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Only 25 and Tim felt he was in a whole second life. He, alone, had to take care of 16-month-old Hazel as a single Dad for the next three days. Three days could be 30 diapers that would need changing. Could be more than 30. He shuddered.
That morning, Tim’s wife Gretchen left town on business. There was no question but that she should go – even if that meant leaving Tim with the baby. Gretchen had the real job with real pay and good benefits– she had to dress up, travel on business and make sure she had an admired cell phone model (she was in tech).
When they were first married and Gretchen was in school, Tim had the job and there was no baby – that’s what he now thought of as his first life. Back then, Tim had a retail gig, which was fine and paid okay, as long as it was just Tim and Gretchen. No benefits, but they were healthy. Tim would have preferred working outside building things, but retail was fine. Until the store closed.
For a while Tim felt sorry for himself. Gretchen felt sorry for him, too. It was she who suggested he take some construction training and raise the whole family up another economic notch. Hazel generated a lot of bills and whole slew of new worries. And she generated a lot of dirty diapers that needed changing.
After Tim graduated from the training program, he put the word out with friends and filled out applications all over Our Town. But there were no jobs for him that were outside and involved building things. Tim had really liked the idea of moving the family up a notch. But they were stuck in the same notch.
Tim had even complained to the Soupster a day earlier, as the two chatted while waiting for milkshakes. The Soupster agreed that Gretchen had to go and leave Hazel with Tim. Normally an angelic child, Hazel had decided to test her father’s mettle the minute Gretchen’s plane took off skyward.
A list too long to make (and who wants to castigate an innocent child?) but Hazel’s transgressions were many. Tim felt himself losing his grip on his second life. He also was losing his grip on a seriously soiled diaper. The phone rang. Cindy at the placement office for the training program said there was a big project coming up that would require a lot of people who liked building things outside. The employer had Tim’s resume and the program’s recommendation, and Tim should expect a phone call from the employer shortly.
This was a notch-raising opportunity.
Tim celebrated by opening a brand new package of baby wipes. Hazel picked up the vibe and stopped being such a little poop. Gretchen would be home before long. Hooray, second life!
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“Emery!” the Soupster called, glancing up from the outboard he was hunched over.
The cyclist screeched to a halt. “Hey, Soupster! How’s it going?” she asked cheerfully.
“Havin’ trouble with my starter,” the Soupster said, standing up with one hand on the engine and the other supporting his lower back. ”And this drizzle ain’t helping my mood none,” he complained. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“An inspiring, scenic location to write in the rain,” Emery announced.
“Write in the rain?” the Soupster echoed.
“That’s right, I’ve got a new notebook and pen that you can use in the rain,” Emery said.
“Yeah, I know the ones,” the Soupster nodded. “Official types of people use them.”
“And that’s why today I officially declare myself to be a local,” Emery replied.
“Why today?” the Soupster asked. “You’ve clocked up at least 5 years in Our Town, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but as you know, becoming a local is a process,” she said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. First you’re a tourist, wandering down the main drag, wearing your new fur boots and hat.
Hang around a few more days and you realize you’re gonna need some rain gear. So, you get the cheapest you can find.
Then you start doing the wilderness thing. Before long, you discover you need gear that’s breathable, waterproof and indestructible, so you go back for more — more expensive this time.
You learn that cotton kills and start stocking up on wool and polypropylene. The variety of gloves, mittens and liners seems overwhelming at first, but you focus on your size and get a pair of everything. Wool, fleece, leather, Gor-Tex and neoprene all have a use.
Before you know it, you have your very own Alaska Sporting Goods Emporium. Then, just when you think you have everything you need for life in rainforest Alaska, your Xtra-Tuffs start leaking.”
The Soupster took over. “So you patch them with duct tape, till you realize that even duct tape has its limits. Time for new boots. The old faithfuls are converted to slip-ons, used for taking out the trash, quick trips to the grocery store and camping.”
