Tales from Conley
Toys for Tots, A Christmas Tale (sort of)
Pitka's Point is along the Yukon River on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
It is not exactly known when the first settlers came to Nigiklik, but they brought with them the Yupi'k Eskimo culture along with the name of "Nigiklik," meaning "to the north." Nor is it exactly known when Mr. Pitka decided to open a trading center.
Mr. Pitka and the trading center are long gone. The people of Pitka's Point enjoy their quiet little village and feel privileged to do so. One hundred and twenty-one Yup'iks live here. The school is the smallest in the Lower Yukon School District. So I went from the largest village and school in the Lower Yukon School District to the smallest.
The high school has been transferred to St. Mary's a few miles down the only road in the Delta and that leaves our school with a population of 32 in K-8. My class size was six. The teacher-to-student ratio could have overwhelmed one. The other three teachers had about the same class load but one of them had the responsibility of being the lead teacher and site administrator. Because of the astronomical class load, we had three aides, a librarian, a Yup'ik instructor, a maintenance man, a custodian, a cook and a secretary who didn't really need the rest of us.
Cynics might think Pitka's Point is a place where teachers go who want to retire but don't want to give up the fat paycheck. Think again. I had four subject matter preparations a day along with at least three and some times four levels for each prep. I also coached cross country, sponsored the student council, was in charge of the yearbook, showed movies every Friday, and held open gym each night for those students who could control their behavior during the day. And, oh yes, my favorite because it was so nondescript – special projects coordinator.
One afternoon just a little after Thanksgiving, I was passing the time away drinking hot chocolate, warming my feet by the stone fireplace and watching a sled being pulled by dogs on TV.
The phone rang and the caller said, "Is this Conley McAnally?" Without waiting for a reply he continued, "This is Sgt. Jones." I paused a moment and said, "This could be Conley McAnally. What do you want?"
Sgt Jones laughed and replied he got a lot of comments like that lately and assured me he was not a recruiter or the one who tracked down retired National Guardsmen for reactivation. I immediately became suspicious, though, because how did he know I was a retired NG?
"Conley," he said hurriedly, interrupting my paranoia, "your name was given me as the contact person for Toys for Tots for the kids in Pitka's Point." I relaxed and we coordinated the arrival of the packages.
At the scheduled morning a C-130 landed at the St. Mary's air strip – no small feat for such a big plane on such a little landing strip on such a cold snowy day. I drove the school truck to the rear of the plane and three Marines jumped down off the ramp and loaded four big bags in the truck bed.
We could not hear to speak over the roar of the engines, but the young Marine who seemed to be in charge – and I mean young – smiled, we shook hands, and he and his small band of brothers jumped back on the plane and took off. I suppose they went to some other small arctic Eskimo village.
Driving back to Pitka's Point, it occurred to me that I did not even get the kid's – man's – name. He was doing the kids of Pitka's Point such a huge favor and they would be receiving Christmas cheer from a total stranger.
As I sit here writing this I realize how many Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Air Force young men and women are allowing us to enjoy a Christmas this year and how they are giving us the most precious gift of all. All are giving us their time many have given their lives and like the young Marines that delivered toys to a bunch of Eskimo tots, we don't even know their names.