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    FROM THE LEFT, Landon Wilkins, Ryan White and Logan Blaker try out their artistic skills Saturday afternoon at the Morenci PTO’s first Date to Create event. More than 50 people showed up to create decorated planks of wood to hang from rope. The event served as a fund-raiser for miscellaneous PTO projects. Additional photos are on the back of this week’s Observer.

Tom and Betsey Smith recall years on Adak Island 2008.11.19

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Tom Smith knew what he was getting into when he accepted a U.S. Navy assignment to Alaska’s desolate Adak Island in 1975.

“I reënlisted to go to Adak,” he said. “That was my incentive.”adak.overview.jpg

And once he got there, it was hard to leave. He signed up for an 18-month tour, but that turned out to be just the beginning.

Within three months he was joined by his wife, Betsey, and their two daughters, Michelle, three years old, and Monica, six months old.

“After we were there, we liked it so much we ended up staying six years,” Tom said.

The island of Adak lies far out among the Aleutian Islands, 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage. It’s both the southernmost community in Alaska and the westernmost in the United States.

Tom had talked to other Navy enlistees about life on the island, and that’s what helped him make the decision.

“We had a pretty good idea of what we were getting into,” he said.

At the time, Adak offered the best of both worlds to a Navy man. On the one hand, families could come along and take advantage of the amenities of the base: swimming, bowling, skiing, racquetball, a movie theatre, etc.

Step off the base and outdoors people had the wilds of Alaska—devoid of bears. Tom fished for salmon and halibut and he hunted caribou and ptarmigan.

“If you liked the night life, you wouldn’t have liked Adak,” Betsey said.

But if you enjoyed nature, the beauty of the island drew you in.

“We loved it,” she said.

The Smiths lived on Adak when the population exceeded 5,000. Most of the residents were in the military, although there was a small population of native people.

Some of the native Alaskans lived on smaller, nearby islands in the summers and brought their children to school during the winter months.

Betsey used her teaching certificate to teach a fourth grade class. Tom worked as an electronics technician. The Naval base was chiefly used as a submarine surveillance post during the Cold War, to keep track of Russian naval vessels.

Adak’s climate doesn’t fit into the usual conception of Alaska. The Japanese Current prevents weather extremes.

Winter temperatures seldom fell below 20°, but 100 mile per hour squalls presented some miserable wind chills.

“There were whiteouts where you couldn’t see six feet in front of you,” Tom said. “Then a couple of days later it might rain and all the snow would disappear in the lower elevations.”

Foggy summers stayed in a chilly 60° range and annual precipitation is about double that of southern Michigan.

The island also avoids the extremes of darkness and lightness.

“It’s far enough south that it never got completely dark in the day nor light all night,” Tom said.

Adak is actually about parallel to Vancouver Island—not too much farther north than Seattle.

The Smiths’ experiences on Adak will never be lived again. Downsizing of the base began in 1994 as the Cold War ended and it was officially closed in 1997.

The Navy’s assets were sold to the Aleut Corporation and most of the facilities were closed. Today, fewer than 400 people live in the community.

Tom is glad he was part of the former era.

“We thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said.

Adak provided a rich experience for the Smith family that can’t be equalled today.

  • Shadow.salon
    LEARNING THE ROPES—Kristy Castillo (left), co-owner of Mane Street Salon, works with Kendal Kuhn as Sierra Orner takes a phone call. The two Morenci Area High School juniors spent Friday at the salon as part of a job shadowing experience.
  • KayseInField
    IN THE FIELD—2004 Morenci graduate Kayse Onweller works in a test plot of wheat in Texas. She’s part of Bayer CropScience’s North American wheat breeding program based in Nebraska, where she completed post-graduate work in plant breeding and genetics.
  • Front.winner
    REFEREE Camden Miller raises the hand of Morenci Jr. Dawgs wrestler Ryder Ryan as his opponent leaves the mat in disappointment. Morenci’s youth wrestling program served as host for a tournament Saturday morning to raise money for the club. Additional photos are on the back page.
  • Front.bank.2
    SHERWOOD STATE Bank opened its Fayette office at a grand opening Friday morning, drawing a large crowd to view the renovated building. Above, Burt Blue talks to teller Cindy Funk, while his wife, Jackie, looks around the new office. The Blues missed the opening and took a quick tour on Tuesday. Few traces remain of the former grocery store and theater, however, part of the original brick wall still shows in the hallway leading to the back of the building. The drive-through window should be ready for customers later in the month.
  • Front.carry.casket
    CARRYING—Riley Terry (blue jacket) and Mason Vaughn lead the way, carrying an empty casket outside to the hearse waiting at the curb. Morenci juniors and seniors visited Eagle Funeral Home last week to learn about the role of a funeral director and to understand the process of arranging for a funeral.
  • Front.lift
    MORENCI student Dalton McCowan puts everything into a dead lift attempt Saturday morning during the Wyseguy Push/Pull event. Lifters helped raise more than $1,600 for the family of the late Devin Wyse, a former Morenci power-lifter who graduated last year. Commemorative T-shirts are still available by contacting teacher Dan Hoffman.
  • Front.make.three
    FROM THE LEFT, Landon Wilkins, Ryan White and Logan Blaker try out their artistic skills Saturday afternoon at the Morenci PTO’s first Date to Create event. More than 50 people showed up to create decorated planks of wood to hang from rope. The event served as a fund-raiser for miscellaneous PTO projects. Additional photos are on the back of this week’s Observer.

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