Family Story: my birth
[The above photo was taken on October 4th, 1953–shown is my mom, dad, sister, and myself as a baby.] I was born in the greatest place on earth: Alaska.
Not the State of Alaska… Just Alaska.
On that fateful day when I was about to arrive, my mother was baking bread in the cabin she and my father had built. It was located about twenty miles outside of Anchorage, and it was nestled on a hillside overlooking the forest and the Alaskan mountain range. Our homestead was an Alaskan land grant or patent. Our family lived as pioneers but we were not the only ones. There were miners and hunters with the skills and dedication to help this land and newly-arriving people grow closer, stronger and to fight for statehood. Being born in the “territory”, my birth announcement said, ‘One more sourdough’.
My parents were “old school”, in the sense that they had lived and survived throughout their lives during some of the most turbulent times in history. They were raised to overcome adversity. Raised by stern parents who believed that playing instruments was cultural, to speak multiple languages was necessary, and to know how to live off the land was imperative. They had no telephones, no televisions, no computers. They were raised from birth with Godly moral values and trained to fight injustice. They began learning life skills at an early age, and more advanced survival skills as they grew older. This is what was the foundational strength of my family’s character… my great grandfather’s obituary read: hunter, teacher, builder, railroad-man, soldier. Our family thrived on wanting to learn and to learn was to succeed. Our family used these well-practiced traits throughout my own lifetime.
Simplicity was more often a practiced principle. Not by necessity, but rather it helped you realize your limitations. Because as you age, and take on more difficult and different challenges, you begin to realize every challenge is different, and you have to learn to overcome multiple decision points in order to accept the best solution for that moment in time. Like a diamond, each facet you develop makes you more brilliant.
Several family traits proved invaluable the morning I was about to be thrust on earth at fifty miles an hour. Born on the bump, screaming with the clan.
My mother often told us stories of the early family days following the war in Europe. My mother was a skilled survivor, and I was glad. The day was July 12th, the year was 1953. This is the beginning of her story, essentially my story as well.
Even living alone in the wooded mountains, miles from any neighbors, my mom was secure in her abilities. She always kept a loaded rifle and shotgun near the only entrance of their two room cabin. She proudly admitted that her and my father practiced shooting on a weekly basis. Her weapon was always in her purse holster. It was a snub nosed .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver. In their cabin, the .30 Caliber carbine rifle hung over the front door, and the 12 gauge shotgun was leaned up behind the hinges on the right side, in the corner.
On this particular day, my mom was nearing her thirty-ninth week of her pregnancy. She recalled opening her oven and lifting out two large bread pans that had finished baking. She instantly felt a sharp pelvic contraction. It was so extreme that she was brought down to her knees. Immediately, she rolled on her side to catch her breath. Laying on her side, she had two more fairly quick, painful cramps and she felt fluid running down her leg and soaking her dress.
Feeling under her dress she said she felt the top of a head and hair. It wasn’t protruding, just crowning. At that moment, she realized time was of the essence. She carefully pulled herself up using the cabinet for leverage, and grabbed or lifted her nearly four year old daughter (my sister, Norma) up from the floor where she was playing. Quickly pulling her purse over her shoulder, and checking that the keys were in her purse, she stepped out of the cabin into the sunlight. She hurriedly put the front door brace into the lintel slots on the large door frame. She then caught the long concrete spike nail hanging from a string and inserted it into the hole drilled to lock in the brace because, in her terrible discomfort, she absentmindedly thought that a bear or moose would smell the fresh bread and decide to try to break into the cabin. It was a simple measure, but worked well as their home’s makeshift lock.
Stumbling quickly towards the car, holding fast to Norma’s small hand, she made a beeline for the driver’s door. Opening the door and half pushing/lifting her young one, she felt the pressure pushing below. She climbed in and put the keys into the ignition. She noticed her hands were shaking. Mentally she was judging the time it would take to get to help. As she pushed in the clutch and started the car, she pulled Norma close. Then in a practiced mental game, her mind clicked off the checklist in her head. The car always had more than a half tank of gas, check. Next, there was the box of supplies in the trunk, with three blankets and two plastic wrapped sleeping bags, check. Her husband, Frank’s, two canvas tool bags and car jack were put back in the trunk last night, check. Under the passenger seat, she knew there was a flashlight, an ax, and a military issued medical kit, check, check and check. Quickly looking over her shoulder, she saw her husband’s deployment bag and cold weather parka.
