Driftwood

Driftwood

by Keith Wilson

Driftwood

As a student at Northern Michigan University, I ran for hours on the wooded trails and the paved bike paths along the shores of Lake Superior in Marquette, Michigan, where driftwood accumulated on the sand. I wasn’t a collegiate athlete or even a competitive one. Running had nothing to do with school except for keeping me from studying. I wasn’t a slow, clumsy runner or a terrible, lazy student, but my motivation for either of these endeavors had nothing to do with any specific career path or kind of ideas about improvement or personal growth. All I wanted to be was someone who didn’t live in Naknek, and besides going back every summer for the fishing season, I was living my dreams.

I had discovered running my senior year of high school as a means to physical fitness, an outlet for teenage frustrations, and an escape from the reality of living in an Alaskan fishing town isolated by tundra and ocean. Then, for some reason, when I was far away from that tundra and ocean, I never stopped running. I had no idea how fast or how far I was going, but I didn’t care either. It was more about getting outside and moving forward than a test of physical prowess. It was about breathing in and out, letting salt escape my pores, sweat evaporating into the clouds. It was about looking out over what looked like the ocean, but it wasn’t the ocean. It was Superior, a lake larger than any other enclosed inland body of water, save the Caspian Sea, somewhere in the Middle East across the Atlantic.

Superior seemed as endless as career choices, places to live, the pavement path, or the dirt trails. Like Forrest Gump, if I had decided, I could run clear across the contiguous United States. There was no finish line until I’d decided to stop, and even then, I still had to make my way back home to whatever cramped dorm room or musty apartment with shag carpet it happened to be at the time. Every semester, I took full loads of classes, including plenty of them I didn’t need. I learned about politics, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and environmental science. I drew portraits, learned yoga, shot arrows, played tennis, and choreographed routines flipping and tumbling over mats. I half-assed my through all of it.

My major was English, but only because someone in some office said I needed to declare one. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but when I was coerced to make a decision, I shrugged my shoulders and added Secondary Education to that major. Mom was a teacher, Dad was a fisherman, and I was following both of their paths. They had even gone to the same university. Because of their alumni status, I paid in-state tuition, which was one of my determining factors in choosing the school. Like Bristol Bay’s salmon, I had found my way to a freshwater lake by following the same path as my parents. The salmon in Superior, however, had been planted. The latest generations had never touched salt water.

Mom and Dad moved to Alaska in the 70s, seeking excitement and adventure. Alaska drew them in with magnificent landscapes, majestic wildlife, and interesting people with fantastic stories. They went North to the Future, to the Last Frontier, to the wild west beyond the Wild West. Alaska had Kodiak and its tidal pools of starfish, Denali, a mountain taller than Everest from base to summit. It had the lush Tongass rainforest and totem poles of the Southeast. Mom and Dad chose the muddy river.

They grew up within eight miles of each other, but Mom and Dad didn’t meet until college. Mom was from Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit, where she lived with her parents and two sisters, played with dolls, and wrote in her diary about boys like Dad. Dad grew up in Ferndale, another suburb of Detroit, with his parents, one younger sister, and three brothers who fought with him over food. Mom was working on a degree in Special Education, dreaming about a knight in shining armor who would sweep her off her feet. Dad was a tall, strong, handsome conservation major with a shiny Harley, curly brown hair, handyman skills, and repeated jokes like, “Just because your head is pointed doesn’t mean you’re sharp.” Mom told me it was love at first sight. Dad told me she gave him her number, but he never called. After all, he had a girlfriend, and she had a boyfriend.

When the girl I know from Mom as Dogbreath broke up with Dad, he left for the forests in Wyoming to work as a fire cache. He pretended to be Clint Eastwood in a cowboy hat, puffing Swisher Sweets, climbing mountains, and hunting and fishing for food. Back in Marquette, the guy I know from Dad as The Guy Who Stole the Skis used Mom’s car as a getaway vehicle after loading as many pairs as he could from the shop at Marquette Mountain. The relationship didn’t last.

Then Dad returned to his cabin after work one day, and his roommate said some girl had been looking for him. The girl had hitchhiked all the way there from Michigan, he told him. Kitty, he thought she said — a name Mom had been given by kids she taught as a student teacher in Oconto Falls, Wisconsin, who couldn’t pronounce Catalano. Dad rushed out to find her. He succeeded, and I exist. Dad accidentally proposed under a tree in the backyard of his childhood home in Ferndale by asking Mom what her answer would be if he did propose. Her answer was a “yes,” and after one maiden voyage to Alaska, they had their wedding in the backyard of the Catalano household in Birmingham in the summer of 1979, their friends floating down the river behind the house, pot smoke billowing behind them. Mom and Dad loaded a van with their wedding presents and two dogs, and they began their ultimate journey to Alaska.

