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Seeing the light

The trip was one-part anniversary present, one-part dream travel destination come true, but most of all, it was a long, longed-for spiritual re-connection with my father gone from my life almost 40 years.

Star trails from the Northern Lights in Hay Cove, Newfoundland. (Wikipedia)

The trip: to witness the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.

Some people learn of the magnificent Northern Lights in science classes. Others in travel magazines or on TV. Not me. I learned about them from my father.

More specifically, I learned about them in a love letter my father wrote to my mother decades before I was born. The letter was one of almost 100 he penned in 1941 while working on construction of a new US Naval Air Base on Newfoundland’s frigid Placentia Bay. 

I read the letters, all yellow and faded, but lovingly saved and Scotch-taped in a scrapbook my mother kept during the lonely months my father was away during WW II. Today both parents are gone and I consider this scrapbook — this snapshot of their romantic youth — among my most cherished possessions.

The letters, written in pencil, were mostly scrawled late at night before my father fell asleep, often still in his wet and frozen clothes after working from 6:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night.

My father, Big Julie, as we all called him, had a photographic memory. He wrote poetry and quoted the great philosophers from memory all his life. He had hoped to become a journalist or a lawyer. Instead, he was forced to drop out of school in sixth grade to help support his family during the Great Depression. 

By the age of 28 he was married, had two sons and was in deep debt. The hazardous, hard work in Newfoundland was steady and paid well — $95 per week.  

His letters home reflect his yearning for his young wife, his children and the extended family. They covered the mundane — from money worries to meals and the biting cold, but they also underscore his brilliance as he reflected on the nature of man, amid wartime deprivations, to man’s place in nature and the universe.

Here are two samples: 

“Never mind sending a radio. I am the envy of the camp. The reason: Mom’s pickled herring. Boy. It is good.”

March 17, 1942

“The days are getting colder and colder. A man’s past and home seem far away indeed. If not where for the mail here, it would seem that we have been forgotten and become lost souls in a world gone mad. Yet each morning we arise, knowing each in his own little way, like a tiny mole buried in the earth, serves some purpose and is part of the whole that shall someday be able to say, we helped build Argentia (Newfoundland). We built it well, for we built it for those who shall need it in the crucial days ahead.

“Planes will land here, and pilots will probably never stop to reflect on the toil and hardship men underwent that their wheels might have firm ground to set down on.

“Sailors and marines will dwell in the houses we build for them, yet, never think of the men who built them. Each man here does a job, an important job. We don’t wear uniforms and we don’t have brass bands, but we have a loyalty to our country as sincere and as true that they may well be proud of the men of the mud of Argentia, who built another link in the steel ring of defense bases of Uncle Sam.”

5 a.m. November 27, 1941 

While my father’s love of law inspired two of my brothers to become attorneys, it was his love of words and writing that fueled my own journalism and writing career.

And it was his awe-filled description of the Aurora Borealis that inspired my decades long dream to see the Northern Lights. This year, thanks to my sweet husband, this trip was gloriously planned.

The day we crossed a snowy windblown highway to Borealis Basecamp, 28 miles outside of Fairbanks, Alaska, it was a “balmy” 1 degree F, up from -37 just two days before. “It’s a nice day,” our driver cheerfully told us. “That’s what we say anytime it’s above zero.” 

Unlike my father who witnessed the auroras standing outside in the wind and cold, we “hunkered down” to witness them indoors in bed, and in style — in one of 20 modern geodesic igloos with a clear plexiglass ceiling, complete with luxury sheets and front desk “wake-up” calls alerting us to aurora appearances!

Throughout his planning for this trip, my husband worried I would be disappointed if we didn’t see the often-elusive Northern Lights, but I was all in for the adventure which included a dog sled ride with a champion “musher.”

I knew that even if we didn’t see the lights, I wouldn’t be “too” disappointed. The truth is I had already seen them years ago — through my father’s eyes and words, written eight decades before in magnificent wonder to my mother from blistering cold southeastern Newfoundland.

His legacy of love, words and awe has served me well in work, marriage and every aspect of my life. Big Julie lived a hard life, but his model of goodness and care for family and strangers made him a gitte nishima. 

It’s a model I’ve always worked to emulate.

Yes, my husband and I did see the swirling green-blue bands, sometimes vivid, sometimes pale wisps, of the Northern Lights both nights, twice each night. 

At one point on that second night, buffeted by the vast solar winds and the magnetosphere, the auroras spread across the sky like fingers of a giant, glowing hand. 

In that moment, I felt what I really had come to find — connection and communion with my father.

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Read more of Karen Galatz’s work at https://muddling. me or contact her at [email protected].

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