Riding around King Salmon, Alaska in the “terrorist-mobile” over Christmas, just waiting for something bad to happen.
And knowing it won’t.
Readers of this blog already know about convicted Islamic terrorists Paul and Nadia Rockwood, whose 4-year, Oscar-worthy performance of true friendship ‒ friendship akin to family ‒ while they hid in plain sight in remote Alaska, ended for us with their shocking arrest by the FBI in April and convictions in federal court last summer.
Before that, when all we knew to feel was sadness about the Rockwoods moving to the United Kingdom, but promising to keep in touch and visit someday, Paul sold my family his old Suburban.
Suburbans are the ideal bush Alaska vehicle. They’re heavy, sturdy on icy roads with snow tires. They have a huge hauling capacity. There are other Suburbans around that you can salvage for parts.
So, regardless of its condition, if a Suburban starts and the wheels go ‘round in some fashion, it’s a commodity and will cost you several thousand dollars, even from departing neighbors making you a sweet deal.
The last time I’d seen that Suburban, Christmas ’09, it had been parked in front of the Rockwood’s house…in FAA housing. Federal government housing, the very government that employed Paul and that he and his fellow jihadists hate and want to destroy.
Between Christmas and New Year’s, the Rockwoods hosted a dinner party for 30 or so. Their close circle of friends and out-of-town holiday guests attended, including ‒ just when you thought you’d heard every unbelievable aspect of this story ‒ a member of law enforcement!
When the party was over, I distinctly remember saying to goodbye to Paul, shaking his hand, and thanking him for his hospitality. “No problem,” he said.
Only later would we discover there was a far more serious problem in that household than we ever could’ve imagined.
Today is Christmas ’10 and our former host is a convicted terrorist, serving 8 years in federal prison, from which he’ll emerge spoiling for jihad and unfortunately is certain to find plenty more like-minded, under-the-radar Islamic terrorists still laughing at what idiots we are to believe their lame cover stories about loving the freedom here.
The holiday season in King Salmon is about the same this year as every year. Much the same as in Christmases past, too, long before my first visit in 1998.
Bristol Bay Angels high school basketball games. Moose meatballs (my original recipe, coveted by local cooks). Christmas ornament exchanges ‒ everything beautifully handmade, and if you stick around, we’ll teach you how.
Chilly walks in the snow down by the river, wearing everything in your suitcase…at once.
The can’t-miss Saturday Christmas bazaars, the “it” place to socialize over hot cocoa, buy enticing holiday gifts (again, beautifully handmade with local “ingredients”), and do the “Cake Walk,” which for reasons unknown I win at least once without fail and, being a cake detester, gladly give away my delicious-to-somebody-I’m-sure winnings to the chronically unlucky.
But we were completely outdone this year by the 5th graders in Quinhagak (pronounced QUINN-ah-hawk), another Yup’ik village along the Bering Sea coast near Bethel, who showcased their entire town ‒ which looks an awful lot like King Salmon, if you never make it up here for Christmas ‒ in an utterly original and hilarious Christmas music video.
Soundtrack: Handel’s Messiah!
Watch Jim Barthelman’s class on YouTube…and ponder what would happen if every public school teacher in this country was as creative as he is.
Then our annual Christmas concert at the chapel, this year with incredibly special guest violinist (and composer) Zach Spontak. We didn’t even have to beg because Zach’s mother is a talented singer/flutist in town.
Watch for Zach’s name up in lights, and soon. He’s a high school senior, headed to a top music conservatory ‒ he’ll probably have a half dozen offers of admission to choose from ‒ next fall, and is already just that good (and a nice guy, too).
If all that last-minute Christmas shopping stressed you out, close your eyes and listen to Zach’s Quartet Danae play Mendelssohn.
Anyway, it was surreal not to see the Rockwoods in their usual places on Tuesday night: Nadia and her mother on stage with the choir, anchoring the soprano section. Paul in the audience with the video camera, watching their son ‒ age 5 by now, with a newborn brother or sister ‒ out of the corner of his eye, with little success.
The shock of the Rockwoods being revealed for who and what they really were ‒ being seen off at the King Salmon airport by half the town (the weepy half), only to disembark in Anchorage an hour and a half later into the waiting arms of the FBI ‒ has faded.
However, make no mistake: this will never happen in King Salmon again.
Alaska has a long memory and I think there are a few bush residents, who, having gone out of their way to be respectful and trusting, only to be burned…and to have their hometown profiled in the Los Angeles Times for the worst possible reason…might not wait for the FBI to sort things out next time.
This is the Rockwood tragedy: falling in long-distance love with the crazed ideology of a jihadist killer and the lengths you’ll go to get his attention and prove your loyalty. Then how much you lose when your dreams come true.
Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
This year, I ordered up a white Christmas 3 months in advance and was not disappointed. Huge snowflakes falling. Ever. So. Slowly. Then, inevitably, huge snowballs catching you off-guard in the back of the head. (Thanks a lot, Dad, but remember: revenge is sweet and I’m here for another week.)
Breath-defying wind chill clocking in at -19F/-28C, although when you get down to those kinds of numbers, it’s all just plain ridiculously freezing cold, no doubt about it.
Regardless, there’s a comfort and safety in the sameness of bush Alaska that the Rockwoods threw away: their best chance of having a good life to count on and good people to count on. People who cared for them unconditionally, and wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment to put themselves in harm’s way to protect and save them if circumstances had called for it ‒ and in the unforgiving, frozen north it sometimes does.
(Sadly, Paul would’ve thought nothing of putting those same people in harm’s way ‒ or worse ‒ because he’s convinced his religion demands him to.)
This is what the holiday season is all about: not the most festive of carols, not the mountains of gifts that arrive at the post office daily, not even the biggest and best of all big and best Christmas dinners ‒ although, believe me, we’re giving the latter our very best team effort.
It’s about spending precious time with people who, given lots of better choices, choose to love us back anyway.