“Talkeetna Town” is an excerpt from Kris Drumm’s as-yet unpublished memoir “Open to Entry, An Alaskan Adventure”, her experiences as a woman homesteading north of Talkeetna in the 1970’s. The story is read by Sandra Loomis. Kris currently lives on Long Island with her son Judah Mahay and his wife Lorien in order to help raise their son Cedric.
(Originally aired October 2014)
What a beautiful fall, from bright yellow leaves on birch trees, red and orange underbrush carpeting the forest, we woke to drifting snow out the window. Autumn is here and gone in a mere two weeks.
Walking along the Alaska railroad that followed the Susitna River, snowflakes twirled around us in the slight morning breeze. At fifteen degrees, we kept a good pace to stave off the chill while heading into town for supplies and mail.
Two ravens, played on the wind currents flowing over the river, calling to each other in raucous voices, dipping and diving. The joy in their interaction together made me glad they stay the winter. A good omen as the raven is my main Totem.
Chickadees called to us from the bushes nearby. The black-capped white bibbed fellows darted in, out and around. I threw bread crumbs from my peanut butter and jelly sandwich as I ate. The little ones nearby let their friends know food was here with a sweet Chick-a-Dee-Dee-Dee.
“Where do you want to spend the night, Kris?” Steve asked.
“I’ve been mulling that over for a while.”
“Well, we only have three options. The Fairview, The Roadhouse or the Talkeetna Motel.”
“I know, I know. We stayed at the Talkeetna Motel our last trip to town. I am not excited about sleeping there again. Remember how we saw our breath because of the cold room, and it had a weird feel. Neither one of us slept well.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Steve said. “Let’s check out the Fairview first. We’ll have a beer before we decide.”
The Fairview’s rooms are nice, the beds clean, the bathroom shared, but that didn’t bother us much, just the fact of /indoor plumbing and a real bathtub was a big plus. The one drawback and it was a big one, the rooms were directly over the bar and the ceiling was thin. Depending on the crowd it could get quite loud and boisterous, not very indicative to a quiet sleeping environment.
The entire atmosphere made you feel like you had stepped back into the 1800s Wild West as you sidled up and sat down on the old wooden barstool to order a drink.
As we walked in the barmaid Babe Barnes looked me square in the eye. “Ya gotta hand over your firearm before I serve ya.”
I carried my 45 Long Colt pistol and Steve his 44. We unstrapped our holtsters and slid the side-arms over to her waiting hands.
“I’ll give um back when you leave town tomorrow.” She said, asking , “What’ll ya have, the usual?
“Sounds good Babe. “ Steve answered.
No broaching the subject of getting your gun back anytime soon. Babe ran a clean place and meant to keep it that way. She only asked for our ID’s the first time we came in. Thereafter, she always knew our names and favorite drinks.
We decided to spend the night at the Roadhouse knowing we wouldn’t get much rest on a Friday night at the Fairview.
After a shower down the hall; shared baths, of course, and a good night’s sleep, we would ready to pick up our supplies for the train ride home at noon.
Owned and operated by Carol and Verna Close the Roadhouse became a town legend. For the morning entertainment value it was priceless. I woke up to the usual banging and banter around 5:00 am with Carol hollering as he stoked the wood cook stove.
“Verna, I heard you snoring when I got up at 4:30.”
“Oh ……No!” Verna replied, stamping her boot. She was a formidable wiry lady at barely five feet tall.
“You heard yourself snoring when I got dressed at 4:00!”
The conversation became as heated as the old wood cook stove warming up for the breakfast crowd eager and hungry for real home cooked food.
The Standard was my favorite; whole wheat bread baked in the wood fired oven, cut a good inch thick, real butter, and homemade jam. Along with toast four slices of pepper bacon, and a generous portion of fried potatoes mixed with bell peppers and onions. The eggs were scrambled; no matter how you asked for them, over easy, sunny side up, or hard boiled, they were scrambled. I knew better than to ask for my eggs any other way.
Sitting down at the room long table Verna called from the kitchen, “What’ll you have this morning folks?”
“We’ll have two Standard’s with eggs over easy.” I replied.
“ Eggs, yup scrambled.” She hollered back at me.
There are times when you can’t help yourself. I knew they only came one way.
We topped it all off with a glass of orange juice and plenty of coffee; a substantial meal. If you ordered their biscuits and sausage gravy it filled the entire plate, plus more gravy on the side. You never went away from the Roadhouse hungry.
As we ate our meal we laid out the plans for the morning.
“I‘ll pick up the supplies we ordered last night. Are you up to the challenge with Mr. Kunckle at the Post Office Kris?” Steve asked.
“I guess so, but as you know it could take me a while.”
Just talking about the Post Office we both started to laugh. The postmaster, a rather grumpy old fellow made getting mail an adventure in patience. We knew it to be a long drawn out process, all, according to Mr. Knuckle’s timing. Individual boxes were nonexistent; the entire community still received everything general delivery. The mail, separated in alphabetical bins against the back wall, still needed to be sorted when anyone asked for their letters. A large wooden container jammed in the back corner contained packages overflowing waiting for pickup.
