Written by Richard Drebert
©Good Catch Publishing
I yanked the thick boat canvas over my three sisters and me, where we shivered inside the tin-roof smokehouse. It was minus 30 degrees, and the loose straw stored for the dogs pricked our cheeks and caught in our hair. Even bundled up in heavy parkas, we weren’t much bigger than the Eskimo dolls sold as souvenirs in Anchorage. Aata (Dad) had tanned the seal skins for our mukluks (boots), and Aana (Mom) had sewn love into every stitch of our rabbit fur parkas — but on long winter nights in Mountain Village, Alaska, when Aata poured homebrew into metal cups at the kitchen table, my parents hated each other.
Aata’s deep Yup’ik roar echoed like it came from an empty fuel barrel, and Aana’s screams pierced the thin walls of our clapboard house; our twenty sled dogs bounded out of their ramshackle dens and danced at the end of their chains. They yapped unhappily at the commotion in their master’s house, and strung their laments together in one mournful song. Wide-eyed, my sisters and I listened as the dogs sang like an off-key church choir led by my father, until the door to our house slammed open.
“Shut up!” Aata bellowed in Yup’ik, and the dogs scrambled back into their houses like frightened children, hiding in their hay.
“Don’t worry, they’ll sleep soon,” I whispered, soothing my youngest sister who sniffled into my parka ruff. Aata and Aana always slept like the dead after their drunken fights.
Two hours later I woke my sisters. “Let’s go in. It’s safe now.”
Quietly we crept inside past Aata snoring on the floor like a walrus. I looked at Aana curled up on her bed, thankful that she hadn’t got hit too much this time. Empty quart jars lay on their sides on the kitchen table, and the sour smell of homebrew filled the room.
Aata believed that he had a reason to drink — game was scarce lately on the flats where he trapped. It was the way he made money in winter. And Aana thought she had a reason to drink — because Aata did.
As I snuggled down into my wool blankets, I felt the change of season coming: Soon ducks and geese by the thousands would fly back to the Yukon. Salmon would fill the rivers and streams, and our whole family would move to our fish camp! No one had much time to drink home brew then. Aana would teach the girls how to cut the king salmon in strips, and hang them on smoking racks; Aata would mend his nets after fishing and my small fingers would copy his — he was the best boat builder and sled maker on the Yukon River.
Aata found his wife at a fishing community on the Bering Sea called Hooper
Bay, because too many girls around the Yukon River inland carried our family’s blood. Hooper was 90 miles away, and he had no relatives over on the Bering coast. The Yup’iks on the Bering Sea were rich. They ate seal, and dug for clams in the summer, and killed whales and walrus to share in their villages.
When Aata brought Aana home to Mountain Village, she must have wondered at Azachorok Mountain at the edge of our town, rolling out of the earth like a giant beluga to welcome her. Her life on the Yukon would be so very different: Aata hunted moose and caribou here; he trapped land otters and mink for furs to sell, and snared rabbits for parkas and supper. It took time, but Aana learned to adapt to his way of life on the flatlands.
My hometown of about 100 people (in the 1950s) used to be called Asaacarsaq but the white men couldn’t pronounce it, so everyone just called it Mountain Village; the 500-foot hill was the only “mountain” anyone could see as they traveled along our stretch of the Yukon. In front of our village a hundred fingers of the river braided west to finally dump into the Bering Sea, and my father knew his Kwigut (Yup’ik for “large stream”) by heart. He constructed Swedish-style skiffs according to drawings handed down from his father — his family inherited Swedish blood from a great grandparent, and Aata carried a European boat design in his head.
My father knew that he had brought home a prize from Hooper Bay. My mother could learn anything, like crafting from wood and bone, or grasses and furs. She could carpenter as well as a man, and she knew the art of preserving edible plants and berries or meats that Aata hunted or netted. From her I learned skills that no one else could teach me.
