On December 7, 1941, the U.S. was forced into war with the attack on Pearl Harbor. U.S. military leaders knew that if Hawaii was a first target, Alaska might be a second. The tiny area now called Whittier was a prime spot for storage of supplies and movement of troops, due to its remote location coupled with almost constant cloud coverage. The army began construction on two tunnels for efficient transportation from newly built Elmendorf Army Air base to Whittier, and built a couple of tall buildings at the end of the line in Whittier to house the people necessary to operate the port.
My next assignment was to stay in one of those buildings and minister to the teens who migrated from inland areas to Whittier during summer to work at the salmon cannery. Whittier’s war days are long gone, and it now – or at least then in 1992 – is a tiny town where fishing boats bring their harvest to be transported up to Anchorage. This industry attracts rough characters from all over to seasonal employment, and most of the seasonal workers live in tents and lean to’s in the woods around town, due to the fact that there is only the one building for housing. Law enforcement was minimal and unsupervised, independent minded teens can be difficult to reach. I was up for the challenge. This was also the terminus for Alaskan cruises, where the tourists would come ashore to take a train to Anchorage and fly home, and the workers would take a break. After guiding some of these workers – Billy from North Carolina, Maria from Denmark, and Glen from …. my journal doesn’t say – up a trail through deep snow and icy slopes to the calving end of Portage Glacier, clapping and talking loudly to scare any wandering bears, we found our way back to town just after dusk.
This is where I met my new friends. Mr. and Mrs. Seale, who ran the Mission, introduced me to two guys: Billy and Larry, who were living in the woods. I had dinner with them, and then went to their camp for the evening to lay harmonica and whatever we could use as drums, while their friends smoked and danced and did lots of other things. As the shadows of these seemingly wild teenagers danced around the campfire and people shouted in the darkness, Finn, Mike, George,Tom, Heather and Rhonda and I compared beliefs about things we could not see or prove. Around 2 a.m. I made my way back to the room in the building, but Phil had locked me out. I knocked and knocked in an effort to waken him and go to bed, but the only thing I accomplished was to wake up the one cop in town, who kicked me out of the building, thinking I had been out late drinking. I went back to my new friends in the woods, found an extra sleeping bag, and slept till daylight.
The next day I ran into Heather at the dock. She had questions, so I told her that’s why I’m here and we went for a walk. Heather carried more pain than anyone I had ever met. Her mother died during Heather’s birth, and she had dealt with several other deaths since. We related to one another on that point, but other duties came up for my and we agreed to meet again to continue our conversation the next day.
I had the pleasure of sleeping in the room that night, but slept worse than the night before as I couldn’t escape the sound of hard wind and rain outside, and the whistling it created in the cracks and drafts of my 11th story window. The next morning, I wandered down to the mission, called M for a safe, friendly voice, and then went out to find Heather and her pain. I did just that. As she and I walked to take Billy some food, she explained that she was 14 and had already had two miscarriages. Her friend Tom was murdered the last winter and a girlfriend of hers recently committed suicide. She was still intent on having a successful pregnancy, just to die afterwards, leaving a child like her mother left her. I was a little overwhelmed. I just listened, and she seemed to appreciate the fact that a stranger cared enough to take the time and listen without judging. We delivered the food and continued our walk with Billy, until we reached an inlet. Across the inlet we could see a brown bear, just close enough to tell how matted and dirty his fur was. He caught our scent, I assume, and stood on his hind legs to get a better look at us. We backed away and he – thankfully – decided to focus on fish instead of us.
Next day: The last ship that came into port at Whittier was the very same ship used in “The Love Boat” tv show. One of the workers gave me a tour of the crew’s portion of it, and then I went to meet my cannery friends for some fireworks on our last night there. Feeling the time crunch, I talked to Heather about God. I explained my own struggles on the issue, and she explained that she believes in God, but just doesn’t “like the way He works.” I couldn’t completely disagree. I explained my conclusions regarding Him (labo, Christus, congregamini) and she listened diligently. That would be the last time I saw her.
On the way back toward Anchorage, Mrs. Seale gave an account of some angel sightings. I was envious, as I had only ever dealt with bad spirits and had never seen an angel. She suggested that awareness of either is a gift, and this re-kindled my curiosity on the subject.
We drove past the head of Portage Glacier and on to Anchorage to meet Rick Hale, who would take us to 1st Native Baptist Church for our next mission.