Rachel Craig of Kotzebue, Alaska speaks on March 1, 1996 during the Communities of Memory public storytelling event held at the NANA Museum in Kotzebue, Alaska from February 29 to March 2, 1996. She talks about what life was like when she was growing up and during the years of World War II. She also talks about working at the hospital in Kotzeube when she was a teenager, and what it was like when the men returned from the military.
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Life in Kotzebue when she was growing up
Hearing about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and effect of World War II on Kotzebue
Young men's service in the military
Changes in life in Kotzebue, and her aunt, Laura Gregg Davis, being strong and serving in the Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG)
Her uncle, Ben Gregg, returning home
Maintaining a traditional lifestyle, and her grandfather's shooting skills
Learning to steer a boat, and spending a long night traveling
Law enforcement in early days of Kotzebue
Education and going to high school
Working at the hospital in Kotzebue
Celebrating the end of World War II, and dancing
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RACHEL CRAIG: I’m Rachel Craig from the Gregg family here in Kotzebue. I was born and raised here. At the time, the population was about eight hundred and most of the houses -- most of our little houses were all on Front Street. They call it Shore Avenue now. But to us it’s -- it’s still -- to us hometown people it’s still Front Street.
There were a few houses on what is now Second Street. Maybe even Third Street now. Third Avenue. But I think you can count them in one hand, the houses that were up on that area.
That’s not counting the schools and the hospital. We had a small town and I -- our family anyway kept us mostly in the neighborhood.
And -- and our preoccupation at the time as we were growing up were going to school and going to church.
There were hardly any radios, certainly no TVs. We had gas lamps or coal oil lamps, there was no electricity, no running water. We didn’t miss them because we didn’t know anything about them.
Our folks -- our houses were mostly one big room. Some of them had other bedrooms but we -- our central heating was the tank stove mostly.
We burned wood and we burned coal. But we always had food. Our -- our parents, our grandparents hustled. They hunted, they fished, they gathered food. Berries and greens. And we always had -- we always had food.
Not only for ourselves but also to share.
We had -- we had missionaries. Ira and Paralee Downs in the Friend’s Church when we were growing up. They didn’t have any children but -- but the front room was always open to us and we could go play there. I think sometimes we got kinda rowdy and they’d kinda quiet us down.
But that was our play -- our play place. There was no teen center, there was -- there was nothing else. Bunch of us kids from all over town would -- would go there and it was just Sunday morning that some of us went there.
And Mr. Downs came out and he said there’s a war. The Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor.
And it was a foreign news to us because we were young, I had -- just had my eleventh birthday. And war, war? You know.
So we went home to tell our parents and they talked about it in Sunday School. We didn’t really realize the significance of it because we were too young. We were too young, we -- we just know that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Sometime after that the -- the war began to change our area. We had to have what they call blackouts.
Some of us put blankets -- our mothers, our aunts put blankets on the windows so that our lights couldn’t be seen from airplanes that might fly overhead, so we wouldn’t get bombed, supposedly.
And then they painted a big red cross on the hospital, the local hospital, so -- I don’t know if it was a target or -- or -- or -- or if they were supposed to be careful not to bomb that.
But -- the town was dark. We -- we didn’t go out anyway, you know. When we were kids our -- our folks kept us home.
Sometime during that time my uncle, Ben Gregg, was drafted. He joined the army, I guess some of -- some of -- some of these people knew him. He went to Nome and I never did question him because when you’re young, you know, you -- you -- you don’t ask people questions. If -- if -- unless -- and if they want you to know, they’ll tell you.
But now they pay me for asking questions. But -- but at the time we didn’t ask questions and -- and I never did ask him or my dad where they served. I know they were -- they were both in military and -- and Alaska was considered overseas.
It -- it was -- it was overseas. And -- but I knew that some of our men had been to Shemya and --
And on our way a couple summers ago to Vladivostok in -- in Russia, we stopped there for refueling. And I -- and I made sure I got out of the plane so I could walk on that sod where my uncle and maybe some of the other Alaskan men had been during the war years.
