Chapter from Suddenly It's Spring

T'WAS THE WEE early hours of Christmas morn,
We were snug in our beds all cozy and warm.
Stockings were hung near the chimney with care,
Tree was all trimmed with no branches left bare.
While out in the darkness there blew a fierce storm.
Wind drifting snow and nothing was warm.
All of a sudden a loud thump woke me up; 
And a wee voice cried out: “Oh no!” 

I jumped out of bed, flashlight in hand, and ran to the living room where I found Lisa huddled near the wood stove. I said, “Honey, what’s wrong, what happened?”  She replied, “I fell down the stairs, mama, and I think I hurt myself.” I quickly lit a lamp and when I saw what she had done, my first reaction was to faint, but instead I tried to make light of it so as not to scare her. She was only eight, after all. She had fallen over the side of the stairs and landed on her bottom on the bullet loading device which was bolted to a shelf attached to the wall near the bottom of the stairs, and ripped a long jagged tear on the fatty part of her right buttock, deep and ugly and bleeding. I said, “Oh, honey, you cut yourself, but it will be okay.


Bullet reloading device Lisa fell onto on Christmas morning.
The metal projection on the right is what tore the deep gash.


Just lie down on your tummy and let me clean it and I’ll put on a band aid or something.” I made her as comfortable as possible, and meanwhile Clyde was on the telephone calling the Air Rescue at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, to see if they could send a helicopter out but they said the storm in Anchorage was so bad with whiteout conditions they couldn’t even take anything out of the hangar.

Our nearest neighbor was John Lewis, the track patrolman, who lived at Curry, ten miles to the south. Clyde called him to find out what we could do, because it was obvious she would need stitches. 

Clyde sat by her while I phoned the nearest doctor at the hospital in Palmer to find out what we should do for her. The emergency room doctor said to keep her warm and dry and as comfortable as possible so that she would not go into shock, and to get her there within six hours. He said if it took any longer than that he would not be able to stitch up the wound, and it would have to heal without stitches, but would be more susceptible to infection and harder to heal. He said to keep the wound moist with mineral oil and covered. 

Meanwhile John jumped on his snow machine and drove it up the railroad tracks the ten miles to our house. The drifts were too deep for the little gas car he usually drove. 


Track Patrol Gas Car. This small two man vehicle is used to inspect the track ahead of trains.  This picture is looking at the south border of our homestead property in the background.


When John got to our house he looked at the wound and turned pale, but kept his cool and teased Lisa about maybe not being able to wear a bikini for some time to come. He wanted to put her on a sled behind his snow machine and take her that way the 32 miles to Talkeetna, but I told him what the doctor had said about keeping her warm and dry. So John got on the phone and called the railroad dispatcher in Anchorage and explained what the trouble was and the dispatcher said not to worry, the snow plow was somewhere to the north of us and he would send them down to get us and take us to Talkeetna, where the station master there would take us to the hospital, 90 miles from Talkeetna. There were no doctors or nurses in Talkeetna. It was 5:00 AM, Merry Christmas to us all!

While waiting for the snowplow to get to our house, we got warm clothes and dressed Lisa and packed a small bag for her and myself, since I would be the one going with her. Clyde would stay home with our other three children. It would be the first Christmas we spent apart in our entire marriage, but we decided to celebrate Christmas when Lisa and I got back, so we would have two Christmases. That made Lisa happy. She had been sneaking down the stairs just to get her Christmas stocking, when she stepped on the hem of her night gown which tripped her and made her fall. She was remarkably brave through it all, with a minimum of crying or fussing. Seems she didn’t feel any pain at the wound site unless she moved suddenly, and so she was content to lie on her tummy. I think it helped a lot that she was not able to see the wound, because of its location, and the lack of mirrors in the living room helped.

The snow plow arrived within the hour and four men cheerfully came up to the house with a stretcher. We carefully placed Lisa face down on this stretcher, securely wrapped in a snug sleeping bag. The crew of the snow plow were all happy because this meant they would get to go home for Christmas, which hadn’t been the case before Lisa’s accident. They all had families, and were very kind to Lisa and to me. 

We wore snowshoes down to the railroad tracks with two of the men carrying Lisa on the stretcher, and climbed aboard the caboose attached to the back of the snowplow. It was very warm in there, with a coal fired stove burning at one end of the car. John Lewis followed behind on his snow machine as far as Curry to be with his wife and two little daughters there.

The snowplow cleared the railroad tracks before us all the way in to Talkeetna, 32 miles, where Skip Spencer, the Talkeetna station master, had shoveled his station wagon out of six foot drifts of snow, and was ready and waiting for us with the car all warmed up and ready to go. The men from the snowplow carried Lisa on the stretcher to the waiting car and put her in the back, which Skip had emptied out, and we took off right away. It was a harrowing 90 mile drive to Palmer as the road was not often plowed back then and it was dark and stormy all the way.

Along the way Skip told us about his wife and family, who we had never met. He and his wife had nine children and they lived in the tiny three room railroad section house in Talkeetna. Skip said we would be spending the rest of Christmas day and that night with his family and that there would be a train running the next day, so we could go home. He told Lisa she would have a lot of fun playing with his kids, and that he had a couple of little girls close to Lisa’s age.

About 10:30 AM we finally pulled up to the hospital. The emergency room doctor said it was none too soon; if we were much later he would not have been able to stitch the wound. He took out this horrid looking scrub brush and began scrubbing away at the wound causing it to bleed more and I could not watch. Lisa seemed to be taking it all in stride. I suppose the numbing stuff the doctor sprayed on the cut desensitized it so she felt next to nothing. But I did, that was my baby bleeding there and so I had to leave the room before I passed out and made more trouble for everyone. The doctor was very swift, put about 52 stitches in her and said she would have a bad scar anyway, but if one had to be cut, there was not a better place. No veins or major arteries or anything like tendons, just fatty tissue. He gave her a tetanus shot and sent us on our way. She could now sit, but sort of on one side, not to put too much pressure on the stitches.

By this time it was daylight, and Skip drove the 90 miles back to Talkeetna. The road had been traveled by a few other hardy souls and the going was somewhat better. When we arrived at Skip’s house, we met his wife and children. We were fed a sumptuous dinner with pies and all the usual trimmings, and entertained royally. Such a wonderful family! They had little gifts for both of us – people they had never even met, imagine! They made us both feel welcome and their kids played with Lisa and she was happy as could be. Somehow they made room for us to sleep there that night, and we were most comfortable. What a Christmas day that had been!

I called Clyde at home and told him we were safe and warm and well fed and missed them so very much but we would be home on the train the next day to celebrate Christmas once more. He said our other kids had not opened even one present, and were impatiently waiting for us. It was still snowing, lightly.

The day after Christmas Lisa and I boarded the northbound train for home and were met there about an hour later by everyone. They had all worked very hard to clear the path from the tracks to the house and it had even stopped snowing, at least for a little while. In spite of everything, it really was a merry Christmas for all of us and we were happy to be together once again.

Lisa healed well with no complications or infections. Nothing else happened of an emergency nature to any of our children, but we always knew if anything did happen, we could count on the Alaska Railroad.

To this day, Lisa still encounters the (now retired) train crew, who make a point of thanking her for helping them get home for Christmas. When she was a teenager, this was a source of mortification to her, but she now enjoys the attention.

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