The Place Where it Comes Out

On September 11th, 2001,  Korean Air  Flight 85  was  about to  land  in Anchorage, and Dick Cheney and the Gang wanted the Air Force to blow it out of the sky. Mom and Dad were in Anchorage for doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping. Mom called the school to tell me they were about to be evacuated. After talking to her on the phone in the office, I headed back to class. The plane was diverted to Whitehorse, and one less load of passengers had an unfortunate end that day. 

          Anchorage wasn’t evacuated, but no one anywhere was allowed to fly for  a  couple days either. Mom and Dad were stuck in Anchorage, my trip to science camp on Lake Bacharof  was canceled,  and  the Air Force  escorted  private planes  to  the ground. Hunters and trappers who had flown away from internet, TV, and radio had no idea the attacks on the World Trade Center had happened. 

          I wondered  if  I’d have  preferred  to be  on  the tundra,  away  from civilization, somewhere unaware of the devastation, panic, and confusing aftermath. I didn’t need to leave Naknek to feel the awkward combination of patriotism and fear spreading across the country.  Even  in Naknek,  flags  flew from  car  antennas, and  the  talk of  war  was  in the air. School was canceled for a day and a half when an envelope arrived with a trace of white powder. The studentry gathered into the auditorium and cheered at the announcement.

          Commercial air travel was never the same. TSA wanted shoes off, pockets empty, no knives, no sharp objects, and no liquids, gels, or pastes. They said to step through the x-ray machine and put your hands up. As they sent troops into Iraq, Dick Cheney and the Gang said to go shopping. Otherwise, the terrorists would win. They compiled a list of songs not to hear, shows not to watch, and movies not to see, including the upcoming Spider-man. They’d tell us who our heroes were, and it wasn’t some teenager in tights.

          I was in the midst of wrestling season, and kept my own tights in an underwear drawer. Our regional wrestling tournament was in November, in Aniak, a village to the north  of  us, on the  Kuskokwim  River, and  the  Yup’ik word  for  “the place  where it comes out.” 

          Despite all the recent commotion, getting to Aniak required no security protocol whatsoever. We threw our bags into the back of the plane, and we  were  allowed on board as long as we wore a coat, snowpants, boots, a hat, and a pair of gloves. Me, Riel, Kyle Peters, Kyle Anderson, Joyce Angasan, Shoosh, Ronald, and Saeng-Kul Chu got on board with no problems Most of us carried water bottles, and I had a knife in the left pocket of my snowpants. Tundra and sky soared through the windows.

          After  an  hour of  earplugs  drowning the  engine  noise, we  landed  on a  gravel landing strip and stepped into a one-room terminal. A van picked us up and brought us to the school, where the parking lot was full of fourwheelers and snowmachines. There were no cars.      

          Food was waiting for us on a fold-out cafeteria table in the commons area. It was the epitome of village food. Gatorade splashed into Dixie cups from plastic pitchers. Stacks  of  sandwiches were  piled  onto paper  plates.  Each sandwich  was  a slice  of Velveeta cheese, two slices of lunchmeat, and a half cup of mayonnaise oozing between the spongy white bread, soaking in the room temperature. 

          In Alaska, what was once a place of mass consumption of seal oil and whale blubber, this concoction in plastic jars had assimilated as a condiment for pilot bread, fries, fish, and fingers fresh for licking. I scraped as much of it off the bread as I could. I dumped mounds of it onto my paper plate, passing it to anyone as the table eager to take it. It churned in my stomach all night.

          The  first  morning in  Aniak,  our  team  awoke on  the  vinyl tile of  the  Home Economics room in the satellite building across the parking lot. We scurried over to the gym for breakfast, frostbite chasing us the entire way. The chill factor outside was around 100 below zero, but the boxed milk in our Cheerios was as warm as the mayonnaise.

          My tights were under my warmup pants and hoodie like everyone else. They were snug against the skin, so far unsalted by the sweat to profuse from pores in the following hours and days with no showers. As always, Bob gave us a speech. LikeHenry V or Winston Churchill, his words motivated us to move mountains. If we pushed to the best of our ability, gave it our all, and were willing to work, we could do anything. I didn’t believe that. I figured there had to be limits to our physical potential, but I was sure I hadn’t reached mine. I was sure almost no one ever did. I wasn’t the best wrestler, because I lacked the killer instinct. There was still a certain thrill from fighting to get free. I was like a salmon grilled by a web, kicking and thrashing and fighting for my life.

          Nothing could calm my nerves before a match. The announcer would announce who was now wrestling, who was on deck, and who was in the hole. By the time I was announced as in the hole, I was already jumping side to side, dropping to push-ups, jumping back up to run in place, and doing everything to get fired up, and shake away the nerves. On the mat, I couldn’t hear the crowd cheering while me and another kid rolled, sweat, grabbed, and took turns taking each other down against the mat. Then I pinned him. It was one of my few pins. Even when I won, it was usually with points. I soaked in sweat from the bleachers and watched my teammates take on similar feats.

