Recently bereaved by the deaths of two cats that they had raised through many "Top of the World" winters deep into old age, Harold and Karla had decided that it was time to reestablish a feline presence in their home. "I think we should let the kitties choose us," Karla told Harold as they drove to the shelter.
When they entered the cat room, the first thing they saw was this dirty, skinny, black kitty. He thrust one front paw through the bars of his cage and now furiously waved it at them.
"Oh, no!" the shelter worker argued. "You don't want that kitty! That kitty is beyond rehabilitation!" She then escorted Karla and Harold deeper into the cat room, where, she assured them, there were much more desirable kitties for them to take home.
Damn! I must interrupt this story! That's how it is when you unexpectedly and stupidly hurt yourself, badly. Everything that you are doing, all projects you are working on, all your travel plans, get interrupted. This is a self-portrait of me, Grahamn Kracker, lying in a bed in the emergency room at the Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital in Barrow, the day after I met Watson and his pal, Jumper, and this is how I got there:
Following an uneventful morning, I took my lunch at Barrow's Osaka Restaurant, where I ordered "Bento Box, # 3." I can only describe the terriyaki chicken and the three sides of Sushi that I ate as exquisite. Osaka sits just off the beach and when I stepped outside, sated, I suddenly decided that I needed a walk and that I should take it upon the ocean.
I had not walked far upon the melting sea before I came upon a tall pressure ridge - a minature mountain range made made of crushed ice, piled high. I picked the tallest peak in that ridge and decided to climb it, to see what I might see. To my horrified surprise, when I topped the peak what I saw was a polar bear who had simultaneously climbed it from the other side!
That great, white bear - perhaps the largest one ever seen in the Arctic - hauled off and with a giant, club-like, paw, smacked me full force upon my right shoulder. I felt it break.
("Uh, Dad..." - I suddenly hear Tryskuit's voice whisper in my ear as I type these words, even though she is 50 miles away from the place where I sit.)
My body then tumbled 20 feet through the air and crashed down hard, right shoulder first, onto a jagged shard of ice. I felt my bone break again.
("Dad... Dad!" - Tryskuit again.)
I looked up and saw the bear dive off the peak, teeth barred and claws extended, then plummet toward me, determined to rip the sushi out of me and eat it, itself. Quickly, I thrust my twice broken shoulder into the jaw of the descending bear. It tumbled unconscious to my side, but I had broken my shoulder for a third time.
("Dad! Dad! Dad!" - I wonder what it is that has gotten Tryskuit so excited that I can hear her shout at me, from 50 miles away?)
I cannot describe the pain that I felt. Excruciating! Severe! Yet, I knew that bear would soon come to would still want my sushi. With a horrific scream, I leapt to my feet and...
("DAD! DAD! DAD! QUIT LYING! I already told your half-dozen readers that you decided to climb on a chair with wheels [see POST, June 13]. DAD, TELL THE TRUTH!")
Okay! I was just trying to have a little fun! Here is what actually happened: I did not eat at Osaka, but at Terriyaki House, which is not on the beach at all, but between the airport and the high school. Afterward, I went to the high school where a group of young people from all across the Slope had gathered to learn how interview Iñupiat Eskimo elders. I needed a higher angle to photograph the scene the way that I wanted to. I looked for a chair to stand on but the only one that I could find had wheels. "This is dangerous," I said to myself. "But I will be careful. I will be okay."
Well... after all the things that I have done in my career... all the true risks that I have taken... all the close calls that I have had... even after I crashed my airplane... this is how I get taken out? This is how I suffer my first truly debilitating injury? I fall off a chair with wheels? In front of a group of youth and elders???
How stupid! How humiliating! I would much prefer to have been smacked by a polar bear!
The pain, however, was genuinely excruciating, severe. I could not move my right arm. Any movement anywhere reverberated throughout upper right arm and shoulder with pain so great that I did not feel that I could bear it, yet I had no choice but to bear it. My broken lens was spread across the floor. Kungasuk, the young man (see post, June 29), as well as Wesley Aiken, the Elder, appeared immediately by my side, and others in the room joined them.
I wanted to believe that I was okay, that a few deep breaths would get me through this and then I could get on with the job at hand. Yet, I grpped my right hand with my left and felt that if I were to let go, my right arm just might fall right off - and how that would hurt.
"We've got to get you to the hospital!" Wesley said. "We should call an ambulance!"
"No!" I protested. "I can't afford an ambulance." I have health insurance, all right, but they hardly ever help me with anything. So somebody - I don't even remember who - pulled a van to the door. Kungasuk got in with me, then escorted me into the emergency room. I saw many friendly faces of healthy people in there and when the owners of those faces saw that I was hurting, they invaribly sought to comfort me with a pat to the right shoulder. Oh, Geese! So Kungasuk had to protect me.
