On Top of the World

by Larry A. Hiller

Assistant Managing Editor

Print Share

    They pay more attention to their attitude than to their latitude. Here is a family that’s really—

    In this town, it can be very dangerous to go out alone in the long winter night. Your mugger may be seven feet tall and weigh a thousand pounds.

    Of course, there’s not much reason to go out anyway. There are no malls, movie theaters, or bowling alleys. In summer, there are no golf courses or tennis courts or parks. From here you can’t even drive to towns that do have those things. You have to fly, and it costs a few hundred dollars.

    Prowling polar bears

    Welcome to Barrow, Alaska, northern-most town on the North American continent. A town where the polar bears that sometimes prowl the streets in the long Arctic night at least provide a little excitement. After all, this is a place where a typical date might consist of browsing through the large general store.

    It’s so isolated that some of the locals call it “Planet Barrow.” But for now, the Gaylin Fuller family calls Barrow home. According to them, this may be the end of a continent, but it is not the end of the world. It’s the top of the world.

    From Idaho farm to Eskimo village

    Like many others in the 1980s, they were forced off their Idaho farm by high operating costs. Gaylin needed work. He had been a university librarian before but had to reestablish his credentials. And the best opportunities at the time happened to be in Alaska.

    So here they are in a town of about 3,000 inhabitants huddled on the far northwest coast. From the air, the surrounding land looks flat and soggy, as though it had just barely crawled from the Arctic Ocean and could sink back at any moment. The Alaska of travel posters, with its rugged mountains, immense forests, and misty fjords, is many miles to the south and might as well be on another planet.

    Frankly, the kids really weren’t sure what to expect. When they moved Ronald, who is now 14, says, “I didn’t know if we’d be living in an igloo or what.”

    But no igloos

    Their snug home in Barrow is certainly no igloo, though it’s probably a good thing that the five older Fuller boys are either married, away at school, or serving missions. It’s hard to imagine fitting that many more people in this house. The six Fuller children living at home—Lyle (18), Clark (16), Ron (14), Linnae (12), Stanley (10), and Owen (7)—fill the house quite nicely.

    The Fullers’ first home in Alaska was located in tiny Akiachuk, a village some 400 miles west of Anchorage—a place with fewer than 500 people and accessible only by air or snowmobile.

    The isolation was tough. In Idaho, the Fullers had been able to get in the car and go to town to attend church, shop, visit friends, go to a movie—whatever. But in Akiachuk, church was at home, shopping was by mail, and movies were on TV. And friends? Well …

    If the geographic isolation was tough, the social isolation was even worse. As outsiders, the Fuller children had to prove themselves. In the meantime, family was more important than ever. “We really had to be each other’s friends,” Brother Fuller recalls.

    Land of the midnight basketball game

    Fortunately, the Fuller boys are good athletes—and relatively tall. At least the Fullers were able to fit in on the court. A major sign that the ice had been broken (pardon the pun) came when Mark Fuller (now serving a mission in Italy) was invited to travel with a village team to play basketball in another village.

    They traveled on snowmobiles in the dark, 20 to 30 miles across open countryside, in temperatures of 20 to 30 degrees below zero. Then they played hot, fierce basketball until 11:00 P.M., and returned home the same way they came.

    By the time their two years in Akiachuk were up, the Fullers could say they had friends there. But then the opportunity came to move 700 miles north to Barrow.

    Subzero survival

    Barrow is the big city compared to Akiachuk, with a large, modern high school and jet service by two airlines. But winter temperatures can dip to 40–60 below zero. In a place like this, learning to survive in the physical environment is critical, and the Fullers have learned those lessons well.

    But they’ve also learned equally important lessons of spiritual survival and the blessings of family. For example, when they lived in Akiachuk, the stake presidency authorized the Fullers to conduct meetings in their own home.

    At first that may sound great. But think about holding sacrament meeting in the same living room that contains your TV and VCR and video games, in the same home where you sometimes argue and quarrel. The spirit of your meetings would all be up to you.