Emery laughed. “So, just when I thought my emporium was fully stocked, I discovered a line of ‘Outdoor Writing Products for Outdoor Writing People’ that can all be used in the rain.
There are even these pens that’ll write under water, upside down and in temperatures ranging from -30 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. They’ve actually been used on a manned space flight.
So, I’m now the proud owner of a new notebook and pen. My adventure barometer tells me that ice climbing is going to pale in significance compared with things to come,” Emery predicted.
“Let the adventure begin!” said the Soupster. “And congratulations on becoming a local,” he added, extending an oil-stained hand to shake her neoprene glove.
“But before you go, a quick question: do the words ‘cheechako’ or ‘sourdough’ mean anything to you?” he asked, a twinkle in his eye.
– Submitted by Lois Verbaan Denherder
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Born into the Real World in the first half of the last century, Renny was the youngest of an extremely large brood – 11 kids all told. And though the oldest brother was practically out of the house by the time Renny arrived on the scene, the remaining siblings kept their four-room family apartment chock full at all times. Renny did not suffer loneliness in childhood.
In fact he craved loneliness – or rather, time alone.
It wasn’t to be, not where Renny grew up. Like when periodically Renny’s parents took him and a half dozen or so of his brothers and sisters to the beach to experience the great outdoors. On a holiday or during a summer heat wave – that meant that the blankets, towels, folding chairs, coolers, umbrellas and the bodies of a million beachgoers covered the sand so thoroughly that Renny had to pick his way on tiptoe between the sprawled out families to get to the surf.
When his 7th grade class studied Alaska, Renny’s takeaway was glorious, open spaces. He started putting aside a grubstake that year. He got serious about building up the account in high school with his wages from pumping gas evenings and weekends.
Soon after he graduated City High, Renny had enough for a bus ticket to Seattle and a boat ticket to Our Town. But when he reached his final destination, he was shocked.
Our Town was crowded – not nearly the boundless space Renny had daydreamed about. Surrounded by endless forest, he nonetheless found the residents of Our Town pressed cheek to jowl.
Renny weighed his options. This was back in the day when you could lay claim to land, just about, by living on it and filling out some paperwork. So Renny took a skiff north of town and set himself up a sweet little homestead at an unused spot on the beach, facing Mt. Edgecumbe.
Renny loved his quiet lifestyle, reading, hiking, listening to the birds and the wind. But civilization did not stop for Renny – one black day, a road was built and the cars and trucks started whooshing by.
And this is where the Soupster, who was visiting Renny’s place, joins our story.
“Renny? The noise from those big trucks doesn’t bother you?” the Soupster asked. “The last truck shook the whole house.”
“I used to care,” answered Renny. “I used to care a lot.”
“But now you don’t?”
“That’s a hard question to answer,” said Renny. “I still cherish my boyhood fantasies of living away from it all. And it’s great to imagine that giant sundae you had with a dozen scoops of ice cream and eight different syrups. But who’d want to eat something like that again? Not an old man like me.”
“Huh?” said the Soupster.
“I like my quiet,” Renny said. “But I like having people nearby.” He pointed to Mt. Edgecumbe, which filled most of the living room window.
“It’s all wild, out there – all of it,” he concluded. “I love that it’s wild. And I also love it that Our Town has my back!”
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Originally Published October 21, 2004
The Soupster’s rump itched. He squirmed in his seat. Pay attention! he told himself.
On the stage at the packed political meeting the Soupster attended, two familiar Alaskans debated the future of Our Town. Everyone was rapt to what was happening on stage, but the Soupster worried people could see him squirm and that they knew why.
At the right, standing at a podium, was a female brown bear, so tall she could reach up and knock the klieg lights above her head. To the left, behind the other podium, or rather perched on it, was a sleek raven.
“Ferry service!” squawked the raven. “Much better than roads.”
“Easy for you to say,” countered the bear. “You can fly. My constituents need roads.”
The crowd, all human, murmured in assent or dissent.
“Technology for medical care,” the bird called out. “Long distance docs!”
