This time of year, when we lived at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, the girls prepared to go back to college in Illinois. It was bittersweet. I missed my girls, but I enjoyed the quiet once I had the house back to myself.
Every Christmas for the three years we lived in Fairbanks, the girls, the Good Chaplain’s mom, and Soccer Stud came to visit. One year they also brought a college friend. They participated in the Christmas revelry of the base and enjoyed the novelty of minus 40 temperatures.
Soccer Stud especially liked the subzero temperatures. On the coldest night, we all bundled up and went to the marquee at the high school on base for a picture under the temperature readings. On his first visit, I promised Soccer Stud’s mom that I wouldn’t let him do anything stupid. But on his first morning, he went onto our snow-covered deck in boots, shorts, and no shirt to take a picture next to the outdoor thermometer! Boys!
While the Good Chaplain’s mom would stay bundled up inside our cozy home, the kids played in the great outdoors, exploring much of what an Alaskan winter had to offer. They went dog-sledding, cross country skiing, sledding, and even learned the fine art of curling.
We took them to visit neighbors. They went with us to Christmas parties and even joined us for the annual New Year’s Eve bonfire on the lake. Yes, the fire was actually built on the lake. It was a little unnerving to hear the ice cracking beneath your feet from the heat of the fire, but the lake was frozen solid, and no danger existed. Finally, after toasting the New Year at midnight, we went home and to bed.
The Chena Hot Springs highlighted one year. It was minus 40 something, but we all donned our swimsuits and headed to the natural hot springs. Since it was so cold out, our hair would freeze in funny compositions. Soccer Stud’s hair was down to his shoulders that year, and as he stood up after getting it wet, it froze at odd angles, sticking up here and there. A group of Japanese tourists started giggling and pointing to him, saying, “Godzilla!” At six-foot-three inches tall with funky hair, he was quite a sight.
All too soon, the vacation was over. The kids and Mom packed up and went to the airport for the early morning flight to Chicago. We gave them props for wanting to visit in the dead of winter and looked forward to the following Christmas when more winter fun would be had.
Until next time,
I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year!
The whirring sound of tires spinning on ice brought a twinkle to the Good Chaplain’s eye. He peered out the window and saw our neighbor, Kevin’s, car stuck between the street and his driveway in a snowdrift.
“Someone’s stuck,” the Good Chaplain said, glee in his voice. “I’m going to go help.”
On Christmas Eve 2009 in Moore, Oklahoma, the Good Chaplain walked around in a funk. So the commander closed Tinker Air Force Base and canceled the Christmas Eve service. The Good Chaplain never canceled Christmas services before.
That day, Oklahoma City officially received 13.5 inches of snow. It was a mess. Although Oklahoma would get some snow and ice in the winter, that amount was a lot at one time. And people didn’t know how to drive in it with their Toyotas, Hondas, and other small sedans. Everything shut down. Cars were stuck all over the place, accidents were happening as cars slid into each other, and unfortunately, some people lost their lives.
But we had just moved to the area in the late summer from Fairbanks, Alaska. So, to us, this storm was a half-day event. So nothing would have closed, and people would be out as usual. And that’s why the Good Chaplain was so bummed.
He quickly donned his winter clothing and went to help Kevin push his car off the street into the driveway. As Kevin explained, his new wife, Jen, was at work about seven miles away. Kevin was trying to go pick her up when he got stuck. It was their first Christmas together as a married couple, and neither one wanted to spend it apart.
That’s when the Good Chaplain realized he could be the hero. Hands on his hips, chin tilted up, he declared, “I can help!” So, he came home, told me what was going on, jumped in our 4-wheel drive, GMC Yukon, and off he and Kevin went to rescue Jen.
Meanwhile, I watched television and read a magazine while my mother-in-law, visiting for the holidays, paced the floor. She’s a Nervous Nelly, anyway, and having the Good Chaplain out in that weather made her anxious. At one point, she looked at me as if to say, “how can you be so calm?” I shrugged my shoulders. He’d been out in worse, and I knew he could drive in these conditions. It didn’t bother me. I was just happy that he could do something productive instead of moping around the house.
It took a while to go those seven miles and back through snowdrifts, around stuck vehicles, and up icy hills, but the Good Chaplain, Kevin, and Jen all made it home safely to celebrate a wonderful holiday with their loved ones.
