SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Thanks for the Memories, Inga/Francine


April 10, 2010

Ketchikan, Alaska - One of the great things about moving to Ketchikan - or anywhere else in Alaska for that matter - is the fact that you can reinvent yourself if you really want.

Sure, there is always the point that "no matter where you go, there you are." But in Alaska there is a remarkable tolerance for accepting people at face value.

jpg Dave Kiffer

Here you can become what you say you are.

If you show up in town and tell everyone you are a "painter," for example, that's how people will refer to you indefinitely, no matter what your day job is.

You can be a musician, a sculptor, a former bank robber, a novelist (unpublished, of course). Pretty much whatever you say goes.

You can even tell wild tales about your life before KTN (you were Amelia Earhart's cabana boy, cool!) and we won't question it, or even call your references. We will play along indefinitely.

I know two local "poets" who have lived here since the early 1980s and haven't published a thing as far as I know. Still, I heard one of them referred to as a poet in conversation the other day.

We are indeed pretty tolerant in these here parts.

The reason this all matters is that - by the flip side - if you are born here, you are kinda stuck. We all remember when you were born, what your parents drank, where you lived, what your first dog's name was, that embarrassing thing you did at a seventh grade dance.

Everything you would like to forget becomes inescapable because of the "persistence of small town memory." (to misquote Salvador Dali!)

I was thinking about this earlier this week, when I heard that a former Ketchikan resident had died. She was a good friend of mine from way, way back and her name was Francine Strannigan.

That was the name she chose for herself when she was old enough to choose. Her given name was Inga Nordness, but she wanted to be of Irish heritage rather than Nordic heritage. She also wanted to escape the "small town memory" of growing up in Ketchikan.

And she did, living most of her long life elsewhere, specifically California for at least the last 30 years or so. I know that some oldtimers accused her of "putting on airs" by changing her name but I always kinda thought it was neat she had the cojones to do it.

I came to know Inga/Francine well when I when to college in Southern California in the late 1970s and she lived in San Diego. She invited me down for several visits, took me and others on wild car jaunts to Mexico, regaled us with stories of my family, and called me "kiddo."

"Kiddo," she'd say. "I hated Ketchikan, couldn't wait to get out. But sometimes I miss it."

Then she'd laugh hysterically at her own joke. I liked her. She was a lot of fun. She had big blond hair and her skin was tanned the color of shoe leather. She once called herself a "broad." Yes, she was. In a very, very
good way.

Besides the fact that she invented a whole new self for herself, Francine was a link to a part of my own history that I was too young to ever have known.

As a child she lived in the poor fisherpersons houses down around what is now Bar Harbor. That was where my father's parents settled when they came here in 1919. Gramma Gladys and Granpa Jesse's old house from those days still survives, although it moved out of "town" and now sits on Shoreline Drive.

Anyway, Francine/Inga was a young child and knew my father as a youngster and was always happy to share some of that "small town memory" that passes for history around here.

She remembered snowball fights, bloody noses and the smell of fish in the harbor, always the smell of fish.

"I hated that too, kiddo," she told me.

She loved telling stories about the old "Charcoal Point Gang" that involved the poor kids from the north end who lived outside the then city limits and when to the federal government school in an old roadhouse at Charcoal Point.

But what she especially remembered where the legendary fights that my grandparents would engage in at Bar Harbor.

They usually centered around my grandfather's drinking and while they would always start inside the small house, they would eventually spill out into the yard and attain such a volume that everyone else in the harbor -
including young Inga - dropped what they were doing and listened in.

Apparently they were very colorful and even though my grandmother was a preacher's daughter she apparently gave as "colorfully" as she got.

There wasn't TV or even radio in those days. But the weekly Kiffer family verbal smack downs apparently more than made up for it.

Francine used to say that she wished she'd had a tape recorder because the screaming matches always provided her with new chances to increase both her vocabulary and her array of verbal putdowns and sometimes the back and forth went by too quickly for her catch the first time And of course, she would love to hear those "frank discussions" again to see if they were as wild as she remembered.

This was fascinating to me because by the time I came around, my grandparents had settled into a "cold war" that very, very rarely allowed its anger to bubble up.

I'm sure they still had their moments (gram loved to replace grandpa's alcohol with water, he used to "secretly" pee in her garden), but it wasn't anything that truly "erupted" very much when they were in their sixties.

Hearing Francine's stories was like watching an old black and white sitcom. "The Battling Kiffers of Bar Harbor."

And then Francine would also talk about my grandmother as homemaker which always seemed hysterical to me because Grandma Gladys was about as far from Susie Homemaker as I could imagine, and I even lived with them for several months in junior high while my parents were south.

Gram could not cook, at all. She burned everything (maybe still taking shots at Grandpa Jesse who couldn't taste the difference anymore). If you asked for "milk," she'd give you a can of the condensed variety. If you asked for a glass of water she'd hand you a cup of coffee that was thicker than used crankcase oil.

She once said she only liked to cook and eat fish, yet even that was of the "Cajun blackened variety."

Needless to say, I loaded up on lunch at Schoenbar and skipped what passed for dinner (Mac and Cheese with carbon dated bits of Spam!) at Gram's house.

Besides cooking, Gram didn't exactly keep a clean house, not that you could with fishing gear and other stuff hanging to dry everywhere. It wasn't verminous, mind you, but everything was always little bit disheveled.

On top of that, she was just not even remotely feminine. She was tough. She was simply a "tough old bat" and I say that with the greatest possible affection.

She was always hauling anchor chains and trolling leads up and down the beach and shleping 40 pound king salmon back and forth. After all, she did keep hand trolling into her 90s.

So it was a real shock that after Gram died, Francine sent me some lace doilies that Gram had given Inga/Francine many, many, many years before. They were tiny and intricate and beautiful and must have been very difficult to "tat."

I suddenly had a whole new side of my grandmother to understand.

Sure, it wasn't like Gramma Gladys had suddenly changed her name to "Francine," started wearing flowery print dresses and moved to San Diego.

But it was quite a bit to absorb. And it definitely put a slightly different ending to the story that I had always known.



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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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