“Your doc should be close enough to look in the eye,” said the bear. “Of course, the last time a human looked me in the eye I ate him.”
The raven appeared momentarily worried.
“Hrrumph” said the bear.
The Soupster’s itch made him squirm again. This time he was sure it was noticeable. He wondered if he could slip out the back door, make it around the corner of the building and have a good scratch.
“You believe in large classrooms,” squawked the raven. “Lots of kids, too many kids.”
“I believe in the sanctity of the den,” said the bear, looking momentarily majestic.
“I believe in taking the chance at opportunity,” said the raven.
“And I believe in staking out your claim and never having to say you’re sorry,” said the bear.
The moderator banged his gavel and put forth the final question.
“If one animal could be said to represent the Alaskan spirit, which animal should that be?” said the moderator.
“I’ve been on license plates,” said the bear. “And on the “Made in Alaska” sign, although that’s my cousin actually. Representing Alaska, should, of course, be me.”
“My visage sells products from coffee to radios to football teams. Everyone knows a poem about me. Is there a poem about a bear that comes as easily to mind?” the raven posed sarcastically.
The bear became angry and clawed chunks out of the sides of its podium. The raven flew around the bear’s head in circles. The moderator banged his gavel repeatedly.
The Soupster used the fracas to cover his escape. By the time everyone had calmed and the debate resumed, the Soupster was slipping out the back door. Politics was the future, the Soupster knew and one had to pay attention to the future. But, he thought, passing out of sight around the corner, sometimes, there was more pressing business at hand.
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The Soupster and his friend Greta sat face-to-face on two hemlock stumps, chomping on jars of her latest batch of smoked sockeye and shooting the breeze.
“So you didn’t vote in the primary,” Greta said accusingly.
“I forgot,” sighed a sheepish Soupster. He chewed his fish silently. “It’s sometimes hard to remember that politics matters.”
“Oh, politics matters, all right,” Greta said. “What if I was to tell you that your vote could affect that very fish you are eating right this second?”
“I would say `how?’” said the Soupster.
“Glad you asked me that,” Greta said, standing, stretching her arms and cracking her knuckles.
“Now, I’m not going to use any names, in order to protect the innocent, but see if you can follow me,” she said, settling back on her stump.
“All right,” said the Soupster.
“Okay,” Greta started. “Say there was a guy running for the US Senate from Missouri who made some very unfortunate comments about pregnancy that got him in a big heap of bear scat.”
“I think I know who you mean,” said the Soupster.
“Well,” continued Greta. “His opponent in that race, the incumbent, is a big critic of some special breaks Uncle Ted got for Alaska Native corporations that have allowed them to score lucrative government contracts.”
“Okay,” said the Soupster.
“Now the sockeye you’re scarfing comes from a bay that a Natïve corporation is asking Congress for,” said Greta.
“But they say they’ll always allow public access,” said the Soupster.
“I’m sure they want to keep the public access – they understand the value people give to harvesting their own food,” said Greta. “But let’s say the lucrative federal contracts dry up and they start hurting for money.”
“Just then some gazillionaire comes forward and offers to buy a piece of land that the corporation wants even more than your favorite sockeye bay – in exchange for your favorite sockeye bay …”
“You make good sockeye,” said the Soupster, lifting a jar. “But your fish tales stink.”
“It’s no tale,” said Greta. “At least, it’s not impossible.”
“So if I wanted to keep eating this fish, how should I vote?” asked the Soupster.
“You can figure it out,” said Greta. “You’re the Soupster!”“
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After enduring a somewhat sketch marriage in her twenties, 34-year-old Annie was basically glad she had the romantic gumption to follow her heart and a charismatic fisherman to Our Town. But it gnawed at her that she had left a job as a retail store manager and could not find the equivalent employment here. Especially after the fisherman moved on — after different fish, she surmised.