The car was rolling onto the rutted driveway towards civilization. Her brain kept focusing on whether the batteries in the flashlight were still good. Had they checked them recently? Maybe they should carry a new pack of batteries from now on. This nagging concern kept her from worrying about her immediate situation. That is, until her legs cramped and she struggled through the searing pain and burning, knowing the baby was trying to push out. Pushing in the clutch one last time to shift into third gear, she thought about the nice, newness of the car she was driving. It was Manuel Rivera’s (my dad’s best friend) 1952 Buick Sedan. Their 1950 Chevy coupe was getting a new head gasket so they borrowed Manuel’s car. Thank God for that because driving that beat up old Chevy would have been horrible right now.
She could only get about ten miles down the road, before having to stop, lift the hood, and fill the radiator with water before continuing for another nine or ten miles. She could almost hear my dad saying, “Betty, don’t turn off the engine, use gloves and pour water into the radiator or the motor ‘s block will crack. I’ve left the radiator cap off so don’t put it back on”.
Trying to hurry down the rutted dirt trail, she had a clear mental picture of where to drive right and high, to miss a deep hole, or roll slowly around a curve to crawl over a protruding boulder. As she straightened out from that curve she knew she had gone about five miles, and could push the gas pedal to accelerate to forty miles an hour into an open down-hill stretch. The morning light was blinding her from under the visor, but she kept focusing on the trail in front of her. In the distance, she thought she saw some movement in the trees. She hoped it wasn’t a herd of elk. They could be dangerous.
No, it was a US Army Jeep coming out of the woods into one of the clearings. It was driving up the road towards her. She hoped they wouldn’t turn off onto one of the many trails going to some of the Army unit’s training camps. Frantically, she started honking her horn and flashing her lights. They were at least a mile and a half away. Don’t turn off, she prayed silently. As she focused on the Jeep, she saw they were speeding up towards her. They, too, then started clicking on their lights from high to low beam. They saw her. Thank you, God.
Within minutes my mom saw it was Manuel and my dad driving up in the Jeep. Both men jumped out of the jeep before it had fully stopped. Running at breakneck speed, the men had their guns out and were screaming, “Was it a bear?” , “Was it a mountain cat?” “No, No” said my mother; “The baby is coming.” My dad ran to the driver’s door and opened it to help her out. His first comment was, “My God, Betty, you’re sweating to death.” She had to laugh and say, “No honey, my water broke, but, yeah, I’m sweating too”.
As my dad helped her into the back seat, she let out a sharp deep cry and sucked in air. She was really feeling this pain and told them to please hurry. At this point, Manuel popped the trunk and got out a sleeping bag and blanket. He threw them to my dad in the back seat and quickly jumped behind the wheel. My dad was trying to make her comfortable by placing the sleeping bag behind her. “Hold on”, Manuel shouted, as he drove like a crazy man through the forest with all its ruts, barely missing or maneuvering over the tree roots. Manuel reached across the front seat and grabbed Norma by the shoulder and pulled her close to him. He spoke softly in Spanglish with his heavy soothing accent, “No need to cry poketo, Mama is okay” .
Less than three miles further along, Manuel hit a small boulder which jolted everyone’s position and proceeded to bounce them four inches off the seats, up into the air. My mother landed hard and let out a piercing scream of pain. My dad screamed at Manuel, “You idiot, slow it down!” Norma started crying at the top of her lungs, scared that everyone was screaming. Manuel yelled at my dad for scaring little Norma. In the middle of all this commotion, my mom said in a loud authoritative calm voice, “Stop the car. Stop Now!”.