The Post Office itself was situated on the right side of the B&K Trading Post in a five by ten cubby hole just large enough for three people to stand inside. Lining up at the minuscule counter waiting for the Postmaster to acknowledge you, time came to a standstill.
Mr. Kunckle, plodding around, noticed me standing in front of him. Staring over his wire rimmed glasses “Yes, what, do you want?”
This was the tricky part; you only requested one item at a time. Inpatient I rambled off, “ I want my mail, three stamps and my neighbor Tom Harvey’s mail”
This met with a stony glare and a harrumph. Pinching my thigh I kept myself from giggling. The tattered clock on the wall ticked ominously in the background.
“One…thing…at… a…. Time.” He said, appearing as if he measured the distance between each word.
“I‘m sorry Mr. Kunckle, my name is Kristine Mahay, “
“Yes?” he interrupted.
‘May I please have mail for myself and my husband Steve Mahay?”
Lumbering to the M bin he leafed through the letters one at a time. Shuffling toward me holding a bundle of envelopes, “Here you are Mrs. Mahay.”
“Thank you. May I please buy three first class stamps?”
Mr. Kunckle opening a drawer in the back of the counter pulled out a sheet of stamps. Slapping them down, shoving the drawer closed, he asked, “How many do you want? “
“Three.” I answered in a quiet quiver.
One at a time the stamps were separated from the sheet and handed over to me. Every eight cent stamp he added separately with a ka-chink at each entry on the antique copper plated cash register.
“That will be twenty four cents.” Mr. Kuncklkkle glared over his wire rimmed glasses.
I handed him a quarter.
“Twenty four for the stamps and one cent change is twenty five.” Giving me a penny he closed the cash register with a bang that shook the counter. The stamp drawer flewh opened as if by magic as the sheet of stamps fluttered in. He stood there looking at me.
I gulped,” Tom Harvey’s mail please?” The process repeated and five minutes later I had my neighbor’s bundle of mail in my hand. Scooting around the other not-so-patient folks waiting their turn I lunged out the door before Mr. Kunckle changed his mind.
For some reason none of us could fathom, he despised Tom Harvey. If Tom asked for his mail, Mr. Kunckle never met his eyes, invariably lifted his nose and snorted, “No mail for Harvey here.”
Steve and I thought it was downright funny, though Tom didn’t think so. The only day he could ask for his mail and get it was on Saturday when Verna Thompson worked.
A few years after Mr. Kunckle passed, they built a new Post Office to better fit the needs of the growing metropolis of Talkeetna; now up to 500 year round residents. When the move took place during the cleaning out the old office, more than a few missing letters turned up. A myriad of small spaces and cubby holes had become convenient hiding places for the mail of the miscreants that Postmaster Emery Kunckle refused to acknowledge. I overheard one lady comment how she knew she had sent that wedding invitation to Mrs. Jones. When a crack in the wall revealed a crumpled fancy envelope she finally got her answer. Another miscreant rises to the surface.
Walking into the B&K Trading Post Adele, the proprietor greeted me with a hearty hello. She always made you feel at home, glad to see another face coming into her store, and remembered your name and what you ordered.
While Steve packed up the groceries, I checked the bundle of letters I retrieved from Emery Kunckle’s domain.
Alaska, nearly five thousand miles away from our childhood homes in New York felt at times a different world, on another planet. We phoned home once a month from a payphone outside on the porch of the B&K.
Dad’s first question was always, “How much do you weigh?” For some reason he thought Steve, starved me. If dad had seen me then it would have been confirmed. Growing up, my average weight was 120 lbs. That first winter my weight dropped to just under 100 lbs.
Letters from home made me feel part of my family and gave me a sense of still belonging to one. Mom wrote about happenings on the farm, and gave the latest exploits of my young nieces and nephews.
The letters from my Granma Durfee, were a special treat to behold. She rambled on about whatever, cleaning house, gardening, cooking, but the fun part; she never used any punctuation. The entire two page letter became one long sentence, not a comma or period, no breaks through the entire missive. I was out of breath trying to read it without a pause.
Granma’s native language is German, and I always wondered if she never quite understood how to write in English.
After carrying our supplies to the train depot, we made a last stop before leaving town. Babe wished us well handing over our pistols at the Fairview Inn. The train whistled its arrival as we ran to the tracks to board. The six weeks until Thanksgiving seemed a long time before the next trip back to town. Watching the houses disappear across the Talkeetna River Bridge, sadness overtook me. I already missed the hustle-bustle of the village, the chitter-chatter of folks known and unknown. I wasn’t sure I was ready for the solitude of winter facing us. Lazy snowflakes floating down on the breeze disagreed; whispering it will be a peaceful period, a time to quiet your soul from the turmoil and hard work of building your home in the wilderness.
Talkeetna Town, by Kris Drumm