A new white elementary school teacher usually arrived by boat after the ice broke up in the rivers, and stayed for a couple years, then left town again. Then a new one would come, until it was time for him or her to leave again. My sisters and I attended the elementary school where we learned to read and write and figure. Some of the teachers were nice, others were as mean as weasels. For Mountain Village, this was plenty schooling for our subsistence lifestyle.
An Evangelical Covenant church had been built in 1908, one of the first churches established in our village, and we attended as a family when we weren’t at fish camp. Aana went too, even though she was a Roman Catholic. Aata’s father had been a deacon in the church and my grandmother was a fine Christian woman — no Eskimo dancing, or shamans or pleasing “good” spirits or warding off “bad” ones. I loved bringing home colored pictures of Jesus or Paul the Apostle, and I learned many scriptures by heart in Sunday school.
But somehow I swam past the net … Jesus never caught my attention, and like Aata found his reasons to drink, I found reasons to doubt that God was real. Jesus was like the Eskimo spirits that the kids at school talked about — the Bible was full of Goldilocks fairy tales and it all seemed too “heavy” for a Yup’ik boy to carry.
I tried to block out the pastor’s message that stuck in my head like an annoying magpie: “God created all things. God is your helper!”
“Don’t you dare hit her!”
Before the priest could stop us, I pushed Helen out the door and we ran down the frosty path away from school. At home I stopped Helen at our door. She had stopped crying, and couldn’t wait to tell Aata. Aana had a pot of cranberries simmering on the stove and the smell calmed me a little. “What you doing home?”
“Aana, that priest is picking on Helen! I can’t stand it. He sits her in the corner for hours. Sometimes he makes her eat pepper. And he spanks her! I took her away…”
Aana sat very still and looked deeply into Helen’s eyes. My sister was just a little younger than me, and Aana knew that this was the way of things in villages. Sometimes girls were hurt and no one helped them.
But in my 14-year-old heart I knew someone who would defend Helen, this time. I was proud of my barrel-chested father, with hands that could tear caribou sinew and arms that could heft a boat prow over his head. When Aata got home after trapping he would take care of this priest.…
“Timothy, Helen … don’t tell your father.”
I stared at Aana, and realized she was right. Aata would do something terrible if he found out.
My high school education ended that day. I never went back to the scornful Catholic priest, with his crucifix and rosary beads, and I never had to say “Hail Mary, full of grace” again. It was the only high school in the region and mixing “religion” with higher learning soured me on any more school. Besides, Aata and Aana were teaching me the right ways to live in this world. I didn’t need anything else.
I begged my Aata to let me go on his trapping expeditions and I learned to handle his eight-dog team loaded with supplies as well as a grown man. And in summer I got a job at George Sheppard Trading Company.
The trading company sold things like potatoes and milk, and we stocked up on canned goods and staples like flour and sugar for winter. When the Yukon River froze, the groceries stopped coming in, and after freeze-up the only thing in and out of Mountain Village was mail that came by plane or dog team. At Sheppard’s, I made a dollar a day stacking wood and cleaning up the store. I always took my money home for the family, and this was my first taste of the real world away from Aata and Aana.
I fell in love with a beautiful Yup’ik girl from Hooper Bay, and for a while I seemed to be stepping in my father’s footsteps — but nothing worked out right with our families. I lost the girl of my dreams, and the strong ties with my family seemed to weaken like old fishing line.
Aata took me with him to Kenai and introduced me to cannery work at Libbys. I was about 18, and when I got home months later I felt changed. Like a driftnet cut loose from its anchors, I floated toward a risky lifestyle, far above my abilities to cope.
I left home to see the world — and got lost myself.
The black raven in Yup’ik legends is a god-like creature that can transform itself into other objects or forms to trick other animals and humans for its own selfish amusement — and a “Trickster” seemed to follow me wherever I went. He shifted into alluring shapes that drew me to the edge of destruction; sometimes my Trickster looked like alcohol. Sometimes he was an uncontrollable sexual craving. But always this spiritual Trickster wanted to devour my soul.
