Part 29 in a Series
“Driftwood Bay is definitely not farm land but we like it. Mostly the peace of semi solitude makes it worth it. Fred brought news of the world after three months. And it does me no good. I can feel discontent, anxiety and even hatred and I feel my blood run fast, talking of criminal justice, politics and other garbage. I mostly haven’t felt these things all winter and that is worth a lot. I don’t like to be very philosophical…so I’ll move on.”
John Davidson in March 2, 1974, letter home.
“You seem so concerned that she find a man. If she finds her true self – that’s the most important step – a man – and the right one, will follow naturally…when the time comes, the right man will, too.”
Ginger, in an April 6, 1974, letter to John’s parents referring to John’s youngest sister, Debbie, who arrived that spring in Seward to work for the summer.
The Peace of Semi Solitude vs. The News of the World
1974 – Part 1
The year 1974 became especially momentous in the lives of John and Ginger Davidson. They would have four visitors that year. John’s youngest sibling, his sister Debbie, came in April planning to work for the summer. His parents showed up in July to meet the new arrival.
Two winters now at Driftwood Bay – and Ginger and John knew this was the life they wanted. During the late 1960s, many young adults rebelled, experimented, took risks, and sought independence. In high school, Carolyn Higgins was called “Higgi.” In college she called herself “Chester West” because she lived near West Chester, Pennsylvania. John’s sister, Debbie, recalls her as a woman who defied peoples’ expectations.
“Don’t tell me what to do. Don’t put expectations on me of what you think I should do….She was dead-set against that kind of stuff,” Debbie said. “I think she was trying to get me to be the same way.”
In the summer of 1969 Carolyn Higgins met John Davidson and became Ginger – and that December, Ginger Davidson. The advice she gave John’s parents about his sister Debbie came from experience. When the right time arrived, everything came together for Ginger. The discovery of her true self – combined with the right man— evolved into a clear purpose in life.
In letters to the couple, John’s mother must have mentioned her concern about Debbie finding a husband. Ginger never gave any advice to Debbie directly, only to her mother.
“My mother was always concerned about getting her daughters married off,” Debbie told me. “My father had two ‘old maid’ aunts. We used to call them ‘old maids.’ You can’t say that anymore. They never married. They lived together all their lives, and my mother was always afraid my sister and I would do the same thing. We talked about that a lot.”
John Davidson was (and still is) called “Jack” by his family. In Alaska he started signing his letters, John, and that’s how people in Seward knew him. He was quiet, introspective, sensitive – perhaps at times overly sensitive according to some. He could occasionally misread comments, even from friends. He didn’t talk much and most likely internalized most discontent. Yet, in his letters he sometimes revealed more intimate feelings than Ginger did in her letters.
The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, John was about to turn 20 while in Germany in the Air Force. Before he was discharged in 1966 the buildup of American troops in Vietnam had started. In April 1968 while he prepared for another season with the Alaska Deptment of Fish & Game, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed. During the couple’s first two seasons at Driftwood Bay protests against the war increased as more soldiers died.
John and Ginger first settled at Driftwood Bay on April 1, 1970. About a month later – on May 4 – four students were killed and nine wounded at Kent State University when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a Vietnam War protest crowd.
Between the collapse of U.S. troop morale in Vietnam after the Battle of Fire Support Base in March 1971, followed in April by the largest ever anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C. with 500,000 participants, almost all support for the war ended.
The Nixon Watergate Scandal began in 1972. The President would resign in October 1974. That year, hearings and investigations continued through the winter and summer. Despite the Paris Peace Accords, combat and deaths continued in Vietnam. By the end of April 1975, the war had essentially ended with the dead totaling: 58,220 American soldiers, 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, 250,000 South Vietnam soldiers, and more than two million civilians.
When Fred Woelkers arrived in the spring of 1974 with several months-worth of news, it’s no wonder John’s blood ran fast with discontent, anxiety and even hatred. Perhaps he communicated these feelings with Ginger. His friends say he rarely talked politics. Yet, as an Air Force veteran, he may have served with some soldiers who were later sent to Vietnam and died there. John Davidson was among a significant number of veterans who came to Alaska during these years after service wary of a political culture they had come to distrust.
Since rejecting a move to British Columbia and embracing a life on the precarious edge at Driftwood Bay, both John and Ginger no doubt often discussed how they could accomplish that invigorating and challenging existence. Their helpful friend couldn’t be with them forever – in fact, he would leave at the end of 1974 after spending three years with them. Even if they could find someone else to assist them, employment would soon be difficult for Ginger.
As time passed, the couple had less and less tolerance for town life, and John with assembly line cannery work. At least a carpentry job allowed him some creativity.
He had a commercial fishing license for halibut and was already making some money at that. His sister, Debbie, recalled going halibut fishing with him while she was in Alaska.