As they were breaking to a full stop, my mother told the two men, “I think the baby is out.” My dad lifted my mom’s dress and saw the head protruding and the shoulders moving slowly out as well. He put his hands down and holding the shoulders started pushing the baby back in. Well…he got slapped for that, as my mom doubled over grunting loudly, pushing more.
“Drive faster!”, my dad screamed. “Ohhhh, God help us.” , Manuel screamed even louder. My dad asked, “Can’t you go faster?” Manuel answered “I’m doing almost sixty. In two or three minutes, we’ll be on the highway and we can drive faster.”
My mom started the death grab and soon was crushing her long fingernails deep into my dad’s forearms which were holding my shoulders. It was the leverage she needed and one final push later little ole me slid right on out. Manuel was yelling and babbling: “Frankie grab him.”; “Don’t drop him.”; “Put the baby on her lap.“; “Look, there’s a penis.” My dad just yelled out to no one in particular, “Keep your eyes on the road, will you?” He told my mom to hold the baby and lifted his parka onto her lap. She loosely wrapped me in the fur. All of a sudden, Norma was looking over the seat and saw me. She saw all the blood and slime and screamed, “BAAAAYYBEEE”. Instantly, I broke out with my own newborn cry-scream.
Manuel covered the last five miles through the treacherous mud-puddle pocked drive towards town, at a safe, but bumpy speed. Once arriving at the paved road, which was the Alaskan Highway (now called Col Glenn Highway), Manuel started driving at a much faster speed towards the main gate of the Elmendorf Air Base. Manuel pulled up and told the guards, “We have a woman and baby. They are in labor.” “Call the hospital to get them ready for us.” The guard asked if she was close to delivering, and the two men screamed: “Yes! The baby’s on her lap.” Manuel made a u-turn and headed out onto the highway, when my dad asked, “What are you doing?” He yelled, “Just drive through the gate”, but Manuel told him they just finished putting up the fence around the base. It would be quicker and easier to get to the clinic which was outside the fence by the Richardson Army training area.
The old hospital or clinic was down the highway another left onto a gravel road, about ten or twelve miles. Doing close to eighty, the Buick was heading towards the turn-off for the US Army Richardson roadway entrance. Making a left turn off the highway, they were heading into the dense woods, on a gravel training road. Five miles into the Army training grounds, there was a military police check point. Instead of stopping, they flashed their lights and my dad was hanging his head part way out of the open window, and waving his free hand at the guard and screamed, “Get out of the way. We are having a baby.”
Five long minutes later, my mother was still feeling the urge to push. Grunting, she doubled over. The bouncing ride had taken its toll. Panting, she grunted to release some pressure. I laid there wrapped in fur. Waiting for us at the small clinic-hospital was an entourage of medics, one doctor and a couple GI’s. Manuel pulled close to the entrance, which was lined up in the center of three attached white concrete block buildings. The buildings were attached to form the letter ‘H’. (Its now the vet clinic at JBER). As Manuel slammed on the brakes, a medic jerked open the passenger side door and my sister Norma let out a piercing scream, which acted as another catalyst for me to let loose with my own screaming cry. This pissed off my dad and Manuel. “Get a wheelchair”, both men shouted in near unison. Mom smiled and said to no one in particular, “I can get out by myself, just lift the baby as I scoot out.” My dad slipped out backwards and stepped out of the open door. Mom stayed close after handing me to him and scooted slowly across the seat, slipping out of the car. Immediately she grabbed me back. I was still comfortably wrapped in the fur-lined parka.
The ordeal took it’s toll on my mom. She was smiling but she had lost a lot of blood. As she leaned back against the car waiting for the medic to bring the wheelchair, no one noticed her weakness and loss of color in her face. A second later, she leaned back against the car fender, passed out and slid to the ground still clutching me. For more than a month, my mama and me lived in the back wing of the clinic. My mother never fully recovered from my birth. She was anemic throughout her life. Thinking about it now, I had made a pretty dysfunctional entry onto planet earth. It was kind of a rough landing, wouldn’t you say?