Part 30 in a Series
“You’d think he’s the only kid in the world, the way I keep talking about him. Did I tell you John’s crazy about his baby? Can hardly leave him alone. They just lay on the floor & play together. Jesse laughs a lot now & talks to himself. No more words, but lots of new sounds.”
Ginger in a December 1974 letter home
The Only Kid in the World
1974 – Part 2
Before leaving the homesite for Seward to prepare for Jesse’s birth, Ginger wrote: “We canned some scrapple (homemade from seal) to bring to town. Also started making cheese. We were getting 10 quarts of milk a day when we left (Driftwood) & should get more soon as the green things come up. We’ll try to arrange to bring a goat to town so we can have good fresh milk here, too. The main problem is a place to keep the goats.”
The couple arrived in town in late April or early May, not long after Debbie’s visit to Driftwood. While waiting to occupy the 45-foot trailer on Resurrection Road owned by their friend, junkman Walter Scymekwicz (known as Pollak), the couple lived in the camper John built on their truck.
“It’s cozy with the wood cook stove John made for it,” Ginger wrote. “Holds the fire all night – more than most big heating stoves do. It’s all a matter of designing.”
She probably didn’t work or, if she did, very little and for a short time. They were quite cautious and overly prepared, no doubt with the rekindled memory of Ginger’s 1972 miscarriage. Starting a family was an important part of their lives. One of the main reasons they considered moving to British Columbia was that it would be easier, perhaps safer there to raise children.
The last letter before the birth is dated April 6, but the content extends to June. Many of their letters were written over weeks or months before being mailed. The next letter is dated October 24 – so we know little about those spring and summer months. Debbie provided some information as did narrative flashbacks in later letters and the family took several photographs.
“We’re really looking forward to seeing you and taking you to our home,” Ginger wrote to John’s parents.
Both sets of parents were of course curious about the couple’s living conditions. Myths about Alaska were widespread back in the 1970s, and they still are today.
John and Ginger seemed intent on exposing their parents to their comfortable cabin and positive lifestyle – and to assure them they were safe. That hadn’t been easy with Ginger’s parents during their 1972 visit. Mr. and Mrs. Higgins initially hesitated to stay out at or even visit Driftwood Bay, but they eventually did visit. Ginger’s father was especially concerned with the couple’s small boat and the dangerous trips to and from town. He offered to buy them a larger boat, and even agreed to finance a farm in British Columbia. Letters indicate the initial idea for the move to B.C. came from the couple. Mr. Higgins most likely made his offer after John and Ginger made a firm decision not to move.
Once they set their mind to stay at Driftwood, they became determined to make it work. And what about accepting a better vessel? They might have considered Mr. Higgins’s offer, but John knew a larger boat probably wouldn’t last a winter at Driftwood, either at anchor or hauled out on the beach. Over the years he had many boats and was always repairing one or another. Between the winds, the tides, and the storms – even a wharf or boat house would be vulnerable.
In July the couple would have an opportunity to impress John’s mother and father. But until then, the baby was their main concern. In 1971, Ginger’s mother sent her 16 yards of red corduroy.
“I haven’t figured out what to do with 16 yards,” she wrote back.
By 1974 she had used much of it and still had some left.
“I made (it’s not quite finished) a quilt for the baby,” Ginger wrote in 1974. “Patchwork on one side & bright red corduroy on the other side with lots of animal shapes of other colors of corduroy sewed on with zigzags. Something to last the kid till he’s 5.”
Jesse was born on July 11, 1974, and Ginger and John were probably in town for at least a few weeks during Ginger’s recovery from the C-section and John’s parents visit. By the end of July all the Davidsons were out at Driftwood Bay for the visit.
Once the parents left with their reluctant daughter – Debbie wanted to live in Alaska forever -- John may have obtained more work. It wouldn’t be long before the new family merged into the peace and solitude of their Driftwood Bay existence.
On Oct. 24 John wrote: “The 3 of us are in town. First time since you were here. I didn’t want to come to town now but have business to take care of. We brought two goats…and sold them for $175. The chickens have just started laying and we’ve been eating roosters every day. They are larger than I thought, about 4 lbs. dressed. We got 350 lbs of potatoes and made 5 lbs of sauerkraut from the cabbage plus we had fair turnips, rutabagas, and carrots.”
