Chaplain Doug Williams
Gene's Welfare Check
in a way others
A memory stays with me from the summer I turned 10. It
influences me, even today. It shapes how I look at life and
living. Funny how lessons fromour youth, lessons we don’t
fully grasp at the time, can come to shape our adult lives
Doug Williams is a Senior
Law Enforcement Chaplain
and can be reached email@example.com
We lived in a small remote settlement called Cape Yakataga on the Gulf of
Alaska. My father served as station chief for the Federal Aviation Agency. The
mail plane attempted, during those years, to come once a week. That frequency
represented a substantial improvement over the previous once-monthly service. I
say “attempted” because Gulf weather didn’t cooperate predictably. If the allotted
day for mail delivery had us “weathered out” or “out of the flight circuit,” it would
be another week before letters and packages arrived. Barring emergency air service
requests, weather could extend the arrival of flights out to weeks.
The mail’s arrival was a morale booster. It provided tangible contact with the
outside world. Letters from family and friends, parcels from Sears, Roebuck and Co.,
or special items from stores in Cordova or Anchorage came by air, at considerable
expense. Thus, a package usually found itself received after much anticipation.
Beyond that, the mail plane’s arrival served as a community get-to-gather. All
available hands unloaded the plane. Then people hauled the cargo to the ad-hoc
Post Office set up in one of the FAA’s maintenance buildings. There, after the labor-
intensive work of unloading boxes, barrels, and sacks of mail ended, folks gathered
to visit. Then the local part-time post mistress began sorting mail. Glad individuals
reached for envelopes and packages at the calling of their names. Others watched
expectantly for small cubbies bearing their names to receive an item.
Catching up might mean connecting with people who went unseen for days,
weeks, or months; a reality of bush existence. It also meant that seeing the “regulars,”
people who made it every Friday, or bi-monthly, or monthly verified their “all-ok”
status. Mail day was a kind of central dispatch for the “bush telegraph”
and a means
for checking welfare.
On one of those neat Fridays, someone commented that a man named Gene hadn’t
shown up with his regular frequency. His mail had accumulated for some time. For a
boy my age, that mystery promised adventure, if only in my imagination. Eventually
someone approached my father and asked him to use the radio. They suggested
trying to see if Gene needed assistance. Back then, in bushAlaska, we had only crank
telephones (rarely, if at all). InYakataga, those were limited to the FAAand theWhite-
A very few of the Sourdoughs
had two-way radios. One of them lived
a few miles from Gene. His name was Clarence. In his
seventies, Clarence lived alone, miles from our settlement.
No roads connected his place with anywhere, because there
were no roads in his neck of the woods. In fact, all told,
roadways (think tracks) totaled 25 miles if you added all the
side ventures and offshoots. Most of these connected the
infrastructure of the government facilities. After that, think
in terms of a hundred road-less miles to the next settlement
in any direction. Alaska is a vast land.
To get to Clarence’s place, you had to travel 10 plus
miles of beach. You then left your
vehicle, if you had one. If you had a
river worthy boat (strong currents),
you could get within about five miles
of Clarence’s cabin, after a two-hour
motorboat trip upstream before you
used shank’s mare.
lay about another five miles beyond
on a foot trail.
I liked Clarence. He acted
interested in my trapping, hunting,
schoolwork, and life in general. Beyond that, it seemed that
many of the locals (all 50 +/- of us) liked him too. Gene
on the other hand, seemed to enjoy tormenting us with rude
curses, pokes, slaps, and pushes if he bothered to interact at
all. Most of us kids steered clear of him, and the adults acted
distant. Later I learned that Gene’s reputation included
rumors of trap robbing and cabin raiding. Generally,
people felt he was untrustworthy. Reports surfaced that he
possessed several items Clarence had reported stolen.
So, a certain irony began to unfold as Dad made the
radio calls to Clarence for a welfare-check on Gene. A
70-year-old trapper hiking 10 miles round trip to check
on the condition of a 40-something-year-old prospector
who had wronged him. Clarence went. Late that night,
he radioed back that Gene was in a bad way. He thought it
looked like mercury poisoning from amalgamation.
next day several men went to render aid. Gene died on the
way to an aircraft rendezvous point.
After a couple of days, concerns mounted for Clarence.
He had not responded to radio hails. They found him
sitting at his rough plank table. Coffee cup in hand, staring
at nothing in particular, his lifeless body looked tranquil. I
listened, not fully grasping yet wishing it wasn’t so, while
the men reported the details about finding Clarence.
Dad believed Clarence’s rapid return hike on Gene’s
behalf contributed to a heart attack. I recall asking my
father why Clarence went when Gene had done the things
people said. It was life lesson time. Dad told me, “Humble
people understand trust in a way others cannot.”
The ancient Greeks didn’t understand being humble
as we do today. They thought humility
marked the low-
down, the faint-hearted, the weakly, and degraded. If you
presented yourself as less than the cat’s meow, you weren’t
worthy of consideration. That came in part from a belief
that human-kind centered the universe. The gods had little
purpose if humans weren’t the object
of their attention.
Later the word would come to
mean completely the opposite. When
people trust in something greater
than themselves, they have no good
use for the weakness of arrogance.
Swiss philosopher Frederick Amiel
“There is no respect for
others without humility in one’s self.”
Clarence trusted that doing right
contributed to the overall good and outweighed retribution.
He was a humble man.
1. Another history buff moment: Sears, Roebuck and Co. is
the official name with the comma, “and” spelled out, and
2. “Bush telegraph” – a slang term for unofficial channels of
communication in rural Alaska: typically word of mouth.
3. A USAF routing site for the Ballistic Missile Early Warning
System (BMEWS) instituted during the Cold War era. It
aided in the transfer of information from Alaska to NORAD
4. Sourdough—a name given to long time Alaskan residents.
Google the word’s history.
5. Shank’s Mare – slang term for walking. The shank is the
leg portion between the knee and ankle (shin or tibia) and
“mare” as in a horse: i.e. the human leg doing the job of
transport in lieu of a horse.
6. Gold amalgamation – a process where mercury is mixed
with material containing gold. The mercury and gold adhere
to one another and are heated to vaporize the mercury leav-
ing the gold. The mercury fumes have toxic neurological
and physiological effects.
7. Greek = tapeinos (tah pie NOSS)