My first drink of alcohol tasted like piss in my mouth. But it made me feel different — happy. I could beat up the world, and I tried to do just that if anyone crossed me. I graduated from beer to hard liquor. If I ever had known boundaries in my life, I forgot them all, especially when I was drunk. I moved to Bethel, Alaska, the big city to me. Helen had married a man who was a pilot and had his own plane, and I flopped at their house when I wasn’t passed out somewhere or in the Bethel jail. I became a regular there, locked up for drinking on the streets or assaulting someone — including the police.
Everything that made me feel good I did. If I wanted booze I found a way to get it. If I wanted a certain woman, I tried to take her. Far away from my Aana and Aata, I was a different man, and my rage ate up the best years of my life.
I worked here and there, and when I wore out my welcome I just moved on. I traveled as far south as Seward, and one day a recruiter talked me into joining the National Guard. Off the bottle and into a uniform, I entered training at a post at Monterey Bay, California. And I did well at Fort Ord, learning how to kill people and defend our nation. We were still fighting the Vietnam War, and Gerald Ford was president. I was good at mechanics and the Guard sent me to Kentucky for training, then back to Alaska after I graduated. Now I had a trade, and I tried to ignore the Trickster in me, but after a short time at Fort Richardson, and then Bethel, I was dishonorably discharged for missing drills and meetings. So I went back home to Mountain Village.
Aata had a fishing permit for catching kings, and we launched his wood skiff and powered up the Yukon to take our share of the salmon run. At the end of summer we caught chum salmon and by fall I had a pouch of money from our catch. I headed back to Bethel — for some serious carousing. But Bethel was changing. Oil companies were recruiting workers for the new Alaska Pipeline, and they needed mechanics in Valdez. The promise of big money helped me decide to leave Bethel behind.
After a few weeks of training at Valdez, I started my new career — and ended it when my boss discovered that I carried whiskey in my thermos, and not coffee. Trickster had caught up with me again, and I should have felt ashamed, but alcohol deadened my conscience as I drove my rental car to Anchorage. It was early fall when I arrived, and I hit the bars on 4th Avenue — a wild stretch of debauchery and hopelessness. These were the pipeline days and prostitutes, drug addicts and drunks spilled their wasted lives into the Anchorage streets each night. I found other Yup’iks in the gatherings, but it wasn’t language that united us with purpose. It was our mutual lust for booze and sex, and I always found someone to help me get drunk.
I lost track of the rental car I drove from Valdez — I forgot where I parked it and someone drove it away. Anchorage was crowded and noisy, and it was dangerous to turn your back on anyone. Even if I wanted to go back home, I was too broke. And I was hungry when I woke each morning. I slept under trucks to keep out of the cold October rain. I could smell the snow in the air, and the temperature sign on the bank read “35 degrees.” How could I survive the winter in a city? Where could I eat or find shelter and most important: where could I get cheap booze?
I was cold sober, and my stomach ached like voles chewed me inside. I coughed and it wasn’t yellow — it was bright red. And my vomit was bloody too, each time I heaved, until I collapsed in a ball on the sidewalk.
I’m dying now, so what’s the use of going back home.
Somehow I found a doorway on 4th Avenue to sleep in, and I can’t remember opening the door — but two white guys came out and beat my face black and blue. An ambulance delivered me to the hospital.
“You’re lucky they didn’t shoot you.” The nurse smelled like nice soap, and she unhooked me from the IV stand. I dressed in my dirty Salvation Army duds, and ambled back toward 4th Avenue.
After weeks on the Anchorage streets alone, a strange sadness that I had never felt before stalked me. Alcohol didn’t deaden my depression anymore. In fact when I drank, memories cut me like the blade of an ulu.
God is your helper.
I wondered where the voice kept coming from, and soon I knew — when the tall man with blond hair stopped me on the street one day.
I straightened, after the spasm of gnawing pain in my gut lessened, nodding my head. I wiped my mouth with the back of my cold stiff sleeve.
“Can I get you something to eat?”
I was hungry. And cold. I looked at his little car, and I knew it was warm inside.
“Come on. Get in.”