At 3 ½ months old, Jesse could hold his toys. He played with and pulled their dog Andy’s long hair, and the dog liked to lick his feet.
“He kicks and wiggles all the time,” John wrote. “He is mostly happy and laughing…but is getting a little cranky in town the last two days.”
Four experienced mothers in Seward told John and Ginger that Jesse was teething.
“Jesse can hold and chew the teething rings ok,” John wrote. “He loves to go outside, …He loves the boat ride and doesn’t fuss at all even in the rain.”
Ginger added: “We put him in the pack you sent. He smiled so hard I thought he’d break. Then we went bouncing and smiling around town on John’s back. He saw his first other kids… and just loved them. At four months we went to visit our neighbors at Anchor Cove (Dave and Bonnie Miller). They have a 3-year-old daughter, Chrysanna. (Jesse) went crazy, just giggled & giggled and reached for her. He is in definite need of a brother or sister. Now at 5 months he rolls over at will – both ways, and sits up on his own for as much as 5 minutes…and says ‘ma ma ma ma.’ I’m not sure he knows what it means, but I do. I always feel he’s calling me. He usually says it when he’s upset. I’m not sure, but I think maybe he’s a little spoiled.”
Thus began a new chapter in their lives.
“You’d think he’s the only kid in the world,” Ginger wrote, “the way I keep talking about him.”
And she did write extensively about Jesse – but not only to keep the parents connected. It was more than that. It was the love and excitement of a new mother combined with confronting the first-hand experience of her academic interests.
With a psychology degree, she no doubt studied early childhood development. It’s one thing to read about that in a book – another to watch it happen with your own child. And Ginger observed and recorded everything in detail.
Dave and Bonnie Miller, who had a homesite at Anchor Cove with their daughter Chrysanna, visited that fall. They planned to spend the day, but a storm kept them there for three days. While they were at Driftwood, John’s skiff broke loose and blew ashore during the night.
“When I found it all but two of the ribs were broken,” John wrote. “One plank on the bottom was stove in and one engine was broken off the transom and washing in the surf.”
He hauled the skiff up to the cabin to patch it up and replace the ribs. Sand and gravel covered the 15 hp engine’s cylinders, so John took it apart for cleaning.
“It runs better than ever now,” he wrote.
Miller remembered the event well and filled in the details for me.
“We had gone to Driftwood for a brief visit with John and Ginger but shortly after arriving an easterly storm bringing big seas prevented us from crossing Day Harbor to return home….After the worst of the blow we found John’s skiff smashed on the beach, its tie-up line was tied to the stern of my boat, and had chaffed during the night. My boat was still fastened to the mooring but one of its two lines was missing. I remember we launched a small dory in fairly big surf to reach my boat to attach a safety line. Everyone got very wet and Poor John had to patch-up the skiff before making his next trip to town.”
John purchased a better chainsaw in Seward.
“John built his own chain saw mill from aluminum bar and tubing,” Miller said. “I copied his and made my own. At the time, Stihl’s biggest chainsaw was a Stihl 90, which is what milled wood for all of john’s building projects.”
In three days, John cut enough lumber to finish the barn and build a chicken coop. With urethan Debbie provided, he insulated the new outbuildings as well as the cabin floor.
Ginger returned to Driftwood from their Seward trip with nine dozen diapers, and the warm fall made it “convenient,” she wrote, “for my big diaper wash – about once a week.”
On her mother’s advice she bought cold water soap.
“The creek is running really good,” she said, “(unusual for this time of year). We have a hose upstream that runs a continuous stream of water and I use that to fill my barrels to do wash. It runs 10-15 gallons per min. I just keep it in the barrel for rinsing – so many hundred gallons rinse the clothes. The cold-water soap saves me building a fire & waiting for several tubs of water to heat (and) the hose saves me ever having to lift or pump water.”
Once the warm fall ended and winter hit with temperatures zero or below along with fierce winds, 40 mph or more, doing laundry became drudgery.
“Not so much fun,” Ginger wrote. “We have a big pump – about one gal./stroke and a well John dug last winter. But it took both of us (to pump). The diapers froze to the ringer before they went through, so (they) had to (be) pulled thu by hand. We had to take a break in the midst of the proceedings to take care of Jesse. Meanwhile, the diapers stuck to the sides and bottom of the barrel and a half inch of ice formed on the top. I’m sure glad we don’t have to melt snow.”