“He pulled up three or four huge halibut…filleted them and I watched him can those…he had a machine that would seal the cans up.”
The couple’s chickens would soon produce more eggs than they could use. They could raise more goats and make and sell more cheese. They imagined the solitude of small-farm life out at Driftwood Bay with no illusions about how difficult that would be.
“Oh, yes. They seemed to be more and more entrenched in that kind of life and didn’t want town life anymore,” Debbie remembered. “They loved it out there. I could tell.”
At heart, John was an artistic craftsman – and true art isn’t about a finished product as much as it is about the process and an attitude toward life.
“John’s been tinkering in his shop as usual (the shop is in the living room),” Ginger wrote. “He always has some iron in the fire – quite literally. Just can’t wait to get his forge set up. Looks like it will be a way off.”
John had started to study blacksmithing, collecting books and tools, and building a forge. But he couldn’t get serious until he got his workshop out of the cabin and into a separate building. Perhaps he could begin a business, make practical and ornamental items at his forge at Driftwood Bay and selling them in Seward. He had been experimenting for years. While working in Southeast Alaska he made an old musket. In 1974 he made a crossbow.
“It’s beautiful,” Ginger wrote.
He fashioned a pocket knife, and several kitchen knives for Ginger, and hinges for the cabin doors.
There was talk of increasing tourism in Seward as the 1970s developed. Perhaps that could be one of his markets. By 1974, John considered what it would take to support their lifestyle and keep him at Driftwood Bay doing what he loved away from town with fewer worries about earning money.
The winter leading up to 1974 was a tough one.
“In November we had some extremely strong winds,” Ginger wrote. “Must have gusted 100 – blew steady around 70. Shook the cabin, knocked a window out. Many trees went down.”
It only lasted a week, but cold weather followed preventing work on their new goat barn – but they did finish the building in December. By that time Ginger knew she was pregnant and letters home no doubt notified the parents. Up through mid-December the weather warmed with much rain and about two feet of snow.
Christmas week brought another storm.
“Water just came pouring over the beach & the surf pounded fearsomely,” Ginger recorded. “Lots of new stuff washed in. After that we had a dry spell & somewhat cold for a while. Then much more snow, so we had to melt about 10 gallons of water every day just for the goats. We don’t use nearly as much.”
A later stretch of rain allowed them to fill all their water barrels.
The couple now had almost a dozen goats. When a pregnant Nanny went into labor, Ginger spent the whole day with her. Participating in that natural birthing process gave her confidence. She and John probably wanted and may have considered a natural birth at Driftwood Bay. Ginger was probably reading her nutrition and medical books.
John notes that she was eating “sea salt and ground seal bones for minerals and calcium, lots of meat, and several quarts of fresh raw goat’s milk plus lots of other stuff.”
Her miscarriage a few years earlier no doubt haunted her, and John as well.
On March 2 he wrote: “If we were more together and had a little more experience in this matter we might not go to town.... But I’m chicken so we already have a trailer house reserved for us to live in.”
The trailer was a 45-footer offered to them by Walter Scymekwicz (known as Pollak) – their junk-collector friend out on Resurrection Road (today Old Exit Glacier Road).
Ginger asked her parents to send one or two of her flannel nightgowns.
“I’m not really planning to spend eons in bed but I might like them for the birthing time – and shortly thereafter.”
Other goats gave birth – B.C., and Delilah with a kid they named Charlie. Ginger and John called the new kids – Joe, Harry, and Pete – or simply, Charlie’s gang.
“I sharpened Grandpa Davidson’s straight razor he brought with him from Denmark,” John wrote.
Ginger added: “We castrated all of them when they were a week or so old. Neither of us knew what to do, and it went rather badly with the first one and it died that night. – but the others survived.”
The couple wasted nothing
“Its 4th stomach is hanging on the wall waiting for cheese making time,” John wrote. “Rennet, an enzyme used to curdle fresh milk into cheese is extracted from the fourth stomach.”
He learned that from an 1800s “Farmers do Everything” book.
Their friend at Driftwood Bay tanned the hide and they all ate the meat.
“Last night we had roast duck,” John wrote.
They now had 13 ducks and hoped for a good laying season “or else we’ll eat them all,” he added. “It costs too much to carry them from one summer to the next. The goats seem to be worth the effort…Soon I would like to try a pig or two and see how it goes.”
They continued to have problems with their chain saw which quit during the goat barn construction the fall before. So they cut firewood with hand saws.
“Actually, the sawing takes very little time, but much setting up must be done ahead of time to save our backs,” Ginger wrote. “A crosscut saw doesn’t get in places a chain saw can.”
But without a chain saw, they couldn’t cut lumber.