And maybe -- maybe even made the airfield there.
Some of the men -- some of the young men were exempted from military service. George Francis was the agent at the time and I guess he wrote on behalf of those families when the families had no other male or hunter then -- then they could be exempted to look after their families. And so we know that some of the men were exempted.
But when my uncle left he -- he just left and stayed away. And he married a Hopi woman and now we have lots of Hopi Eski -- Hopi Eskimos out there who are related to us and subsequently some of my cousins met the Navajo and the Papago in Southwest United States. I have lots of relatives out there that I visited when I was there a couple years ago.
It’s nice to have relatives. No wonder our forefathers lived the way that they did.
This -- this changing in -- in the life where -- where the men drove the dog teams and did the heavy work and all that in -- in our family it was -- of necessity changed.
And one of my aunts was strong anyway, Laura Gregg Davis. She’s listed as one of the members of the Alaska -- Alaska Territorial Guard.
She did the dog teaming, she went out to get ice, she went out to get wood. She did some freighting from village to village. She did the heavy work. She helped with the fishing and making bundles.
She was just strong and just in the family did -- did all the heavy work that the men are -- are usually doing.
And later on, even after she married, she and her husband brought in the ice and people bought blocks of ice from them. And I think some of you know.
Later on, after I grew up -- I’m jumping ahead a few years. And I came home to visit our grandparents ‘cause they -- they raised me. My mother’s parents raised me when she died. She died when I was five, of tuberculosis. And -- and so they raised me.
And whenever I came home, they always miss their baby son, which Ben Gregg was the youngest in the family, and wished that he could come home. So I promised them that I’d go out and see if he was still alive and if he was well.
So I went out to visit him and his family and eventually he came home to visit them. So that -- that was a big highlight for them.
But life went on for us. Our -- we had dog teams. Every -- every family had dog teams. Enough for two teams even, I guess. So that we had to hustle for a lot of dog food, lot of fishing and seal hunting and -- and whatever left over food there was went to the dogs and -- to feed them.
Our family, like a lot of other families, went camping in the spring. Our seal hunting camp at Cape Blossom where my uncles and my grandfather hunted. And -- and you knew, you talked -- you talked about the men yesterday and they were really good shooters.
My grandfather, which was also listed, John Gregg, you -- he -- we always knew that whenever he shot his rifle somewhere he’d bring home something.
They trained themselves to be really sharp shooters, and so we always knew that if we heard him shoot, either on land our out in the ocean, out on the frozen ocean, on the ice, that he’d bring home something. We never know what, but something. Something to eat.
So -- so from our spring camp where we hunted seal and got our fish and make pokes of seal oil, the job of us children, our grandchi -- we were the grandchildren now. The grownups had gone -- we -- we helped cut the fish and dry the fish.
And my aunt Laura stayed with us longer and she helped mama with cutting the seals and ugruks and stuff, and got 'em ready. And then we went to our summer camp where we fished and picked berries at Sadie Creek.
We had dog teams and -- and in our family, the dogs also pulled the boat. And so I was eleven or twelve when I learned how to steer -- steer the boat. And -- and -- and so that freed my grandmother to stay at camp and do whatever she had to do. And then I’d go to town with Laura to get supplies.
I remember she had -- one time, she had promised -- she had told our folks that we were coming home that day and for some reason we stayed too long in town and -- but -- but she did --
she wanted to keep her word ‘cause that’s how our grandparents told us. Our parents told us. You have to keep your word.
So no matter how late it was, we left. And boy, those dogs went in the dark. They smell the reindeer ‘cause the reindeer was close to Sadie Creek.
And that was the hardest night, hardest night I ever spent. I’d wake up still holding onto the paddle. I’d be real close to the beach and then I’d push it down again.
I slept part of the way and woke up some of the time until we reached home. That -- that -- that was the hardest night when I was young.
But -- but I learned to steer the boat early and -- and -- and began to fulfill some responsibilities in the family.
Our town, like most towns, I think -- I think we were the only one that had a marshal. We had one marshal.
