Interview by SHARON BUSHELL
(Published: December 14, 2003)
I was born in 1912 in south Minneapolis, near the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Falls. There were just two children in our family: my brother, Stanley, and I. Our father was the foreman in a flour mill, and our mother was a skilled tailoress who made men's custom suits.
I had a happy childhood. I had several neighborhood girlfriends. Playing paper dolls in our back yard was our favorite activity. Frequently my playtime was interrupted by Dad's insistence that Stan and I dig out dandelions in our yard, a chore we did not care for at all.
I graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1930. I enjoyed the honor of being the secretary of my class and president of the Norse Club.
I went to business college briefly, where I avoided shorthand and concentrated on mathematics, a subject that greatly interested me. Soon thereafter I got a job with a company that made huge synchronous motors for Westinghouse and General Electric. Before long, I was making $22.50 a week, which was quite a lot of money.
I had many friends in church, including Vance Brown. He and I began dating and were married in 1936.
My husband was not one to be tied down, and as a result, he changed jobs frequently. He worked for Northwest Airlines Air Transport Command in 1943 in Edmonton, Alberta, and was soon transferred to Whitehorse. A year later he was transferred to Anchorage.
He wanted me to join him there, but I was pregnant with our third child and wanted to stay in Minneapolis to be near my obstetrician. We bantered back and forth through censored (because it was wartime) letters. He insisted there was a very good hospital in Anchorage and even sent me a picture of the old Providence hospital on Ninth and L. The upshot of it was that I was soon on my way to Alaska.
One of my girlfriends told me, "Austrid, look at it this way: It's a brand-new experience, and you're going to meet a lot of new people. How many chances will you have to take a trip like this again?" But I was scared to death. I'd only been out of Minneapolis twice, and with two little children and six months pregnant, I didn't feel particularly adventurous.
I had to pack, sell or throw away most of our possessions, plus find a tenant for our apartment (I thought we would be returning fairly soon). I then traveled by train from Minneapolis to Seattle with our daughters, 6-year-old Roberta and Lois, who was almost 3 years old.
In Seattle, we boarded the SS Columbia and arrived in Seward a week later in March of 1945, then went on to Anchorage by train.
My first impression of Alaska was not at all favorable. When we got to Anchorage, we took a cab from the train depot to Elmendorf, where we had quarters. The fare came to $5.75. In Minneapolis it would have been more like $1.25. I thought, oh my goodness, how will we ever get by?
The next day, Vance took me to town. Remember, I was a big-city girl, so of course I dressed for the occasion in my black Hudson seal coat, a stylish black hat and white gloves.
We were walking down Fourth Avenue near Varra's Variety as a woman was coming out of the store wearing an oversized red sweater and jeans. She was quite large, and her hair was dyed a brilliant shade of red. I thought to myself: What a poor excuse for a lady. I had a lot to learn about Alaska, and it began that very day.
Soon my husband was sent on TDY (temporary duty) to Fairbanks. One day in his absence, I was washing and ironing clothes, listening to Ruben Gaines read Robert Service's poetry on the radio. I'll never forget, when he got to the line, something about "... You hate this godforsaken country, but you'll return," I was bawling into the wash water, thinking this is one person who's not going to return.
Our third daughter was born in June. Vance was working the swing shift at the base. When he came home, I said, "I don't think you'd better go to bed." We went straight to Providence, and Lynne was born at 5 in the morning.
In Minneapolis in those days, you stayed in bed for two weeks after having a baby. I had a rude awakening after Lynne was born. The nurse said, "We'll have you up and walking around soon. We don't lay around in Alaska."
Then, to horrify me even more, Vance brought our oldest daughter, Roberta, to visit me in the hospital on a borrowed motorcycle. I thought, oh my heavens, we don't live like this back home.
In 1950, I got a job on Elmendorf as a telephone operator. In 1951, I began working as a material dispatcher for reciprocal aircraft engines.
I began to learn all sorts of mechanical-type things that I had never had any knowledge of, and I discovered that it was fun to work in a man's world.
They had a reduction in force, and I was transferred to base supply as a warehouse worker. I had been a dress-wearing city girl all my life, but now I was wearing slacks and earning good money, and my life felt like it was expanding. I realized that I was at the right place at the right time and that a good job -- one that I also enjoyed -- was a very valuable thing.
In '57, I was promoted to a supply inspector position, and I also became the shop steward for the employees' union on base, which I very much enjoyed.
This was about the time that Mr. Brown and I separated. At that point, I went to Personnel and got permission to live in Richardson Vista, a housing project that still exists. In those days, if you had a government contract, you could live in there.
I had known Jim Garrett, an artist and business owner, for some time. He was the sign writer for base supply, so he and I had crossed paths many times on the job. He and I married in 1958 and bought a home on Government Hill in 1961. I've been here ever since, and I dearly love my little home.
I worked on Elmendorf for 23 years and retired in 1973. By then I had made a career out of my job, and I had come to treasure it.
After my retirement, Jim taught me quite a bit about painting, so that became my hobby. He and I spent many happy years together, and I'll always be grateful that he coaxed some bit of artistic talent from me.
Stateside, I was just a homebody. Here I had an opportunity to be in the business world and have a challenging career. As I always say, Alaska has been very good to me.
All those many years ago, I never dreamed that I would stay, but I've been here almost 59 years. I can't imagine ever leaving.
Sharon Bushell lives and writes in Homer. Her books, "We Alaskans" and "We Alaskans II," feature her stories about Alaska pioneers that have appeared in the Daily News. For more information, visit her Web site at www.wealaskans.com.