Until next time,
Do you have any snowstorm stories? Let me know in the comments below.
Shameless plug: My book, Where You Go, I Will Go: Lessons From a Military Spouse, would make a wonderful Christmas gift for that special someone in your life who is in the military. You can buy it by going to the Book tab on this site and purchasing through Amazon or directly from me.
Christmas is often hard on military families, especially when they are far from family. The best thing to do is make memories of your own. We did that when the Executive Presbyter asked the Good Chaplain to lead a Christmas Eve candlelight service in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, in 1996. Memories were undoubtedly made for our family that year.
Anaktuvuk Pass is a small village in Brooks Mountain Range 150 miles above the Arctic Circle. The only way in or out is via dog sled or airplane, although the people in town did have some vehicles to drive around town. The “terminal” at the landing strip also served as the post office. Think “Northern Exposure” only more remote.
The Good Chaplain is a Presbyterian minister. Above the Arctic Circle, tiny villages dotted the north slope of Alaska. Many of the towns had small, pastorless Presbyterian churches. The Presbytery of the Yukon called on the Good Chaplain from time to time to preach.
When the Good Chaplain first proposed the idea of going there for Christmas, I was reluctant. People in the village stopped living in sod huts only 20 years before. Most of the houses did not have flush toilets. And when the last pastor left, a group of angry teens burned down the manse. Alcohol and domestic abuse are rampant in many of these villages. Did I want to expose our 11-year-old twin girls to that? Besides, Christmas is our family thing.
On the other hand, how cool would it be to spend Christmas in an Inupiat village, learning about a new culture? The girls were all for it, so we went. We even stayed in the school with its Olympic-size swimming pool and running water.
I fell in love the minute we landed. The village, in between two mountain peaks, seemed busy, especially for such a small town. People walked, drove, rode on snow machines. I’m not sure where they were going, but they were on the move.
Subsistence living, or living off the land, was the primary source of food and income. Catching one whale could feed the village for months, not to mention the uses of the blubber, skin, and bones. Caribou were plenty in the area. And, of course, the village received a portion of the proceeds from the Alaska Pipeline.
The town met in the school gymnasium for a gift exchange and meal this Christmas Eve. We did not know about this event, but they included us, even giving gifts to the girls. The meal was caribou stew. We thought the stew had rice in it, but then the Good Chaplain swiped a big glob of fat out of his mouth, and we realized it wasn’t rice at all. We didn’t eat that much fat at home.
I sat in the bleachers watching the villagers interact with each other. Although many were blood relatives, they treated everyone as if they were family, including us. At one point, a young mother thrust her baby into my arms and told me to watch her for a little while. I was astounded. Never would I hand my child over to a perfect stranger. Then the Good Chaplain reminded me I couldn’t take the baby anywhere because there were no roads out of the village. Good point.
I especially enjoyed watching the people interact with the elders of the village. Everyone treated them with respect and kindness. They listened to them and seemed to take heed to the wisdom they imparted. I wished all of society would be so deferential to our seniors.
Soon, the real magic of the evening would begin — the church service. The Good Chaplain, the girls, and I trudged up the snow-covered hill to the little wooden church above the village to set up for service. As the time for the service neared, no one was coming. As we stood on the front porch, we could see a commotion in town at the medical station. A young girl broke her leg in an accident, and a helicopter transported her to the hospital in Fairbanks. After the helicopter left, people made their way to the church.
I commented to The Good Chaplain that the only thing that could make the evening better was the Northern Lights to come out. However, one of the villagers told me it probably wouldn’t happen because it was too warm.
The service itself was beautiful; the Good Chaplain preached through a translator. Singing “Silent Night” in both English and Inupiat in candlelight was a highlight of the evening until we stepped outside. The Northern Lights were indeed dancing across the sky. The elder, who thought it was too warm for the lights, piled us into her sport utility vehicle and took us to a place where the lights were more spectacular than they were at the church. She sang a song meant to cause the Aurora Borealis to dance across the sky as we watched in awe.
Soon it was time to head back to the school and bed. When we got there, we could hear townspeople over the school’s CB radio calling out to each other, thanking them for the gifts, and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. It was indeed a magical night.