When I was 23-years-old I worked as a fly-fishing guide in southwestern Alaska.
I lived alone in a remote tent camp on the edge of a river called the Nushagak (nush-a-gack). It was 100 miles by floatplane to the nearest town, otherwise known as electricity.
Which made the tent I lived in all the more important. It was large, with a wooden platform, steel ribs, and a tough, white vinyl tent covering. In one corner was a little cot. And in another a cook stove. And in another a little library, which contained two things: a copy of War and Peace, and an old Playboy magazine.
One night at 2 a.m. the tent started shaking violently. A wicked storm had descended onto my little nirvana from a place appropriately named “Cold Bay.” I learned later that at its peak, the storm’s winds reached 75 mph. But at that moment my main concern was that the tent was going to be ripped from its foundation, Wizard of Oz-style.
I grabbed the steel ribs and used my weight to anchor the tent. I was holding down the fort, literally. Every couple of minutes another super-gust would come along and the tent would swell up as if inhaling while contemplating where to launch itself into the dark wet night sky. Then another wave of wind and rain would snap the tent and send me rocking, like a side of beef, as I hung from the tent’s frame.
After awhile I started talking to the storm, trying to sooth her, “C’mon sweetheart, it’s really late and we’re both tired, and wouldn’t it be better if we talked about this in the morning?”
THWWAAAAAAAP… came the hissed response.
Two hours later I collapsed into bed. The storm had quieted for a moment, my arms were numb, and the only sound was of big rain drops stinging the tent. I called the lodge on the two-way radio. Any guide living in a remote tent camp was instructed to call the lodge twice a day. “Do it alive or dead,” the head guide had told me when the floatplane had dropped me off.
The storm had hit the lodge as well, throwing one of the float planes onto the dock and breaking off a wing.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said into the two-way radio.
“You should be sorry,” said the voice on the other end, “because that was the plane that was coming to get you. We’ll try to get out there in the next couple of days.”
I thought I’d be on my own for three or four days. Being alone for a few days was no big deal. Not getting supplies from the lodge made it more challenging, but self-reliance was part of the job. It turned out I would be on my own for 21 days. I read War and Peace twice. Strangely, I only read the Playboy once…
A lot of strange and interesting things happened to me during that time. Here’s one of them.
I had a little walkman radio, and one cassette tape: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Greatest Hits.” Even now, during a quiet moment in traffic I sometimes hear the opening guitar riff of “Fortunate Son” in my head. Other than the cassette tape, I could pick up one radio station, from Dillingham, Alaska, where the local DJ said things like, “Steve Pickering has a back-hoe with a broken piston he’d be willing to trade for a used snow mobile. Come around his garage tonight, but beware the pet wolf.”
One night, as I was falling asleep in my cot with the headphones on, listening to the melody that was the classified ad radio hour, my head, very gently, touched the steel ribs of the tent.
In an instant my little radio was flooded with sounds, and foreign voices, and lively music like I’d never heard before. It was as if I had tuned into frequencies from another planet.
And then I realized the language was Russian… I was picking up a Russian radio station!
By accidentally touching the steel frame with my metal headphones I had unintentionally turned the tent’s entire steel structure into the Nushagak river’s largest radio antenna. I moved the little tuning dial on the radio and my ears feasted on rock-n-roll, opera, salsa, oldies, coming from stations as far away as Chicago, New York City, and Miami.
I was so excited I jumped out of bed, quickly realizing that in order for the radio to pick up these frequencies I had to be touching the metal frame of the tent with the headphones. Which meant that to go make a cup of hot tea I had to trace the pattern of the tent’s steel ribs with my head, or risk losing contact with the outside world.
In an instant I’d been transformed from a starving man to a starving man standing in front of a banquet of delicious… sounds. I could listen to the BBC, to sports scores, and to a marathon Rolling Stone session. As I lay very still in my bed, listening to the outside world, it felt like my little existence was on the receiving end of a magician’s encore.
At 1 a.m. I moved the tuner knob on the radio and heard a high-pitched voice say “I’m Truman Capote.” For the next 60 minutes he told of how he’d thrown the greatest party of the 20th century, the Black and White Ball, in New York City in 1966. And although Capote was long dead, there was some kind of crazy symmetry about a young writer, who had literally found himself up Shit’s Creek, pressing his head against the tent in order to hear another writer tell his story into the ether.
Years later I would write a novel, Going to See the Elephant where the main character, Slater Brown, discovers a way to learn the secret stories of San Francisco. And now that you know this story, you know the story behind the story of how Slater Brown, and you too, can tune in the universe. –Rodes Fishburne