Albro B. Gregory is the editor of the Nome Nugget. He looks suspiciously like Central Casting had a hand in getting his job for him. If you can picture Gabby Hayes crossed with Ernest Hemingway, with just a touch of Jackie Gleason thrown in, you've got Albro. A magnificent white beard, broad shoulders, crinkly eyes from gazing into years of Arctic suns, topped by a blue baseball cap, Albro hunches over his ancient L.C. Smith and punches out editorials of stark, Gothic directness. Last week he headed one "Sadistic Bastard!" and went on from there. Hardly a day goes by when he isn't accosted in front of a local bar by an irate native, male or female, demanding to be heard. He hears them all. Recently a lady showed up with blood in her eye, angry because she had been sentenced to three days in jail for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct and Albro hadn't mentioned the event.
"How come Alma gets sentenced to one day in jail and gets her name in the paper, and it was only her first offense? How come my name didn't get in the paper?"
She was about ready to hit him with a beer bottle at this point.
"Wal, now, I see your point there. I'll take care of it in tomorrow's edition." Albro answered in his best Yukon drawl. The next edition carried an item that said "Mrs. X has just completed three days in jail. She 1is now back among her friends."
There are roughly 2300 souls existing somewhat precariously in Nome, clinging to the edge of the Bering Sea and less than a hundred miles from Siberia. The Arctic circle is just a few miles North, and the days in summer go on endlessly. The word "frontier" has been thrown around loosely since the days of the Kennedy administration. Everywhere there is a "new frontier," whether it be in the field of politics, or magic mystical gasoline additives. The word has been used and mis-used so much that it has little meaning to most people.
Five minutes in Nome and you know what the word "frontier" really means. Nome is not a city for the effete. In fact, it's not a city at all, or even a town in the conventional sense. It's a settlement.
I arrived in Nome aboard an Alaska Airlines jet, about 7: 15 pm, after one of the most exotic flights I've ever taken. Flying North and slightly west from Juneau, we made a stop at Cordova, "Home Of The Ice Worm" and then rose to thirty thousand feet or so over wildly rugged mountains and glaciers, vast bays and flat, winding rivers that reminded me more of Tibet than anything else. Mount McKinley glistened in the sun at damn near our altitude, looking remote and malevolent, and in some ways even more sinister than Mount Everest. The stewardesses on this plane wore incredibly short red, black and gold high-necked Russian tunics with black fur hats, and served vodka and borscht. The plane's seats were red and gold velour, straight out of a Minsk whorehouse in the days of Nicholas II. Above the seats, from the luggage racks, hung red velvet curtains and gold tassels. One of the girls was an Eskimo, and two guys sitting ahead of me wore orange curduroy caps with black earmuffs. I'll never forget the sight of one stewardess coming out of the tiny administration building at Cordova carrying a 30- 06 Mauser rifle that some passenger had checked. I have never seen more beautiful stewardesses in my life.
Suddenly there it is below-Nome!From the air it looks like a pathetic huddle of shacks amid a vast, treeless waste fronting the flattest, strangest sea I've ever seen. At 7:15 pm in Nome's summer it is as light as noon in Chicago. Well, not exactly, since the Arctic light isn't the same as we know back in so-called civilization. It has a milky, silvery whiteness to it, with low clouds way down on the horizon somewhere out over the sea, and the sun is almost pure white. It just seems to hang motionless about midway up the sky.
The short main street of Nome parallels the shore about a hundred yards or so from the water, and right now is a kind of gravelly mud.
"Yep, they're gonna pave the main street. I fought it, but that's what happens when you become a State. They pave everything. Goddammit, I fought when they decided to pave the sidewalk here, but I lost." Albro slugged down his Scotch bitterly as we hunched over the bar at the Board Of Trade. Jim West, the moody bartender and owner of the Board Of Trade shoved a beer to Eddie The Rat, a gnomish Eskimo who spends his life cadging beers at the B.O.T. or the Polar Bar next door.
"Lemme tell you, there's no place in the world like Nome. I've lived here in Alaska over 35 years, and this is it." Albro went on with obvious love in his voice. Anybody who has spent any time in Nome either is completely in love with it, or gets the hell out. There is no halfway.
"California,. Here I come . . What the hell, what the hell, what the hell . . " Eddie The Rat sang loudly from his end of the bar.
"Yep, one time Eddie The Rat stole a state cop's coat, right from that hook by the bar. This cop that's about seven-feet tall came in for a beer and hung up his coat. Eddie stole it when he wasn't looking and sold it. Well, that cop said to Jim 'Now look, you tell Eddie The Rat that unless that coat is hanging up on that hook by the jukebox tomorrow morning by 10:30, Eddie The Rat is gonna be in deep trouble, you hear?' The next day the coat was hanging right there on the hook." Albro grinned and drained off his fourth Scotch of the afternoon. We sat in silence for a couple of seconds.
