Mail Run -- Ramon Gandia -- 7/13/2006
Anchorage, Alaska. January, 1964
Nurse Berdan was tired. She had been at this for a long time, only a few short months to retirement. Working at the Alaska Pioneer Home was her last nursing job, and while not exactly exciting, at least did not entail the horrors of being a wartime Nurse. That Hospital in Tokyo during the Korean war had been the worse time.
Now, all she had to do was make evening rounds of the old men and women staying in this
home for the aged, and make sure they were ok. She dispensed pills, diapers, stories and advice all in the course of her rounds. To be sure, once in a while there was an emergency, like a heart stopping, or renal failure, but those were for the most part, expected. In this home, the youngest resident was 70.
Hilmar Gunnersson was an interesting resident. He had been in Alaska forever. Had, in fact, come over from Norway during the Gold Rush days. When lady luck had not smiled on his gold mining efforts, he started carrying freight and the U.S. Mail by dog team. Gunnersson had sledded the Kuskowim and Alaska Range mail run for years, and only in 1937 when the airplanes finally took over mail distribution did Gunnersson find himself out of a job.
He had a few bad days back then, but with the military buildup in Alaska before and during
World War II, he had been able to find work again with the Army. Supply missions, trail
breaking, airfield surveys, search and rescue and mostly just training the young soldiers and airmen to survive in the Far North.
Nurse Brendan walked into room 17, and said: "Okay, Gunny, I have your pills for you."
"Vat pills, Vat for?" His accent was impeccable Norwegian.
"Now, Gunny, you need to remember. This one you take every day. It will make you feel
better." Nurse Brendan then gave Gunnersson his pill, who swallowed it with the cup of water that the Nurse proferred. "See, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
"No, that okay. Say, vat's this stuff on radio about a Kenneth or Kennedy getting shot?"
"Oh, yeah, Kennedy was shot last month. He was the president. His veep is now the president. Lyndon Johnson."
"Oh, I know Johnson. He vas senator from Texas. Big shot, big mouth. But never
heard of Kennedy. I thought Ike vas president."
"No, not for a couple of years now. Ike retired."
"Retired? Like me?"
Nurse Brendan thought about this question, to herself she muttered, "No, not like you. Ike still has his wits, you are getting senile." But she only said, "Yes,. Gunny, just like you."
Leaving the room, she continued and finished her rounds, and sat down at the Nurse's station. Doctor Lewis, that handsome young staff doctor came up to her.
"How's things, Nurse?"
"Just the usual. Lucy now always needs diapers, but she complains all the time about them. And Gunny ... I feel so sorry for him, an active man like that."
"Nah. Not active, he's been in here for four years now. But I know what you mean....if it wasn't for the Phenobarbital we give him, we would have a lot of trouble. I remember last month he whacked the Janitor upside the head with his own mop."
"I remember that! More than one whaap too. It was funny watching Billy run down the hallway with Gunny after him. Wish I had my Brownie camera!" The Brownie, of course, was Kodak's own 127 film camera that could even fit in your purse, and was ready for instant shots.
"But I hate giving Phenobarbital to these old folks. They are dopey all the time, just when they should be enjoying life and retirement, we make them prisoners of the drug," said the Doctor.
"Not all of them, only those that can turn violent, angry or aggressive."
"Well, Gunnersson definitely fits that profile. His grandson brought him here and laid down the law for him. Stay here, or live on the street. The family does not want him back."
"I hope we don't end up like that when we get old," replied Nurse Brendan, thinking of her
own future just a few months ahead.
Next evening, they were all gathered in the Common Room, chatting, playing cribbage, or
listening to KFQD radio. Gunnersson, however, was not doing any of that. He was, in fact, entertaining his regular audience, mostly staff, Nurse Brendan, Doc Lewis and a few
others. Only Billy the Janitor was conspicuous by his absence.
".... yes, that vas great blizzard. It snowed easy 12 feet, and tent kept collapsing from snow load. I had all fourteen dogs inside tent vith me and vee huddled there for days. Finally, when storm clear, I packed up and hit trail again. But it gotten real cold, maybe fifty below. Just vad. Vad, I tell you .... and then, right there on trail I found body. Just laying in snow. Not buried in snow, so couldn't have been there long, but dead and stiff nevertheless." Gunnersson was referring to finding a dead pilot in the middle of the South Fork trail back in '27 or '28, a story he told often. But with enough variations that it was always interesting to hear.
"Do you miss the dog teams?" asked Jane, the candystriper, "wasn't it tough?"
"Sure it vas tough. But that is vat made it good. Just me and da dogs, vee vere team. They talked to me, and I talked to them. At nights, most time we were in roadhouses, but once in while we had to spend night out there. Those were bestest times. Full moon over mountains, trees all around. Not single soul vithin 100 miles," an exageration, no doubt, but believable when it came from Gunnersson. "At times like that, it was easy to believe old Shamans about their spirits. Yes, I vish I could go back out again."
