They came from all walks of life in many places, but in some respects they share some unique qualities. They are often confident risk-takers, independent, adventurous, and capable of momentous accomplishments. I’d like to tell you about some who touched my life the most.
First and closest to my heart was Donald David Daniel “Dinky” Dunne, my Dad, the fifth of seven kids in an Irish farmer’s family who settled in south Milwaukee during the Depression. Dad worked for years in an iron foundry and also for the Milwaukee Railroad where he apprenticed for seven years to become a carman. I don’t remember him ever having less than three “jobs” at a time.
He built houses, painted houses, fixed anything and everything in the house or car, and he never weighed more than 140 pounds at 6 feet tall. Hence the nickname “Dinky;” he wore waffled long underwear under long sleeved shirts to make his skinny arms appear bulkier. All his life he wore a fitted burgundy corduroy blazer he’d had since his 20′s to dressier events. It looked great on him!
Though always very thin, Dad was very, very strong. He was so skinny they made him 4F for the Army during WWII when his brothers went off to fight under Patton. Aunts said he went down to the recruiting office weekly and tried for many months, and never got used to the rejection. He wanted to join the Civil Conservation Corps (CCCs) but they wouldn’t take him because of some requirement that it was for disadvantaged citizens, until his Dad went down to the CCC office and threatened to put the entire family on welfare. They then took Dad, who spent his time in the CCCs planting trees in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.
His days in the CCCs were some of his fondest memories and his fellow CCCers some of his closest buddies. In his 80s he drove his old pickup truck there to see the then huge trees that he and his buddies in the CCCs had planted as seedlings. He remembered the CCCs (and the trip to see the results) as one of the best things he’d done.
And as a young man he dreamed … his dream was to drive the graveled Alcan to the new territory of Alaska thru Canada on a motorcycle. He put the down payment on the motorcycle when he was 28 and was making monthly payments when he met my Mom; they married and she never let him pick up the motorcycle. When the railroad went on strike in the 40s the dream reappeared, and he left for Alaska ostensibly to make the money to tide the family over until the strike ended. After a year he sent for Mom, my sister and me, “to look it over” before we returned home.
When we got to Alaska, we learned he intended us to stay. I cannot imagine my refined Mom’s thoughts when she learned this and saw the cabin he’d built for us to live in. No running water, an old oil stove, absolutely none of the life she’d had in Wisconsin. But we never knew her thoughts for she threw herself into becoming an Alaskan from the first day!
Dad grew up in a home he always called one of “music, love and laughter” and they determinedly built a life of that for us in Alaska too. Dad played the accordion, the harmonica, and especially his concertina that he’d built himself; he knew every polka, schottische and dirty Irish ditty written. They were great dancers, having had years of practice during the big band era of dance halls in Milwaukee in the 30s and early 40s. And now in Alaska there were parties every Saturday night in a big old “washhouse” that my Uncle Tom built for the neighborhood.
The washhouse had washers in the middle first floor room, men’s rooms with showers on the right and women’s rooms with showers on the left, and upstairs lines for drying clothes, until Saturday nights when those floorboards got a thorough stomping! Fred Johnson, father of seven from down the road, played the banjo, and other area musicians of all kinds joined in each week. There was always a huge can filled with ice and beers, and a big old punchbowl whose contents changed colors constantly as partygoers arrived with their different contributions to that punch (it was said to be “dangerous”).
Above all Dad was a “Rennaissance Man” who could do it all, but more than anything he was the greatest family man I’ve ever known. He and Mom had a devoted love affair; they adored each other and provided the best role models for the parents we became.
During the day besides working for the Alaska Railroad, Dad ran a trailer court, then motels built near Merrill Field where we’d had the cabin. He also kept a little workshop where he worked on TVs, radios, small appliances. He could do anything (one time Mom complained about carrying loads of laundry to the basement and he disappeared – cut a hole in the closet floor and built a chute so the dirty laundry landed on a basket on the washer in the basement).
In our first real “house” in Alaska our pipes would often freeze; he cut a hole in the closet floor and would stick my hair dryer under the house. In ten minutes we had running water. I made the mistake when I married of not “vetting” my South Carolinan husband, believing that all men were that handy; I learned quickly that quality belongs more often to the kind of men attracted to living in a place such as Alaska.
Dad loved to “prank” too, had a wild sense of Irish humor – his best friend was Jack Riggs who worked nights with him at the Alaska Railroad car barn near Ship Creek. They constantly tried to “one-up” each other in imaginative pranks. One time Jack cut the back off of Dad’s locker and wrote in red paint the words “This belongs to Dirty Dunne” on all his tools, then welded the back of the locker on. Dad could not figure out how Jack got into his locker but was determined to get back at him, so he got a huge rock and sent it COD to Jack with no return address. At work at night for a week Jack would ponder what the package at the post office could possibly be, until his curiosity got the better of him and he finally paid the huge COD charges to open it, finding a painted message of “Gotcha” and a smile. Happily, Jack and Fran lived three doors away when they all retired to Arizona to Denali Park Estates with lots of other retired Alaskans, having remained best friends for over 50 years.
