Mom sharing stories with my brother. Juneau, Alaska early 1950s
The earliest memories I possess have to do with words. Whispered. Sung. Spoken. It was serendipity to be born to two adventurers who also happened to be ardent storytellers.
The images, sounds, scents that accompanied the earliest of these stories still transport me to a damp forest, a wood smoke smudge, the slow wake of a boat traversing Kachemak Bay.
I heard somewhere that early memories are vivid because they’re made while there are very few competing memories, or events, that could interfere with the recollection and its details. When my brother and I talked, long distance, for hours at a time, we invariably tapped into that strata of earliest memories. Our conversations were peppered with single word references or phrases from books, movies, games: our childhood memes.
Storytelling was as much a part of our childhood as setting up camp, building forts, and celebrating the advent of spring with the construction of a raft.
“Arm yourself with knowledge!” Dracula– Hammer Films
“Only their shadows remained!” First Space Ship on Venus
“No fish did this!” Creature from the Black Lagoon
“Compared to the Amazon, the Mississippi is a winding brook!” Creature from the Black Lagoon
“Boris! -Natasha!” Rocky and Bullwinkle
Those phrases and expressions took on whole new meanings, wove themselves into our time and place, and became a nifty short-hand for all kinds of situations.
Movies that had a big impact on our Cold War, Apocalyptic-kid kind of thinking:
Fail Safe – We created our own fail safe envelopes, which included detailed information on where to meet and how to survive the End of the World, because of course there would be survivors, and they’d probably be mostly under twelve years old. The end of each envelope had been cut off with jagged pinking shears, then reattached once the catastrophic instructions had been inserted, with scotch tape over red ribbon.
I still have mine.
Night of the Living Dead – Nightmare fuel of the first order, sultry and just normal enough to be creepy beyond compare.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers – My favorite version is black & white, and about as subtle as the threat of nuclear annihilation that people were just starting to get use to. Neighbors and family members looked and acted like you would expect them to; except something was off, slightly out of kilter. Paranoia – a very useful element of the stories we gloried telling high above ground in the wind-swaying platforms of our late summer tree forts.
Secret codes and offbeat heroes were preferred: Jonny Quest and his decoder rings, The Avengers, and hard-bitten, down-on-their-luck, strangely literary, cowboys like Paladin: Have Gun Will Travel.
More importantly we were influenced by the substrata of stories and storytelling that came before the TV years – when we were lucky to get radio stations. Indeed, in Unalakleet, our Zenith multi-band radio picked up Soviet Broadcasts, which were operatically dramatic and magnificent, especially their version of our Radio Free Europe in which they extolled the virtues of America’s working people and urged us to revolt.
The stories our parents and our grandmother told were drenched in color, taste, and detail. The deep south: hurricanes and the Everglades, restrictive group-think and amazing individuals all in one sweltering, fragrant, dangerous, compelling place. Or, the blizzards sweeping over the flat parts of the Dakotas, the hard days of The Depression and riding the rails, the early days of mining in Alaska, stowing away, fishing in Bristol Bay on a sailing sloop, flying missions in the Philippines and New Guinea, and living in a sod house.
And then there were the stories that were re-told, sometimes acted out, by our parents: Macbeth, Zane Grey, Nordic myths.
Added to storytelling were the books we carted around with us wherever we went: The Book House Books filled with legends, fairy tales, and poems; The Hardy Boys – in order to get through one difficult night Mom read an entire book to us, pausing to make cocoa when Frank and Joe’s aunt made them cocoa – which gave me an understanding, at three, that each word meant something and could be picked out like blueberries from a dense patch; the volumes of Winston Churchill’s History of the World, which I claimed as my own – marking hieroglyphic messages in them with crayons – because Mom had read them while pregnant with me.
Those details, the memorabilia of experience, add up to the arrival of my newest character, Lou Keats. Lou narrates her story as it unfolds in a remote Alaska town. The year 1963 proves to be fraught with national tragedy as well as something hidden in the woods, much closer to home.
Stories are the secret handshake, a sly wink, the slow wake behind a salt-scented boat, the radio band that picks up signals no one thought were there.
family album – Prince of Wales, Alaska