Nurse Brendan arose, and announced: "Time to go to the rooms, its lights out soon." With that, the old folks shuffled around and made their way to the rooms. Gunnersson, surprisingly, was able to find it easily. Some things he could remember well, some not. Specially names and the latest news. Well, most of that stuff was not important anyway.
Nurse Brendan then went to the nurses' station, and got her pills and list and started making her rounds, dispensing her pills to those residents listed. At the door to Room 17, she was on the verge of going in, when Jane called: "Oh Nurse Brendan! You have a phone call!"
It was no big deal, just her niece reminding her that she needed to Babysit this weekend, and
to confirm. Finishing her call, Nurse Brendan returned to her rounds, at room 19, where Walter was also getting his Phenobarbital.
The next morning, Gunnersson woke up feeling different. He was clear headed. The colors
around him were bright and sharp. He looked out the window and saw trees and snow, and
a few cars in the parking lot. "Why do I feel this way?" he thought. But when he saw the day nurse, he did not say anything.
That evening, Nurse Brendan was not on duty. She was, in fact, babysitting for her niece. Two absolutely terrible brats bent on destroying the house, Anchorage, the world, and Nurse Brendan in particular. But of Nurse Brendan's problems, Gunnersson didn't know anything. Or at least, he did not remember it. And Nurse Brendan's name? Well, he'll be damned if he knew her first name either. The last name was easy. She had a nametag on.
When Alyce, the night candystriper came in, Gunnersson saw the pill and a light bulb went on in his head. He could see the vial, and the name "Phenobarbital" on it. He was not an ignorant man. He read a lot, specially in the old days when he would sit out weather for days. He know it was a barbiturate, and he knew he did not need it. He did not want it.
"Why do I have to take pill?" he asked of Alyce.
"Because it will make you feel better, and it's doctor's orders." Alyce, who was not too bright, offered the pill and cup to Gunnersson, who took it, put it in his mouth and swallowed it with a gulp. "Thanks, pop, see you later."
As she left the room, Gunnersson spit out the pill he had just put under his tongue. He went to the window and looked out. At the beautiful snow, and the full moon out there. You could even see Mt. Susitna in the distance, the Sleeping Lady it was called, and indeed it looked like a sleeping lady in the distance. I've even slept with you, thought Gunnersson, thinking of the one time he had been beset by a blizzard there and had to spend four days holed up at the base of the Mountain.
As Mountains went, it was not very big. It was 7000 feet or so, which would be huge by some standards, but nothing like Mt. McKinley to the north, at 20,000 feet, or Mr. Foraker, nearby, at almost the same height. "Those mountains," thought Gunnersson, "have a life of their own." And tonight, they were speaking to him, calling him.
Just before midnight, Robert Markham showed up for work. He was the duty boilerman. A young fellow barely 21, and he had an almost brand new 1962 Chevvy pickup. He was in love with his truck. Four on the floor, four wheel drive, stepside box. And, in the dash, besides the AM radio forever tuned to 550 KENI, he had a 4-track Muntz tape player. This was his pride and joy, and he loved to demonstrate it to the girls over at West High.
Back in California, his home state, it would be unthinkable to leave your keys in the ignition, and the truck unlocked, but this was Alaska.
Nevertheless, habits die hard, and he put the keys in his pocket, went inside and punched the time clock. His midnight to eight shift was about to begin. On the hallway he passed Freitas, the evening boilerman, and chatted him up.
"How's the roads?" asked Freitas.
"Well, the snow sure came down, but the plows have done a fair job on the main streets. My
truck didn't have any trouble anywhere. With that posi-trac, it can probably drive anywhere there is a road, plowed or not!" This was an exageration, of course, but Markham was very proud of his truck. It was a very good truck, indeed.
In fact, it was such a good truck indeed, that a few minutes after Freitas had clocked out and
left.... and the Pioneer Home had quieted down for the night, old Gunnersson was busy at work on it. He deftly opened the hood, being extra quiet. He looked underneath and alongside the 283 V8 there. He ripped a wire from Markham's precious 4-track system, and wired it from the battery direct to the post on the coil. This was somewhat hard to reach,
but not as hard as the wire to the starter solenoid. He had to crawl under the truck for that.
“If 'dis vas a six, I be done by now!” he cursed under his breath.
Coming out from under the truck, he touched the other end of the wire to the battery. With
a roar, the engine came alive. "Wow, this thing noisy, I going to get caught!" But actually, most of the noise was in his mind. The truck was new, the muffler was also new, and there were no nearby windows on this side of the building, except for the Laundry, and that was dark and empty for the night.
