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Moving Parts - Chapter 4

My mother was born in Alaska, on an island named, oddly enough, Unalaska, in the Aleutians. “Unalaska . . .” my mother said, shaking her head with mild dismay, “. . . just another English misspelling of a Russian mispronounced Aleut word.” She was raised at the Presbyterian Children’s Home -- an orphanage -- after both her parents died in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919. There was a toughness and calm determination to my mother that we all recognized and that I rarely saw matched by anyone, including my father and, if the stories are right, Grandma Morgan too. My mother did not frequently volunteer her opinions, but when she did, she meant it.

Her father, Ivan Petrovitch, who went by “John Peterson” among the Americans, was a tall Russian with a weathered, ruddy complexion; and her mother was Aleut -- short, broad, and “quite spirited,” my mother said. The woman went by the name “Ali,” but some at “The Home” thought her name probably was Alyeska, one of the few Aleut names that survive.

The little we know about my mother’s parents comes from what she learned during her years at the orphanage and from five curled and yellowed, three-by-five, black-and-white photographs my mother kept. In one picture her parents are standing in front of a dreary-looking, white-washed, clapboard building, holding hands and looking straight ahead. John is absolutely gigantic, at least compared to Ali, who looks most like a chubby child; and he leans a little sideways toward her so she doesn’t have to reach up. He has no facial expression at all, nothing. His face is long with a robust handle-bar mustache, and he has a full head of straight dark hair that falls haphazardly over his forehead and obscures his narrow eyes. In the photo, he is wearing a drab, wrinkled, long-sleeve white shirt, and his dark pants are held up with dark suspenders.

In this photo and one other, Ali wears a fancy-looking white dress with lace trim at the collar, hem, and sleeves, and her long black hair has been braided and pinned up beautifully. While she too looks straight-ahead, she has a smile on her round, dark-complected face that fills the photograph with joy. On the back of the photo in a much-faded, nearly unreadable hand it says, “John and Ali Peterson. July 4th, 1915.” My mother kept these pictures under a cut-glass tray that she set on her dresser and used as a handy place to keep her cosmetics, her watch, and a small woven basket holding a tangle of costume jewelry. I still wear the watch, a gift to her from my father, 14-karat gold with a delicately braided gold band; but it’s the photographs and woven basket I really hold dear.

My mother always said the photographs must have been from her parents’ wedding, though she knew of no public record of that event, and I didn’t see that documented until years later during a trip I made to Unalaska. My mother’s birth was recorded in a registry of births, deaths, weddings, and christenings, maintained by the Presbyterian Church of Dutch Harbor, Alaska: “May 8, 1918: Catherine Marie Peterson, born to John and Ali Peterson, 7 lbs., 13 ounces!” So my mother was part Aleut. She was convinced her father was himself a mix of European Russian and East Asian. “Look at those eyes,” she would say when the subject came up. But then she’d add that Ali may have been a mix as well. My mother told us there was a lot of “mixing” by the Russian men and the native women they encountered in 18th and 19th century Alaska.

We don’t know exactly what John Peterson was doing at Dutch Harbor, though he might well have worked in a cannery, on one of the fishing trawlers that ran out from there, or been involved servicing freighters. These were increasingly common livelihoods with the growth of commercial fishing and after the demise of the fur trade from overhunting beavers and otters. People from the orphanage told my mother that her parents spent many hours helping out at the church. “She probably domesticated him,” my mother once speculated with us. This tall, dark, sullen-looking man and plump and pretty Aleut girl loved each other for reasons no one now will ever know. For the few short years they were together, he provided for her; and she kept him company and kept his home, whatever and wherever that was.

