Memories of Dad and a life well-lived
June 1, 2020
I sat listening as Dad recited verse after verse of "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" by Robert Service. During my month long visit with him in October 2005, I had been surprised and amazed several times. I can't remember the poetry we were required to memorize back in high school, and yet Dad started quoting Robert Service out of the blue.
Actually, not out of the blue. We were sitting in front of the open oven door of a wood cook stove drinking tea. It was his idea that we take some food to one of his little cabins and have a picnic and we had already eaten our moose meat sandwiches. The fire in the cook stove made hot water for tea and took the chill off the one-room cabin, but it was none too warm.
More than once I'd heard people say that Al Clayton seemed happiest around a campfire out in the wilderness, talking about Alaska. With his adventurous spirit, he might have been one of the original gold seekers to travel over the Chilkoot Trail, had he been born a generation or so earlier.
Dad arrived in January 1940 to make Alaska his home. Having lived in Seward, Anchorage, Cooper Landing, Glennallen and Homer, with cabins in various other locations, he knew lots of people and history and had many stories. He cleared the trees with an ax for what would become 25th Avenue in the Spenard area of Anchorage. The first summer they were married (1955), he took his New York raised bride on a three-week camping trip, boating down Birch Creek in interior Alaska. He was one of many Alaskan pioneers who voted against statehood. In the April 8, 2001 Anchorage Daily News, Sharon Bushell titled the article she wrote about him "Frontier Handyman".
He made his living working in electricity generating power plants, but had many side interests. He built more than one house and two log cabins and in the later years made his own lumber with a portable sawmill. He grew the best potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers in Glennallen and when he and Mom moved to Homer, he planted an apple orchard. Whether it was taking family and friends on trips in his home made "snowplane," his army surplus "weasel," or his secondhand 30-foot fishing vessel, he reveled in any kind of Alaskan adventure.
As I watched Dad go about his daily life in Homer during my visit, I noticed that many items he used could be found in antique stores: kitchen utensils, books (even his favorite dictionary had a copyright date of 1940), tools, towels, blankets, clothes, slide viewers, the movie projector, and his mother's treadle sewing machine. Other things, such as old 8x10 photos, furs, a cylinder phonograph player, a 1945 survival suit, and a prehistoric bison skull, all contributed to the feeling that his home was a living museum.
He did whatever needed doing, from mending his clothes to splitting wood; from cooking and cleaning to working on his diesel pickup truck. One morning while I was there, he went into the kitchen and prepared a loaf of bread to rise using his "new-fangled" Vitamix machine. I intended to cook for him while visiting and give him a break from that chore, which I did. But I also learned from him to make tastier, more nutritious oatmeal by adding apples, cinnamon and flax seed and discovered he was a serious green tea drinker.
One day at the senior center, Dad bought three tickets to the Saturday night Senior Hoedown – one for his lady friend, one for me and one for himself. He was on the dance floor more often than several of the younger men.
During that visit, Dad and I viewed many boxes of old prints and we enjoyed many evenings of looking at old movies and slides from the 1940s through the 1960s. He could look at an unlabeled hunting photo and usually tell the name of the hunter, the hunting area and the approximate year, even though his big game guiding career spanned a period of 35 years.
In some of the newer photo albums filled with family and grandchildren, a couple of times he asked, "Which grandchild do you think that might be?" We'd laugh, and then I'd reply, "I really don't know, Dad, but I'm sure it's one of yours." With 15 grandchildren, seven from one family, sometimes they are a little hard to identify younger than six months.
Beside his adventurous and industrious pursuits, Dad was very family oriented, too. He was 40 when he and Mom married. He was 41 when I was born and 47 when my youngest sibling, a brother, came into this world. He taught us by example through the years and told me he was proud of us four kids. He showed me, with pride, various artwork grandkids made and had given to him through the years.
On a previous visit to Homer, Dad and I sat eating lunch at a crowded table at the senior center. The discussion turned to grandchildren and I asked the lady next to me how many grandchildren she had. I don't recall her answer, but I do remember her additional comment - that she had 34 great-grandchildren!
Then someone else looked at my dad and said, "How many great-grandchildren do you have, Al?" Dad, age 89 at the time, replied with a grin on his face, "None, I'm not old enough yet."
Dad lived to see the birth of six great-grandchildren. And he left a rich legacy of wonderful memories of a life well lived.
Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.