More great photos from the deYong Archives (that’s the uptown name we’ve given to the cardboard boxes and plastic crates stored in our backyard shed).
During the Great Depression my dad literally flipped a coin to determine if he would head north to Alaska or south to California when he left Montana in search of work. Unfortunately, for him, it came up heads. He packed his bags and headed for the Land of the Midnight Sun.
It’s not like Alaska was more prosperous than the Lower 48, but there is always a market for anyone willing to perform hard physical labor, something he relished. They imported cheap Chinese labor to build the Trans-Continental railroad in the 1860s, but I guess all labor must have been cheap in the Depression because he quickly landed a job laying railroad tracks across the state.
These photos are absolutely spectacular. Don’t you love the sepia tone colors and the beautiful Art Deco-ish edging? That delicate detail provides such a great contrast to the brutal labor my dad and his crew are performing in the photos. They swung sledgehammers all day building railroads across the frozen tundra, for god’s sake. And this, during the Depression, was considered a move up from the farming life he had lived in Montana.
I know he loved hard physical labor, but this must have tested even his resolve. Laying track all day, spending the night at the end of that day’s track, then waking up and doing it all over again the next day. And the next. And the next. All the while battling eagle-sized mosquitos.
He stuck to it for that first summer and into the fall until the weather got so cold that even a Montana boy could no longer find the fortitude needed to continue working outdoors.
This is where the funny part of the story actually begins. The Alaskan winter was too damn cold to swing a sledgehammer a thousand times a day, so my dad quit his job and headed for the big city. He somehow talked his way into a job washing dishes in an Anchorage restaurant, but soon got fired for breaking too many of those dishes. It was the only failure in an otherwise successful life, but it’s not surprising. Hands that swung a sledgehammer outdoors all summer must have been far too calloused and muscled for a delicate job like washing dishes.
At about that same time he received a letter from all his Dutch dairy farmer buddies in Montana inviting him to join them on their trek to Southern California. Voila! The failed washer of Alaskan dishes was transformed into a successful milker of California cows.
He then worked his ass off, established his own dairy, and became moderately prosperous. In fact, by most standards he was probably quite prosperous.
But that lone failure in Alaska nagged at him for each one of the following thirty years. So in the late ‘60s when another couple invited them to tag along on their Alaskan cruise, my dad surprised my mom by saying, “Hell, yes.” They had a wonderful time. They saw whales and fjords and calving glaciers and all the other sights Alaska had to offer. But for every minute my dad was sightseeing, he was also stewing. Finally, the cruise ship passengers were given a free day to explore Anchorage on their own, but instead of shopping or dining with their friends, my dad rented a car and demanded that my mom drive around the city with him in search of the restaurant from which he had been fired decades earlier.
Unbeknownst to my mom, he had tucked their checkbook into his pocket prior to leaving on the cruise. His goal was to find the restaurant, walk in, ask to see the owner, purchase the restaurant, and to then exact his revenge by immediately firing the guy who had so long ago fired him.
Remember that Anchorage had in 1964 suffered an immense 9.4 earthquake, one of the strongest temblors in recorded history. It upended the entire city. Hills appeared where none had stood before. Valleys opened up where they had not previously existed. Roads were twisted beyond recognition. Rivers changed their courses. Many prominent buildings were so damaged that they had to be demolished. In other words, Anchorage was a very different city in 1969 than it had been even five years earlier. And it certainly bore no resemblance to the city he had fled in self-defined shame thirty years earlier.
According to my mom, he drove east up one block, then west down the next one. Then he crisscrossed the city again on all the north-south streets, and with each block he drove he became increasingly frustrated because he could not find that damn restaurant.
“Forget it, Bill,” my mom wisely advised. “The city has changed too much in thirty years. Half of it was destroyed by the earthquake. And the restaurant probably went out of business long ago.”
“Hmmmmph,” he growled and continued his search.
Finally, he gave up and headed dejectedly back for the cruise ship.
My mom summed it all up.
“I don’t blame your boss,” she said. “I wouldn’t let you wash our dishes, either.”