They established a base of operations in Anchorage where Dad worked at a tire store and Mom waited tables and tended bars. She applied for jobs teaching Special Education in rural Alaska, and she was offered several jobs on the same day. She took the position at the Bristol Bay Borough School in Naknek. It was a school where kids also drove from King Salmon and flew across the river from South Naknek to attend. Dad started working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, studying salmon, taking samples, helping regulate the fishery.

They lived in a rickety house on the cutbank where running water, as Dad would say, was when they ran with the bucket from the well. In the winter, one morning, he awoke with his hair frozen to the wall behind the bed. I’ve never known Dad with a full head of hair, and I blame it on this story. They lived next to Mo, who had moved to Naknek from Buffalo, New York, and Smiley, an Aleut man whose bloodline went back directly to the Bering Land Bridge. The pair would become my godparents as a priest dumped water into my eyes at Saint Teresa’s Catholic Church in Naknek. Although I never embraced Catholicism, or religion for that matter, in some surreal memory of a memory, that water pouring into my eyes is the first event I can recall.

I wasn't born until 1984. It was a dark, cold night in October and the clocks were striking midnight. Ronald Reagan was President, the Soviets were testing nuclear weapons, and some pissed-off Irishmen had just bombed a hotel where Margaret Thatcher was staying. It was all irrelevant in Naknek, as there was no cable TV, no internet, and no household telephones, let alone handheld cellular devices. Back then, everyone shared one telephone at the Borough Building. Media and current events outside of Naknek were far away and separate, but we were in Anchorage, the big city of a quarter million people with Costco, McDonald’s, traffic lights, and a hospital.

When they moved to Naknek, Mom and Dad learned Anchorage to be the hub for loading totes, boxes, and coolers of groceries to send home through the post office and checked baggage. Naknek Trading, our grocery store, did the same thing, but they tripled and quadrupled the prices. Anguish, Mom and Dad called it. It was the place to shop, visit a dentist, check in with an optometrist, or in this instance, deliver a baby. Anchorage was once like Naknek of course, with no roads in or out. It was established, like Naknek, by descendants of people who'd walked across the Bering Land Bridge. They were the Dena’lina people, an Athabascan group who were taken over by a tent city for railroad construction. When the Alaska Train began moving on the tracks, the tent city turned into a concrete city, and the concrete city sprouted highways connecting to nearby towns and villages. Soon it connected to faraway places in Canada and the Lower 48, and trucks with apples, Snicker’s bars, ammunition, and VHS tapes had easy routes to Anchorage.

In October of 1984, Mom and Dad loaded totes and coolers and shipped them home as usual, but this time they took their midnight son onboard as carry-on luggage. Bundled in blankets, in a turbulent little plane, I flew for the first time over the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Aleutian Range, the endless expanse of tundra and ponds, approached the Naknek River, and rolled down the runway at the King Salmon Airport. Then Dad drove us down the Alaska Peninsula Highway to a house he was still finishing. There, I was raised on wild salmon, wild caribou, wild blueberries, vegetables from Mom’s greenhouse, and boxes of Kraft macaroni and canned corn from Costco.

The Wilson household was in Gottschalk’s Subdivision, a plot of tundra with gravel leading to various homes. It was a neighborhood where many of the teachers lived — a community within a community where everyone knew everyone, but the houses were far enough apart for privacy. When Bob Swanson, the principal, put a corner of his own house on our property by accident, Mom and Dad didn’t mind much. It was when little Kasey Swanson pushed me out of my highchair, and when little Chris Swanson took a bite out of my orange Nerf ball, that if I had any concept of property or boundaries, I might have said something about that corner.

Ours was a house designed by Lindal Cedar Homes, and Dad built it from its concrete basement to its triangular roof almost entirely by himself. Before he built a garage, the basement was a place for sawhorse benches, power tools, and a seasonal caribou or two, skinned, hanging over the drain in front of the furnace room. The main floor had two bedrooms at the end of a hallway with a bathroom across from the kitchen. Mine was the blue room, with blue carpet and blue walls, on the side of the house by the driveway. My sister, Erica, was born when I was nearly four years old, and she kept me awake, talking in her crib when she wasn’t even a year old. The yellow room, as we called it, with its yellow walls and green carpet, was a guest room until Erica moved into it, but I could still hear her forming complete sentences across the hallway in her sleep.

