Matt Zencey

Alaska Notebooks

When I was at the Anchorage Daily News, I wrote more than 50 Alaska Notebooks — short, written snapshots of Alaska life and musings on the sometimes strange doings in the 49th state.

The dreaded call

The call I’d been dreading finally came Christmas Eve Day. My brother didn’t want to leave the news on my answering machine. But in a three hour period, he’d left four increasingly anxious messages to call him, so I knew what had happened. After 82 years, my dad’s body had finally quit on him. I had just seen him for a week in early December, and I knew his end was near.

The funeral would be Tuesday after Christmas, my brother said. Could I make it?

I spent the morning of Christmas Eve calling the airlines about bereavement fares. Despite the holiday crush, there was a seat for me. Despite the short notice, I did not have to raid my sons’ college accounts to pay for it.

A 2:30 a.m. redeye flight has reminded many an Alaskan why sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Even when the trip is for pleasure, knowing I will fly in the middle of the night brings me growing anxiety and dread as the evening gets later and later and I get more and more bleary. Heading to a funeral, knowing I’d have trouble sleeping in an aisle seat to Seattle, made it worse.

My son drove me to the airport just before midnight, with heavy snow falling. The storm probably would have closed most Lower 48 airports, but it was just another winter day at Anchorage International. I made it without incident to Washington D.C.

I drove to Delaware at dusk Monday. A huge ball of an orange moon rose in the ever-darker eastern sky as the temperature dropped to Anchorage levels.

The days that followed are a blur. I’m told that when it came my turn to speak at the funeral, I was able to do what I’d hoped – offer an honest, loving, sometimes humorous, sometimes sad, picture of life with a big-hearted, temperamental father.

After one last visit with my mom, I drove back to the D.C. airport on a balmy, sunny New Year’s Eve Day. A strong afternoon sun shone in my winter-weary eyes for a long portion of the drive and an almost summery haze hung over the landscape.

I put on the happiest CD I had brought along with me, a custom collection my sons had made me as a Father’s Day present. I played it twice to ward off the sadness and the welling tears as I headed home to my two sons.

Whistle Stop

I didn’t have to whistle to get the Alaska Railroad train to stop for me and my son. We were two of about 50 people who had spent the glorious, cloudless, almost-scorching summer day checking out the Spencer Glacier area of Chugach National Forest. Round about 4:45 p.m., the Alaska Railroad train, complete with elegant double-decker car, rolled to a stop at our rustic little depot in the wilderness. Known as Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, the recently built outpost is a civilized jumping-off point for a semi-wilderness experience nine miles from the nearest pavement.

My son and I had caught the train at Portage, lured by the railroad’s special two-for-one fare for Alaska residents.

We got off in a broad glacial valley, with classic muscular green Chugach Mountains rising on either side, still etched here and there with the white of last winter’s snow.

A hundred and twenty years ago, Spencer Glacier covered the valley floor almost to the railroad tracks. Now roughly three miles away, the glacier fuels a swift, broad conveyor belt of gray water, the Placer River, which empties into Turnagain Arm.

As a cooling glacial breeze blew down the valley, we walked up the gentle 1.3-mile gravel trail to the lake created by the melting glacier. We were delighted to discover mini-icebergs blown within easy reach on the shallow, muddy shore. My son held a sizable chunk of ice above his head in triumph, his bare feet turning to ice in the glacial water, while dad fiddled with the camera.

During my 29 years in Alaska, and many a wilderness outing, I’ve never had lunch in a more impressive spot. (No doubt, the 80-degree sunshine had something to do with my rave review.)

I was pleased to learn that the Forest Service and Alaska Railroad plan four more whistle stop depots in this valley south of Portage. A network of trails will connect the whistle stops, so hikers can roam the area well away from the railroad tracks.

Finishing the trail network could take as long as 20 years, due to the slow pace of funding, according to the forest ranger who led Sunday’s hike to the lake.

To which I say: 20 years is about 18 years too long for such a knockout of a project. It’s an eco-friendly way to open Alaska’s wilds to more people. As much as Alaskans fight about wilderness access proposals, this is one case where most everybody should be comfortable going full steam ahead.

T-ball, phew!

For about three hours a week, I get a taste of what it is like to be a kindergarten teacher, because I am a T-ball coach. And I have to say that it is exhausting. I don’t know how teachers do it six hours a day, 180 days a year.

After just an hour or so of managing 10 energetic 5- and 6-year-olds, I am drained — even though many parents pitch in to help. The kids are all enthusiastic and interested, but it is a challenge to channel their energy into something that resembles baseball.

Baseball requires significant hand-eye coordination and the ability to grasp abstract concepts — neither of which is well-developed at that young age.