# # #

My father, Charles Derrick Morgan, was “Chuck” to everyone except my mother, who usually called him Charlie and occasionally “Fix-It Charlie,” a name she gave him during the war. He was born in Detroit in 1917, but his family moved to Dearborn two years later when my grandfather relocated his metal fabrication business into a new and larger building there. Morgan Metal Parts designed and built prototypes of all sorts for the auto industry. Like his father Joseph (Joe), my dad had an inborn sense for machines; and there wasn’t much he found more satisfying than taking apart a pump, or engine, or transmission to see what was wrong with it and how he might improve on it. He had these large hands with long fingers that kept a firm yet careful grip on whatever he cradled in his left hand and probed with some tool or flashlight in his right. He used to say that for him there was something therapeutic about repairing a machine. Studying how components fit together and responded to one another, he often could surmise the designer’s intent, manufacturing errors, and the compromises made to accommodate inadequate space or inferior materials.

In what remains one of my lasting images of my father, he is sitting on a tall stool at his workbench in the boat house. His left elbow is planted on the workbench, and nested in his left hand, like an immense diamond, is a fishing reel brought to him by one of our guests. He cranks the reel forward and back, and then with his right hand he sets down his cigar so the fragile ash hangs over the edge of the bench. (My mother hated his cigars, and wouldn’t let him smoke them in the house. She was convinced that someday he’d set the boat house on fire. It was one of the things she was wrong about.) In any event, with his eyes barely open, as if seeing would interfere with hearing, my dad releases the drag on the line and listens closely while slowly, and then more slowly, and then even more slowly cranking the fishing reel. “Do you hear that?” he asked me. I shook my head no. He twisted something on the reel, then cranked it again and asked, “Now?” I closed my eyes tight, but I never heard it. And I still don’t know whether he actually heard something or perhaps felt something rub or slip inside the reel. Whatever he sensed was so faint, so slight, it was imperceptible to me and just about anyone else.

Only Carl came even close to my father’s sensitivity to mechanical phenomena. Carl could sense ground vibrations and changes in the wind long before the rest of us, but Carl had absolutely no feel for machines, and I’ve come to believe we develop these sensitivities to the things we care about.

Dad ended up taking the reel apart a second time, finding a small gear that had cracked, and then spending the rest of the afternoon searching for a replacement gear in a stash of saved hardware that he kept in assorted baby food jars and cigar boxes. After dinner that evening I asked him if he’d fixed the fishing reel, and he said he’d replaced a broken gear and maybe that was it.

“Why ‘maybe?’ Did you still hear the problem?”

“No, but I don’t know why the gear cracked.”

“ Maybe it was just a bad part.”

“Maybe,” he said. “Probably.”

Sometimes “maybe” was all we could get from him. If he wasn’t sure he understood a problem or a solution, it bothered him, gnawed at him until he either worked it out or he forced himself to put it in “quarantine;” not just on the shelf under the workbench, or if there wasn’t room there, on the floor in the corner behind the boat house door. “Quarantine,” we also learned, was code for some similarly organized place in his mind, where he’d pick up the problem again later.

He never knew when an idea would come to him, so for a short while he took to wearing a fishing vest over his shirts because of all the pockets it gave him for his glasses, pens, small pads of paper, and a six-inch slide rule. Over the years at the resort, until he was well into his eighties, my dad transcribed and elaborated on these spur-of-the-moment notes into a set of notebooks describing his issues with machines, various engineering questions that taunted him, and calculations and drawings for his ideas. There even are several pages devoted to the sandbox cover. Joanna has these notebooks now. I think the notebooks demonstrate a remarkable level of discipline on our father’s part; but Joanna says reading them would put even an adoring God to sleep.

Dad absolutely hated things that seemed to fix themselves. “How can we trust it now?” he’d ask. We all knew when he was stuck and frustrated by one of his problems because instead of telling you what piece of jazz he had on, or asking what you were up to, he might leave the boat house for the day, door wide open, and forget that the radio still was blaring away. Or he might forget that you were still standing by the door having told him dinner was ready. My mother used to say that Dad could have been a wonderful surgeon; and he usually piped in that he would have been a very unhappy surgeon with a lot of dead patients.

