A powerful new memoir about growing up with a hard father in a hard land
Atz Kilcher learned many vital skills while helping his parents carve a homestead out of the Alaskan wilderness: how to work hard, think on his feet, make do, invent, and use what was on hand to accomplish whatever task was in front of him. He also learned how to lie in order to please his often volatile father and put himself in harm’s way to protect his mother and younger, weaker members of the family.
Much later in life, as Atz began to reflect on his upbringing, seek to understand his father, and heal his emotional scars, he discovered that the work of pioneering the frontier of the soul is an infinitely more difficult task than any of the back-breaking chores he performed on his family’s homestead. Learning to use new toolshonesty, vulnerability, forgiveness, acceptanceand building upon the good helped him heal and learn to embrace the value of resilience. This revised perspective has enabled him to tell an enhanced and more positive version of the legacy his father created and has him doing the most rewarding work of his life: mapping his own inner wilderness while drawing closer to his adult children, the next stewards of the land he helped his father carve out of the Alaskan frontier.
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About the Author
Atz Kilcher grew up the eldest son of Yule and Ruth Kilcher, who emigrated from Switzerland to Alaska in the late 1930s, joining some of Homer’s earliest pioneer homesteaders. Today, Kilcher appears regularly alongside family members on Discovery Channel’s popular show Alaska: The Last Frontier. He also performs music around the country, occasionally alongside his singer-songwriter daughter, Jewel; he also enjoys weaving baskets for art exhibits, and spending as much time as possible around a campfire with his grown children and lovely wife, Bonnie.
Read an Excerpt
"You're a damn liar!"
My dear old daddy, quite unknowingly, gave me a valuable gift as I was growing up, a gift that has lasted a lifetime. He used to say (or shout) that I was a "damn liar."
Part of the time you could say it was justified because, well, I was lying. Other times I was telling the truth, but he still called me a damn liar. Hell, he even said it when I was trying to tell him something great I had done, something I hoped to win his approval for.
"You're a damn liar."
I can't claim to even begin to know why that was the case (unless I'm lying), but he called me that a lot. He had a real thing about it. I think he had a bit of a suspicious nature. Could be he was struggling with his own inner liar. Who knows?
I also have no idea if I started lying from the get go, or whether I slowly learned the skill. Was I born with a dishonest soul? All I know is that as I grew, it became more and more a part of my self-image. Somewhere along the line I did become a very good liar, maybe even an expert. If there was ever a contest involving lying, I could give the best of them a run for their money.
Early on, I decided to use this dark gift and make lemonade out of my lemons by capitalizing on it. I decided to become the best liar I could possibly be! I became a storyteller, a spinner of yarns and tall tales. I became an entertainer and learned to embellish, exaggerate, and impress. Why, maybe I'd even write a book someday.
I was determined to make me some sweet lemonade.
One of the first times I wrote a quick song about somebody I hardly knew, I realized I was using that gift. It was for a special occasion, he was a friend of a friend of mine. I took the ten percent I knew about him and stretched it way out. I exaggerated and made up stuff he'd like to hear. When I sang it for him, he wondered how I had described him so well, as though I had known him for years.
I had the knack.
The other equally important part of my dad's gift to me was that it kept me busy, made my earlier years more interesting. Lying got me into a lot of trouble, and got me out of a lot too. It gave me an identity. And later on, working through my lying issues, unraveling'em all and trying to change, gave me something to do, kept me focused. If it hadn't been for that, I might have had all kinds of time on my hands for less interesting things like healthy relationships or pursuing spirituality. Plus, there are a whole lot of therapists and authors of self-help books who have benefited greatly from this.
Of course, I might be lying about the whole thing. See, part of me hopes to keep you confused and on your toes so you stop caring what's true and get caught up in the thrill of the ride. And that all goes back to ... you guessed it: my childhood, of course.
Tom Bodett famously described Homer, Alaska, as "the end of the road." But my siblings and I knew that road decades before he arrived.
