Friday, February 5, 2010

Alaska 'Cicely' and Bethel

After spending over five years as a Public Defender in Bethel, Alaska, a town of about 8,000 that is 399 miles west of Anchorage, one question I've heard many, many times, is does life in Alaska bear any resemblence to the fictious town of Cicely, Alaska, depicted on the television show "Northern Exposure".

One huge difference is that 'Cicely' is set in a heavily forested part of Alaska, while Bethel is in tundra country. There's a popular inside joke in Bethel: "Around here there's a beautiful woman behind every tree." (There *aren't* any trees in tundra country.) In bush Alaska, the ratio of men to women is higher than in any other part of the United States. This gives rise to the saying amongst the womenfolk: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."

Ironically enough, there were several very striking resemblences between Bethel and 'Cicely'. In Cicely, the actor John Corbett played the local disc jockey; in Bethel, there were only two radio stations (Anchorage stations are WAY out of range). One was a evangelical station, while the other was a very eclectic outfit- and all anyone had to do to get into show business was go down to the station and volunteer to work a four-hour shift.

In Cicely, Rob Morrow played Dr. Joel Fleishmann, a recent medical school grad from New York, who is hired to provide medical care for the town for a few years to pay off his student loans. Add the fact that Dr. Fleishmann is Jewish and the result is some very good "fish out of water" humor. Bethel is the location of the biggest hospital west of Anchorage and a great many of the doctors are paying off their student loans.

Once, the Bethel High School had a competition to see who could make the best speech in Yup'ik, the local Indian language. And the winner was....a kid named Solomon Krivens, a Jewish kid whose father was one of the senior doctors at the hospital. (A note to my Jewish friends: not all sterotypes are negative, and not all sterotypes are inaccurate.)

In Cicely, Janine Turner played a bush pilot. I never met a female bush pilot, but I did once fly to a small village (got to see the Yukon River from the air) That experience gave me a whole new understanding of the term "white knuckle flying". Nothing like flying a thousand feet about the tundra at a bit over a hundred miles an hour, feeling the winds shake the plane *constantly*. Until quite recently, Alaska state law (AS 02.35.110) *required* that in addition to standard survival gear- food, fire starting gear, sleeping bags-every bush flight had to carry a firearm- in case you crash, and a hungry bear shows up. While it is no longer state law, bush flights still carry firearms, and as far as I can determine, in over 50 years of Alaskan statehood, there has *never* been a mishap involving a bush flight firearm. (If there ever had been, no doubt the bastards at the New York Times would put it on the front page every day for six weeks! The New York Times just *loves* to tell Alaskans how they should run their state, which is why their writers would be very well advised to never set foot in bush Alaska.)

In 'Cicely', the town's leading citizen and head honcho, was a sixty-ish retired Marine fighter pilot and astronaut named Maurice Minnifield (played by Barry Corbin- a real life former Marine) In Bethel, we had a sixty-ish retired Marine Sergeant Major named Joel Bowles. To say that he was a colorful character would be quite an understatement. After 30 years with Uncle Sam's Misguided Children, he'd done quite well as a businessman, and had a fishing boat called the "Semper Fi". I once told him that he reminded him that he reminded me of Barry Corbin's character, and that was the *only* time I ever saw Sgt. Major Bowles at a loss for words.

Several years ago, a guy in Bethel recorded enough songs about local life to make an album. The title track was "Paris on the Kuskokwim", which was absolutely halarious. I just checked youtube-there isn't a clip containing "Paris on the Kuskokwim", but there are several clips about the Kuskokwim River.

Every year, in January, Bethel hosts the Kuskokwim 300 sled-dog race. Several thousand people get on the ice (including me- the *only* day of the year that I'd be out there) to watch the race start. I once heard Bill Maher make a snarky comment (*everything* he says is snarky) to the effect that if you hit dogs they will run. That comment would have made me lose all respect for Bill Maher- if I had ever had the slightest shred of respect for him to begin with. Hitting dogs simply is *not* done. *E*V*E*R*. Those dogs run because they love to run. I've seen the starts of *five* K300s and the dog teams are always jumping up and down, eager to get started. (a dozen teams of eleven dogs each- there's a whole lot of barking going on).

In Cicely, there's just one General Store. In Bethel, we had got three large grocery/general stores. One way you can be sure that you're in bush Alaska is that the first store items they put antitheft devices on are the bottles of mouthwash. I don't drink alcohol at all; I really can't imagine getting drunk on mouthwash. In the United States as a whole, Prohibition lasted 1919-1933; it is still in force in a great many Alaska bush towns, it is still in force. It makes quite a bit of sense too- there is a horrendous problem among the Yup'ik people with alcohol abuse. (By Yup'ik standards, you're not *really* drunk until your BAC is above .25)

One aspect of Alaskan bush life that the writers of "Northern Exposure" completely missed was the residual Russian influence- Alaska was a Russian possession until 143 years ago. Some of the most common names amongst Yup'iks are Ivan, Evan, Sergie, and Vassily, and Wassily. I once got on the phone to a client named Wassily Sergie to inform him that I had a great offer from the DA's office on his drunk driving charge. It was not until the next day that I learned I'd been mistaken. The DA's offer had been for *Vassily* Sergie- also charged with drunk driving. The Yup'ik word for non-Yup'iks is "Gussack", a mispronunciation of "Cossack". And in Bethel, you're considerably closer to Russia than you are to Anchorage.

Bethel is one of 38 census areas in the US where English is not the majority language and one of *three* where the majority language is neither English nor Spanish. Over 60% of the population speak Yup'ik at home.

To be continued...

No comments: