“Buck up, or stay in the truck.”
Though I’ve never killed an animal and would choose tofu over steak any day, I do understand the culture of hunting here in Alaska. Last summer, my son-in-law, C, spent grueling hours “harvesting” moose and caribou in remote areas of the Interior so his family would have meat on the table for the rest of the year. He says it’s better this way, cheaper than buying meat at the local one-stop shopping store, and tastier. I believe him. C uses guns only when he hunts. The rest of the time they’re locked in a metal vault out of reach of my two little grandboys. Still, I hold my breath and look away whenever I pass the vault, which vaguely resembles an upright coffin. Guns mean death to me!
Which is why last weekend I was fairly freaked out at the 34th Annual Midnight Sun Festival. On the surface, this celebration of summer solstice was flooded with thousands of people working their way through carney rides and gadget vendors, including a booth offering marshmallow guns made of painted pvc piping that looked much like these.
The streets of downtown Fairbanks were lined with food booths. There were corn dogs and gargantuan pretzels, spinach bread from Talkeetna and even Smokehouse BBQ hauled north from Anchorage. Several stages were set up and the music was good! Jazz, country, folk-funky, hip-hoppy, you name it. We danced. We mingled, We meandered.
Near the pedestrian/bicycle bridge that crosses the Chena River, I stopped to take a photo of a couple paddling kayaks in the opaque water, and another of a large family laughing their way downriver in a tiny raft. When I caught up with my daughter she was holding our 5-month-old grandbaby, g, and frowning. I kissed his cheek.
“What’s up?” I asked her.
“Did you see that, Mama?”
“Where? What was it?”
“Over there,” she pointed. “A guy with a gun was pulling two kids in a wagon and each one had a toy machine gun. It makes me sick!”
I looked, but couldn’t find the guy, the wagon, the armed kiddies. “Nope. They must’ve moved on. I’m glad I didn’t see them. I’m not ready for something like that.”
“You’ll never be ready, Mama,” she said, shaking her head, “but guns are everywhere here.”
I realized then that my daughter, though 28 years younger than I am, already knows much more about the effects of guns on people than I ever will. In her role as a surgeon, I’m sure she’s seen some horrors. I wanted to talk to her about what she’d experienced both inside the operating room and out related to guns, but we were supposed to be celebratng, so I held back.
Later, thoroughly overheated by the 89 degree sun, we bought some hum bao and drinks, and found a low wall on which to sit in the shade of several young aspens. Around us, mamas and papas pushed infants in strollers; toddlers dropped their drinks and searched the ground for interesting garbage and rocks; middle and high school kids shared cotton candy, whispered and giggled while Native Alaskan elders, toothless and beautiful, smiled as tourists with Nikons took photos of their “authentic” subjects.
Not hungry, I picked up my grandbaby and was playing “pony ride” on my knee with him when, just beyond us on a wooden bench, sat a guy with gun. A BIG GUN. In a holster. He was clean cut, like an off-duty soldier, and wore a baseball cap, a polo shirt, khaki shorts, wrap-around sunglasses and immaculate white runners. He was statue still, expressionless. Studying the crowd from behind those sunglasses? I felt a wave of nausea. My heart beat inside my chest like that Athabaskan moose skin drum I’d seen somewhere. Like a gun going off over and over? I imagined the worst. Holy God, was this guy going to shoot us like those poor souls in South Carolina? What were our options?
I handed g to my son-in-law, whipped out my camera and snapped several photos. I was scared that the guy would hear my camera click, turn around and shoot, but even so I took more pictures. Which seems absurd now, but I guess my fear was momentarily trumped by the need to freeze what I witness regardless of cost. Then, I said something like, “There’s a guy with a huge gun right there. See him? Why does he have a gun around all these families? Why would anyone have a gun here? This is supposed to be a fun place!”
My daughter and son-in-law looked at me, nodded as if to say, yep, we get what you’re feeling but that’s the way it is here. We packed up and headed down a ramp toward an amphitheater where a sprinkler had been set up for kids to cool off. And while little r splashed and laughed, and baby g cooed as though life was all about delight, which it mostly is, I felt twitchy and kept scanning the bushes, the trees, the people, wondering who else was packing a pistol, and what the guy with the gun was up to. Was he headed this way right-this-very-second?
Maybe I should have stayed in the truck.