They were getting about two dozen eggs a day from their chickens and stored them in water glass for the next summer. John got another seal, and they harvested the meat and saved the skin. Five of their 23 hens became dinners, and they canned seven. It was too expensive to feed the hens over the winter. The goats dried up – but before that happened, they ate lots of custard. They still had canned and powdered milk on hand, and Jesse was still nursing. They butchered four goats and made three kinds of sausage, scrapple, and soup stock – and saved nine roasts to eat fresh. It took them a week, but those goats gave them another 200 pounds of meat.
Ginger had plenty of clothes for Jesse – between what she got from the parents and from friends in Seward.
“I knit him a pair of wool socks,” she wrote. “brown with an orange pattern. They fit him, stay on, and keep his feet warm. The little ones you sent also say on, tho they are white only rarely. Other people must have cleaner floors. He gets grey fast. He’s also growing fast. Already his six-month outfits are too small. Not because he’s big (he’s just average size for a boy), but because the company, I’m convinced, makes the clothes small so they will sell more. He never did fit into clothes marked 3 months. Fortunately, I got lots of clothes for him – we never bought a thing except cod liver oil.”
Jesse had lots of toys from family and friends.
“The little hand-made cloth ball you sent is so cute,” she wrote the parents. “I’m making a larger one for a friend’s baby. Also, it gave me the idea for a number of other cloth balls and blocks I can make for Jesse.”
The families always asked Ginger and John for what they needed and/or wanted as Christmas and holiday gifts.
“I can never come up with anything in a hurry, so here’s a suggestion for you to tuck away,” Ginger wrote. “I would like some yarn. Wool. Any colors – preferably deep rich colors that won’t show dirt – not pastels. Any size, etc. Any amount. I can knit well enough to make up (my) own designs…And a little book on how to crochet. I don’t know stitch one on that, (and) maybe a couple of crochet hooks.”
She also asked for cotton-knit material to make T-shirts & turtlenecks. It needn’t be expensive or heavy duty, she said.
“I can make a shirt in couple of hours. John & I can hardly wear synthetics anymore. All the shirts I made for him he quit wearing. It just feels like wearing a plastic bag. It doesn’t breathe. We can’t find such cloth around here. Dark colors, please.”
She also requested Wagner’s Quartet Blend teas – rosehip, chamomile, hibiscus, and peppermint. Along with everything else, Ginger sent both parents a list of books they could choose from as gifts, which included a one on cheese making and another on barrel making. Perhaps a reproduction 19th century Sears Catalogue and some sandpaper for John. Oh, yes, Ginger added, maybe a subscription to Scientific American for her.
John worked on a window frame to finish the up-ladder gable.
“He built a casement for the window already.” Ginger wrote, “There will be an 18” windowsill. It’s going to be beautiful. The cabin gets more and more finished all the time – it hardly seems like the same place you saw.”
John never had enough tools, Ginger noted. And he could use clamps, any size, wooden or metal, and more drill bits and saws.
“Those old rusty dull saws we have, John can put to good use,” Ginger wrote. “He buys similar ones from Old Man Andrews, shines them up, sharpens them, and sets the teeth and they are better than new ones because they don’t make them like they used to – really. Old tools are generally good tools…If you see any good deals at junk shops or rummages on old tools you can get them. That’s how we get most of our tools. No need to pay new or antique prices. John can fix anything up.”
Christmas 1974: “Jesse sits up well now. Last night he pulled his knees up under himself the first time – rocked back & forth. Soon to crawl. He gets around good now – I’m not sure just how. John says he’s bald but I’m not sure. It looks to me he has more hairs, but they’re light & hard to see. Did I tell you John’s crazy about his baby? Can hardly leave him alone. They just lay on the floor & play together. Jesse laughs a lot now & talks to himself. No more words, but lots of new sounds.”
As 1974 ended, their friend who had been with them for about three years, decided to leave.
“I’m sending this letter to town (with him)….If a boat doesn’t happen by in the next week or so, John will take him in some nice day.”
But the wind and rough seas continued.
And the December letter Ginger had planned to send to Seward with their friend extended until the end of January 1975 – as they all waited for a safe window for travel.
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 email@example.com.