A Candle on a Very Cold Hillside

by Lisa Watts

Editorial Intern

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    Steve Crandall sat bolt upright in bed.

    “Your mother’s pains have started.” His father’s face was lined with worried creases. “Can you come help me clear the road to the highway?”

    Steve was already struggling to pull on long underwear, sweaters, socks, pants, parka, boots, muffler, gloves. His heart was racing.

    Shoveling snow, opening the garage door, starting the jeep, hitching the drag, swinging open the jeep door for his father—Steve fumbled with numb fingers while his heart beat with the fury of the wind swirling up the snow drifts.

    Through the roar and clanking of the old jeep, his father shouted, “Take it easy, Steve. We’ll make it. Your mother has had nine kids before this, including you.”

    Steve was glad to be able to hide his face in the parka hood. He was quiet for a moment. Then he let his memory wander and thought back to the time when Mom had Julie. There had been no special precautions that time; Dad had just helped Mom to the car, and they drove off to the hospital.

    That seemed a long time ago and many miles away in a place where everything was so much different. This was Alaska. It was 50° F. below zero. The hospital was 51 miles away, and there was no telephone in their house. This time Dad paused to give Mom a priesthood blessing before helping her to the car. This time, Dad, Steve, and his two sisters prayed together in the car that they would make it down the road before the baby came. But this time, too, when it was all over and little Rachael took her place in the Crandall clan, 16-year-old Steve felt older somehow. It was as if he had been a part of something that was much more real than he had ever experienced before.

    That is how everything has become since Steve’s family moved a year ago into their little log house in the wilds near Fairbanks. There are six other families within five miles in the woods where they live, but it is more than 30 miles into town and about 15 miles to the Eielson Air Force Base. They have no electricity or telephone, their close neighbors are the lynx, fox, and bear, and their television set is the view from their window of the Alaska Mountain Range shrouded by dense spruce forests. Life is simple.

    But hewn down to its basic elements, life also seems richer. The isolation in the harsh climate has brought the family closer than ever before. Working together, playing together, worshiping together—they share more of life than ever before.

    “B.J., Steve, Susan, David, Danny, Becky, Julie, Jesse … time for breakfast,” comes the call from the kitchen every morning. (Rachael is already in the high chair and Susie is away at college.) Soon the sounds of padding feet fill the kitchen, and everyone is poised for the new day. Over hot cakes the daily planning session begins. There is school for Steve and the little ones, and work for Dad at the air force base. There is work for 19-year-old B.J. (Billie Joe) and home Primary for both her and Mom in the afternoon. Then there is dinner together and home evening that night.

    And there are always plenty of chores for everyone. Most of the summer is spent getting ready for the winter. And most of the winter is spent coping with the cold that can freeze bare flesh in less than a minute and the darkness that can linger into depression. With ten children and no electricity, the chores are given a twist of creativity.

    The five-mile stretch of dirt road that leads to the highway is not maintained by the state, so one of Steve’s jobs is to help the men in the neighborhood pack down the snow during the winter by the use of a flat device called a drag. It seems that this always needs to be done at the least convenient times, such as when Mom is in labor or when it is time to go to church.

    Another of Steve’s jobs is to keep the car from freezing up at night. “We had one garage, not insulated or anything, just plywood sides, with a wood stove in it,” he explained. “We would just pull the car in there every night, and I’d build a fire. I had to put enough wood in there so the fire would last all night. The car was only frozen up one time the whole winter.” His brown eyes glisten with pride he knows is well-earned.

    Steve’s expertise with wood burning stoves has unexpectedly come in handy at other times too. When the kitchen stove was on the blink one morning, he stoked up the basement stove so his mother and sisters, huddling in their parkas, could cook hotcakes for the family in the pitch black 32-degree basement air. Some of the younger brothers and sisters were assigned to run the hotcakes upstairs before the chill reached through and through.

    As the days wear on, it seems that work has a way of turning into fun for the Crandall family. Family home evening, a chore for many families, is as easy as the summer rain on the flower-dotted flat lands for Steve’s family.

    One night when it was time for home evening, Steve suggested, “Let’s do something exciting tonight—like kickball or something.”

    So Becky and Julie went outside to set up bases while the older girls stayed to clean up the dinner dishes. It wasn’t long before eight-year-old Becky flew through the door, her face ashen and her voice trembling in fright. “There’s a bear out there! There’s a bear out there!”

    Suddenly everyone was bumping shoulders on the porch trying to catch a good view of the bear. There he was, foraging through the bushes, pausing for a moment to watch the commotion on the Crandalls’ porch. Suddenly, a neighbor pointed his rifle out the side window and fired at the bear several times. The injured bear began to lumber away. Quickly Dad and Steve grabbed their guns to help out. “You don’t leave a wounded bear up here. They can get vicious,” Dad explained.

    They never caught the bear that night. But when Mom asked, “Was that enough excitement for you, Steve?” laughter filled the tiny house.

    Excitement and laughter seldom leave Steve’s house. The Crandalls live life to the fullest, with an intensity that shows even in their recreation. Steve and 11-year-old Danny once entered a local 26-mile marathon cross-country race. When Steve gave out early and quit the race, Danny kept going. He finished third in his category, the youngest of the contestants. “One of us had to finish,” he said with his head bowed.

    By far, Church work is given the most serious attention by the Crandalls. Everyone has at least one Church job, and so the gospel is a cooperative effort. With Dad in the branch presidency, Mom a teacher in the Relief Society, B.J. a teacher in the Primary, and Steve a member of the planning committee for the all-Alaska youth conference, the family car is kept hopping. During spring breakup, when the snow melts and the road to the highway becomes as muddy as the sludge from a gold miner’s pan, attending church services becomes a challenge. The four-wheel drive jeep is the only vehicle that can navigate the muddy stretches of road to the air force base chapel.

    “There’s the whole family in that little bitty 1943 jeep,” Mom laughs. “We all get into our grubs; everybody climbs into the jeep. We strap a suitcase full of our good clothes onto the hood along with Daddy’s briefcase, and off we go to church. It’s funny!”

    Church meetings are worth the effort, though. The closeness of the Crandalls seems to be shared by other families in the branch. And it spills over into the greater branch family. A willing hand is always outstretched. Making the most of each moment is their byword. One day Steve forgot his shirt for meeting, so another boy loaned him one of his. Although two of Steve could have fit into the shirt, one very relieved Steve could attend his meetings. B.J. tells of one experience she had with the Young Adults in the area:

    “One night after I had not been to Young Adults for three weeks, they all came to my house for a party!” She shook her head in wonder.

    The pioneer spirit shows in little ways. At dances, beneath the elegant gowns, girls wear mukluks, sealskin boots. After a shipment of fabric comes into the general store, everyone shows up at church and school with shirts, dresses, and skirts of the same fabric. And this spirit shows in big ways, too. When the hay is ready to harvest, everyone comes to help. Eggs and milk are shared by all.

    “The whole branch is close.” Dad sums it up well. With little else to hold onto, that gospel love is like an iron rod in the vast wilderness. “The people up here have to live like the Mormon pioneers. They share. They work together,” Dad explains.

    Steve agrees. His life is painted in pioneer panorama, but with strokes that show a Master’s gentle touch. Last year when winter was fierce, the whole family gathered in the front room, some of the smaller members in Dad’s arms. They read from the scriptures by the flickering light of kerosene lamps. Through the front window, Steve could see the bright lights of the Aurora Borealis dancing silent approval over the warm scene. This is life at its best—a candle on a very cold hillside.

    Illustrated by Jerry Thompson

    The Crandalls pose in front of their cabin near Fairbanks, Alaska