We sipped tea after a good meal, and talked a lot about my life, and a little about his. He asked me where I was staying.
“Wherever it’s warm,” I chuckled, and he looked serious.
“Have you ever been to the rescue mission? They have warm beds and good food. No charge.”
For some reason I had never considered sleeping at the mission, but now, with a clear head, it seemed logical and he drove me to the entrance. “Tim, I’ll pick you up here tomorrow. We’ll go get that stomach checked out at the hospital. See you then.”
At the curb I frowned after the blond Samaritan, wondering if he would really come. He had been with me most of the day and I hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol. I looked at the mission’s door where other men and women gathered. I followed them inside and signed up for a bed, and though none were available, I felt something inside my heart that I nearly forgot existed: hope.
Over the next few days the blond Samaritan drove me to get clothing and medicine for my ulcer. He acted like my babysitter, keeping me off 4th Avenue — and strangely, I didn’t resent his help. One day a bed opened up at the rescue mission and my “guardian angel” surprised me.
“I’m going away, Tim.”
For some reason I felt like I had been slapped. “Where? Can you give me an address or something so I can get hold of you?”
“He smiled and shook his head. “I don’t really have one. You’ll be okay, now.”
And my Samaritan was gone. I figured that he headed for the airport, but I’ll never really know. I walked into the rescue mission and got ready for a hot meal, looking forward to a warm bed for the first time in weeks. I thought about how clean my Samaritan looked and about the kindness I could see behind his green eyes.
I should have known. No one ate at Director Edward’s rescue mission until they heard the gospel — before every meal!
At chapel service I listened with arms folded across my chest, like I watched rival fishermen scooping up a net full of salmon. Two men were obviously a little tipsy, and they were both crying as a preacher named Daniel talked about being “born again.”
Once is enough for me.
“If you come forward and ask forgiveness, God will change you,” Daniel said to the hodgepodge of men and women watching him with growling bellies.
Someone played a church song on the organ: “Just as I Am” and I remembered the words from my childhood at the Covenant church.
Change. Do I want to change?
Not now, Timothy, the Trickster whispered.
But the two drunks from 4th Avenue were out of their seats and on their knees at the old wood altar in the front. The service ended, and I watched them follow Daniel into a room to talk. They were weeping, and one said, “If I can just receive Jesus as my Savior, I know he will forgive me!”
What reason would God have to accept these dirty drunks?
The voice of the other man rose above his friend’s. “For God so loved the world…”
I listened to the conversions intently, like I stared at an ice hole waiting for a sheefish to take bait.
After the men asked for forgiveness, they promised Jesus they would live for him, and walked together with Daniel. I stood in their paths, and their halleluiahs stopped for a few seconds. They knew me.
“You guys are crazy.” I shook my head disgustedly, but back at the pew I knelt down on the hard concrete and prayed by myself.
I need to be changed too, Lord.
I walked to the chow line. They came too — and they weren’t staggering a bit anymore.
Can Jesus turn the liquor in their bellies into water?
Yes he can, my heart said.
I actually looked forward to the chapel service the next day. Another preacher came, but it was the same sermon about being “born again” — again! He closed his service with “Just as I Am,” but the words from another hymn sang in my head: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
A wretch like me.
And suddenly, I found the reason to give my life to Jesus Christ. He would accept me just the way I was and forgive me. After I died, whether next week or when I was 80, Jesus would welcome me to the place he had prepared for me. As I prayed, I felt a new brightness inside me, like sunshine glinting off Yukon waves in the late morning. I looked around the room with eyes that could see for the first time. I wasn’t the old Timothy anymore. I really was born again.
Director Edwards had known my family when he had been a missionary along the Yukon, and his kindness reminded me of my Samaritan.
“Timothy, you stay here at the mission as long as you want to.”
“I’ll earn my way, Pastor,” I told him, and that’s exactly what I did. I worked in the mission helping check men in, and I repaired faucets and remodeled rooms. My soul grew stronger in the Lord as I studied the Bible, and I began to really understand it. My street friends asked me about my change, and I had great times telling them how to be saved too. What a thrill to see them come to Christ.
