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Alaska memories: NomePosted Sunday, January 27, 2008, at 5:15 PM
I took this photo of a dead walrus on the beach at Nome, Alaska back in the early 70's. That's my cousin Barbie standing beside him, in order to give a perspective of his size. The tide had gone out for the first time in 20 years, so Barbie and I were collecting beach glass that day. The Eskimo children had been using the walrus as a trampoline earlier in the week.
I'm bad about taking a photo out of an album and carrying it off to show it to someone. Obviously, I did that with the dead walrus picture, because that spot in the album has been empty for years. I found the photo while I was looking for something else (as usual).
The photo shows my cousin Barbie Toombs standing beside the carcass of the dead walrus. I don't know how he died; in fact, I don't know if anybody knew why he died, but someone had cut out his tusks (quite valuable, even back in the early 70's), and they had also taken that long bone called (if I remember right) an oosik. I don't intend to tell you what part of the walrus that is, since I'm sure I'd get in trouble with the boss for that racey piece of information.
Alaskans - particularly the Eskimos and the Indians - are an "earthy" bunch, who aren't easily embarrassed by anything in nature. I remember watching Johnny Carson ask one of them about the oosik he was holding on his show one night. Johnny was quite serious, when he asked if the bone was a "tusk." His expression was priceless, when he heard the answer - I do believe he turned several shades of red (which were most becoming on Johnny, as was everything else. Sweet man!)
Anyway - on to my story.
My husband and I were in that Bering Sea town so he could inspect the new high school that Toombs & Co. was building for the State. (This was the beginning of a push to use the oil money to build new schools in the bush villages.) My cousins Bob and Barb spent the summer in Nome, supervising the construction of the school, which (by the way) was a million dollar building, built for 8 high school students. Needless to say, the whole community was going to use it for a multitude of purposes.
While we were there, the big news was the fact that the tide had gone out for the first time in 20 years. Barb and I went down to the beach to look for whatever treasures hadn't already been gleaned by the locals. In addition to the beach glass - shards of colored glass polished by the sand - we found old doorknobs and mysterious items which we speculated had fallen from the ships that dared passage in those cold northern waters.
Then there was the dead walrus, significantly bloated into balloon form. Barbie said that the local newspaper had a photo of the school children using the walrus as a trampoline! See what I mean? "Earthy!"
In fact, it was perfectly legal for one of the locals to take the tusks and oosik, as long as they were Native Alaskans. If a white man took them, that would be illegal, though I have no idea what the punishment was for this offense. Only natives were allowed to own raw ivory and other such natural items. Non-natives could buy the items, only after native artisans had done the delicate scrimshaw etchings on them - or carved them into little polar bears, seals, and other such touristy designs.
The buildings in Nome were a mad collection of multi-colored bits and pieces, mostly old, with no care taken as to how anything looked. It was all strictly utilitarian. The grocery store sold the usual items, with the addition of a most interesting meat section. I'm pretty sure I took a photo of that, if I can find it. The most uniquely Alaskan item was muktuk, pieces of whale skin and blubber, a delicacy which was eaten raw and chopped up in a number of recipes, in addition to being eaten like candy. Muktuk was very high in vitamin C, so it was an important part of a wintertime diet.
I had a student who once gave a speech on how to make Eskimo Ice Cream, which consisted of muktuk and native blueberries. Not sure if it had sugar in it, but if it did, that had to be a later addition.
Other interesting items of local color: We watched some natives working with a reindeer herd on the wide, sweeping slopes outside Nome. We were surprised to learn that the "fences" were nothing but some sort of lightweight material, suspended from very tall poles. The fences were incredibly tall but completely insubstantial: The whole point was to keep the reindeer from jumping over the fence. They obviously would not test it to see if they could break through it.
As I sit here at my computer, looking out at the white fog of a Southeast Missouri Sunday morning, these Alaskan memories seem no more than a distant dream...
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Madeline (Giles) DeJournett is the Advance writer for the North Stoddard Countian. A retired high school English/history teacher, she spent 32 years teaching in 5 schools in Missouri and Alaska. These days, she lives quietly with a menagerie of wild and domestic animals on 52 secluded acres in the remote Tillman hills south of Advance. She graduated from Dexter High School in 1960 and Southeast Missouri State in 1964. She can be contacted at email@example.com.