Several years after we lost Mom in 1987, Dad decided he wanted to drive the Alcan one last time. My sister who lived in Eagle River, was horrified; I was living in Europe and though concerned, thought that he should do whatever he wanted to do. To ease our minds, though, he called to let us know that he’d decided we’d feel better about it if he traveled with someone and we sure did, till my sister found out he was taking Jack, who by then lived on an oxygen tank and was terminally ill. It took them weeks as they slowly made their way up the Alcan, enjoying every minute. Jack died shortly after and I know Dad was forever glad they’d made the trip. Life is about making memories and my Dad was great at it.
During the day when I was a kid Dad ran a trailer court and later motels they built near Merrill Field. Dad hunted, he fished, he hiked, he “rock hounded” and he camped. Dad was in his glory living in Alaska. Dad lived in the Pioneer Home in Anchorage for his last several years swapping stories of their many hunting and fishing experiences with like-minded folks. I miss him.
My best friend’s Dad was a German who was in the Merchant Marine when he met his Inuit wife in Teller, Alaska. He was a stern man who I never heard speak in the first years of my friendship with his daughter. He scared me; he would come to the table for dinner, eat and leave without saying a word. He was an electrical engineer who put the wiring into many of the bigger buildings in Anchorage.
One day when we were 13 and had just spent our weekly allowance at Dorn’s Music Den on 4th Avenue buying “The Wayward Wind” by Gogi Grant, we were spread out on the living room floor listening to the record on her new “hi-fi”. Her Dad walked through the living room and we heard him mutter “at least that’s better than the asinine stuff you’re usually listening to“. In shock, we ran for the dictionary, eager to look up the word “asinine” which we then fervently sought to put into every sentence we spoke for the next year.
As the years went by I worked hard to earn some comment from him on almost any subject, and I was finally rewarded when I was married and working in the State Courthouse by the brand new Captain Cook Hotel when he came over to get me to take me through the hotel and show off all the fancy electrical wiring. As he grew older he became more vocal until finally we came to look on him as a big old teddy bear.
My Uncle Tom was also one of those Alaskan men who belonged to that unique group. He’d gone up in the 40s too, and built the trailer court that my folks eventually ran. He coveted those old WWII planes that were left to rot at the side of Merrill Field. We played in those planes as children, with their broken windows, shredded seats and the fabric hanging from the wings and blowing in the wind.
Uncle Tom decided he could fix one and make it flyable. Didn’t matter that he didn’t know how to fly. One day we looked out and saw one of those old decrepit planes sitting in front of his cabin, where he tinkered, and tinkered for months till one day when he told Dad “she’s ready to fly” and got in with my scared Dad screaming at him to get out. He took off and as I remember it he actually got it a few feet in the air before it crashed.
After that, Dad breathed a sigh of relief and I remember him telling Mom “well, at least he won’t try that again”, but sure enough, eventually there was another relic out there and Uncle Tom did get it to fly. He learned to fly and took many people on hunting trips around Alaska thereafter. He and Dad had their most memorable experience hunting Dahl Sheep in that plane, trudging up and down mountains with tin cans tied to their ankles to chase away bears and they spent hours hunting for lost planes with the Civil Air Patrol.
There was also Mr. Garlow, my supervisor and mentor when I went to work for the Alaska State Police. He’d been a teacher in the Aleutian Chain when his wife, also a teacher, died in an accident. He spent many years devoted to the Alaska State Police and before I was 25 he taught me pretty much everything I knew about the world of Alaskan politics, geography, resources and the world of Alaskan criminals and attorneys.
Many of the troopers I worked with were heroes to me, working all over Alaska in the most extreme conditions and sometimes very bizarre circumstances.
I wonder if the unique men of all these talents were the men who originally gravitated to Alaska or if their abilities have evolved into the DNA of the generations since who elected to stay in Alaska!Great thought to ponder; will ask friends.
When I was living in Japan a friend used to send me copies of a magazine called “Alaskan Men”. I don’t know what happened to it but I can truly understand why there’d be a magazine devoted to them! I live in a world of “golfers” now, and just realized writing this that I miss those Alaskan men! If you’re lucky enough to have one, thank him and bless him and give him a big hug from a little old Alaskan lady who lives far, far away.
About Kathleen Dunne Wilson
Kathleen Dunne Wilson grew up in Anchorage in that special era of the 50’s. She graduated from AHS before working for the Alaska State Police for six years. She left Alaska for a career in social services and administration of family programs for military families living overseas in Europe and Asia. Her dad Don Dunne retired from the Alaska Railroad and her mom Mary was a homemaker and manager of a trailer court and motels started by her Uncle Tom Dunne. Now a widow, Kathleen lives near her kids in The Villages, Florida, busy with charities, substitute teaching at The Villages Charter School, and writing memories for growingupanchorage.com.