The Alaska Factor

By Beacon Staff

There’s been much talk about Sarah Palin, Alaska’s new governor and an even newer candidate for vice president. Here’s some more:

Almost 30 years ago, I had the good fortune to score work as a summer employee for the Alaska Railroad. As was usual in the railroad industry back then, I landed the job through favoritism and connections. A fair number of Whitefish railroaders had gone north in the early 1970s when the Alaska Pipeline was a-building.

We ran passenger trains. They were packed and made money, which hadn’t been the case Outside for at least 20 years. No, we didn’t have steam locomotives, but our diesels were antique types that Outside railroads had retired long ago. We used operating rules that were no longer in effect elsewhere in the country.

My first year, I worked seven days a week as a passenger agent in Fairbanks. Communications were so Stone Age that when I talked to the dispatcher in Anchorage, we sometimes had to yell over the pops and squeals caused by rain falling on the company telephone wires – or call each other on long-distance that wasn’t much better.

Because I was saving money for school, I lived Spartan, in a World War II-relic outfit car by the roundhouse. The hot water for the showers in both the car shop and engine house came straight from the steam plant, great for killing the mosquitoes that lurked under the drain grates.

My stints in Anchorage were a little more civilized. One summer I rented (cheap) a company house on the bluff above Knik Arm off Cook Inlet, with Mount McKinley and Mount Spurr across the water. The sunsets were outrageous, especially when spiced up with a flight of F-4 Phantoms departing Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Better, I had days off, able to borrow automobiles and fishing poles from my railroad buddies, and bootleg riding rights on all trains. I couldn’t do that again for a $1 million. Wow, what an adventure.

Going to Alaska was like jumping in a time machine and going back to a Montana of 20 years before. But it wasn’t just the landscape, or the infrastructure, or the wildlife. It was the people, too. I was shocked at the number of Montanans I met, including friends from Montana that were, like me, up north for work.

I’ve been to Wasilla. Back then, it was nothing much, a cluster across the highway from the tracks, the last “town” before the boondocks began. It wasn’t zoned. The highway hadn’t even been finished to Fairbanks until six or seven years before.
So based on my massive experience with Alaska, far more than most pundits, Sarah Palin strikes me as a product of her upbringing. I mean, she shoots her dinner and is married to a champion sled-head oil-patch worker?

Unless you’ve been to Alaska and lived there a while, it is hard to understand the Alaskan identity. Alaskans are proud of who and where they are, defiant even. Outside, the lower 48, is far away. Alaska is different, and to Alaskans, special and worth keeping.

In their recent primary, Alaskans voted to keep shooting wolves and mining gold, positions Montanans would have taken 20 years ago, when Montana was still Montana.
Even so, the status-quo “establishment” in Alaska is on its way out. Palin herself booted out Frank Murkowski, who handed his daughter Lisa his U.S. Senate throne when he became governor. Palin also chucked the good-old-boy Alaska gas pipeline rip-off in favor of a more-practical gas line that brings the Canadians on board. Sen. Ted Stevens is in court over taking favors, and Alaska voters missed tossing 38-year Congressman Don Young out on his can, in favor of Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell, by about 250 votes.

The reason? Like most establishment politicians, Murkowski, Stevens and Young eventually forgot where they were from and who they were.

Sarah Palin is exactly the opposite. For that reason alone, I hope she gets a chance to prove out.

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