    Besides, who would give the talks in sacrament meeting? Who would teach Sunday School, Primary, and priesthood meeting? That’s right, your family.

    Church at home still takes drive

    How did the Fullers handle it? For one thing, they made it a point to dress in their Sunday clothes for their meetings, even if it was just at home. And they accepted their responsibility to teach each other. Lyle has taught both Stanley and Linnae in Primary. “I enjoyed it, and so did they,” he reports. Clark’s experience was similar. “I thought it was kind of fun teaching Owen and Stanley. And when Mark taught me, I thought that was great.”

    Now that they are in Barrow, they have a small branch of the Church that meets in the local youth center. Each Sunday they clear away the pool tables and other recreation equipment before they can set up a few chairs, a sacrament table, and a portable podium. And while there are perhaps a half dozen other members who help, it is still often Fullers teaching Fullers.

    Like brother, like brother

    How important is example in this family? Seated at the control panel of the small radio station where he works as a part-time deejay, Lyle talks about life in a big family with lots of boys: “I grew up with five older brothers. Their example has made it easy to make the right choices. Also, it’s put pressure on me to live up to the things they’ve accomplished.”

    Now Lyle is the oldest at home. It’s an unspoken duty that he feels deeply: “I was kind of scared when my brother just older than me was ready to leave home, because I knew being the oldest brother was kind of a big responsibility.”

    Wrestling mania?

    Every night at bedtime, Clark, the next oldest at home, challenges Lyle to a rough-and-tumble wrestling match. Then it’s Dad who has to break things up. Third-in-line Ron isn’t quite ready to take on Clark yet because, “He’s still a head taller and 30 pounds heavier.” But then he glances sideways at Clark in the next room. He can’t help raising his voice, throwing out a teasing challenge: “But I could still take him. You hear that, Clark?”

    The teasing and banter continue until it’s time for daily scripture reading and evening prayer. Together, the family has read all of the standard works aloud, seriously, taking time to discuss the meaning of what they are reading. There’s a peaceful spirit here in this cozy home.

    Outside, it’s dark and overcast, with snow flurries. The calendar says it’s still early September, but this far north the first snowfall took place weeks ago. The days are growing noticeably shorter: from Thanksgiving through the end of January the sun won’t even appear above the horizon.

    Turning on the light

    Those long weeks of darkness can cause people to become depressed and sluggish. Doctors have discovered that it can be avoided if people are exposed to the right kind of bright light for a period of time each day. As Ron Fuller puts it, “I just spend some time soaking up light every day.”

    You can’t escape the analogy. Here is a family that has learned to turn to the Light, no matter where they are. Sometimes the world inappropriately uses the word godforsaken to describe places like this. But the Fullers feel anything but forsaken. And that’s what really puts them on top of the world.

    Photography by Jed Clark

    (Opposite) Dodging icy waves, Lyle Fuller and friend train for cross-country on Barrow’s narrow Arctic Ocean beach. (Top) Lyle, Clark, and Ron. (Below) Framed by whale bones, the Fullers: (l–r) Owen, Mom Edna, Lyle, Clark, Stanley, Linnae, Dad Gaylin.

    Most Sundays, more than 50 percent of the people present in the branch are Fullers. Moving pool tables and other recreation equipment they set up chairs, the sacrament table, and a small podium. They bless and pass the sacrament, lead the singing, give most of the talks and prayers. The Savior’s words come strongly to mind: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).

    The town may be small and isolated, but the state provides a full program in the schools, and the Fullers take advantage of all they can to make their lives, well, fuller—including tuba lessons for Clark at the high school.

    (Above) Basketball is big in the far north, and even Ron’s junior high school basketball games are broadcast on community cable TV. (Right) The Fullers have a strong sense of family. Obeying the Savior’s counsel, the boys feel a responsibility to set an example for the younger kids and to help them. (Ron even makes sure Stanley is doing a good job with the nacho cheese sauce.)

    The examples of five older brothers have given Lyle a strong feeling for his own duties as an older brother. There’s a tradition of faithfulness in the Savior’s service that he doesn’t want to break.