He was the third of four children of Beatrice (Betty) and Joseph Morgan; there being Uncle Samuel who was 5 years older than Dad, Aunt Margaret (Maggie) who was 2 years older, and then Aunt Dora, who was 4 years younger. Uncle Samuel was an accountant at Ford and Aunt Maggie had married Frank Hamlin right out of high school. Frank was a machinist at Ford, but eventually also went to work at Morgan Metal Parts. Dad had worked for Grandpa Joe, too, while attending night school to get an engineering degree, and then went right to work for General Motors until World War Two broke out. He tried to enlist in the Navy, but the military was using engineers to design and build everything it needed for the war. He was hired by the Navy as a civilian instead, sent to Chicago for a short time, and then to Alaska in March of 1942 -- part of the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps -- to build fortifications and defenses on Unalaska, at Dutch Harbor, a natural deep-water port then serving as a Navy submarine base.

That’s where my parents met. My mother had returned to Dutch Harbor to help evacuate Aleuts and other Alaskan Natives before they became victims of a Japanese invasion. Dutch Harbor, already a fishing and Pacific freight hub, had suddenly become a refugee transfer point too, unloading Aleuts and their belongings from Navy-commandeered fishing boats coming off the outer islands, and loading them onto larger ships going to refugee camps near Ketchikan. The Navy thought it was doing the Aleuts a big favor; but it was a forced evacuation, and the Aleuts, nevertheless, felt like victims. The Navy had given Catherine Peterson the job, hoping the young Alaskan woman who spoke Aleut, Alutiiq, Tlingit, Russian and English could help the refugees feel more comfortable about what was happening to them, or at least get more cooperation.

My parents’ romance started one evening after a day my father spent supervising harbor fortifications for the submarine base. As he walked back to the S.S. Northwestern -- an old troop transport moored at Dutch Harbor and used to house civilian military employees -- my father was knocked to the ground by a girl with an armload of blankets and other refugee belongings. She’d been looking back over her shoulder, talking to someone and certainly not looking where she was going. He saw her coming, tried to evade her, but stepped the wrong way. Meanwhile she’d turned back too quickly and walloped him on his right side. He lost his balance, slipped, fell and slammed his left hand against a rock buried in the icy mud. Even wearing gloves, something broke.

She saw him go down and wanted to help him up, but she didn’t have a free hand or a place to set her load. So she stood there watching him wince as he pushed himself back to his feet. She repeated over and over how sorry she was, and asked if there was anything she could do. He told her he was okay because he had no idea that he’d broken two small bones in his left hand, but he knew the hand really hurt. He was a cold, wet and muddy mess, and he trudged back the remaining half mile or so to the Northwestern, cleaned himself up, and then went to the base infirmary because his left palm and his middle finger were swollen and turning black-and-blue.

An hour later, she had tracked him down, discovered he’d gone to the infirmary, and was waiting there in the cold, clammy darkness when he came out with his arm in a sling and four fingers splinted together, wrapped with tape, and covered with an army-green mitten so large it reached nearly to his elbow. At first he didn’t recognize her, he told us, because the light was bad and he hadn’t gotten a good look through all the blankets she carried. But she walked right up to him now, said “Charles Morgan?” and when he nodded, asked him how his hand was. He decided she was sort of cute, sort of intriguing. He didn’t understand why he needed his whole arm in the sling; he’d broken some bones in his left palm. So he pulled the sling off over his head and stuffed it into his coat pocket. They started back to the Northwestern, but in the cold damp air, the tape holding the mitten peeled way, and when he lowered his arm, the mitten slipped off.

He just stood there for a moment, and she could tell something was wrong. “Still hurts, doesn’t it?” she asked.

“Yeah, it throbs. I can feel my pulse in my hand.”

“They give you anything for pain?”

“Aspirin, but not enough I guess.”