The X-Rays! Oh, awful! I had to stand and turn this way and that, and grip my wrist while the tech positioned my arm, then repositioned it, positioned it again and again after that. I felt that I was going to fall through the floor and disappear. I wanted to fall through the floor and disappear. I wanted to scream, bit I did not want to scare anyone and so I did not.
Later, they got me settled into a bed and started to put morphine into me. The doctor, an attractive woman of Asian descent, came to see me. I hoped she would tell me that, despite the pain, I had just badly bruised a muscle, or sprained something. She said I had a thrice broken, completely dislocated shoulder and a damaged rotor cuff. It was amost serious break, she said.
So I thought she would put my arm in a cast. No, she said. It was too severe. It required surgery, by an orthopedic surgeon. They were going to call for a Lear Jet from Providence Hospital in Anchorage. It would fly me back and that very night and a man who was perhaps the most skilled orthopedic surgeon in Alaska would operate on me.
"No!" I protested. "I can't afford that Lear Jet."
"The jet is going to come for you." She said. "We have to get you to Providence as fast as we can."
I lay there without my cameras for about three hours. I wanted to get them before the jet arrived, so that they would not get left behind. Sunflower had flown out of Anchorage for Phoenix very early that morning so that she could go home to her White Mountain Apace Indian Reservation to participate in a sacred Sunrise Dance that her family had been preparing for for the past year. I, and most of the rest of the Krackers, were scheduled to join them the next week.
I called her cell from mine. She had just arrived in Phoenix. It was 110 degrees. When I told her what had happened, she cried. She wanted to get right back on the jet and join me at Providence.
"No," I told her. "Don't even think about it. You go to the Sunrise Dance. It is too important to the whole family. I will get through this." Then Marleena showed up from the North Slope Borough Mayor's office, carrying. To thank her, I clumsily gripped the one that still worked, the big heavy one, in my left hand, braced it against the left side of my chest and, unable to look through the viewfinder, took her picture (above).
The jet arrived, the paramedics came in and I went to work, determined to photograph my own medivac. "You're going to have to give me that monster and I will put it in a plastic bag," the nurse in the middle said of my camera. "If you want a picture, I will take a picture of you."
"I have to take the pictures," I declined. "It doesn't count if you take them." The nurse on the right is the one who had been giving me hands on care, under the other's oversight. They had been wonderful to me. I gave them my deepest thanks, but I was not about to give up my camera.
So the paramedics went to work on me and I went to work on them. No one uttered anymore nonsensical words about taking my camera away from me.
Mark Ahsoak, local EMT, Vietnam veteran and whaling crew captain, showed with a stretcher to take me to the ambulance that would take me to the airport.
Soon, I was being wheeled through an "access restricted" hall, closed to the general public. I felt mighty privileged to have been granted access to that hall.
Me being loaded into the ambulance - foot view.
They wheel me toward the Lear Jet ambulance. I can't see it, but I can feel it, looming over me. If I can feel it, I can photograph it.
As I am lifted to the jet ambulance, I get two smiles. I don't think the EMT's had ever been photographed by an ambulance patient before.
I am sorry, but I forget his name. If I understood correctly, he is an intern in orthopedic medicine who came along from Anchorage for the experience.
Paramedic Mike prepares a dose of something for me. Morphine, I believe.
Here we are, happily on the way to Anchorage, the Great State of Alaska passing by unseen beneath us.
The pilot. I guess he could see the Great State of Alaska. This would be a good time to remind the reader that a simple click upon the picture will produce a larger image. Then you will actually be able to see the positioning of the Pilot's hand. I am proud of the way I caught his hand. Hard to do when you are lying there, strapped down, with your humerous broken in three places, unable to bring your camera to your eye, shooting from the chest.
As you can see, I am terrified.
The thoughtful intern.
Here we are, coming in on final at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. At no time before this had I been able to see the ground beneath the airplane, but now I could. Perhaps it was the bank of the plane, perhaps I had been repositioned a bit. Perhaps both.
Whatever, it left me pretty disgusted with myself as a photographer. I could have photographed the great state of Alaska for the entire 850 mile ride, even if I could not see it.
Beginning with the Arctic Slope, I could have raised my camera to the window and shot it. Then, as we progressed, I could have asked questions, such as, "can you see the Brooks Range, yet...? is the Yukon River coming into sight...? We must be nearing Fairbanks. Do you see Fairbanks...? How about Denali? Is it standing there, big and beautiful? Or is it shrouded in clouds?"
Each time that the answer came back, "yes," I could have lifted my camera to the window and fired. I am quite certain that I would have captured classics that would soon hang in museums worldwide, but, alas, I did not.
As we taxi to the Lear Jet ambulance parking place, I see the next ambulance crew trough the window, joking and laughing as they weight with my next stretcher.