“The old timers used a pit saw,” Ginger wrote. “One dude stood down in a pit & pulled down and swore at the guy on top for kicking sawdust in his eye. The other dude stood on top and pulled up & swore at the guy down below for hanging on (to) the saw on the up stroke. We don’t have a pit saw.”
They planned to buy a “very good” chain saw in the spring.
Other routine chores, like doing laundry, needed attention.
“It’s rather massive as we just finished a dry spell & haven’t done any in over a month,” Ginger wrote.
She gathered the clothes while John started a big fire under a tub of water not far from the beach. Under winter conditions this could be daunting and later with dozens of diapers – it became a formidable task.
Spring arrived quickly and as Ginger got larger she found more time for sewing and reading. She asked her parents to send her biology and chemistry books, and her Bible. She requested books about geology, astronomy, oceanography, physiology, and more on nutrition.
“If a book looks simple,” she told them, “it’s probably not what we’re looking for. Most simple how to do it books tell you stuff you can figure out for yourself. If it looks technical it’s probably okay.”
Remember my academic background, she reminded them. A few months earlier, Ginger borrowed a calculus book from a friend in Seward – just to read.
“People think we’re crazy to live out here all winter. Really, we never get bored. We’re really used to not being interrupted.”
John admired his wife’s talents.
“Ginger has a New Home sewing machine and uses all the assortments of sewing things you sent,” he wrote. “All my clothes I wear except T shirts (can’t find a good deal on knit) are Ginger made. Denim shirt, jeans & shop apron and jacket made from old army blanket. Ginger is wearing a shirt you sent me. She fits it real well even tho it is a large because she is become rather large.”
Ginger outlined their spring plans: “We plan to go in (to Seward) sometime in April and squeeze herring. After that, I probably won’t work as that runs till mid-June.”
John considered operating an Army/Air Force recreation boat on sightseeing and fishing trips. The military maintained a whole fleet in Seward.
“They always brought a bunch of their own guys down from Anchorage for the summer,” Ginger wrote, “showed them how to turn the key, and turned them loose with little instruction in Resurrection Bay.”
During the summer of 1973, that policy turned tragic. A soldier and his four children, plus the young, inexperienced boat driver, disappeared at sea – leaving a mourning mother behind in Seward. Searchers found some wreckage but no bodies.
“No one knows what happened,” Ginger recalled, “but it was too rough for them that day – I know, we were out in Freddy’s sailboat.”
After an investigation, the military hired only qualified civilian boat captains to operate their boats.
“The pay should be fair & John should be able to qualify so he might try.”
John’s sister Debbie arrived unexpectedly in April.
“We had no idea she was even really serious about coming to Alaska & hoped she’d make it this summer,” Ginger wrote.
Before she found her own place, Debbie house-and-cat-sat a month for Ted and Ruth McHenry. John had worked for Ted at the Bear Creek weir. She also quickly got work at the cannery.
“I wasn’t there long before I was working on the line feeding crab legs into the machine that spits out the meat,” she said.
John and Ginger didn’t even know she was in town when Fred Woelkers took Debbie out to Driftwood Bay to meet up with John and Ginger.
“I remember seeing a bunch of killer whales on the way out there,” she told me.
“You just wouldn’t believe how excited and surprised we were when Debbie landed on our beach,” Ginger wrote. “We didn’t recognize her at all.”
Fred had to introduce them.
“I expected to see the same little high school girl of four years ago.”
Debbie spent a few days at Driftwood Bay, worked occasionally at the cannery and later at the Mini Mall, across from the Liberty Theater. John and Ginger still weren’t sure when his parents would arrive.
“Surely will be a busy summer,” Ginger wrote. “As far as calling you when the little one arrives, I’m hoping to enlist Debbie’s help. We use the telephone so seldom, it is very difficult to figure it out.” John’s parents arrived in July.
“If everything goes well, we hope to be back out here (Driftwood Bay) shortly after (the birth),” he wrote. “I will make short trips all summer to…help get the garden in.”
When John and Ginger came to town, Debbie lived with them in the trailer before the birth.
“It wasn’t hooked up to electricity or water,” Debbie recalled. “It was more like a shelter, that was it…. I was working in that pizza place,” she recalled.
That was the Mini-Mall across from the Liberty Theater, owned by Jim Portwood.
“His partner in the place was a nurse. She told me that she could tell by the way Ginger was walking – kind of waddling – that she was going to have trouble with the birth.”
After a lengthy labor ending with a C-section, Jesse Davidson was born on July 11, 1974. Debbie was there.
“Oh, I’m glad they went to town,” she said. “It would have been terrible if they hadn’t.”
To be continued
Doug Capra is the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords.”Earlier parts of this series can be found online at sewardjournal.com. People who knew the Davidson or who have photographs, information, or letters, can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.