Update…

Having been in communication with the team lead back east I have learned a bit more about the situation on Ellis Island. The grounds and building sustained heavy damage from the storm. It took about three weeks to get the miscellaneous debris cleared away sufficiently to establish a secure working environment for a more detailed damage assessment. First rule of emergency response is not not make the situation worse by adding yourself to the casualties. So, once crews could get into the building it was discovered that sea water had indeed flooded the lower levels. Not only was the building severely compromised (as were the collections), the bigger issue at the moment is that the power systems were destroyed. Thankfully they did not react like the power station that was featured in that NOVA special I mentioned…the one that completely exploded and set a neighborhood ablaze.

Having determined that the situation was stable and once the building was cleared for response work, the museum crews came in. I do not have good information on the level of damage sustained, but what I do know is that the collections have been stabilized and are being prepped for transfer. The issue then, at this point, is not that the collections are in imminent further danger, but rather that they simply cannot safely stay where they are. Thankfully the rush is off, but alas they no longer need my assistance.

The issue as it stands now is that the structure itself needs major rehabilitation and that is not a good environment for collections to be in. So they will be transferred to another location. I have no doubt many will still need specialized treatment but it seems that it is less of an immediate threat than the simple facts of where they are now. The problem at this point is that, as mentioned, there is no power in the building so the collections will have to be moved manually unless they can get some sort of portable machinery in there. While moving a museum collection does require care, at this point supervision will be the most important element and they currently have sufficient resources to accomplish that so long as they get an ample supply of strong backs.

So, while I do not get the privilege  to assist this time, my name is still on the list and given the widespread nature of the damage I will not be surprised to get another call. That said, this does not let you off the hook. You still have to make an effort to gain a greater appreciation of your local (or any) history…and preferably share that will with others.

Come to think of it you can start right now by following this link…

http://www.nps.gov/gaar/historyculture/index.htm

While I try to not let my day job bleed over into this arena I will let that slide for the moment so that you folks can get an immediate bit of culture and get a sense of what an NPS museum curator in Fairbanks Alaska does for a living. However, I would still encourage you to get involved locally, wherever you may be. Most likely, your local museum or historical society would love to have a volunteer, whether you have any particular expertise or not. If nothing else visit them and tell the staff how much you appreciate what they do…you can even do that online.

So I will stand down off of my soap box for now…but not for good. Perhaps the subject may even warrant a new category for this blog….just to keep things in order you understand.

 

“After the Ordeal.”

The other night my girlfriend and I watched a NOVA special on “Superstorm Sandy.” It was engaging and informative, with great visuals and some relatively interesting information. That said, I must add that it was a bit cheesy and I commented on that at the time, but was kindly reminded that they did -in point of fact- put the show together in a rather speedy timeframe. So, all that aside, the amount of damage inflicted by the sheer brute force of this “super-sized” storm and the side effects caused by an incredible deluge of salt water was astounding to see. The idea of picking up the pieces, clearing away the debris, and trying to move on with life is a sobering reality. Especially considering that winter is settling in.

Now, given that introduction, this commentary –should it go that way- might take any number of different approaches; debating the “reality” of climate change, discussing the adversity faced by the people affected as they try to put life back together, or even a comparison of the magnitude and ultimate resulting chaos of this and many other recent natural disasters around the globe of late. However, I will leave those more obvious approaches to the professionals…or at least to those more informed than I regarding such topics. No, I will instead approach this thing sideways. I will bring up a subject that is rarely considered in the modern media when reporting on such events. Now, as a disclaimer that last statement is meant to address only the plain facts of the situation, not as any sort of judgment.

This morning I got a phone call. There I was on the couch, in my jammies, barely through my first cup of coffee, sore and a bit strung out from a full and active day of curling yesterday. It was roughly 8am. In years past I was a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for the Talkeetna Volunteer Fire Department. I only bring that up because I know what it is like to be “on call”. I have worn the radio, slept with it next to my bed, and responded to it at all hours. My EMT license lapsed years ago, and while I have considered retaking the training, I have not found the time nor inspiration to do so. I am however currently certified in Wilderness First Aid, Light Search and Rescue, and Post Disaster Damage assessment. I am also an accomplished field archaeologist and more prominently of late, a museum curator.

So, you might be wondering where the hell I am going with all of this. It has to do with the phone call. You see I am still an emergency responder of sorts but these days I am a member of a different sort of team. I am still “on call” but it is on a completely different scale. Officially I am an active member of the National Park Service Alaska Region Cultural Resources Emergency Response team… (NPS AKR CRERT since the agency loves acronyms). We respond to situations where some form of cultural resource (think, archaeological site, historic building, museum or archive collection or facility, etc.) is in some way threatened. I responded to the BP oil spill to monitor clean-up efforts on East Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi where a sensitive prehistoric archaeological site was threatened.

Decorated ceramic fragment from East Ship Island.