Red carpet went through the hallway, past the kitchen, into the dining room and expanded into the living room where there was a wood stove on a brick platform. I used to grip the handles like they were a bike or a four-wheeler, and I’d drive the wood stove. The living room had four big windows overlooking the tundra, the Naknek River, and the porch. When Dad found an old ship wheel, he attached it to a pedestal on the front corner of the porch, and I drove the house.

The house was a triangle, and Mom and Dad’s bedroom loft narrowed into the corner. There was also a fan in the middle of the ceiling. Dad said he had always imagined building his own house for himself and his family. He thought of it as a safe structure for a new generation of Wilsons, which confused me when he would throw me up toward the fan while it was spinning. It was thirty feet up, but Dad was the strongest man on our planet and I could have been chopped like fish guts. It wasn’t until I was eight that my brother, Luke was born, and Dad threw him toward the fan instead. It was okay, Mom assured us, because now she had an extra boy.

I was the first boy in Mom’s family, and Great Grandpa Catalano got a kick out the name being passed down, but all three of us — Luke, Erica, and me — were given the middle name. Wilson was a name Mom had been reluctant to take with their marriage. As the name of one U.S. President, Dennis the Menace’s grumpy neighbor, the title character of a Mark Twain novel, and a volleyball that would someday keep Tom Hanks’ character company on an island, it was a rather mundane name.

It wasn’t Dad’s fault. The fault was of a man named Will who liked the sound of his own name. He was the proud descendant of Vikings, but he was an illegitimate son to his own father, so he was determined to make his own name known. His ego was so big, he made sure to conquer England in the Battle of Hastings, so of course when he had a son, he wanted everyone to know it. Everyone knew Rufus was Will’s son. As the name drifted across the Atlantic, into Hudson Bay, and trickled down tributaries to the Great Lakes, it morphed into one word and Grandpa George Wilson was named after his Grandpa George Wilson, and he named his son George Wilson. Grandpa Wilson died when I was too young to remember, so Dad is the George Wilson I know.

Catalano, on the other hand, is a name originating from refugees of the Spanish Inquisition. When Jews, Muslims, other non-Catholics, and suspected non-Catholics were gathered for conversion, torture, and execution, masses of people escaped from Catalonia, the region of Spain farthest to the east, bordering France and the Balearic Sea. Even then, Catalonia wanted independence from Spain, and the Inquisition no doubt aggravated the feeling. Catalans poured into Italy and assimilated into a culture of pasta, olive oil and, in a wicked twist of irony, Catholicism, as Catalanos. This name also drifted across the Atlantic, but it washed ashore on the Chicago River in Little Italy of Chicago. Carmine and Tomasina Catalano raised Joe and his siblings, and Joe married Marvelle Gunderson whose parents were Vikings, maybe even from the same village as Will’s ancestors. Joe and Marvelle raised Cynthia Catalano who I call Mom.

Mom and Dad had no intended meaning for my first name, but Keith is Scottish, and some kind of deviation of a word for wood. Generations of translation changed the word the way the ocean changes a fallen tree washed away by the tide. Each branch breaks away, floats between ebb and flood, and drifts to one shore or another, washed away again and again, bark peeled, flesh rounded by time. The wood transforms into something unrecognizable from the tree from which it came. My Viking ancestors had stories of Odin creating the first people from driftwood. He found them on the beach and breathed life into their lungs. Then they stood upright and branched across our planet, growing, breaking apart, and growing again, sometimes twisting and meeting again on some distant shore.

I descended not from people who’d walked the Land Bridge, but from Medieval Knights, Norsemen, and refugees of the Inquisition. In the isolation of a southwest Alaskan fishing town, I was raised not by Yup’ik, but by Michiganders who saw newcomers driven out of Naknek by the cold, the dark, the cost of living, the isolation, or a combination of any of the above. Some of them returned for the fishing season every year. Some of them never came back. Mom and Dad were taken with rural Alaska.

Naknek was a good place to be raised by good parents. It was a small community with an involved school. It had opportunity to learn, it had the outdoor recreation, and it had a thriving commercial fishing industry making our family, like others, fortunate. I could have grown up anywhere with my introverted nature and my imagination, but by the time I was a teenager, I was running back and forth on the shoulder of the Alaska Peninsula Highway like I was trying to run away on a road with no way out. By the time I no longer lived there, it was like I was still trying.

About the Author

Keith Wilson

Website

Keith Wilson's upbringing was in Naknek, a remote Alaskan fishing town on the coast of Bristol Bay, where he returns every summer for the salmon season. He identifies as an ultra-distance runner, cross-country skier, commercial fisherman, avid comic book geek, and branch of driftwood floating with the tide. This essay is about how he was started on this path.