Saturday, March 23, 2013

Due Up

Down here in the Lower 48, it's easy to forget that people die. Death is an abstract, a mention in the news, a statistic of car crashes and hysterical-sounding news articles trying to score cheap political points.

In Alaska, death is like the bad weather - always potent, always possible, leaving traces all around you. Death is the remains of an airplane you fly over in a marsh, the warnings of bear activity, the history of a used car you're looking to buy. ("It was his car, when he went up the mountain and didn't come back." The woman said, facing north toward a spot unseen but known by heart. Her arms, folded across her chest, tightening for a moment until her knuckles stood taut against the skin. "I haven't started it... it hasn't been run in three years.") It's in the smoke you breath from the forest fires in July, in the hair-raising powdery dry and sulfurous scent of volcanic ash pelting on your windscreen as you coast the last hundred feet toward the shelter of home, too late to outrun the blast wave by two blocks. It's in the friends who were there, and are no longer, the stories that try so hard to fill in the holes left by the people now gone. The flat tone a man uses when he says "That pass is aluminum coated."

But the distance is an illusion, and no amount of distance can protect from the way you hear the wobble in a tightly-controlled voice when they say "I don't know if you heard..." And then reality, no longer protected by your ignorance, cuts all the cross-connections, the complex web of community and friendship, the possibilities and the we'll-talk-later, the email not yet answered, the might have been, should have done, and the sheer brutal finality that steals your breath away and leaves you falling, stunned, sitting down like a dropped marionette.

Damn, I miss Ted. I miss them all, gone before me now. Too many friends lost, too many wakes held and ashes spread, too many searches ending in an accident report, and worse the ones where it was a sudden illness, a driver who didn't look before turning. (Damnit Ook, who's going to make the waitresses at Sushi Sushi laugh until they're leaking tears at your wasabi face now?)

Worse, still, with the way that death seems to be ignored right out of the culture here, is the lack of a that time and space to grieve, and to be able to share the person, to make them come alive in memories. It's like we should never mention them, for fear that death could come alive. Let me share with you some of the amazing beauty, the wildness, the breath-stealing beauty of a land that will kill you, taken by a man who I barely got to know before he, too, was gone.

Due Up, the website of Shaun Lunt

Because you should know such men lived, that they may live on after their death.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Blue Skies and Tailwinds, Ted

Rainy Pass, Mystic Pass, and Lake Clark Pass always scared me, somewhere deep in my backbrain. Lark Clark, especially, as I'd seen the weather go from severe clear when we decided to turn around to packed solid with cloud before we made the turn north. And now Rainy Pass has one more patch on her aluminum coat, and three more lives to her tally. Because sometimes, even the best, brightest, most skilled, and luckiest men can't make it out.

And Ted Smith was among the best, filled with love and laughter, mischief and wisdom, in a giant teddy bear of a man with a feral grin. He requested assignment as a patrol officer to the worst part of town, because he loved to be down where he could make a difference. If he wasn't volunteering for the Department of Natural Resources' gun quals (he loved driving the four-wheeler towing the bear target. What, you thought you got to shoot a stationary bullseye when the reason you carry guns is for a kill-defending grizzly or mad momma moose?) or teaching anyone and everyone with the slightest interest how to defend themselves, he was working on his plane or a motorcycle, sharing long breakfasts with the airport, military, and police communities (he knew everyone, it seemed, and never met someone who wasn't immediately either a friend or sent off with their oversize ego quite deflated), and plotting how to get back into a helicopter. (He loved airplanes, but his heart really belonged to rotaries, not seized-wing.)

My IA has never been a man to settle for "good enough for government work", and when Ted brought his plane in for wind damage, it turned into one of those annuals that goes on and on, disassembling and inspecting until all evidence of shoddy prior repairs by others were removed and all was repaired to better than factory for structural and safety standards (with an upgrade or two as long as we're in there.) So in the background of my photos, as my plane came together piece by piece, so too did his plane. He used to tell me that I needed to update more often, and gave the most hilarious send up of an innocent expression, claiming "It's so I can check on my plane, you know."

In the meantime, he'd show up with a motorcycle and a second helmet, and an infectious grin. "Could you help me by testing the back seat, to see if it's comfortable enough for my wife?" And off we'd go. (The first motorcycle seat made me hobble after getting off 50-odd miles later; that one was promptly rejected as no-good for the love of his life.) As the snow fell, he'd insist on giving me a ride home from the shop, and on the way, we'd chat about life, the universe, his hopes and dreams for his kids, the adventures he and his wife had gone through, and the way they had coped with deployments and different shifts, raising kids and surviving hardships.

Not that we could get away with much; my personal torturer, ahem, physical therapist, worked with his wife. Which led to the occasional description of hilarity we'd been up to (punctuated with grunts of pain), followed by a crack of laughter and knowing looks between women, and sometimes valuable advice I could carry back. "No, no, we really ought to skedaddle this weekend, and stay clear; she wants to contemplate remodeling..."

When my fiance came up to see me, I promptly introduced him to the two most important men in Alaska - Ted and my IA were like surrogate fathers, greeting my Calmer Half with friendly grins and a thoughtful, weighing eye as to whether we'd be a good fit. I was highly amused that, through the gun community, they'd already corresponded... and they were highly amused, in that way of men who see a delightful irony coming long before I did, that after all the years of growing up to be a civilian, I was going to marry a vet.

When I headed down, Ted would not stand to see me go on the long journey without a gun (neither could my fiance, but he wasn't there to give me looks over a coffee mug), and ganged up with my IA to make it gentle, persuasive, thoughtful, and utterly unable to refuse... and so we ended up at the range, test-firing his M6 to make sure I could fire it well should I need to use it.

The last time I saw him, was a hug after he and J had escorted me up the Alcan to just shy of the border. He waggled his wings and called godspeed on the radio, as they headed back to Anchorage and I to Canada, headed to the Lower 48. We kept in touch, but the emails were sparser - he was always busy, always finding something to fill his days with more laughter, mischief, delight, and adventure, and I was learning to settle into married life, a new job, a new state, and put into practice advice on marriage he'd given.

Blue skies and tailwinds, Ted, and may we yet meet again when I head west...