She picked up the mitten, carefully slipped it over his hand, and then got his mitten-covered arm back in the sling.

“If you accidentally brush that hand against anything,” she told him “even your own hip, it’s going to hurt like hell and I bet you’ll wish you’d kept the sling.” She said it would force him to be more careful. He was about to remind her whose fault all this was, but then checked himself. “Yes?” she asked, looking up at him. But he just smiled. So she smiled, and they walked together back to the Northwestern.

He’d missed dinner, so she raced to her quarters in the nurses’ barracks, made a sandwich with some bread and Spam she’d squirreled away the day before, and then rushed back to the Northwestern. By the time she got there however, he’d fallen asleep; and she left the sandwich for him, wrapped so neatly in brown paper it looked like a gift. She’d tied some twine around the sandwich, then slid in a note to him that read, “I’m very sorry about your hand. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help;” and she’d signed it “Cate Peterson.”

It was a note he kept in his top dresser drawer with a bundle of other letters and cards she sent him after he was reassigned to San Diego. He even saved the piece of twine. When he told us this story, Dad often mentioned that he’d never seen “Cate” spelled with a “C” before, and that she sure didn’t look like anyone named Cate Peterson.

The next afternoon, walking back from the harbor fortifications, he found her in a small office she shared at the rear of a Quonset hut with another woman, Eleanor McClintock, who also was assisting the Aleut evacuation. He wanted to thank her for the sandwich, which he’d eaten at two in the morning. He said it was good. She smiled and told him he was a liar. Eleanor erupted in laughter. He pointed to the mitten still on his arm and still in the sling and said his hand felt better.

“Was it tough sleeping with your arm in the sling?”

He told us he had a risqué thought he decided not to share with her then and that he never told us. He just smiled and she smiled. He continued meeting her at her office after work as he walked back to the Northwestern; and they started having dinners together.

I think I was around eleven or twelve when I first heard this story. He said, “You know how when Mom smiles, her face lights up and she gets those deep creases up and down right between her eyes?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well that’s when I fell in love with her. She smiled like that and called me a liar.”

She was small but sturdy, pale by Aleut standards, with a smooth round face and a broad nose; and back then she kept her straight black hair pulled into a ponytail that reached the middle of her back. Her eyes were East Asian, of course; and if she hadn’t spoken to him in standard American English, he might have said she was Chinese. He found it so odd he said; he could not put together the way she looked with the way she spoke. In the weeks that followed, however, he would discover she knew five languages and liked to sing, mostly to herself, in a soprano that was soft but vibrant. Sometimes he’d catch parts of what he was sure were church hymns, but mostly it was stuff he didn’t recognize. Often she seemed unaware that she was singing, and he wondered, he told us, how often she sang without realizing it, as naturally as breathing. Otherwise she was quieter than any girl he’d ever met.

That was okay because he was a talker. He liked to talk about the things he was working on and projects he heard about from other engineers. He talked a lot about his parents, his brother and sisters, and his father’s business. And she listened. Her dark brown eyes didn’t glaze over when he described metal fabrication, frost heave, construction practices in cold climates, or the need for a real airstrip at Dutch Harbor. She didn’t change the subject when he talked about calculating the necessary strength of materials based on a design. “Draw the thing first,” he said, “then figure out how to build it. If you start with the materials, you’ll never advance the design.”

For her, his stories of family life felt almost like fairy tales with heroes and villains -- his mother in particular -- not so different from those read to her when she was a little girl at the orphanage. She had some friends including Eleanor McClintock, some of the staff and a few girls from “The Home” with whom she’d grown up; but no parents, no siblings, and no extended family. Given the times and the conditions, being raised as an orphan in Alaska wasn’t unique, but neither was it the norm.


Miles Ducore is a retired packaging engineer and member of the Barrington Writers Workshop. Born in New Jersey, he attended college in the Midwest, including the Iowa Writers Workshop. He and his wife have lived in Palatine, IL for more than forty years.

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