For us, it was our mile-long dirt driveway at the end of the twelve-mile stretch of gravel to Homer. That was where our homestead sat up at the top of the world. There, overlooking the Katchemak Bay, was where we parked our Jeep and greeted visitors. There was where we learned to trek through waist-deep snow and shin-deep mud to catch the bus. And my sister's' dates would trek to our cabin — a three-mile round-trip that often prevented my sisters from dating the same guy twice.
Those of us eight kids old enough to make the walk to the school bus went to public school. The rest had it easy. They got to lounge around all day cooped up with our stir-crazy mama in that tiny two-room log cabin. The school-aged ones did their lessons; Mama instructed them between her many homestead tasks while dragging and carrying the tiny ones around.
The deciding factor of being able to make it to the school bus was the criteria for being allowed to go to public school, like being tall enough for a ride at the carnival. I could write a book about only what happened along that road over the course of our public-school careers. Imagine encounters with moose, bears, rain, ice, pitch blackness and flashlights, mud and snow, or any combinations thereof. That's the short version.
In the darkest depth of winter, snow was the biggest factor. The oldest took turns breaking trail through sometimes three feet of snow, and deeper through the drifts. It was slow and tough going but we were used to it. Believe me, all that was nothing compared to meeting a half-starved cranky moose unwilling to yield the right of way. It meant breaking a trail around her, now through five or six feet of snow across deadfall logs where you might disappear up to your neck and through almost impenetrable wilderness, canyons, or gullies. Then we had to run the rest of the way to make up for lost time, with one older kid behind cracking the whip to keep the younger ones moving.
My teenaged sisters changing into their non-hick school clothes under a tree, putting on their makeup, fixing their hair, and me trying to keep my Elvis hairdo from getting too messed up under my warm hat might well have been the most challenging part of this whole ordeal. What a kid had to go through just to get a social life. In truth, we would have walked ten miles to get a break from homestead life and see other kids.
My dad worked far away from home a lot in those days. He was elected state senator for our district, which meant he had to spend a few months each winter in our state capitol. When he wasn't doing that, he was building houses in Anchorage, several hundred miles away. With only gravel roads back then, he didn't come home much. This meant mom and us kids had to fend for ourselves.
Sometimes we had the deep snow bulldozed, other times we packed it down with our dually jeep, or waited till it was frozen enough to drive on. Sometimes we just waited till spring, whichever was the easiest or came first. Any supplies we would need to supplement our homegrown stuff were brought in ahead of the deep snow, so we were prepared.
Because of her real or imagined heart condition, and probably many factors beyond my scope, my mama seldom got to town during deep snow periods. She left it up to us kids to bring home a few fresh groceries, deliver messages, deliver milk, and check the mail. Of course, we had to do all this over our thirty-minute school lunch period, and on the run. We'd run a half mile uptown with milk to sell, one gallon jug hanging from a throbbing finger, and another one sloshing in a backpack. Then whoever's turn it was that day would return to school with a bunch of mail, packages, and groceries.
Coming from a big homesteading family, we were all good at wolfing food down while on the job or on the run. I was a top athlete in high school. Most valuable athlete title 1966, and that's no lie!
We could have lived without the few groceries or checking the mail every day. But my mother couldn't. Why were her baloney, store-bought cheese, and coffee so important? Why was my mama almost obsessive about her mail and newspaper, her crossword puzzles she used to love to drink her coffee by? Well, my green horn friend, you obviously know nothing about cabin fever, its causes and cures.
Our mama was already a bit prone toward depression, occasional hysterics, and heart fluttering. But being cooped up in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, enduring a long, cold, dark winter with not much to do and nowhere to go took its toll. Of course, how tightly wrapped you were going into the winter months determined how much sanity you had left coming out in the spring.
It was always hard for us kids to know exactly whether her mood swings were her nature, her cabin fever, or her and our dad's less-than-perfect and splendidly dysfunctional marriage.
Those marital stresses were replaced by a whole new set when we were left alone to fend for ourselves. I felt less stress when dad was gone, and we all learned to spread his share of the workload early on. But for our mama, his being gone was understandably a big added stress.
We continually watched our mama's pressure gauge and her energy levels. For us kids raised right there in that cabin, those woods with all that snow, it was all we knew. For our dear mama, it was relatively new. The first half of her life was spent in Europe: operas, classical singing, violin lessons, and the best private schools. She had been steeped in culture, history, and modern conveniences.
