio station was piped in via Armed Forces Radio Network, and we got three TV channels (which was something! don’t get me wrong…): Air Force TV, the local Anchorage TV, and Country Music Television – woo! There were 500 men and 25 women, and if you’d think that was fun for the women – it was not. Families were not allowed. No pets. The weather was so brutal that most facilities were all inside one building so that one never had to step outside. The island was 2 1/2 by 4 1/2 miles and there was no way off. The water would freeze you to death in three minutes if you decided to get in.

How does a person exist like that? It’s hard. Our unit, I must admit, got a bit crazy and took some chances merely for entertainment’s sake. There are cliffs made somewhat smooth  by a tundra blanket, nearing 200 feet high on one side of the island. In the winter, we took large hunks of cardboard and sledded down the cliffs. My first try I was knocked out cold. Lynn broke his leg and was in a cast the remainder of his time there. We did the Double Dip – which is to completely submerge in the Bering Sea, then hop in a truck to the other side of the island and submerge in the Pacific. We did it on New Year’s Day.

Most people did a lot of drinking. I drank, but not to get through my time there. I found other things more entertaining.

For example, all the underground WWII bunkers were strictly off limits! So, of course, we spent as much time as we could exploring them. It was really dependent upon the weather when we could get out and explore. Winds had categories. In one category, people were only allowed out on official business, with a buddy, and after notifying the police. In the other category, we were simply not allowed out. We would get arrested if we left the building we were in. Yikes.

I have decided to write a book about it. Would you read it? My working title is: Stranded on an Arctic Island: A woman coming of age on an Aleutian Air Base.

I found several really exciting web sites yesterday about Shemya. People who have been there are as obsessed with it as I am (or more). Being there must have moved a lot of people. I emailed a guy who was a weather observer, like I was. We reminisced a bit about launching 600g latex weather balloons in 40 mile an hour winds, praying they wouldn’t crash into anything before they got some lift. He was there 5 years before me, and got to launch weather rockets. The program was discontinued. I am jealous to have missed out on that experience. He had photos of the rockets, and sent me some more of his personal collection showing the island when he was there.

That’s the photo you see: one he sent me. But it’s like I’m looking at a scene from my own life. That boring concrete brick shack with one wall a garage door on a pulley makes my heart lurch. The action shot: there’s no way the person could walk out without having the balloon crushed into the building from the winds. So it was the crouch, run, and toss sequence I see there. And the uniform is fatigues. That’s what I wore before the Air Force switched to issuing the camouflage BDUs (battle dress uniforms) we are all so familiar with today.

Oh, man. Nothing like photos to bring it all cascading back. I suddenly need to pull out my photos, but they’re packed deeply away in storage somewhere, because we’re still living in The Uncles’ basement apartment. I spent a few hours last night, just reading testimonies and memories of all the guys – and one woman! – who talked about their time on The Rock. Most of them are WWII veterans, but a few, like me, are the souls who came after… stumbling in a bit of awe amidst the wreckage strewn in the wake of a war. And all the photos I saw… And the political and moral controversy about a certain civilian 747 shot down… And the fact that it was a TOP SECRET base, even in 1990 & 1991 when I was there…

memories…. the Scruffies (Arctic Foxes who would eat out of your hand), the ravens doing carnival rides on the updrafts raging up the cliffs, how stinking bad the chow hall (excuse me: dining facility – as we were instructed to call it) food got during the Gulf War when they stopped sending us food. And stopped sending us people. And mail. Mail: two days a week on the good weeks. The only reliable source of good morale that existed. During the War, mail stopped altogether for three straight weeks and we were at each other’s throats. Forget the food! We need mail! Friendship bonds were intense though.

Oh, and there was a ceramics shop. Thank heavens for something else to do. I did ceramics like mad. Created three separate nativity sets as gifts for people…carefully painting the fabric textures onto the clothing. I made a pink life-sized Cockatoo and named him Floyd. And in addition to my Air Force job, I picked up a few extra jobs just to fill the time. I cleaned the Officer’s Dorms, and I worked for the Reever! Anyone out in the wilds of Alaska must have heard of Reeve Aleutian Airlines. Soon after I began, I took over as head of security – which included following passengers every step of the way: examining luggage, metal detectors, running the dogs through, then duty out on the tarmac. And watching those planes come down… Alaskan pilots must be the best in the whole world. I saw a plane land once with a 40-knot crosswind. The plane came in sideways. No kidding! Sideways! Then right before it touched – about 2 feet above the runway – flipped itself forward and landed. The people who got off were white as sheets…

My adrenalin is really pumping and I realize this book needs to be written. What a story! Just one year of my life and so much to say! Ok. That was my trip back to where I grew up.

5 thoughts on “When was the last time you visited the place you grew up?

  1. With those deadly cold winds, this sounds like pretty much the exact opposite of my service time in Vietnam. Good that you had the ceramics and extra jobs to keep you busy.
    I’m surprised that there were foxes on such a small island. Did some Air Force people bring them in, or were they there before the base was started?

    1. I am sure there is a explanation why the foxes are there and possibly I read about it at some point, but I don’t recall. While I was there the military was trying to decide whether to exterminate them, because they were inbred and often had disabling deformities.

    1. I know, right?! I sat my butt down one year in ….hm…. 2008 or 2009 and wrote 60,000 words. I got about six chapters done – long because I hadn’t started editing yet. Then work got busy and parenting was busy, and I never went back to it.

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