But the Trickster wasn’t happy.…
Being forgiven and saved is only the beginning of living a powerful, fulfilling Christian life. Although I had given up alcohol, no one ever told me that I must confront all the deeply-rooted cravings that possessed my heart, and forsake them with the help of other brothers in Christ. In the first year after my commitment to Jesus, I threw off the outward chains that kept me bound, and backslapping preachers told me that I was the “stuff” missionaries were made of. I had lived the Alaska Native village culture and knew the language; all I really lacked was a 3-year stretch at a Bible school to complete the portrait of “Yup’ik missionary.”
I enrolled in a Bible college in Palmer, Alaska, and in their structured environment I did well. I worked in commercial fishing to pay for my tuition, and well-meaning clergymen judged me a man whose life had been changed. But no one knew the real Timothy.
Never, never would I have admitted to wrestling with unhealthy thoughts about the opposite sex, and never would my clergy friends or Bible students have guessed it. I was a man with secret obsessions that I desperately tried to control, and the “call of God” my friends so coveted, grew heavy like an anchor in my soul.
Upon graduating from Bible college my denomination assigned me to pastor at an Inupiat village on the Seward Peninsula, near Nome, where no one spoke my Yup’ik language. My congregation herded reindeer and fished in the bay, and their subsistence lifestyle was not unlike my own village. At the end of my first year there, I should have been leading my flock to greener spiritual pastures; instead officers herded me aboard a plane in handcuffs. A wolf had ravaged their precious fold, dismembering the most innocent of lambs. I had sexually abused a young girl.
And the Trickster smiled.
For years I had been in and out of jails wherever I lived, but now I was serving hard time. Of my five-year sentence, I served two-and-a-half, and in the Palmer Correctional Center I clung to my faith like a drowning man. God was working in my heart, but I still didn’t completely own up to the crime I had committed — not only against the child, but against God himself. I had trampled on Jesus’ love for me by deliberately giving in to my lust.
When I was released, I went home to Mountain Village, and sometimes it was more than I could bear to know what I had done. I stayed with my family who was supportive, and in a few months, I convinced myself that I had a reason to start drinking again. I hadn’t ground into the depths of utter despair yet, where only God could scrape me off the bottom.
At Mountain Village, the home of my ancestors, where I had lovingly protected my own little sisters — I sexually abused another girl.
I believed that my life was over. I spent three months in Anchorage awaiting trial, then the authorities flew me to Bethel for sentencing.
Twelve years, four suspended.
I marched in and out of trucks and planes, shuffling in my chains like a zombie — Palmer Correctional, Spring Creek Correctional, and finally the Florence Correctional Center in Arizona. Eight blistering years stretched ahead of me, caged like an animal in cells with other men who, like me, had acted inhuman.
I am no longer God’s child.
In my mind I returned to 4th Avenue. I was Judas Iscariot, and not the prodigal son hoping for redemption. The moment I touched that child, God’s mercy had blown away like goose down in a storm. And so I lived that way.…
I stayed to myself, hating anyone who lived in my cell with me. I lived like a wounded beast, nursing abscesses on my soul, blaming everyone and myself too, for my misery. I had come to the end of humanness, and wanted to die — but I was afraid of what God would do with me if I did.
The undertow had me, and I gasped for air. In a faint kick to the surface, I started a class to finish school; and while I studied for a GED (General Education Development) an unnatural hatred for the woman teaching the class consumed me. I jotted down chilling words about killing her, and I forgot to throw the note away. She found it on my desk.
Three burly prison guards marched me out of the general prison population and into solitary confinement. The prison officials added “attempted murder” to my record.
Alone in my cell for weeks, old memories of my home crowded my brain — and the good ones stung me just like the bad ones. I had a Bible on my bunk, and I leafed through trying to find a verse that kept coming to my mind. I found it in Galations 6:7: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (KJV).
