Kaylene Johnson: Writer and Photojournalist

Our Perfect Wild

An unlikely couple—a wild boy and a good girl—Ray and Barbara Bane, both teachers, set off from the sooty landscape of West Virginia into the snowy panoramas of Alaska. There they make another unlikely commitment: to learn the Old Ways of the land they come to adopt—and defend. With her characteristic poise and bravery, distinguished Alaskan journalist Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan chronicles the Banes’ story of environmental gumption in the wilderness.

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--Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Paradise, Piece By Piece.

A Tender Distance
Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska

Walls of Every Making

October 30th, 2013 by

My son, Mark, built a wall this past week. Rock by rock, he moved 12.5 tons of granite, to create a thing of rugged beauty.  The granite, blasted into chunks at a local Chugiak quarry, came back together again by the toil and hands of someone I love – a person whose lineage includes veterans who had to deal with walls of another sort.

My two grandfathers both fought in World War II. One was an American soldier. The other was a German soldier.  They each served their Joe Wayne Cartmill 1959countries on opposite sides of the war.

My American grandfather, Joe, served as a driver on the Red Ball express, a truck convoy system created in 1944 to support Allied forces moving through Europe after the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The French railway system had been destroyed by Allied air power before D-Day in order to deny the railway’s use by German forces. The truck convoy became a critical means to move supplies during the war.

My German grandfather, Arno, served on the Eastern front. He was the caretaker of horses who were used to pull artillery and supplies to the wholesale carnage taking place at the front lines. Of the 70 million deaths attributed to World War II, 30 million were sustained on the Eastern front, many of them civilians.  Arno was taken prisoner of war, nearly starved, and then made his escape. He traveled underground, his only goal to return home to his wife and two young daughters. Had Arno been captured by the Soviets, he would have been shot immediately. Had he been discovered by the Germans he would have been executed as a deserter. By the time he made it back to his home town, someone had to tell him that the war was over. He rarely spoke of his experience. If he talked at all, he told stories about the bravery of the horses.

Years later, when my father, Joe Jr., enlisted in the Army, he was sent to serve in post-war West Germany. As far as Joe Sr. was concerned, his son was being sent into enemy territory. As these things sometimes happen, Dad met a lovely German “Fraulein.” When he made my mother his bride, the notion of bringing a “Kraut” home to meet the folks must have been awkward to say the least.

Of that union however, came three daughters of which I am the oldest.  Both of my grandfathers loved their children and their grandchildren mightily. I remember Grandpa churning homemade ice cream on the patio of their Texas home, teasing me about being strong enough to turn the handle. I watched as his working hands took over the task when my little-girl arms gave out.

I remember Opa in their small German apartment, cutting up “butter-brot” in small pieces and feeding them to me as though I were a bird. His eyes brimmed with tears and I knew even as a child that his heart was big and broken by unnamed things.

As I watched Mark build the rock wall in my back yard, I thought about this young man, a product, in part, of my two grandfathers. Mark didn’t meet Grandpa-Joe Sr. and he was too young to remember Opa-Arno, but he carries in him their courage and generosity of heart. My two grandfathers never met each other – they never cared to. I wonder if they needed to uphold the concept of an enemy in order to rationalize the horrors they had experienced during the war. I thought about the walls between countries, between differing political persuasions, even walls within oneself. I thought about the kinds of walls that are necessary for safety and sanity. And I thought about all the walls that need to come down.

berlin-wall-coming-down               Opa never imagined that his war-ravaged country would be re-unified, not after all that had happened.  Sadly, Opa passed away just months before the world beheld a spectacle. In 1989, 27 years after the Berlin Wall was built during tensions of the Cold War, the East German government at last allowed its citizens access to the West.  It wasn’t enough for the gates to just open and people to pass through. Germans from both sides of the wall – families, friends, and sweethearts who had been separated for decades – rushed to bring down the 96-mile-long barricade.  With sledge hammers and picks, among tears, sweat and shouts of jubilation the concrete wall crumbled. Its destruction marked a seminal moment of healing and change after the terrible gash that War II inflicted on history.

The rocks in the wall that Mark built were heavier than we realized. It took two of us pulling a sled, straining side-by-side, to move the rocks up to what would become the wall face. (We finally got smart and took up a friend’s offer of a tractor.)  Mark puzzled the pieces together, wrestling to stack them carefully and solidly into a curved row. My three grandchildren did their part by putting smaller rocks and pebbles in the spaces between the boulders.  Such good helpers.

The wall covers a raw embankment carved during the construction of my home two years ago. It symbolizes something of permanence and beauty following several years of personal upheaval, a time when the entire world seemed raw and wounded.

As I watched Mark and my grandchildren working on the wall, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfathers who went through their own struggles, both on and off the battlefield. They may not have wanted to know each other. Yet here, their children’s children and grandchildren, worked together to build a lasting memory.  Watching this, surely they both would have agreed: Love extends beyond walls of every making.

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  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan who makes her home in Palmer. She has found adventure on Denali, the Chugach Mountains, and as a wrangler and cook in the Brooks Range. Her award-winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Louisville Review and other publications. Her books include Our Perfect Wild: Ray and Barbara Bane's Journeys and the Fate of the Far North; Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith; A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska; Trails Across Time: History of An Alaska Mountain Corridor; and Portrait of the Alaska Railroad.

    She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.

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