          On day two, our team was gathered around a TV in our room, watching Saturday Night Live’s Best of Adam Sandler in a VCR. Then the building started shaking. It was footsteps. The Bethel Warriors raided our room, surrounding us. The Togiak Huskies followed after them. Then it was the Kotzebue Huskies. Soon, all kinds of husky kids, skinny kids, muscular kids, and odd-shaped kids were in our room. Smoke was rising from the roof of the gym across the parking lot, in a dark, gray spiral. A fire had started in an air vent and everyone in the building was shooed out. It seemed the safety of our humble little abode across the parking lot was the place to go. Hundreds of teenage boys and a handful of teenage girls crammed between desks, into mini-kitchens, and against the walls. Shoulder to shoulder with the Bethel Warriors, I watched AdamSandler sing “Lunch Lady Land” with Chris Farley.

          I didn’t win another match, and I welcomed the time to fly home. Once again dodging frostbite's jaws, with bags in hand, we boarded the van to the airport. Scrambling out, we regrouped inside the terminal to wait. A salty crust stuck my skin to my clothes, and I assumed all of us experienced the same feeling. We lay scattered over the pile of duffel bags in the room not much larger than a jail cell, and we waited for our plane. Then a pudgy woman from behind the counter waddled over to us. Her breath

was a spew of bad news and the smell of cigarettes.

          “Are you the boys from Bristol Bay?”

          Bob nodded. We stared.

          “Your plane is broke. You guys can leave tomorrow, uh?”

          The Alaskan uh, like the Canadian eh, suggested her statement was a question, but we had no choice. No one said anything back to her, but she stood still, waiting for a response.“Okay” seemed to suffice.

She waddled her way back out into the wind and cold, a new cigarette already between her lips. The van once again brought us to the school, and we glumly found spots for our sleeping bags in a classroom down the hall from the commons area. This is when Bob and Bucko, the assistant coach, relayed what they had just been told by the principal. We weren’t going anywhere tomorrow.

Aniak was expecting a blizzard for the next two days.

          The next day was Monday, and we were awoken early to move into the library, as much out of the way as possible. Outside was white wind and nothing else, but the library also had wall-sized windows into the commons area. Before school, students peered in at us, tapping on the glass. None of us reacted. We just looked out at them, knowing that when class was in session, we had 50 minutes to roam the halls, living the secret lives of zoo animals.

          In the afternoon, we shot hoops with local kids, and other teams stuck in Aniak. At night, we forced the latch of the kitchen door with a pocket knife to scavenge for food. We found Neapolitan ice cream, a jar of pickles, a jar of peanut butter, two loaves of white bread, and a big bowl of macaroni salad floating in mayonnaise. The sight and smell of it sent my stomach into a stir. That night in my sleeping bag, I held my stomach with my hands until I felt the need to fumble for my flashlight and stumble to the

bathrooms. Nothing erupted but dry-heaves as I bent over the stains and streaks in the toilet bowl. I listened to the howling wind outside as I wandered back to the room in the dark.

          We were on a plane on Tuesday, and I watched Aniak disappear beneath me, behind an oval of double-layered glass. I shoved in my earplugs, closed my eyes, and dreamed of a shower. I felt too hot wearing my snowpants in the fuselage, but I thought maybe new sweat would break away the old sweat, and I embraced it. Then a refreshing cool draft gently brushed the back of my neck. I turned around and the winter wind blasted me in the face.

          Riel was in the back seat with his eyes wide open and his hands gripped tight around the door handle. Kyle Anderson was next to him laughing hysterically. The wind was gushing in from the open door, and I could see the endless miles of snow-covered tundra soaring beneath us without a shield of glass in front of it. The reality of being airborne, blazing through the sky, had never been as apparent as it was this moment. A window was a barrier between one reality and another, but a thin one. It was like the fabric of a tent, or the screen between me and the towers exploding on the other side in New York City.

          The pilot said the door wouldn’t open any more, but Riel didn’t take his word for it. His grip on the handle didn’t loosen for the rest of the flight, the open space next to him exposing the open space all around us. Aniak was one small settlement in the middle of it all, and where we landed was just another one –but it was home. I drove to the house, let the shower burn away the stick and salt of five days, and I plummeted face-down onto my bed. Although it would always be there, only a small distance to the north, Aniak could continue to exist without me for the rest of my life.

          School was out in an hour and Riel had convinced me going was pointless.

          Then the phone rang, and I groaned and got up to answer it.

          “You better get down here,” Mom said. “It’s called skipping if you don’t.”

          I put on clothes, drove the three miles down the Alaska Peninsula Highway, and walked late into English class. I was just in time for an assignment to write another poem about September 11th.

Keith Wilson was brought up in Naknek, a remote Alaskan fishing town on the coast of Bristol Bay, where he returns every summer for the salmon season. He has been working as a commercial fisherman for 23 years, but has also worked as a teacher in the public school setting and as a TEFL teacher in Guatemala. He loves skiing, biking, and running, the latter of which he has coached.