ELDERS


“We have a Michael Smith booked tonight, but he’s from Washington.  We don’t have a reservation for you.”

It was 11 p.m. in Anchorage, and I had been looking forward to a quick shower and getting to bed, after the flight down from Kotzebue through Nome.  I had a seat mate who kept jabbing me, her husband fell asleep (lucky him) and she didn’t want to leave the row at deplaning.  I got behind two women who were slow going up stairs, and each took one side, together blocking the stairwell.  It had been a long day.

The women were elderly, and I said nothing.  At my hotel, I was stunned at the news, and all other rooms were booked in the city. The night manager had no suggestions.  I looked outside for a place to sleep, but I camp in the woods or tundra, not cities.  I finally thought of one place where people sleep without being arrested–the airport.  I took the shuttle back to the airport, and the young woman driver was a bit sharp with me.  When she spoke, I was slow to respond, because I was tired, trying to solve problems, not create a scene.  Her loud: “Hellooo?” didn’t help.

It was a long, short night.  I heard: “It’s one thirty,” “two thirty,” and “four thirty” on the loudspeaker.  I got up at 5 to the sound behind me of people shuffling in line to check in at a counter.  Embarrassed, I collected my gear and went to the men’s room to clean up.  Fortunately, I slept in my clothes; unfortunately, I really needed a shower.  I called the hotel to send the shuttle, and the same young woman came to pick me up.

“Do you have a room?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“Then why did you call the shuttle?” Her tone was angry.

“Because I felt like it.”  I replied, a little annoyed.  She knew that I had been at the hotel and might have a reason to go back.  I was thrice her age; I didn’t know if this was power over somebody, gender, race, my age, or she was just having a bad day.  I was wise enough to stay silent.  As a 64 year-old guy who just got 1 hour of sleep on the floor in the Anchorage airport, with a 7 hour drive ahead of me, I tried to be polite.  Treating elderly people with respect mattered when I was a kid, and I resent it when young people treat me with disrespect.

I am more than elderly.  I consider myself an elder, and the women at the airport who went up the stairs slowly I considered elders, too, which is why I didn’t yell at them to move faster.  Elders have lived long, have wisdom, listen a lot, and are willing to change their beliefs in the face of new evidence.  I qualify on all counts.  Some call it “being young,” which is fine.

When I got to the hotel, I was given a room, then asked to pay for it–full freight–until check out time 5 hours later.  I almost signed the sheet, not because I would pay for it, but it was going to be billed to the other Michael Smith, the guy from Washington.  But that wouldn’t have been honest. Elders must be honest, too.

The manager of the hotel was present and let me use of the room and shower for free.  I used two towels, leaving the room otherwise untouched. Subsequently, I spent two more nights there, in a nice room with a big discount.  That is why that woman is a manager.  She problem solves and knows that a customer who gets treated well after a bad outcome is likely to choose that place to stay the next time.  Indeed, I shall.

She was an elder, too.

I think the Native Alaskans were on to something.  Not only did the they clearly adapt their lives to the seasons, far better than we do, and existed a lot longer than we; their belief system respected elders.

I grew up told to respect elderly people, not all of whom were elders, but many were.  I was to listen and be polite.  Many elders taught me; I would have learned more if I hadn’t been a know it all kid, although I wasn’t a total loss.

I respected my parents, and my mother, a feminist before the word existed, and against segregation long before most of the country was, told me to treat all people with respect.  Making my parents proud of me was important. I didn’t always succeed. but I did when they began to die, and I had to become a parent to them.  They were not only my parents, but elders, people who taught me, people who deserved respect.  I had to help them exit this world with dignity, which I did, the second best thing I ever did in my life (marrying my wife was the best).

Yes, the Native Alaskans got it right.  The picture below was taken in the Headquarters for Kobuk Valley National Park.  The building is in Kotzebue; the Park 100  air miles east, barely reachable by water, not at all by land or roads, so I went by air.  It is noted for its sand dunes, which came from wind funneling between two glaciers millions of years ago, picking up silt and depositing it. I saw it, my 45th Park, and was thrilled to walk on the dunes.

But what I did not anticipate was far more important: to understand better what an elder is and the responsibility they have to pass their wisdom to the next generation. I needed to see Kobuk Valley, the Visitor’s Center, have a hotel reservation cancelled, and sleep on an airport floor for all this to happen.

Kobuk Valley Visitor’s Center; Kotzebue, Alaska

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