Easing away from the parking lot, Gunnersson turned on his lights, and sought out the Glenn
Highway. He was out, and heading for his beloved mountains again. He drove north, and
north. The gas tank was full. He passed Eagle River, then the big Knik bridge and he was into Wasilla. The road started narrowing. Ahead, he saw the Houston city limits. He pressed
on, passing Willow in the dark. Soon the road became a narrow track. The 4-wheel drive eased him farther, where he spied a log cabin. The yard was empty, and Gunnersson pulled in, pushing through the deep snow. No one home.
Dogs! Lots of dogs! Gunnersson stood in the yard of the cabin, and admired the dog team. At least 30 dogs, each having his own little doghouse, all stood yapping and barking at him! And there, a sled. Gunnersson worked fast. He knew the owner or someone else would be coming back here in the morning. Maybe even tonight. He redoubled his efforts.
At 7:30 in the morning, Markham went to start his truck and have it warm for when he got
off shift at 8. Already the day staff was coming in, and all was hustle and bustle. The night
had been quiet, no trouble at all with the boilers. But last week he had to switch to the spare
boiler when there was a malfunction and the whole building started to cool down. But tonight, as usual, it had been uneventful. Still, with a couple hundred residents, his job was essential.
"Funny," he mused, "I thought I parked the truck here by the Laundry door. Maybe its out
front." But it wasn't out front, or in back, or on either side. It was gone. G.O.N.E. Gone. Including his precious 4 track stereo and his collection of Beattles and Dave Clark Five music! Stolen! He even had his keys in his pocket! Hot wired!
By 8:00 the police had arrived. Officer O'Rourke of the APD said "It's a rather unusual place to come to steal a truck." And he looked around...."What about that open window up there?"
"What window.....? Hey, Markham, go see what room is that. The heat's going out, and
maybe the old foggy there saw something."
So Markham marched into the building, to the second floor, and with the Doctor and Nurse
went to find that Room 17 was empty, the window open. And Gunnersson was nowhere on
the premises. Officer O'Rourke was summoned, and told. "Not to worry," said O'Rourke, if
it was the old man, we'll catch him. We have these fancy new Motorola radios in the cars
now. So he went to make the call, but it was for naught, as Gunnersson was long gone from
the Anchorage jurisdiction.
But the Anchorage Police was not dumb, and they called the Alaska State Troopers. Those
men in their green uniforms also had the fancy, new, Motorola radios, and before long an
area wide APB had gone out to look for the truck.
Meanwhile, back in the Willow area, the owner of the cabin, a trapper known as Olaf the One Eyed, returned from his night on the town, and found a strange truck in his yard, his sled and half his dogs gone, and the cabin had been ransacked. It was not until noon that he was able to drive to a store, at the end on the phone line, and call the Troopers.
"OK, let me get this straight. You say that missing is your sled, some dogs and a bunch of
stuff. How much is it worth?" The Trooper, who knew Olaf well, noticed both eyes were
open. He was only one-eyed when he hit the Whiskey.
Olaf answered him, "You don't understand, officer. What the person took was not just any sled or dogs. He assembled a team, supplies, gear. He helped himself to what was needed, and mushed out of here. You can see the tracks."
The officer, noting the license plates on the truck, already suspected the truth, and he
radioed dispatch with the information.
Back at the Wasilla Trooper HQ, the people there came to the inevitable conclusion that
Gunnersson had taken the truck from the Pioneer Home, drove 100 miles out here in the
night, abandoned the truck, put together a dog team and took off for parts unknown.
At the Wasilla airport, the next morning, Trooper Bennett preflighted his SuperCub. It
had been assigned to him, one of several flown by the Alaska State Troopers. He wore
his Bunny Boots, a new Eddie Bauer Kara Koram goose down Parka, and caribou skin
mittens. The search for Gunnersson was on, and he was supposed to fly out to Willow and
pick out the dogteam tracks. But he was not hopeful, the weather was not good, and it was still snowing. He trudged back to the hangar, and dialed the dispatcher.
"It's no good, Bennett, weather is still not VFR. Visibility is a half mile visibility here in
Wasilla; Anchorage is the same, and in Talkeetna it's no better. You are going to have to hold."
And hold they did, until Tuesday, when finally trooper Bennett and a bevy of volunteers
from the local Civil Air Patrol also went out. They all converged on Willow, and for a time, Bennett considered the danger of air collision too real. One by one, however, the search planes fanned out tracking, what they hoped, was Gunnersson's trace. But there is a lot of dog traffic in Willow. And lots of these new fangled snowmachines. And by evening, no one could figure out where Gunnersson had gone. He had fallen off the face of the planet.
