View from Out West: Breaking the dress code — Alaska values function over any form of fussy

Photo courtesy of Clark Fair. Clark Fair, his little sister and mother all dressed up for a trip to town in 1968.

Photo courtesy of Clark Fair. Clark Fair, his little sister and mother all dressed up for a trip to town in 1968.

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

In more than 50 years of Kenai Peninsula residency, I never considered myself a townie, even though I lived twice (1960-62 and 1989-93) inside Soldotna city limits. Most of my life on the Kenai was spent on the Fair family homestead, about midway between Soldotna and Sterling, and “going into town” almost always meant (a) putting on nicer clothes and (b) driving.

The dressing-up part was a hangover from my parents’ childhoods in rural Indiana. Although Dad lived on a farm during only part of each year, Mom lived on a farm full time. Going into town was a special occasion, whether the destination was the grocery or Sunday church services. Consequently, one’s everyday appearance wasn’t good enough. A trip into town meant first washing off the farm dirt, combing or brushing one’s hair and exchanging grubby farm clothes for something clean, and preferably pressed. It meant dresses for women and slacks, starched shirts and hats for men.

Mom swears that it felt good dressing up, even for a trip to the market. Looking good was a pleasant change from the norm. So when Mom and Dad became Alaskans and produced Alaskan children, they attempted to dress those children accordingly when it came time to venture into town.

I can remember fighting against pulling off patched blue jeans and pulling on woolen trousers, against replacing a comfortable T-shirt with a dress shirt, buttoned at the collar and cuffs, with the tails tucked neatly into my pants. I can also remember numerous passes with a comb through my unruly hair, plastered with water to keep a rooster tail at bay.

I wasn’t exactly tortured, but I wasn’t exactly comfortable, either. I saw myself as a play-in-the-dirt, tear-the-knees-out-of-pants, go-outside-in-good-socks kind of kid, not some namby-pamby, go-to-the-store, listen-to-parents’-jabber, snazzy-dressing kind of kid.

I was a homestead boy.

Clark Fair has not found himself well suited to wearing suits, despite his mother’s attempts ( (seen here in 1961).

Clark Fair has not found himself well suited to wearing suits, despite his mother’s attempts ( (seen here in 1961).

In town, in my itchy slacks, I was a fish out of water.

Another thing about town — going there was rarely a spur-of-the-moment thing. It was something calculated.

Soldotna was seven miles away, with three of those miles on a winding gravel road, so the planning process included a written record of our intentions, leaving nothing to chance or faulty memory. Planning also meant forgetting nothing at home — a wallet or a purse, a grocery list, a piece of copper pipe to match up at the hardware store, even turning off the lights and the burners on the stove.

Since it took about 15 minutes to get to town, forgetting something on either end meant 30 minutes of wasted time and fuel to correct a mistake.

Going into town also involved dealing with weather and traffic. In winter, that sometimes meant going out early with our 1948 Ford tractor or our 1977 Scout to plow the back roads and improve our odds of safe passage to the Sterling Highway. Winter driving also meant plenty of darkness, glancing headlight beams and shadowy moose along the roadsides. Summer excursions, on the other hand, might mean an exasperated wait for a left turn onto the blacktop as a caravan of motorhomes trundled by.

Fair was much more comfortable in his “homestead” attire, as seen here picking mushrooms in 1961.

Fair was much more comfortable in his “homestead” attire.

On most days, the Fairs made at least one trip into town — for school, for Dad to go to work, or for errands. When I reached adulthood, I worked to minimize my trips into town, relishing being home and away from crowds, and feeling relief that the vehicles were silent and immobile in the garage. (Having active children of my own later on complicated such efforts at minimizing.)

As an adult, I also worried less about how I looked when I went to town. Straight from gardening or wood splitting, painting or lawn mowing, I’d hop into the car and go, wood chips or dirt falling from my pants, my hair unkempt, sweat still gleaming on my brow. If my mother saw me in such a state, she might eye me sternly. “You’re going into town looking like THAT?” she might say. “Don’t you want to clean up a little first?”

Nope. Sorry, Mom. I don’t. I’m a homestead boy.

Now here I am, many years later, living in town. It’s no longer Soldotna, but it is town.

Here in Dillingham, I live in an eight-unit apartment building, just down C Street from a communications array and the Moravian Church. Our apartment has four windows, and from all of them I can see neighbors.

Or here picking peas in 1979.

Or here picking peas in 1979.

From our apartment, I can also walk to city hall, the Bayside Diner or N&N Market in about five minutes. The post office is perhaps two minutes farther. Wells Fargo stands next to the post office. It’s also next to the public library, L&M Supplies and UAF’s Bristol Bay Campus, which sits next to Dillingham High School. Just down the street are the police and fire departments and the Subway restaurant.

Given 15 minutes, I can walk from our apartment to Alaska Commercial, the liquor store, the Laundromat, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the PAF boatyard, the Troopers station and Nushagak Cooperative — in other words, to almost anything a person might want or need.

Going into town requires almost zero planning for me here. I practically walk out the door — without dressing up — and I’m there.

Once I took a pile of groceries to the checker at N&N, only to realize that I’d forgotten my wallet at home. No problem. The checker set my groceries aside, and 10 minutes later I was back with my money.

Convenience, thy name is Dillingham.

Well, sort of.

While the proximity here is helpful, shopping choices can be limited.

I used to imagine shopping like the Europeans or even the New Yorkers I’d seen on television. They’d wander out to their neighborhood shops each day to pick up a baguette from the baker, a steak or some chops from the butcher, fresh fruits and vegetables from the local wholesaler, the daily paper from the newsstand on the corner. Their arms full, they’d amble home, greeting friends and neighbors along the way, their social obligations complete.

Here, it doesn’t work quite that way, but walking through Dillingham every day, whether it’s just to the post office for the mail or to the grocery store for a few potatoes, does bring me in regular contact with friends and neighbors. Such would not be the case if we lived, say, out by Kanakanak Hospital. Since we have only one car, living out there would require time-consuming, round-trip walks of 10 to 12 miles for each trip to town. Chances are, I’d stay at home more often.

If we had two vehicles, however, I’m not sure what I’d do. I might be tempted to drive into the city at least once a day just to run errands and let people know I was still alive.

I might even make lists.

But I wouldn’t dress up.

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.


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Filed under homesteaders, View from Out West

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