See that little airplane parked by the hangar? The Super Cub? If you can hardly make it out, click on the picture, blow it up. I cannot express the feeling of sorrow and longing I felt when I looked at it. See, I have known Alaska from the cockpit of such a plane. When will I know Alaska that way again? When? When? When?
I an transferred from the Lear Jet stretcher to the one that will take me to the next ambulance. It is a strange, helpless feeling being momentarily suspended in midair like this. You know they won't drop you, but even so, you feel like they will.
"Nah, we hardly ever drop anyone," they joke. "Just a few, every now and then. Like that one guy, Duane. Turned out he didn't really need his bwain so much after that. And then there was that baby - that little tiny baby. That was the worse. Right on his head. But he didn't really need his bwain, either. He is being well cared for, even with just half a bwain."
I am comforted. Had my brain worked well, I would not be in this position to begin with.
The Lear Jet sits in the background as I am wheeled to the ambulance, but not for long. It was now scheduled to be immediately refueled and the to take right off to pick up some kind of victim in Dutch Harbor, 800 miles to the Southwest. Another Providence plane was about to leave to pick up someone in Nome.
Now I am in the ambulance, being driven through the streets of Anchorage, enroute to Providence Hospital.
It looks like the intern is showing me my X-rays, but he is not. His finger just happens to be in a place where I can photograph it as they discuss the damage among themselves. The say it is bad, very serious, a most complicated sort of break. The X-rays mean little to me. All I know is that it hurts. I fear movement. Movement hurts.
They wheel me down some hallways and I photograph it all, but the photos are piling up in here, so I don't use them. Finally, they put me into a holding room.
As soon as they get the okay my children, daughters in-law, grandson and daughter's significant other come streaming in to see me. All day long, medical people have been making me sign all kinds of thing with my left hand. Now Tryskuit signs a document on my behalf.
"Did you bring your kitties?" I ask her.
"No," she answers, "but..."
"...I knew you would want to see them, so I took some pictures of the kitties, just for you." She pulls out her camera and turns on the playback screen. "Here's Diamond!" she says, cheerily.
Sure enough, there she was: fierce, sweet, ornery, loving, cantankerous, charming Diamond. Please. Click on the picture. Blow it up, so that you can better see Diamond, so that you can better see little Wry Kracker, who was so terribly worried about his grandpa.
And that brings me back to the subject of cats, from which I had been so rudely interrupted. So I think that I had better finish up the stories of those two Barrow cats:
As earlier, noted, Karla had been greeted by the waving paw of the black kitty from the dumpster, but the shelter worker had pulled her away. The black kitty had been so through so much that he was beyond redemption, the worker warned.
Soon, Karla came upon a full-grown cat, a Tuxedo. He, too, thrust his paw through the cage bars and waved at her.
"Oh, no! You don't want that cat," the shelter worker warned.
The Tuxedo was a "multiple return" cat, the worker explained. It had been adopted from this very shelter at least twice, maybe three times before. "It has some kind of personality defect," Karla was warned. "If you adopt it, you will surely wind up returning it yourself."
So Karla and Harold continued their walk through the shelter and they found some mighty fine kittens and cats, felines upon whom the shelter heaped high praise. These, the worker said, would be perfect to take home. But something just kept drawing Karla back to the dirty, forsaken, black kitten and the Tuxedo cat. Harold agreed. When they got on the Alaska Airlines jet back to Barrow, those two boarded with them.
Once they got home, Karla and Harold found that the worker had been right about the black kitten. Every warning came true. That kitten was wild and terrified. When he was fed, he would dash to his food. Snarling, his eyes darting this way and that, Watson would hurl his food all over the place - all about the room, up and down the stairs. He did not know how to use the litter box - at least, not in the common way.
He would poop and pee wherever he pleased, but he loved to sleep in the litter box. He would stretch out and roll around in it. He knew nothing about grooming himself. "He was a stinky mess," Karla remembers.
As for the Tuxedo, he barfed frequently, splattering hair balls, bile, and partially digested food all over the house. He did not know how to climb. He could not climb up a cat tree. He could only jump, leaping from one platform up to the next. Hence his name: Jumper!
What a pathetic pair these two were! Yet Karla and Harold loved them. They stuck with them. In time, the cats calmed down - and they taught each other. Jumper did know how to eat properly, how to use a litter box. He taught these skills to Watson.
Watson knew how to climb. He taught Jumper how to do so. Now the four live as one, big, happy, Arctic family.
In this picture, the hour is midnight and all the light falling upon Jumper has just passed through the window. Jumper is bathed in the Midnight Sun. He is also bathed in love.
Again, here is Jumper - a cat to dream about when one is lying hurt and miserable in a hospital bed, awaiting the surgeon's knife.