I also responded to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau on the island of Hawaii to help mitigate effects of tsunami damage which affected the entire park following the 2010 Japan Earthquake/Tsunami event.

Historic wall displaced by Hawaiian tsunami.

The funny thing about disasters is that they are typically not preferential; all things are affected more or less equally. Now I realize that that is a blanket statement and maybe it would be better to say something like the forces of a disaster are not preferential and the effects are measured based on the ability of the objects thus affected to withstand those forces. Skyscrapers can more or less tolerate high winds and deep water…decades year old houses on the beach, well… not so much. But neither of those are my line these days. I specialize in museum collections. So consider what you might know (or not know… or never realized) about how museum collections are stored.

When you go to a museum, you typically pay some fee then wander about in the public spaces and admire the nicely displayed objects, hopefully learning something along the way. The reality however is that many, well nigh most, museums are comprised of FAR more than what meets the eye. Most –in point of fact- are actually repositories of some sort as well. This means that what the visitor sees is generally just a fraction of the whole collection that is cared for by the institution. So, where are the rest of the collections you might ask? Well, sometimes they are off site…take the Smithsonian for example. You can go to the National Mall in D.C. and wander the exhibits, which are impressive of course… and they certainly have some additional storage spaces in those buildings, but the bulk of the collections are stored in a special facility (facilities) in Suitland, Maryland. Most museums are not so fortunate or well funded and will often resort to storing everything the same way the rest of us do…wherever it will fit…say, in the basement.

Last summer my Father and step-Mother visited New York. They went to Ellis Island for the first time. I have never been. They were able to look up her family name and see the entries on the original registers and ship manifests from when her people first came to this country. It had a profound effect on them, especially my step-Mother. The entire experience did. They were very impressed with the whole presentation; the maintenance and care exhibited by the Park Service in preserving and presenting the details of a major element of history for an incredible cross section of the American population.

So, think for a moment about Ellis Island. Now think about Superstorm Sandy.

This morning I got a phone call. I more or less expected such a call at some point. I have been waiting for it since the storm first hit. That is what I meant earlier about scale. As an EMT you get the call when an incident has occurred. Then you respond…more or less immediately. You change out of your jammies and put the coffee in a to-go cup, grab your gear and roll. In this case it is weeks later before I got the official call; but the reaction is similar. I fly on Wednesday. The museum collections from Ellis Island need to be evacuated…transferred to a special -likely impromptu- facility for treatment. You see that is the thing about history, it has to be managed. It has to be cared for and responded to by specialists in order to preserve it for the future and these days that is what I do.

You might ask why some joe from Fairbanks Alaska is needed to fly nearly entirely across the continent to help out. Actually that is a really good question since we all know that there are many, many museum professionals between here and there. Well, there are two reasons. One; not all museum professionals are part of such a team and thus are not officially “assets” or “resources” that can be literally “ordered” when needed, within the national Incident Command System. Two; I will report for duty one month from the day Sandy made landfall. If they are calling me now that means that the system has exhausted the immediate supply of appropriate resources between here and there. Consider the scale… the implications of this. We have all heard about the effect the storm had on life, infrastructure, business, etc. We have not heard about the effect on cultural resources. The scale of this thing is so huge that a month later they are calling on specialists from THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CONTINENT to come help save our nation’s history!

So, with that in mind I will go to Ellis Island. I will pack and move boxes in the hopes that some part of that history can still be saved. I will think about my step-Mother and her people…and so should you. The first chance you get (and I suggest you actively make that chance for yourself very soon) go to a museum. Go to an archive, or some local historic site, at the very least read a book. Learn about the past of your area. Talk to your grandparents. Ask questions. Do your part to learn about, understand, and preserve our history. For it is truly OUR history regardless of our immediate connection to it. History makes no judgments and regardless of what you may think about it now, you would miss it if it were gone.

“Might I have a word?”

What do you do when the words run out, when it would seem that there is nothing left to say? There are many situations when one might experience this phenomenon, and in many of them perhaps acceptance is the best approach. Say your piece, acknowledge the silence, turn and walk away. Other times, one might feel that there is nothing left to say but at the same time experience some nagging feeling that something –some extraneous thought perhaps- is still creeping around, waiting to be voiced. One might also consider the opposite, but seemingly related scenario, where one really has nothing to say but babbles on nonetheless.

I started this blog-thing with no particular purpose in mind. I missed writing in a creative fashion and decided to try my hand at it again; I never fancied that I was really any good it. Sure I rather liked some of the things I had written in the past and feel similarly about some of the things I have written here, but that is a far cry from claiming any sort of competence; but again, that is not what I was going for. I was not really “going for” anything. Just writing to get some of the thoughts out of my head I guess.

So now a week has passed since the last post. All quiet on the northern front. However, it is not so much that I have found myself with nothing left to say. I have started a few ramblings in that relatively brief period, but they were disjointed and more rambling than usual. I could not seem to get them off the ground. There are still plenty of thoughts swarming around in my head, but of late they have turned somewhat more…introspective? …personal? … intimate?… not sure of the best word here.