As I stared at the verse in my darkened cell, the verse illuminated, flickering into my eyes. I glanced around trying to find a reflection or light from somewhere, but the brightness came from God’s word. I didn’t sleep that night; someone spoke to me deep in my soul where all the pain had settled. I knew I was reaping, and that I must repent — but would God accept me again?
The next morning a guard passed a piece of paper under my iron cell door asking if I wanted to attend some kind of class in the lobby. Anything was better than sitting alone. It turned out that a missionary to inmates had come to minister to the worst of the worst.
“God is not done with you. He loves you.” The man’s words scraped the abscess, and I asked him, “But, what about me?” I told the missionary my story, and he insisted that God wasn’t finished with me. A wisp of hope drifted across my heart as I walked back to my cell under guard.
When I was a drunk, I lived a bitter solitary life, like a crippled-up old sled dog. Even when I lay bloody and near death in a 4th Avenue ally, I chose to curl up under some truck or in a doorway rather than admit I was weak and needed help — but not this time.
In prison I cried out in anguish, and Jesus, the one I had violated, met me with open arms. He forgave me without conditions, and I determined to be real in my life as a Christian. By exposing my soul to the light of God’s word in full view of trusted brothers, the wounds inside me began to heal. I learned to forgive myself, and seek the forgiveness of others if they were blessed with compassion enough to forgive me.
At the Arizona prison where Alaska shipped its overflow inmates, I met good men who helped restore me inside prison. One was Michael Ensch, the chaplain administrator for the Alaska Department of Corrections. He took the time to steer me into a mentorship program that slowly changed the way I thought about myself and the world around me. It prepared me to go back to my family and live like a man of God.
“It’s never too late to rededicate your life to Christ, Tim. God wants you!”
Chaplain Mike believed in me even after knowing about my dirty life, and he said that I if I was honest with myself, God and others and willing to be accountable that God would do a complete new work in my life.
“Remember the song, ‘Amazing Grace,’ Tim?”
I did. Jesus had saved a “wretch like me” at the rescue mission. I had fallen, fallen, and hit bottom — and in prison God was rebuilding me to be useful in his kingdom again. My life was an open book for everyone to read. My story screamed out: “DON’T GO THAT WAY, Brother!” at their deadly fork in the trail.
What really helped me climb out of the muskeg and onto solid ground was a program called the Transformational Living Community (TLC). Away from the general population of inmates I was able to focus on every unhealthy craving or thought that traveled across my mind, and replace them with God’s way of thinking. I learned what it took to be a role model, and I learned how I should deal with the world, after my years in prison. TLC became a 24-7 lifestyle where I became human again, and helped others find the fulfilling joy of serving Christ.
When I reentered society in 2007, I had 45 arrests on my record, with a total of 15 years of hard time. The pipeline construction days were long over, and 4th Avenue in Anchorage had more tourist shops and restaurants than bars. I had to relearn how to navigate the streets to find my probation officer and register as a sex offender, and to this day I remain in a treatment program. But I am finished with my parole obligations soon, and I will be a free man!
From the first day of my release, God’s grace has followed me like the sweet fragrance of currant tea I remember as a boy. Jesus gave me steady work at an ulu factory, and I have kept this job for years. I own a home in Anchorage, and I attend a wonderful church where I am accepted as a brother. At 71 years old, I work outdoors often, and I feel as healthy as when I helped my aata with his sled dogs and trap lines.
My nephew knows my story, and he says, “It’s a miracle that you’re alive, Uncle Tim.” And he’s right. Inside the body of a chronic inebriate the liver fails, the stomach rots, and the brain turns to alcohol mush. My loving and merciful God has healed me.
I have 10 grandchildren, and I am a great grandfather too. When I talk to my family now I want to pour so much into their minds to protect them, but they are in God’s loving hands, not mine.
I pray that my story awakens in my Yup’ik family the reason to seek God, so that they know final victory and fulfillment too, like old Timothy. Perched in the branches of every mind, the Trickster might scheme, but God’s wise and commanding Word terrifies him and always sets him to flight.