Yes, she had done incredible things as a young pioneer woman, but cabin fever could slowly infect even the strongest trapper, gold miner, or mountain man. Here was a cultured woman, alone with eight kids, responsible for keeping them safe, healthy, fed, and educated. She was also responsible for the cows and horses and other farm animals. The cabin was small and crowded, with bare light bulbs, drafty floors, leaking ceilings. The cow moose close to the haystack had to be poached when meat was running low. Frozen pipes had to be thawed and water holes for livestock chopped open with an axe.
Us older kids held a lot of responsibility, but she was ultimately responsible for it all. Not another woman's voice or face for miles, or months. No grandparents, no aunts or uncles to lean on or ask for help in this far away land. The snow just kept getting deeper, the nights longer and darker, the temperature colder, the cabin smaller, and the babies screaming louder.
It was not unusual to come home to no supper, no housework done, and our mama still in her robe. Maybe we'd find her at her altar, her small typewriter, pecking away at a new poem or a short story, with a faraway look in her eyes. Maybe she'd still be in bed, eating the last of her baloney stash, or in the old rocker, rocking the baby while they both cried, or screaming irrationally while wailin' on my seven-year-old brother with her big spatula.
Sooner or later, her cabin fever would become part of the landscape, and just as sure, over time, the effects seeped into who we are today. We tried our best to keep her out of that dark, deep pit. But once she was in it, there was nothing we could do but spread the load, keep going, and wait for the cure to kick in: spring!
Preventing cabin fever was a lot easier than dealing with the effects, or living with it, so we all became certified cabin fever prevention experts. If you talk to any one of us eight kids, we will all agree on one thing, we grew up with the pressure of too much responsibility at too early an age.
For Mama, I was her "little man." What imprinted indelibly on my young mind, soul, and spirit was how, when, and where she told me. It came usually after a fight with my dad. Sometimes there was blood or bruising, sometimes only tears. Sometimes it was when my dad was away and she had the blues real bad and sometimes, even more confusing, he was still home. Sometimes it was when she needed to confide in me, something that only I could understand, the oldest son, a young man. Sometimes it was when she needed my strength physically or emotionally, telling me through sobs never to treat my wife like that, never to make her cry. By then I was already jumping in between my parents to keep my dad away from her. When my role as family clown didn't work, I put on my cape and became the matador.
There were also plenty of ways she let me know I was her special little man. She was the only parent I got praise from for being who I was, my physique, my looks, my voice, my humor. She'd call me her Irish rover, her troubadour, her strong, stalwart son. She praised my guitar playing and song writing. She once had me flex my muscles with my shirt off and pose while she photographed me. I've long since lost the photo, but I captured the moment forever. I did whatever it took to safeguard that source of nourishment to my fragile self-esteem. And I cared for my fragile mother and kept my promises to her that may well have begun at my birth.
We came home from school one cabin-feverish day to meet our mama waiting more anxiously than usual for her fix of goodies. There were no greetings, no "how was school today?" Her first words were nervous. "Did I get any mail?" Mail duty had fallen on me that day. Some days she got some, others she didn't, so I thought nothing of telling her I forgot. No big deal. We'd get it tomorrow.
"How dare you!" She screamed, and her piercing soprano vibrato Swiss accent bounced off the logs and turned everyone's heads. I was at full alert! Little man was on duty!
When finally she was able to speak again, she gave me the lesson I've carried all my life: "I would rather you lied and told me there was no mail than tell me you forgot."
Well, I got it. I totally got it! And I ain't forgot it yet.
From then on, I would try to make people happy, truth or lies — whatever it took. As long as my words brought the desired response of smiles and no trouble, that was all I cared about.
It was a big lesson in my survival training. And I cultivated that belief as diligently as my father did the apple trees he transplanted from his homeland.
Lessons and Practice
My mama and daddy had very different techniques for teaching me to be a bullet-proof, skilled, professional liar. Both methods were highly successful. They came at it from different angles and between the two of them, they did a mighty fine job of covering all the bases. They cranked out a well-rounded liar. A son they could both be proud of.
