Once a week we dressed up in long skirts, gloves, handbags or suits to walk through the Alaskan night, flashlights in hand casting shadows along the narrow forest trail. The windows glowed yellow in the fishing boats down at the dock and voices, slammed doors and laughter reached us on the trail that wound through the village. The boaters were getting ready to join us at the far, southern end of the trail where a small shake-covered cabin with a disproportionately large enclosed porch sat, a stone-paved walkway leading to its steps.
It served as the temporary village schoolhouse and one night out of every week the entire village dressed up and met there to sit in the dark, watching numbers count down on the screen while a reel-to-reel projector whirred and clicked, powered by a generator rumbling in the background.
I was only six, so I didn’t realize what we were watching on the screen was twenty to thirty years out of date. When we watched The Red Balloon, I believed the outside world, far beyond this wilderness village, was post-WWII France, complete with cobbled streets and war-battered buildings.
When we moved to the ruins of the cannery our family continued this tradition. We ran the generator once a week to charge the battery for the radio and stereo.
My dad worked as a logger on Prince of Wales Island at what was the largest logging camp in the world at that time. On weekends he skiffed home across the dangerous strait bringing with him supplies, plus a backpack full of Hostess treats and movies he’d recorded off TV stations only available at that time in Alaska’s large communities. After a while we compiled quite a library.
Every Friday night it was someone’s turn to pick. My younger brothers liked The Man From Snowy River, and The Sacketts. My oldest brother loved Conan, Dark Crystal and anything sci-fi. My sister chose Ice Castles, and War Games. I chose The Black Stallion. My dad chose McClintock! and my mom chose My Fair Lady.
The Lines from these movies and many others, heard again and again, became a part of our everyday conversation. To this day if we quote a line from one of these old movies to my brother Robin, he will without fail remember which movie it’s from. We try to trip him up all the time, but it’s hard to do.
We had all the Wilderness Family movies and were caught between being appalled at the just plain wrong decisions this family made and identifying with their isolation and the problems they had with bears and wolves. Mostly we laughed at Skip (the father) and his sad lack of building skills (the roof came off shingle by shingle in every storm) and his ludicrous penchant for shooting all of his ammo into the air whenever anyone was threatened by dangerous predators.
Once, after watching Cannery Row with its memorable scenes of the “frog round-up” we stepped outside into a plague of frogs of Biblical proportions. They were everywhere! You couldn’t take a step without being in danger of squashing one underfoot.
So, sometimes what we saw on the screen was reflected in our every day life….but mostly we were outsiders spying on an alien world.
In the summertime, when it stayed light long after the generator was shut off, we’d carry the movie mood with us outside onto the beach. After Snowy River we herded our dogs with bull kelp bullwhips, or took up homemade spears and swords to reenact Conan. Or Sang songs from My Fair Lady, our piping young voices echoing off the forest, water and rotting pilings of the old cannery.
The tradition of movie night lasted right up until TV came to the bush…but that’s another story.