For a long time I've been an Alaskan in exile, spending only a portion of each year (the sunny part) in the homeland. As a result, I am the only Alaskan that most of my friends know. So, when Sarah Palin was picked as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, the e-mail poured in. "Not all Alaskan families are as weird as the Palins, right?" wrote a friend from California.
"Let me assure you," I wrote back. "They are all freaks."
I then described, at some length, the neighborhood I grew up in. There were my parents, superorthodox Catholics, complete with backyard statuary. Across the street, an Air Force officer and family. Next-door to them, a gay couple. Not just gay, but extra-flaming, mow-the-front-lawn-in-a-nightshirt-and-nothing-else kind of gay, walk-into-a-bar-yelling, "A beer for the queer!" kind of gay (in Alaska, in the 1960s!). My parents kept an extra set of house keys for "T-Bird Tommy," as the more flamboyant partner was known, so that when he came home drunk and couldn't find his keys, he would have a nearby spare.
Next-door to Tommy was my best friend. His father, a fun guy much of the time, once hit him with a belt in front of the whole neighborhood because he had "allowed" his 4-year-old little brother to piss in the front yard. His mother was a nurse. She was once wheeling Tommy into the operating room to have some kind of procedure, and he said to the surgeon, in his tremendously raspy lisp, "Doctor, if my heart stops while I'm under, just put a cock in my mouth, and I'll come to immediately."
Down the street from me was a family of redheads, like, eight of them. To say the house was dirty is like saying the abandoned space station in Aliens was dirty. It was covered in scum, like someone had left rotten bananas on every surface. The oldest boy, a teenager, had an eerily overfriendly manner about him and used to dress in combat fatigues and invite people to go out into the woods to "play war games." Also on the street was a sort of commune. I never really figured it out, but there were women, children, and farm animals but no men. Some suggested the men were at a farm in a nearby town. My sister claims she visited the farm once and saw no men but otherwise reported nothing too unusual—but remember, my sister is a lesbian.
Later they all moved to Israel and lived on a kibbutz, which I never quite understood, since these people were obviously some kind of Christian evangelicals (or so I thought). But then I recalled that when they returned a few years later (I was about 10), my brother and I asked one of the kids what it was like to live in Israel, which might as well have been the moon to us. The kid said it was more or less good, but that learning Hebrew had been a real drag. Hebrew? A real kibbutz? Who were these people, Jews for Jesus?
The miracle of my childhood—what still casts a sunny light on my social memories of Alaska in the '70s—is that we all got along so well. Not just coexisted, but actually had relationships with one another: We played together, shared garden produce and salmon, pushed one another's cars out of the snow, and, in that pre-cable era, found each other's idiosyncrasies entertaining rather than infuriating.
The great thing about living among freaks is that you have to do something really special to be shunned. By contrast, when I went off to an Ivy League university, my chance at social advancement was snuffed out in the dining hall in the first week of school when I unceremoniously consumed a small bowl of lettuce with my hands.
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