Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Barbie, an Aleut Girl Who Became My Sister

Barbie was an Aleut girl, born in the tiny village of Old harbor on the shores of Kodiak Island, the largest of a long chain of islands that extends from southwestern Alaska in the Pacific Ocean. Called the Aleutian islands, this chain stretches so far west that the International Dateline must jog around it. Barbie's father was a fisherman, as were all the men of Old Harbor. Salmon, halibut, and other fish and seafood made up the main part of the villagers' diet. In the cool summer months, they picked wild blueberries, goose berries, and salmon berries from the treeless hillsides above the village to add variety to their diet.

Old Harbor in the late 1940's and 1950's had few modern conveniences--no running water in their houses and no electricity. Kerosene lanterns lit their homes on the long winter nights. They carried water in buckets from a nearby stream or melted huge chunks of ice in the winter. Instead of toilets, outhouses stood behind each house. Since lumber was scarce on this treeless island, the houses themselves were small, hardly more than shacks.

The largest building in the village was the Russian Orthodox church with its onion-shaped dome, the Russian cross on top. The Russian Orthodox priest held a lot of power among the Aleuts. As their spiritual leader, he was respected, even feared, and obeyed without question.

When Barbie was just a little girl, she and her older brother, Ralph, became very sick. Since no doctors lived in Old Harbor, their parents had to take them several hours away by fishing boat to Kodiak, the largest town on Kodiak Island. The doctor there examined them and found that they were suffering from tuberculosis, a very serious disease. Tuberculosis usually affects the lungs, but Barbie and Ralph's tuberculosis had attacked their spines. They needed surgery to remove the diseased bones. That meant they would have to fly in an airplane to a faraway hospital somewhere in the United States (Alaska was still a territory then).

After two spinal fusions and having to lie perfectly still for many weeks, the two young children were returned to Alaska to another hospital, a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients at Mt. Edgecumbe, near Sitka, Alaska. After several years of treatment and some schooling, they recovered and were sent to the small children's home in Juneau operated by my parents, where they would live until they grew strong enough to return to their family in Old Harbor.

At the Bethel Beach Children's Home, Barbie and Ralph found many other children to play with. Picnics at Tee Harbor, romps in the tall grass with the other children and Taku, the husky-German shepherd-wolf dog, filled the long summer days. With nourishing food, fresh air, and exercise, Barbie and Ralph gained weight and strength. The thing they liked best of all was when their houseparents, Mr. and Mrs. Cousart, took down the big Bible story book and read aloud the stories of Jesus. And each Sunday morning all the children dressed in their best clothes, and everyone went to Sunday school.

By the end of the summer, Barbie and Ralph were strong enough to return to Old Harbor. They both cried because they didn't want to leave the home where they had been so happy, where they had learned about the love of Jesus. Who would tell them more about Jesus in Old Harbor?

To be continued: Barbie, Part 2

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