The story of my long love affair with Alaska and the heartbreak that ended it is easy to retrace. For 23 years I chronicled my every turn in the pages of newspapers, in public, for everyone to see.
I explored those pages again recently while researching a book about those years and the Alaska Newspaper War that occupied me through most of them. Hindsight naturally brought clarity I didn't enjoy at the time and — most importantly — perspective. What first saw light as isolated, individual articles and observations revealed a clear pattern when viewed from the ridge line looking back.
Almost all those writings were composed in haste, written on deadline and left to drift away uncollected, but I see now that they were more than fragments. Each small piece was a tile in a larger mosaic that now comes into view.
My memoir itself doesn’t tell that story plainly. Write Hard, Die Free is mainly the tale of a quest for good journalism against imposing odds and as such looks at Alaska through a particular lens. It deals mostly with what I called “dispatches from the barrooms and battlefields” of the newspaper war, naturally a more institutional than personal view.
Now I find that I have something more to offer, thanks to the perspective of time and distance. Though I rarely recognized it as these events unfolded I now see a consistent theme woven through the narrative.
It’s a love story.
I was born in love with Alaska, a frontier baby born to an idealistic young couple working to build a new life far away from the Great Depression, from Texas, and from World War II. Their fortunes would ebb and flow over time — often ebbing, it is true — but their fundamental optimism and affection for Alaska never faltered. I drank in their ideals and affection with my mother’s milk, I suppose. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t share them.
Not long after he returned from war in the South Pacific to the dry land cotton fields of north Texas, my father and his young wife loaded a few belongings in a GMC pickup and drove north toward their future.
Like many in their generation they had been shaped by depression and war, toughened by a lifetime scratching at the cotton crops they hoed by walking through dusty fields and harvested by hand-picking bolls by the sackful. Despite that — or perhaps because of it, I suppose — they were idealists, optimists not content with waiting for a better world but ready to start building it for themselves.
They were not afraid when they pointed the navy blue pickup truck northward, drove to the end of the road and found a town called Anchorage, Alaska.
Though its population had boomed with wartime expansion and the opening of the Alaska-Canada Highway, Anchorage was then a small town nonetheless, isolated and remote. As I heard them say a thousand times over the years, to them it seemed the Promised Land.
My father had no trouble translating the lessons learned in his hardscrabble Texas childhood to his adult concerns in Alaska.
In arguments about the Vietnam War, which he opposed, I often heard him say, “This is a war between the landlords and the tenants, and we’re on the wrong side.” Later I heard him talking with a neighbor who cautioned that a trifling tax the state was then proposing on oil production would “drive the oil companies out of Alaska.” As I recall my father snorted in reply: “The goddamned Alaska National Guard couldn’t run them out of here now.”
My father, a carpenter, smelled like sweat and cigarette smoke; my mother worked as a bookkeeper at a lumber yard and smelled of Evening in Paris. As it turned out, their aspirations and expectations were rather different, but they were united in their desire to create a better, fairer society for the sons they expected to prosper as they never did. Their ambition did not come to pass in their lifetimes, but lives in me to this day.
No doubt I had been an integral part of my parents’ footloose aspirations — a chubby blond first-born baby carried from Providence Hospital in 1950 to the young couple's unfinished Muldoon homesite. On that cold but snowless October day their hopes and expectations were still high. I spent most of a lifetime in Alaska fighting to advance the dream they had chased northward.
“We spend most of our adulthoods trying to grasp the meanings of our parents’ lives,” Philip Lopate once said. “How we shape and answer those questions largely turns us into who we are.”
Howard Weaver was born in Anchorage, attended public schools there and worked in Alaska until he was 45. He tried construction, dishwashing and commercial fishing before settling into his lifetime work as a journalist. He worked at the Anchorage Daily News from 1967 – 1995, including 12 years as the editor, and worked on both the paper’s Pulitzer Prize series. He details his time in the Alaska Newspaper War in the memoir Write Hard, Die Free.
This excerpt is from an essay that comprises the essence of a work in progress that seeks to understand changes in Alaska culture and character from the pioneering days of his birth until the oil-financed society of today. His conclusions are his opinion, but the facts are accurate and the events described here happened. To read the rest of the essay, download a free copy of the Alaska Sampler 2014.
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