Down the Stream of Life

walking down the stream

I gave a slide show and book signing at Klukwan Village a few nights ago. It was great to give my talk right in the heart of the Bald Eagle Preserve to folks who had grown up along the Chilkat River. More important than that is the fact that their ancestors had grown up along the Chilkat River. What could I tell these people that they didn’t already know? Ed Warren, 85 years old, was in attendance. Ed’s a bit hard of hearing, has a great sense of humor and loves to tell stories. In Tlingit culture, it’s important to respect and listen to the elders. So when I started talking about salmon and eagles and Ed decided to interject one of his personal stories, I switched roles and went from lecturer to listener. Ed told the story about the time an eagle watched him catch a king salmon in his fishing net. “The eagle saw the fish in the net and figured it would be easy to steal the fish. So he flew down, grabbed the fish but then the eagle got stuck in my net. I told him in Tlingit, “Now you’ve done it.” The eagle struggled for a bit, then escaped from the net and flew up in a tree. I took the salmon home and cooked it up.”


It was a great way to start my spring slide show series. In the next month, I’ll be speaking in Whitehorse, Yukon (March 6th), Sitka, Alaska (March 30th), and then fly to Washington State. I’ll give a show in Anacortes, Washington (April 6th) and Bellingham, Washington (April 11th) before we drive up the Alcan Highway back to Haines. The 2,000 mile drive is always a great adventure- lots of wildlife, miles and miles of open country, some great hot springs, giant mountains……I’ve driven the road 16 times through the years and I never tire of it. We’ll be driving our family’s 23-foot RV. Driving big rigs did not come naturally to me. As a matter of fact, my first experience driving a big vehicle was a complete disaster.


I was nearing college graduation spring quarter, 1983, at Western Washington University when a recruiter for jobs in Alaska showed up on campus. The job was for a bus driver tour guide in Alaska.


I made an appointment through the Career Planning and Placement Center, put on my best pants, a clean shirt and vest and walked into the little room with a big desk. A slick, corporate-looking guy with a suit and tie was sitting behind the desk.

He got right to business.


“Why should I hire you?” he asked.


“I’m a success story,” I declared. “I got my black belt in karate at age 14. I was high school valedictorian. I played first trombone in the college jazz band. I currently run the Outdoor Program here on campus. “


“Do you know what the job is?”


“Yes, sir.” (I grew up six years in Virginia so I knew how to be polite to superiors). “You drive around Alaska and explain to the guests what they are seeing. I love people; I’m one of seven kids from a Guatemalan-Italian family. And I love nature. I’m studying Environmental Education and I have a good foundation in geology, plants, birds, and ecology. And since I’m a musician I love to entertain. I won’t disappoint you.”


“You’ll be a perfect fit. Let’s call this interview finished. You’re hired. As a matter of fact, you’re the first one into our training program. Congratulations! Show up on Saturday at 8am at the parking lot of the Bellingham Mall. Look for a big bus with ‘Westours’ painted on the side. There you’ll meet Cliff, your bus driver trainer. ”


I couldn’t believe it! I told anyone and everyone I saw the next week on Campus.

“I’m going to Alaska…I’m the first guy in the training program!”


I went to the parking lot at the appointed time and met Cliff. He had darker skin, a well-groomed mustache and a pleasant, non-threatening manner. He made me feel at home.


“Have you ever driven a bus before?” he asked.


“Never,” I said honestly.


“Well there’s a lot to learn. The first thing is the pre-trip inspection. You don’t just jump in the bus and drive away. You have to make sure that the bus is safe. Safety is number one. Let’s look under the hood.”


This was a completely new world to me. I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up spending weekends with their dad under the hood of a car. My dad was from upper class Guatemalan society. My grandfather had been Supreme Court Justice of Guatemala during the Ubico regime. My grandparents wanted the best education possible for their children and sent my father to the University of Michigan to study engineering. My father had planned to return to Guatemala after graduation but got stopped in his tracks when he met a full- blooded Italian beauty from Deaborn, Michigan named Rosa Romanelli. They fell in love and she told him she would never live in Guatemala. She insisted that they stay in the States. So my Dad found a job as an engineer and ended up working at the Hanford Nuclear Plant in Richland, Washington.


Our family cars were maintained at the Ford dealership. My father golfed on weekends.


I scratched my head and tried to make sense of the various pipes and tubes and connections under the hood of this gigantic bus. I had no idea what I was looking at.


Cliff went through the whole inspection. He said I had to look for oil leaks, loose belts, uneven tire wear, broken turn signals, corroded exhaust pipes; the list seemed endless. I was a bit confused but I was able to force a smile on my face.


I was looking forward to driving tourists around Alaska; I hadn’t realized that I had to become a bit of a mechanic to do it.


Cliff looked at me. “Here’s the study book and checklist. Next week, we’ll start with the checklist and then you’ll get a chance to drive the bus. See you at 8am next Saturday!”


I shook his hand, said goodbye and thought to myself….Now that’s more like it…. next week I get to drive the bus! So I took the study book back to the house where I was living, went back to my university classes the next week and pretty much forgot about the whole thing until Friday.


Friday evening came and I realized that I hadn’t studied at all. I stayed up late and went though the book and the inspection list and tried to remember all the details Cliff had showed me. I woke up Saturday morning, looked at my watch and realized that I had to be at the parking lot in 25 minutes! And it was a 10 minute drive!


I threw on some clothes, splashed ice-cold water on my face, skipped the shave and jumped in my beat-up, orange, 1973 Toyota Corolla with 160,000 miles on it. I raced to the parking lot and jumped out at 8am exactly.


Cliff looked up with a frown and said….”you’re late!”


I said….“no it’s 8am. I’m on time.”


“Listen, Joe, and listen good. If you’re not early, you’re late. Remember that. You need time to get ready for your shift. Never show up at the last minute. Now let’s do the inspection.”


I could feel some beads of sweat forming on my forehead. Cliff had been so friendly at our first meeting. And I was the first guy into the training program-didn’t he know that?! I faked my way through the inspection, but I really didn’t have command of the task before me. I tasted a bead of sweat that had dripped from my forehead down my cheek.


“OK time to get in the bus. I want you to start it up, pull out onto the street and turn left. As you pull out of the parking lot and make the turn, be sure to look out for that big sign that says “Fielding Street.” One of the trainees yesterday nearly hit that sign,” Cliff said matter-of-factly.


I was so glad to be done with the inspection and drive the bus that my old confidence returned. I turned the key, popped the emergency brake and pulled out. I took a sharp left-hand turn into the street and asked Cliff, “Now where is that sign where you were talking about?”


Just then I heard a loud “BANG!” at the rear of the bus, and I felt the bus shake a little bit. “What was that?” I called out.


Cliff was calm and said in a slow and steady tone, “Continue driving forward and pull into the first parking lot on the left and turn around slowly”. I did as I was told. “Now, return to the parking lot where we started and park the bus.”


I drove slowly and carefully and we were both silent. I parked the bus and he said, “Let’s get out.”


We walked around to the back of the bus I noticed a slight dent up high on the rear driver’s side. We then turned and looked at the Fielding Street sign. The top left corner of the sign was bent backwards.


The sign now read, “ding Street.”


“What do we do now, Cliff?” I managed to squeak out.


“Well, the company policy states that if a trainee has any accidents during the training program they are terminated immediately. There’s nothing I can do. Sorry.”


He shook my hand and I turned around, got back in my orange Toyota Corolla with 160,000 miles on it and drove back home. I was devastated. I kept repeating in my head- First guy in the training program. First guy out.


What was I going to do now?


To be continued…….


walking down the stream