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Adventures before Alaska was a state

POSTED: November 1, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Martha Ann Taylor has a mountain of memories from service with the American Red Cross in Alaska before it became a state and was even wilder than it is today.

The former Gainesville social worker considers her three years in Alaska in the 1950s a highlight of her life. Now 83 and living in Atlanta, she began writing her recollections as a letter to Dorothy Willie Walton, who served in the Red Cross with her.

The two had traveled together to Elmendorf Air Force Base hospital near Anchorage. Their first day in Alaska was different because it was summer when daylight lasted 24 hours. She had to mask her eyes to sleep at "night" and learned that others had to return to the States because they couldn’t adjust.

Their second day the sky became dark with ash from a volcano that erupted on the Aleutian Islands.

Because salmon fishing was so popular, Martha Ann set out alone to catch one. Having no luck, she heard a male voice suddenly saying, "You ain’t gonna catch no salmon that way. Want me to show you how?"

The full-bearded Alaskan got down on a rock next to the stream, paused as if in prayer, then suddenly scooped his hands into the water and threw a large salmon up on the bank. She wrapped the fish in some newspaper and proudly displayed it to patients and colleagues before it became a fine meal.

When her friend Dottie’s mother came to visit, they set out for the wilds in a $600 used car that drank oil and water and rode sideways. They had to carry two cases of oil and stop frequently by a stream to get water to fill the radiator.

On a trip to Curry, their train struck a moose and had to stop, a common occurrence, the conductor said. That adventure also included a plane ride to a bear hunters’ camp, the bush pilot skillfully landing the plane on a sand bar in the middle of a stream.

After a snowshoe hike, Martha Ann and Dottie were the honorees at a village square dance.

At 2 a.m. one exciting night back at Elmendorf, the two Red Cross workers were told to report to the hospital, where wounded airmen were being brought in. "Everything was hush-hush," Martha Ann remembers.

They found out why the next day when the newspaper headlines read, "Russian Plane Attacks U.S. Airmen." Russia claimed the Americans had violated its air space. Tension was high, and military officials feared the incident would lead to war. None of the injured died.

On a gold-panning trip into the wilderness, Martha Ann and a friend had just gotten in a stream when a bear came straight toward them. Her friend pulled his pistol out while they remained perfectly still. The bear slowly turned and dove into the stream, apparently in search of salmon.

They found a little gold, and on the way back down the mountain, the road gave way, and the car almost fell into a ravine. Her friend walked to a cabin five miles away and three hours later returned with a truck to rescue her and the vehicle.

As part of training, hospital personnel had to camp out in 5-below temperatures atop 5 feet of snow. Martha Ann survived that exercise, but never figured out how Dottie escaped it.

Red Cross workers on Christmas Eve hung a gift and a stocking of fruit, nuts and candy at the foot of each patient’s bed. "I could see a tear on many a cheek as we tiptoed around," Martha Ann wrote.

She also remembers playing golf at midnight in the Land of the Midnight Sun and waiting for a moose to get off the fairway; seeing the aurora borealis, the Great Northern Lights about as up close as you can get; and experiencing mosquitoes big as your fist while camping out above the Arctic Circle.

"Even though our old hangouts have been moved or are gone, we still remember Alaska when it was truly the last frontier and not yet a state," Martha Ann says. It became a state in 1959 with a population of 200,000. Today, it is 600,000-plus.

Martha Ann retired from Hall County Department of Family and Children Services. She and her friend, Dottie, have continued to stay in touch.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. You can read his recent columns as well at gainesvilletimes.com.



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