A little farther on the said planet, Gunnersson stopped his team and looked up at Mount
Susitna. "You old bitch, you still here, but so is Me!" He was stopped for the umpteenth
time because he was not acquainted with these dogs. Yet, they more or less did what he
wanted. He had quickly spotted the leader back in the dog lot. The malamute, in fact, had the nicest doghouse in the lot. Typical, the lead dog got all the attention and perks. And he was actually a good dog and tried to follow Gunnersson's commands. By dint of hard work and luck, Gunnersson had mushed the dogs west out of Willow, across the vast Susitna River flats. The trail was tough, the snow deep, but the path inside the forest, had been groomed, marked and stomped down not long ago by other dog mushers.
So, after a couple of days, Gunnersson was now at the base of Mt. Susitna, setting out his
camp. He took careful inventory. He had forgotten nothing, except maybe his stamina,
which he found wanting. He was not even sure why he was here, but he knew he had to keep going. And early next morning, Gunnersson sledded his team west into the mountains. He had a gun and ammo, and he was prepared to kill a Caribou or Moose to feed himself and his dogs.
"He could be absolutely anywhere," said Bennett. "He probably went west, and that is the trail he took out of the cabin. But the ground party should have not counted on the planes. They should have tracked him on snowmachines or dog team while it was still snowing and bad weather. They just sat on their asses and figured we'd see him from the air right away.
But we couldn't even start looking for 2 days! Now the trail is cold. Rather than following
his tracks, we are just searching the general area."
"Well, he can't be far. He is 80 years old, for Chrisssake!" said Bennett's superior.
"Maybe so, but he's a tough old bird according to the Pioneer people. And he knows this country like the back of his hand."
"Naw, he has dementia, he can't remember anything."
"He remembers old stuff just fine."
And so the argument went. But back in the Happy River country, Gunnersson was doing
just fine. It was just like he remembered. And he had a pencil and notebook in his pocket, thanks to the Cabin's occupant, and he had made a few notes, including one that said "Pioneer Home. Phenobarbiturate. Run away." Every time he looked at his notes, he knew that he could not go east. He had to go west.
A few days later Bennett got a call from his dispatcher. "Guess what?" she said. We got this radio message from Puntilla Lake. They said that they heard on KFQD that we are searching for Gunnersson. They said he went through there a few days ago, and got some supplies which he paid by chit. They didn't know he was missing or anything, until they heard it on the radio!"
"At last! How long ago did he pass Puntilla?"
"A few days. He left day before at about noon. Heading west."
"How is the weather that way?"
"Bad. Well, not real bad, but not flyable. Not yet."
"At least we know where to look now."
After a few more days, the sun came out on the Alaska Range; the weather cleared and the
Alaskan skies were glorious. Bennett in the SuperCub flew straight to Puntilla Lake, gassed up, and flew up the valley towards Rainy Pass. In the drop to Denzel Gorge he saw what looked like tracks. Farther down in the Tatina River, more tracks. And past the Rohn cabin, definite dog team tracks. He was hot on the trail. "Hot damn," he said to himself, "at last."
Sure enough, about ten miles ahead, there was the team. Bennett circled overhead, and the dog team did not move away. He landed alongside, the skis on his plane gliding effortlessly on the snow.
The dogs looked at him. The sled's anchor was down. The dogs seemed disoriented and
a bit unkempt. The sled was packed with all the neccessities. An inspection showed the remains of a Moose carcass. But no sign of Gunnersson. There were no human footprints anywhere in sight. Bennett took off again, reeled out his HF radio antenna and called in. More searchers came out. That evening, it snowed again obliterating whatever tracks and other secrets the country might have held.
Gunnersson was never heard of or seen again.
The river wound its way through the thick forest. It was cold, very cold. Deep snow lay on the river, and Gunnersson peered past his ruff. He wiped his face and adjusted his parka hood. The riverbanks were close on both sides, black and easy to follow. He knew this country well, and he knew he would never get lost here.
Up ahead, in the snowy gloom, a log cabin appeared. Pretty soon, other cabins became
visible. Dogs barked, playing children called out. Gunnersson pulled up to one bearing
the sign "Smitty's Trading Post." Smoke wafted from the stovepipe. He put his anchor down, shook the snow off his coat, and looked at the man coming out the door.
"Hey, Gunny! Been waiting for you! Whadda you got?"
"Hey Smitty, got two sacks mail for you, and two box. And hungry appetite!"
"Well, come in then. Warm up. I got one mail sack going out, light as all get out. Your
wife said to tell you she has the stew on the stove, and to go straight there when you
finish here. I could have one of the boys take care of the team, if you want. They'll be
ready in the morning for your run to McGrath."
"That'd be great Smitty. Had to spend one night out in the open. Dang snow almost caved in that old tent. Be good to spend the night with vife and kids."
"Yeah, sure good to come home, isn't it?"
Copyright © 2006, Ramon Gandia