Thursday, March 14, 2013

Via Mukluk Telegraph

I grew up in a land without telephones. If my mother needed help from one of her neighbors, she’d dash off a quick note and I'd deliver it. Otherwise news came face-to-face or over the radio.

Radios were our links to the world, the way laptops are now. Everybody had one and they were impressive pieces of furniture, often standing as tall as a night stand, encased in wood. The dials and tuner looked as though they could navigate a small plane, and often produced noises that sounded as though they came from outer space, high-pitched gurgling noises that came in a broken staccato. The internal workings were large glass tubes that appeared to contain liquid and I was certain that a tiny alchemist lived somewhere inside, working the magic that brought voices and music into our cabin.

It was unreliable magic. Sometimes it was impossible to get a broadcast from Anchorage but the BBC would come in loud and clear, with peals from Big Ben announcing the time. Or a voice would announce “This is Radio Moscow.” Occasionally voices from fishing boats crackled into our living room, once in a while speaking Japanese. But when all worked as it should, the reassuring and neighborly sounds of KFQD or KENI radio stations from Anchorage connected us to a more familiar world.

The announcers were cheery and personable. They gave their names and sometimes bantered with the crew on the air. When the more popular ones moved on, it was like losing a close friend—and that’s what the announcer had become. He was there over morning coffee; he was sometimes the last voice heard at night. Especially for people like my mother, who spent months in a cabin without her husband, or for the bachelors who lived alone, the radio and its announcers were lifelines.

There was a “woman’s” program which my mother mocked, there was a children’s program in the afternoon with recorded stories and songs that even my sisters and I realized were truly mediocre, there were serials like Back Street Wife and Lorenzo Jones, which my mother usually turned off. Briefly there was a live radio program called Uncle Jerry’s that interviewed children who visited the radio station. When I visited and said I had a dog named Nushnik, children who still spoke smatterings of Russian in villages once populated by Russian fur trappers were delighted and horrified that anybody would say a vulgar word for outhouse over the radio for all to hear.

At night, right around suppertime, a dead silence fell over our house while my parents listened to the world news. No child was allowed to make a sound while events were announced in our house for a length of time that always seemed interminable. But when that was over, even we would cluster next to the radio. It was time for Mukluk Telegraph.

This was a public service offered by radio station KENI and it was the most popular time slot in Alaska. Deaths, births, homecomings, requests were all broadcast in personal messages in our world without telephones.

We never knew what familiar names would drift out of the radio at that time of night. If it was someone in Anchor Point, we made sure that they had heard the message. Who knew? Perhaps their radio wasn’t working that evening.

Sometimes it was our own name that we heard, “Bill Rabich wants Jan and the girls to know that he’s coming home tomorrow at 7 pm on PNA.” “The family and friends of Bill and Jan Rabich will be happy to know that Jan had a little boy. Mother and baby are doing fine.”

Nome, Allakaket, Tatalina, Nenana—we were all neighbors, linked by Mukluk Telegraph. Not a baby was born, not a death occurred anywhere in Alaska without being announced on this program. In a territory that would soon become a state that dwarfed Texas, with a population that wouldn’t fill a small city anywhere else in the U.S., Mukluk Telegraph brought us all together, sitting near our radios at the same time every night to get the news that mattered most.

I still miss it. Facebook doesn’t even come close.

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