"I'd sell my shoes for a bottle of booze . . . What the hell, whatthehell, whatthehell . . . " Eddie The Rat picked up the beat again.
We went out on the street and Albro stood on the hated narrow concrete sidewalk covered with Nome mud and looked up and down with the air of a monarch surveying his kingdom. Nome was his town and you could tell it a mile off. Right across, handily, from the Board Of Trade was his tiny clapboard building with huge letters: THE NOME NUGGET, where he and his wife Adelaide and a linotypist turn out one of the gutsiest, raciest papers in Christendom. The Nugget's slogan "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like Nome" or "When in Nome, do as the Nomans do" is emblazoned on the masthead, or occasionally "Illegitimus Non Carborundum" will match "All the news that's flt to print" any day of the week.
That afternoon I drove out of Nome into the country that lies back of it over a one lane gravel road that winds among chillingly beautiful rolling hills, absolutely treeless yet covered with a thick, green unbroken carpet of Arctic tundra dotted with millions of strange spectacular flowers and bathed in the most complete silence I've ever heard.
There's not much you can say about cars in Nome, since a car is a tool up there and not something used for sport or status. A guy drove up to the Board Of Trade in a mud-encrusted battered IH Scout that was one of the hairiest vehicles I've seen since the M3 half-track. He had a huge spare gas tank strapped to the front grille, which had been pushed in by violent contact with God knows what. It was a convertible Scout with a worn canvas top and at this point I want you to concentrate hard, because this one detail, for me, caught the Arctic completely, he had filled the cracks between the window frame and the top with strips of wolf skin. This was not done for aesthetics, but was highly practical, since ice does not form on the wolf fur.
There are two or three battered yellow cabs that take people from the hotel out to the airport and back again, at outrageous prices, and as I drove out of town toward the gold fields, between rows of Eskimo tar paper shacks, I noticed an abandoned 1967 Mercedes 280 sedan with 'Taxi' scrawled on its side. In Nome a wrecked Mercedes has no more value than a wrecked '53 'Ford, or a crushed beer can for that matter.
Fifteen miles from Nome I crossed the Nome River, a stream a hundred and fifty feet or so wide, so clear and crystaline that at first it was hard to see the water. Great salmon roved over the pebbles like red shadows. I stopped the Ford and got out - I had rented a cab for the day. It had, mysteriously, a two-way radio. I turned it off and just drank in the silence. From fifteen miles out, the Bering Sea looked so near that you felt you could run down and touch it without raising a sweat. The whole town lay there, while, behind, the hills rose. This was where the great Alaska Gold Rush of the early 1900s had really hit; Joe Gulch, Basin Creek, Anvil Mountain. They were all there; silent, the creeks still trickling, and still with plenty of gold in the gravel. I drove on up Basin Creek to where Herb Engstrom, a 79-year-old rockhard white-bearded . Miner straight out of the Old Testament, works his dredge, making his living out of the gold dust his machinery scoops out of the ancient hills.
"Been on this same creek for 37 years. Seen it when the snow went from that peak right across the gulch here to the next peak, as flat as a dish. 65 below. Wouldn't live no other way." He looks like he has at least 50 more years left in him. I could see a hacked-out gravel pathway back of his house where he had staked out a raunchy looking high-winged Stinson of uncertain vintage. Down on the •creek his son Ron ran the dredge. I climbed aboard.
"Boy, there's eatin' dirt. I could just eat that. That's gold-bearing clay comin' up now," he muttered to himself as he worked the great brass levers of the dredge, carefully working the scoops over a deep slanting sheet of bedrock.
"How does it feel to own a gold mine?" I asked. He grinned and didn't answer for some time, and then said "Well, up here folks feel sorry for you if you're working gold."
I couldn't tell whether he meant it or not.
I drove back to town thinking about Ron and his old man and how far they were from 48th and Madison Avenue in every way conceivable. That night I had reindeer steak in the Nugget Hotel and washed it down with as fine a Martini as I've ever had. Albro and I both looked out of the picture window over the Bering Sea, where killer whales sometimes come right up and watch you eat.
"One day me and Adelaide are gonna get a place in Eagle City, in the Yukon Territory, and get away from it all.'' Albro was in a reflective mood, which comes easy in the far North.
"How'd you like to be the Greenwich Village correspondent for the Nugget!" he asked, "I pay ten cents a column inch."
"I'll take it." I answered.
"Wait'll you get up to Kotzebue," he said, "there's nothing in the world like it."
At the time his words didn't have that much meaning to me. I was soon to find out. I was heading North the next day to Kotzebue, an Eskimo village on the Arctic Ocean, thirty miles north of the Arctic Circle.
"Yep, I have a feeling you're coming back to Nome." Albro said, savoring his Scotch.
"I think you're right."