Winter has settled in. The temperatures do not tend to get much above zero, if they get above zero at all. The darkness closes in as we lose six-plus minutes of daylight each day. The steady march towards the winter solstice. It has been difficult for me to think about building. That is a very external enterprise and winter can cause one to turn inwards. But that is not it…not completely. I know what it is like to turn inwards and while I am more contemplative of late it is not the ponderous, heavy contemplation that winter can often bring. The weather is not so harsh that I am driven inward completely. In fact I have been on long walk/jogs with the dogface the past couple of days and it has been great; just not really worthy of writing about…but then what is? Why do we write? I agonized over this question once in one of my old journals. Seems a silly question now. Perhaps at times we have a preponderance of words. Who knows.

For a few months in the middle of the winter of 1997/98 I was living with my mom and her husband in Indiana. I had just returned from 6 months of screwing around overseas and was broke. I quickly found work at this wretched little “family” restaurant nearby run by this bastard of a man who liked to berate his underpaid, young, female wait staff in public. Treated his wife the same way…embezzled from his own operation to fund trips back home to Greece and then would blame his wife for stealing the money to cover his ass…in public. I hated that job but it was a necessary evil as I was trying to make enough money to get me a one way ticket back to Alaska. I had left the previous winter when the place I was working had to close due to a lack of business. I ended up in Death Valley first. Made some money, did some climbing, and met a girl. She was from South Africa and had recently graduated from college. She was on a work visa which was soon to run out. She was not anxious to return home.

The previous autumn, my sister and her boyfriend at the time had fled Anchorage for warmer climes. They landed in New Zealand. I thought to go find them and suggested to the girl that she meet me there. On a whim. It seemed like a good idea to me and she agreed. Three months later we were in Wellington, both on tourist visas that were soon to run out. We had tried to find work in an effort to stay longer, but it did not pan out. She suggested I change my return ticket and travel with her to her home outside of Johannesburg. On a whim I agreed. Three months later we were living in her parents’ home. I had tried to find work and it could have panned out but the whole business was sort of awkward, I was getting homesick for Talkeetna. She bought me a ticket back to Indiana and I never saw her again. We talked for awhile, but things fell apart and then we did not talk any more. Sometimes there is nothing left to say.

So I endure the terrible bastard and his shitty restaurant. I buy another plane ticket and convince a friend to fetch me at the airport in Anchorage that I may return to Talkeetna. In winter… still with very little money and few prospects. There will be work, but not until spring. Another friend recently bought some land which has a tiny cabin on it. He lets me stay there. It has no power and no water and I have no vehicle. It was a spartan life for a few months. I walked a lot. I ate little. Work did come with the spring, with the mountain climbers…back before Talkeetna changed into what it is today.

The work was the midnight baking job I have mentioned. I also got back into disk jockeying at the local radio station. I met the dogface and we became friends. I met a few other dog lovers and we became friends…of sorts. I spent a lot of time hiking and hanging around by the river taking photographs. I also wrote quite a bit. Winter rolled around again and I ended up in a play where I met a woman. We spent the next year or so together; the two of us, her son, my dog , her two dogs and two cats, in a cabin with no water and no power (at first) that her ex had built. It was a bit awkward. Things did not work out and I fled. We stayed in touch and I did return. She had moved to another cabin in another town while I was away. She drove to meet me in Canada as I was en route from points further south. We returned to find her rented cabin a smoldering ruin…burned to the ground. There was no insurance and no investigation and so no explanation.

Sometimes there are no words.

We moved to Fairbanks and bought a cabin. Her and I, her son, my dog and her two dogs…the cats died in the fire.  She enrolled in school and I tried to find work. We forced the issue for a couple of years and then returned to Talkeetna. Things were awkward and eventually I fled…again.

Eventually I would return to the cabin in Fairbanks. I would go to school. We would try again and finally let it go. We are still friends, although we do not talk that much anymore. Sometimes there is not much to say. In that time I got a job in my field; a summer job. There was a field romance that sort of tried to develop but never really worked out. Then I graduated and tried to settle down. I met someone else and it worked for awhile, in fact I thought it was working out OK. But then there were too few words and then there were too many and that too was over. Sometimes words can be really nasty.

I guess what I am getting at is that sometimes there are no words. Sometimes you do not know what words to use or how to use them. Sometimes you use the wrong words or say the right ones all wrong. Sometimes it can make you want to stop trying all together…with the words thing. But then for some reason you decide to try again. You try to find the right words, or sometimes just say what seems right. Sometimes you do not have to try; the words just manifest. Sometimes you know the words but are too damn afraid to say them. Sometimes the words are best written.

So here I am writing all of these words and knowing that they may lead to more…one way or another. Writing to you about me and wondering if I am of the babbling sort at this point…the one using too many words.

Anyways, there you have it. Just over 1500 words…for no damn reason.