Tommy Thompson Bio 5 Arriving in Chitina

CHAPTER 5

Arriving in Chitina

We turned from the main highway onto a dirt road that led to Chitina, 40 miles away. It was a nightmare to drive. Tree logs had been embedded into the dirt road simply to make it passable.

Ascending a mountain on a winding, narrow road with many dangerous curves, we were nervous and wondered just how anyone could ever make it on this road. It was getting dark and we were still climbing the mountain road when suddenly we were in an area called Liberty Falls, a most beautiful spot.

Continuing our drive, we descended into a valley with swampy areas that took skillful driving to traverse. After passing several beautiful lakes, we were thankful to see the lights of Chitina. We breathed a sigh of relief. We were now at the place God allocated for us to work.

As we drove into this little village, we saw dilapidated buildings with eerie skeletons painted on the side. Stopping at a run-down store, we peered through the doorway and saw an unusual scene inside. With dim lighting, several weird, drunk men were standing around like ghouls.

Leaving the family inside the car, I went inside and asked for directions to the bunk house. A gentle type of man took me outside and kindly pointed it out to me. Looking around in the evening glow, the place looked like what the painted skeletons represented, “a ghost town”! Everything seemed run down; nothing looked new.

Driving toward the bunk house we saw that we would have to cross a creek by way of an old bridge. Suddenly we were mired in mud and slipping toward a swamp. Before I could get out of the car, two of the men from the store came and helped us get unstuck and over the bridge. I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.

I knocked on the bunk house door. The door was opened by a kindly woman named Mrs. McKellar, known by everyone as Aunty May. She had come to Chitina from the Valley Christian Children’s Home in Wasilla to work with the women of the village. She had heard of our coming and arranged for us to stay in the bunk house. She welcomed us in.

The place was lighted with an old oil lamp which cast a strange glow around our room. Regardless, we were all exhausted. Sadie and I were greatly relieved to tumble into a bed; Brian and Billy curled up in sleeping bags on an old couch. Unfazed, Sadie saw the funny side of it all and had a good chuckle at my apprehension.

When morning light came, we peeped out the window at our ghost town. Sadie helped Auntie May prepare a lovely breakfast. We had a good talk about plans for our accommodation. Another old building would have to make an apartment for Auntie May. I began soon to do this, and had her into a nice wee apartment.

I decided to survey Chitina and set out to walk around. I turned up an old road and came to the native village and soon began talking to them in their cabins. Joy filled my soul as I realized we were in the place to which the Lord called us. We felt bonded to these dear people and found out about many things that they learned to sustain their culture.

Living conditions called for lots of labor. Many other surprises awaited our learning. Since wood was essential for heating and cooking, I had to cut down trees, strip the branches, haul the logs home, cut them for length, and split them to useful size. It took four cords of wood to make it through the year. A cord is a pile measuring 4ft x 4ft x 8ft. This was a very burdensome task.

Water was brought in buckets from a spring at the side of a nearby creek. When winter cold froze the creek, Sadie or I had to break the ice with an axe. Our light came from a gas lamp and candles. Occasionally the old cynic O.J. Nelson ran his light plant for a few hours and this helped us with electric light. Toilet facilities were in an old outhouse over the side of the river!

We went to the store to buy bread. But by the time bread arrived from Anchorage or Fairbanks, it had started turning green. Sadie had never baked bread, but as a girl in Belfast she had won many awards for baking and sewing. She asked the Lord for guidance, and set about to make bread. She produced the best bread on earth. For years afterwards, even after we had moved to live in the city, the smell of fresh-baked bread was a regular part of our home. When Sadie went home to glory in 1984, she left me four loaves of her homemade bread!

These and many other difficulties in this primitive life surely added to Sadie’s work, yet she never complained, “Enduring hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ”. Her record is on high and will bring the “well done”.

A few years before we arrived, another missionary in the area had built a nice church building in Chitina. It was not being used and Auntie May opened it up for us. I started preaching services there. Behind the pulpit, I strung up a large canvas depicting Israel’s journey from Egypt to Canaan and preached my first messages based on that wonderful narrative account. The conditions of the Israelites in Egypt resonated with the native people. Nearly all of them in the area came to the meetings. A few hardened alcoholics were among the very few who refused to come.

Alcoholism had many people in its grip. A sad example came when I was walking through the cutout road that led from the village to the Copper River. I walked past an abandoned boxcar. Hearing some sounds coming from inside it, I decided to investigate. Stepping up to the boxcar, I slid open the heavy door. I recoiled from the stench: a heavy mixture of alcohol and human waste. I could see the forms of three drunken men lying among empty beer cans and empty booze bottles. These were men who had reverted to hopelessness and gave up on life. I recognized one of the men as Joe Eskalida, a native whose father had been a local chief.

Seeing there was nothing I could do, I turned and kept walking. A short distance away I saw Tom Bell, another prominent native, and his son Pat, staggering along the road; they too were alcoholics. My heart ached for these men who had become enslaved by Satan’s influence. I fell down and cried, “Lord, can you save these men?” God answered my cry by filling my heart with more resolve to use the Egypt-to-Canaan chart to preach the gospel every night of the week.

About three months after my encounters with the alcoholic men, a strange thing happened. One evening, a crowd of the natives of Chitina approached our bunkhouse. They simply came in, sat down and said nothing. (The way we had been raised in Ulster, if visitors come into your house you treat them like guests by chatting with them and perhaps offering them a cup of tea.) Sadie tried to be a gracious hostess according to what she knew, but her efforts at conversation were to no avail. We were perplexed, to say the least.

Sadie looked at me as if to say, “What do I do?” I did not know, either.

Suddenly, they all stood up and began placing many things on the table. Frozen fish, lots of frozen berries, bread, meat, a big cooking pot and several dessert goodies. Then just as quietly as they had arrived, they all turned and left. Sadie and I looked at each other, dumb-founded.

The next morning, I met one man and asked him about the generosity of the night before. His reply caused us tears of joy.

“We are glad you come live with us,” he said in the broken English characteristic of the people there.

We could also say, “We sat where they sat.”