"The Dragline Kid"
By Lisa Augustine
The title is a dead-giveaway that "The Dragline Kid" has something to do with gold-mining. But reader beware; the title merely scratches the surface of the gold vein stretching between the covers of author Lisa Augustine's new book.
As she shares the story of her childhood in Hope and later in Kenai, her straightforward, honest style will repeatedly leave the reader with mouth agape, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. And before the last sentence, there are ample causes for both.
Laying the groundwork for her birth in Seward in 1939, Augustine describes the 1937 journey of her parents, Erv and Joyce Rheingans, from Salinas, Calif., to Seward, and on to the challenges awaiting them in Hope.
Exhausted, the couple finally reached the little mining community and spent their first night on a bed of spruce boughs in an abandoned cabin. Augustine's mother later recalled wondering, "What in the world am I getting into? I must have rocks in my head!" But visions of a pot of gold fueled their plan to mine all summer, "find lots of gold, return to California in the fall, and enjoy the good life ever after."
At summer's end, with only $100 to show for their back-breaking work -- not enough to return to California and not enough to survive the coming winter -- the Rheingans were forced to adapt their plan to the situation at hand.
After clearly describing the unshakable resourcefulness with which her parents met life and which far surpassed the elusive shine of their golden dream, Augustine relates her father's incident with the dragline from whence came her nickname.
"The engine was cold and sluggish and the crank of the flywheel didn't want to turn over."
Then, suddenly, it turned with such force that her 6-foot, 1-inch, 195-pound father was slammed against the ceiling of the dragline's cab. The immediate result of his crash to the floor, described by Augustine in horrifying detail, was physical injury to such an extent that it was doubted Erv Rheingans would survive a trip to Seward for medical treatment. The ultimate result, however, is a prime example of Augustine's unique knack for extracting humor from the brutal bedrock of reality.
When the Japanese landed on Adak and Attu during World War II, some Hope residents claimed to see the lights of battle reflected off low-hanging night clouds. Some even feared that Hope lay in the direct path the Japanese would take on their way to Anchorage. As a precautionary measure, the Rheingans were stocked with gas masks.
"My very first memory is of that khaki-colored monstrosity with the buggy eyes and elephant's-trunk hose peering down at me as I lay trembling beneath the covers," Augustine writes. One night, with fear at a fever pitch, the family was awakened by an explosion that sent her father grabbing for his rifle and her mother dashing protectively to her side. The explanation is another instance when the golden grains of humor outshine the dark and present danger.
Photos of family, friends and neighbors give a face to Augustine's story and create a timeline for the development of Hope until the Rheingans moved to Kenai in 1948. From that point, the photographs reveal faces and sights that will ring a bell with residents of the central Kenai Peninsula.
"Perhaps Kenai's most outstanding physical feature was 'Da Bank,'" she recalled. "When I first heard kids saying, 'I'll meet ya at Da Bank,' or 'He's playing over at Da Bank,' I naturally pictured a financial institution. Something solid, made of bricks and with bars on the windows."
Finally, her new friends explained that "Da Bank" was "the 80-foot bluff on which Kenai perches, overlooking the river and the inlet."
Kenai was paradise for the young Augustine.
"Lying on my tummy at the edge of Da Bank on a warm, lazy summer day, I had the best view of the world. Fishing boats moving against the flow of the river to unload their catch at the canneries. Snow-covered volcanoes puffing placidly across the inlet. Beluga and seals frolicking at the mouth of the river. And every so often, somebody heaving his garbage over the bluff. Pure romance."
Her experiences reflect a changing Kenai. From a four-room school to a new elementary and high school. From outhouses to running water. Kerosene lamps to electricity.
There also are the signs of a changing Augustine, who eventually leaves Alaska for the world beyond, finding her way, through unexpected heartbreak, to Washington, D.C., and that fateful night when she meets the man she says she "had been born to love for the rest of my life."
That, she teases, is another story. And we can only hope that Augustine will share that vein of gold, as well.
Author to visit peninsula
During the month of June, Lisa Augustine will personally introduce "The Dragline Kid" to the Kenai Peninsula. Her schedule is as follows:
Today -- Kenai Senior Citizens Center, noon
Today -- River City Books, Soldotna, 6 p.m.
Friday -- Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center, 3 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday -- Kenai Princess Lodge, Cooper Landing, TBA
Monday -- Ranting Raven, Seward, 1 p.m.
Wednesday -- The Bookstore, Homer, 7 p.m.
June 13 -- Kenai Community Library, 6:30 p.m.
June 14 -- Hope Social Hall, 7 p.m.
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