To Annie, becoming a saleswoman again after so many years as a manager felt even worse than the simple demotion it was. Worse still was the cut in her pay. Our Town certainly didn’t feel any cheaper than where Annie had moved from. But in Our Town she had about a third less to make do with.
Bemoaning her fate is where the Soupster had expected to find his friend when he stopped by to pick up some flower bulbs that she was giving away. It was typical of Annie to be generous.
The Soupster smiled at the thought of generosity of so many people in Our Town. There was no better reason to be wealthy, the Soupster thought, than to be able to be generous with your time or your money. And here was Annie, struggling, yet using her time to give away her precious bulbs.
There are those who come to Our Town to take high-level jobs and, for them, financial discomfort may not be an issue. Others come for the mountains and the clean air (or a fisherman!) and cobble together several jobs to survive.
But that’s just money, the Soupster thought. A lot of life comes from family, friends, tradition, and belief – not to mention a good subsistence halibut or three. There was little sadder, the Soupster thought, than the old miser alone with his stacks of gold coins. And little more triumphant than someone thriving on modest means, surrounded by life and love.
And just as the Soupster had that thought, he looked up to see Annie’s face filled with life and love. She stood in her doorway beaming.
“Soupster,” she cried out, loud enough to startle a crow, “My manager decided just this week that she wants to move back to Idaho to be nearer her parents. The Assistant Manager’s boyfriend is being transferred to New Orleans and she’s going with him. So guess who’s going to be the new manager?”
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“I love this `Coast Guard Alaska’ show,” Zach said, sprawling in the magnificence of his basement man-cave.
The Soupster generally avoided subterranean structures of any kind, but he had to admit Zach’s man-digs were powerfully comfy. Heavily stuffed chairs and a still more heavily stuffed couch. A wet bar, a microwave and a big stocked refrigerator. And you couldn’t argue with the 46-inch TV screen – unless you had to move it or pay for the electricity.
“Check out this episode,” Zach said, motioning toward the glowing behemoth as, onscreen, a Coast Guard Jayhawk hoisted a stranded boater. “I know the flight corpsman, the co-pilot and the guy they rescued.”
“Wasn’t the flight corpsman’s picture in the newspaper yesterday?” the Soupster asked.
“Yep,” said a further vindicated Zach. “Nice that we’re on the list of Alaska shows, eh, Soupster? `Deadliest Catch,’ `Flying Wild Alaska,’ `Man vs. Wild,’ and `Man vs. Food.’ And that’s not even counting the Canadians, who have quite a few shows of their own.”
“The granddaddy show was “Northern Exposure,” the Soupster said, referring to the 1990’s television sit-com set in the quirky fictional Alaskan town of Cicely. “I was in Mesa, Arizona buying a light fixture at the time and the merchant checked my ID and said, `You’re from Alaska! I love that show!’”
“Now it’s true,” said Zach. “Now totally true. Alaska is totally a television show.””
“They should set more TV reality shows in Our Town,” said the Soupster. “We’ve got a million stories around here.”
“Eagle Rescue Alaska?” said Zach.
“No, you have to create more tension, as the TV guys would say. “Like “Ravens: Scared Straight.”
“You mean delinquent ravens subjected to Tough Love over golf-ball-and-grocery theft?”
“Yeah, said the Soupster. “Or an Our Town housepainter waiting on pins and needles for a dry spell to do this work. That should be good for six or eight weeks of tense episodes.”
“Might be too tense,” said Zach.
“I’ve got it,” said the Soupster. “What about `The Growingest Road’ about the Olympian task of state highway guys trying to cut down alder and salmonberry bushes faster than they can grow back.”
“Good,” said Zach, “Or one where they get up close and personal with one salmon. The star of the series would have to weather dry spells and sharp rocks, dodge bears and not get snagged by someone stretching the fishing rules. All for a disquieting ending.”
“One salmon’s struggle,” mused the Soupster.
“Or, `The Slug Whisperer,’” said Zach, suddenly very pleased with himself. “What about that, Soupster? `The Slug Whisperer?’”
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