Reflecting on Heroes on this My Dad’s Birthday: Or, The Long Road to How I Discovered Pinot Noir

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This morning welcomed a realization on my fascination with superheroes, and presenting admirable figures in the wine world as their own heroic incarnations. All this triggered by my sister’s blog write-up for my dad’s birthday.

image found: http://endangeredspaces.blogspot.com

I was lucky enough to grow up in a rather remarkable family. My mother originates on the Western coast of Alaska where the Aleutian Islands join the mainland via the Alaska Peninsula. Her family reaches back in that area from as far back as we can imagine ancestors. They are Aleut.

my mother’s family in Bristol Bay, Alaska. my grandmother is the young girl front left. my great grandmother is in the middle.

The luck of this family rests largely in their fierce persistence. There is a strength we gained from my mother’s roots that is one of the foundations of my family’s health and successes. On this side of the family, the horrible joke is that we’ve all almost died at least once. The doctor’s just forgot to tell us we were supposed to.

The remainder of this luck arises from the incredible riches of Bristol Bay, where they originate. I was lucky enough to grow up commercial fishing for salmon alongside four, ultimately five, generations of family. My great grandfather retired from the industry at the age of 84 just so that I could begin fishing in his stead at the age of 9. He proudly smiled as he handed the torch to me, and my sisters, telling me I already was his fishing partner since my mother fished with me the summer she was pregnant. The salmon season runs from early June to early August. I was born August 25.

image found: http://www.alaskool.org

My father grew a little further up the coast at the mainland side of Norton Sound, where the Seward Peninsula (the nose of Alaska) nestles onto the body of the state. His family originates from this general coastal area having migrated up and down this mainland section below the Peninsula from their beginnings. They are Inupiat.

my grandmother in Northern Alaska

In college my parents met during my mother’s first year at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As the story goes he’d seen her on campus and though he never bothered with school dances, he knew she did. So, at a school dance that Fall he went to the college activity center and stayed downstairs playing pool until what he thought was the last dance. Then he ran upstairs and asked her for the final song. It turned out there was one more slow dance left after their spin about the floor and for the end of the event another man stepped in. (My mom was a beautiful sought after but hard to get woman.) Miffed by the bad timing, my dad watched as the other man first danced with my mom then began to walk her home. A block or so into the stroll my father came up from behind and stepped in between. The other man gave up and my parents have been together ever since.

Within the year my parents were married, and within a year following they’d begun their family together with my oldest sister Paula being born. They also began their family business of commercial salmon fishing, with my father first fishing alongside my great grandfather, and then purchasing his own salmon drift fishing boat. He’s now been salmon fishing for just shy of 50 years.

my parents

My childhood is filled with stories of my dad’s heroics. In college to earn extra money my father participated in a research study observing how well men did exercising in cold climates. The study was carefully planned with a small number of men each from different racial backgrounds. As my dad tells it, they were required to ride a stationary bicycle in a cold (approaching freezing) room wearing only their underwear with monitors and probes about their bodies. The study was supposed to go on for as long as the men could sustain all day riding in the cold temperatures, with the expectation it would last about a week. But, the men were also paid for as long as they lasted. Determined to bring home as much as he could for his young family, and also fiercely certain he could do well by his Inupiat people my dad set out to continue bicycling as long as he could. He lasted two weeks longer than any of the other participants. In the end the researcher simply shut the study down and was unable to publish the results. As the story goes, my father’s efforts had skewed the data so severely the results were unusable.

People also regularly responded to my dad as a kind of warm but enigmatic presence. As I’ve told him before, one of my strongest memories of my father reaches back to elementary school. His mother had helped start the Alaska Native Heritage preservation movement in the state. As a result she’d been recognized publicly by President Nixon, and the Governor of Alaska, received various honorariums, and published multiple books. After her death numerous buildings around the state were also named for her. Outside of Fairbanks an elementary school carries her name and my father was asked to speak at the dedication ceremony directly after a well-known state politician that had been close to my grandmother. My parents and I flew to Fairbanks for the occasion.

Driving up to the event that evening I’d asked my dad what he would talk about. He responded that he didn’t know yet, but he felt comfortable deciding when he got on stage. At the time his answer confounded me.

my family about 5 years ago. there is another grand baby now.

The elementary had arranged for school children to usher in guests for the ceremony. When we were greeted at the front door by one of the elementary students my mother whispered to our guide that the man the girl was facing was Emily’s son (Emily being my grandmother and the namesake of the school). We had seen how the girl had been struggling with little boys only moments before as they kept pushing her away, and grabbing the biggest group of people to walk into the school for the dedication ceremony. But, for her patience the little girl had instead won the honor of bringing in not only one of the presenters for the dedication but also the son of the woman the school was named for.

That evening as I sat in the audience I listened first to the politician’s speech. He spoke of how admirable my grandmother’s work had been, and of how inspiring she was as a person. The truth was his own stage presence was flat, even if what he had to say was important. The audience regularly shifted in their seats. When the politician was done my father was introduced. It was the first time I’d seen him address a crowd. He began telling stories of my grandmother first from his childhood–about their life in remote Alaska, of her dedication to survival with her family (in the midst of winter she had to walk herself and her two sons tens of miles across the coastline to get from a cabin in Shaktoolik they’d become stuck in to her family in Unalakleet where they could find help)–and then stories of traveling with her as she worked to speak to the public about Native life, or to connect with elders whose lessons she would help record. The audience was transfixed, and moved. At the end of his talk the sound of clapping filled the gymnasium.

A simpler part of the story is that it is also my father that introduced our family to the world of red wine. Growing up as we did wine, or alcohol of any sort, was not part of the routine. We were even cautious about chocolates filled with liquor when we had them. After I graduated from high school, however, my father announced during one of my visits home that he was drinking red wine–a glass of Pinot Noir a day for his health. With that we discovered the wines of Carneros, and the Willamette Valley, and the wine world has continuously expanded ever since.

On this your birthday, dear Dad, I give thanks for the incredible gifts you and mom have given us. You are my original superhero. Every blessing in my life began with the two of you, and with our family reaching back as far as we can imagine ancestors.

All my love, Dad. Happy Birthday.

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My sister, Melanie, inspired my post on our dad by wishing him a Happy Birthday first at her blog. She considers there the legacy he has established for his family, and posts too a wonderful picture of he and his oldest grandchild, our sister Paula’s daughter, Melissa, who gets ready to graduate from high school in less than a week. Fishing photos are always cool to see. She also considers the perfect wine to celebrate our father, a real stand out from the Willamette Valley.

Check out her blog post here: http://fishwineski.com/2012/05/01/happy-birthday/

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