Baseball is also a lot of standing around waiting for action. To the uninitiated, it can be b-o-r-i-n-g. Which is why soccer is so popular for kids at this young age. With soccer, kids swarm after the ball like buzzing bees, trying to kick it one direction or the other toward the goal. Pretty simple.

Baseball is complicated. I once tried telling the T-ballers when a base runner has to run to the next base and when it’s OK to stay put — and from the blank looks I got, I might as well have been explaining nuclear fusion.

OK, I said to myself, don’t even try to explain the infield fly rule. (Besides, the chances that a T-baller will hit a popup, and that the other team will catch it, are almost nil.)

So a creative T-ball coach has to rely heavily on fun activities that are somewhat baseball-related. On our team, the kids’ favorite drill is where they get to pelt me with tennis balls — it rewards them for throwing accurately. They are delighted to chase down their tennis balls and reload for another round of pelting Coach Matt.

Long ago, when my sons had Miss Irene for kindergarten, I occasionally helped out in her classroom. I remember watching in awe as 25 kids pulled out their projects and quietly settled in to work. I don’t know how she did it, but I think Miss Irene was also capable of walking on water.

I remember thinking at the time that however much we pay public school teachers like Miss Irene, it isn’t nearly enough. And after a few weeks as a T-ball coach, I’m even more convinced it’s true.

A well-behaved visitor

A cold south wind was blowing off Westchester Lagoon that evening, and it was time for me and my out-of-town guest to stop ogling the Chugach Mountains and start pedaling our bikes home.

As we approached Fish Creek estuary on the coastal trail , a passing biker shouted: “There’s a black bear ahead, and it’s pretty agitated! ”

This is way too cool. I thought. I’ve lived here 24 years and I’ve never seen a black bear in my neighborhood. After just two days in Alaska, my friend is getting the treat of a lifetime.

Up where the coastal trail runs along the back yards of Anchorage’s rich and famous, we heard a commotion. The teenaged bear was making good time, running across the back lawn of one mansion as he headed toward town.

Following on the paved trail was Rick Sinnott, the Fish and Game Department’s official baby -sitter for wayward urban wildlife.

The bear had just come past Lyn Ary Park while a Little League game was under way, but he didn’t stop to disrupt proceedings. Earlier at Point Woronzof, the bear had found a temporarily unattended day pack and helped himself to a sandwich.

Aside from that, Sinnott said, “he was pretty well-behaved.”

Chance encounters brighten holidays

Over the holidays, a time when we’re all supposed to think about being generous and helping others, I couldn’t help being discouraged by the selfishness that’s rampant in our society and politics.

We have Wall Street titans pocketing billions in bonuses while their ruined companies rely on federal bailouts. Silk-suited lobbyists spend hundreds of millions trying to buy their way in Congress. Tea Party rowdies hate taxes so much, they don’t want government to do anything new, even if it means turning a blind eye to the robber barons who looted the economy. Trying to extend health care to all, without disrupting the coverage of those fortunate enough to have it, is seen as a socialist plot to destroy the country. I’ve got mine, Jack, and if you don’t have yours, you’re just a loser and the heck with you.

Amid this bleak landscape, it was a pleasure for me to spend time with two different seat mates on a cross-country airline trip.

First was a 20-something woman heading back to Denver. While her college classmates went into investment banking and finance, she went into teaching. After a couple of years she discovered she “didn’t love it” and went back to school for a master’s degree. Now she has found her passion – she has an internship helping refugees from Africa find safety and a new life here in America.

Burdened by student loans, and working full time to finance her education, she could not comprehend when a high-flying former classmate complained about a year-end bonus that would be “only” $240,000. A second-generation American, child of white-collar immigrants – her dad came from Spain and her mom from Cuba — she understood America meant more than just the chance to grab as much as you can at someone else’s expense.

On the flight back to Anchorage, I sat next to a chatty woman who teaches kindergarten at North Star Elementary. It took me only about 90 seconds to realize she had the perfect personality for kindergarten – loving but firm, kind-hearted and generous, setting limits while always seeing the good in her young charges.

Most school nights she works until 6 p.m. — long past quitting time. Fridays, she stays until 8 p.m., getting ready for the week ahead. She spends upwards of $500 a year on supplies – constantly looking for blockbuster sales so she can stock her shelves cheaply. At Christmas, she hands out presents for each kid and each parent. She even arranges for the neediest families to get a turkey.

I told her I appreciated all her hard work for relatively low pay. She said her reward comes when she sees the spark of learning light within a child. Her husband, sitting next to her, beamed with pride as she told me of her work, as well he should.

I headed home from the airport, feeling uplifted by my time with two people who are doing more good than any bonus-grubbing investment banker could ever claim to do.

Next samples: Editorials for the Philadelphia Inquirer

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