There were hardly any drunks. There was no alcohol to be bought. The time that the men would come home from gold -- gold mines or wherever they worked in the summer, they’d bring home booze but after they drank it up that would be the end of it.
And so I think the marshal earned his money pretty easy at the time. And we had one magistrate.
I’ll -- we had a -- we had no high school. Our education system went only up to the eighth grade. I was thirteen when I finished eighth grade and nobody --
nobody have even breathed about high school to us. They never gave us incentive or goals or anything like -- not like what they do today.
And we didn’t know about high school until one principal came recruiting one summer and I heard about it. And I talked to some family members.
And it took me two years to convince my grandparents that they should let me go to school. There were several reasons. Some of our early, early men I think of my uncle's generation had gone to school in -- in the Lower 48 and other places.
And -- and for one reason or another, they died out there. For -- for some reason. And our parents didn’t want us -- want to send us out there never to see us again, so they kept us home.
And -- and not only was I a grandchild of my grandparents, I think I was sorta like a replacement of their daughter that they lost. And -- and so they wanted to keep me home. Anything that happened to me, let it happen in Kotzebue.
So -- so -- but it took two years to convince them that I should go to school, that I wanted to go to school. And they finally let me go.
High schools, I think, were built in 1970 and so it’s become easier for -- for our families.
About the time -- and I -- when I think about it, I -- I -- I wonder. I’m -- I’m just talking about life at that time and -- and how it was maybe because they were short of personnel or whatever, but I started working at the hospital. I was fourteen at the time.
And first I was -- I was helping to clean. I was -- I was one of the housekeepers.
And then they reassigned me to work in the wards. They showed me how to take pulses and how to measure cc’s and sterilize stuff.
And then not long after that, they put me on nights. And I was all by myself. Imagine, a fourteen-year-old kid working in the hospital with all those responsibilities. I mean, what other fourteen-year-old kid would you hire now? To do that.
I had to -- I had to give medication. had to measure the -- how much they drank and how much they peed.
I had to write down in the charts. And at the same time, I cleaned the office. And then I sterilized the instruments that they used in the clinic that day.
And then light the stove, the oil stove. Most of us didn’t have oil stoves at home, they had to show me how to light that.
Light the stove so that it would be hot enough by the time the cooks came so they could cook for the patients and the -- and the people that worked there. ‘Cause the people used to live upstairs in the hospital.
And -- and when I think about that I think gosh, how could they hire a fourteen-year-old to do that? I don’t -- but -- but they hired me.
Maybe -- maybe that’s a compliment to my grandparents. They -- they -- they -- they taught us responsibility and accountability. That’s how our grandparents raised us and -- and -- and they made sure we did what we were supposed to do.
And I remember I was still working at the hospital when -- when we heard that the war was over. By that time, I was the ripe old age of fourteen. And -- and -- and they had a big dance that night. And I had to work and the dance was still going on by the time I was off duty and that --
that’s the one thing we used to love to go to in our generation. We -- we never thought of doing other things besides playing mana-mana and tag and all, king of the mountain.
In -- in that life, we loved to go to dances. And I think I was thirteen when I start going to dances. It was the funnest thing. Funnest thing to do to -- to dance. And we used to --
Somebody talked about Felix Bolt. He knew how to jitterbug and he used to ask Elizabeth Sours who’d been to White Mountain, she had learned to jitterbug while they were there, and oh, we thought that was the neatest dance to watch.
To watch them dancing and -- and -- and I think we made up our minds, we were gonna learn how to jitterbug, too. So that -- that was fun.
We -- we learned how to schottische and polka and -- and none of this wiggle, wiggle, wiggle stuff.
We held each other, you know. Now -- and when my son started going to the dances he called it slow dancing. We didn’t know it was slow dancing at the time. It was -- it was -- it was just fun to -- fun to dance.
Anyway, I -- I’m -- I’m really cognizant of -- of the men who -- who have put a -- put an effort in this war. And I’m just warming up, setting up the stage of -- of what our life was at the time. And -- and -- and so I’ll end my story here.