Carrot and stick come to mind, honey and vinegar, reward and punishment. You saw how my mama's honey worked its magic; so very sweet to feel her love, to feel needed as her protector. Well, dessert's over, time for some real food, some roughage, my dad's vinegar cellar.
I don't know if the name B. F. Skinner means anything to you, or the term behaviorism. He expanded on the famous "Pavlov's Dogs" experiment by putting rats in a box and rewarding them with food every time they pushed a lever. Skinner was also big on punishment — both as a way to extinguish a behavior and as something to avoid when teaching a new behavior.
I went to college for six years and earned a master's degree in social work to learn his name and what his field of psychological research was called. All animal trainers and many parents use his pioneering work. What I realized as I was learning this was that I already knew it, I just didn't know what it was called. We kids were raised by it, and all of our animals lived by it. It was part of life, the way of nature, as basic as food, air, and water.
My dad, without knowing it, was a Skinnerian, a behaviorist. He probably could have taught old B. F. a thing or two. He specialized in the pain and punishment method to eliminate unwanted behaviors. He also rewarded us for the desired results by not hurting us as he had threatened. There was more to it than just the basics though, a little more spice and intrigue. The passing down of pedigreed dysfunction is never a simple matter.
I learned something extra as well, a sort of bonus. I learned to lie. Lying was highly rewarding for me; avoiding pain without having to change my behavior. Brilliant! So lying, making excuses, and rationalizing became a part of my survival technique. If ever my dad rewarded me, other than not hurting me, it was for some extraordinary unbelievable feat. Like cutting three hundred fence posts in one day. Digging half a mile of ditch with a shovel, or removing all the snow from the canyon road with a snow shovel. Oh, to see his face light up with his winning smile. To see that look of love and approval.
Of course, all of that made me an expert at stretching, greatly exaggerating, or plain-out making things up. "Dad, you should have seen that half-ton rock I had to roll out of the ditch," or "I saw a moose yesterday with a two-hundred-inch rack, but he slipped away." I must say, he raised kids with a hell of a work ethic. One of our favorite pastimes when we get together now as adults is comparing joint ailments, bad backs, and ligament and tendon disorders.
What went wrong? How did someone who hated lying turn me into an expert liar? How did someone who detested anything that even smelled like an excuse end up with son who was the excuse-making pro? How could this happen to a man who could sniff out a guilty thought before you even thought it? Actually, nothing went wrong even though I used to think so. I used to think he did wrong, went wrong, was wrong, which of course made me all wrong. No more! He was great at what he did, though I think the results were not what he intended. I consequently became a pro at what I did.
I doubt I need to go into detail regarding my dad's training techniques. I'd like to say I didn't wish for him to die so I could finally tell the world what a son of a bitch he was, how he had crippled me. I'd like you to think well of him. But there was a time I wanted the world to know that none of how I turned out was my fault. I wanted to blame him for all the bad, and give credit to myself and my mama for all the good. Years of therapy unraveled and sorted all that. But hang with me here while we head through the vinegar cellar.
Excerpted from "Son of a Midnight Land"
Copyright © 2018 Atz Kilcher.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Kilcher Family Tree xi
Kenai Peninsula, Alaska xiii
Chapter 1 Liar 3
Chapter 2 Lessons and Practice 10
Chapter 3 Homer Hooligan 23
Chapter 4 Farewell 36
Chapter 5 Moose Hunt 46
Chapter 6 Shootout on the Flats 63
Chapter 7 Yodeling 73
Chapter 8 Horses in the Oats 95
Chapter 9 First Car 108
Chapter 10 The Bar Five 119
Chapter 11 Veterans Day 135
Chapter 12 Crazy Cow 146
Chapter 13 My Last Castration 167
Chapter 14 Skiing 183
Chapter 15 He's Still Screaming 201
Chapter 16 Final Truce 211
Chapter 17 My Father's Hands 221
Chapter 18 Elasticity of the Soul 233
Chapter 19 The Fox Cabin 252
Chapter 20 Kase's Town 267