Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rough landing — Young woman‘s dream to pursue air traffic control career leaves her homesick in Alaska

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Since arriving in October 1945, 20-year-old Joanna Bahnub had been in Talkeetna for more than two months. Now Christmas was only a few days away, and she was feeling terribly homesick and forgotten.

Bahnub knew her parents and her six siblings back in Black River Falls, Wis., had her address, and yet she had received no Christmas cards and no presents. She wanted to call and find out why, but the nearest telephone was in Anchorage — seven hours away by train — and she was working eight hours a day, seven days a week.

Unhappy despite the kindness of her co-workers at the Civil Aeronautics Administration station, Bahnub tried to cheer herself up. She tromped into the nearby woods and cut a 3-foot spruce, which she stood in her quarters as a Christmas tree. Then she made her way into town to Nagley’s “all-in-one store,” where she bought a nice box of stationery, which she wrapped and placed under her tree.

“I tried to tell people I got a present,” said Bahnub — now Joanna Hollier, 83, of Kenai.

But telling people that didn’t make her feel any better. Neither did the potluck and dance put on by station personnel.

Christmas came and went, with no cards for her, and no gifts. So when New Year’s Day rolled around, she became determined to contact her family.

Hollier had grown up on a dairy farm, and had become determined to have a different kind of life than the one she had known in childhood.

“I was the oldest of seven kids, and we really had to work. We had to go out and milk seven, eight, 10 cows before we’d go to school in the morning, run in and wash the cow manure off and run to catch the bus — if we caught the bus, if there was any bus.

“And then home every night, immediately after school and back in the barn till nine or 10 that night. We were literally hired men. This was during the (Second World) War, and times were tough.”

So Hollier consciously sought a job that would get her as far away as possible from milking cows.

Her plans took her away from the farm right out of high school and upset her father, who “didn’t believe in educating girls.”

Hollier wanted to attend a Minneapolis radio-television electronics institute, which would provide the training she needed for the training she really wanted: six months with the Royal Canadian Air Force at Boeing Field in Seattle.

The Seattle training would allow her to become something rare — a female aircraft communicator (today called an air-traffic controller).

But first she had to earn her way to Minneapolis. Tuition at the institute cost $200, and she had to work for all of it — two jobs, at a restaurant from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., then at a dime store from 1:30 p.m. to at least 6 p.m., at about a dollar an hour. Earning the $200 took her a year and a half.

After she completed her training at the Minneapolis institute, she headed to Seattle in the spring of 1945. She passed her Civil Service tests and learned to send and receive Morse code at a rate of 30 words per minute. She also learned the basics of air-to-ground radio communication and meteorology, and how to use a teletype.

By the fall she was a certified aircraft communicator.

“This is the end of World War II,” Hollier said. “The men are all in the Service. I was in the right place at the right time, or I never would have got in. And there were very few women in that profession.”

After her training at Boeing Field, Hollier had a choice to make: To which of 17 CAA stations in Alaska — that was her only choice of state — would she like to be assigned? To help her decide, the CAA sent her a handbook describing the Alaska stations. Almost immediately, she preferred the Talkeetna station because it was small and had potlucks on Saturday nights and dances in the station washroom.

“I figured I could handle that better than Anchorage or Juneau or Fairbanks,” she said. “And I knew a country girl like me better stay in the country. I could understand potlucks and little dances on Saturday nights.”

On Oct. 9, 1945, she arrived in Anchorage on a CAA DC-3 (“with bucket seats and a sack lunch”), and the very next day she climbed on an Alaska Railroad car at 9 a.m., bound for the station near the mining town of Talkeetna. She arrived there at 4 p.m., and saw the landing field and the cluster of white-painted station buildings that would become her home. In August 1964 Hollier was transferred to the Kenai CAA station. She was transferred back to Talkeetna briefly in 1947, where she married Ed Hollier, and then back to Kenai on Christmas Eve of 1947.

Despite the homesickness that would strike her after first arriving in Talkeetna, there were many benefits to her new job. To begin with, she earned the same pay for her job as the other two male aircraft communicators. When her first paycheck arrived she was shocked at the amount.

“I didn’t know there was that much money in the world,” she said.

With at least two full days of guaranteed overtime per week, each paycheck was several hundred dollars. Flush with cash, she began perusing catalogs to see what she liked. Her first purchase was a waffle iron (which she still owns). Later came a pair of skis.

But still, Hollier missed her family and Wisconsin.

And that miserable Christmas of 1945 was the last straw. Even though she knew she would have to pay her colleagues to work longer shifts in her absence, she made plans to travel to Anchorage to place a phone call home.

“While I’m down there on a Sunday, I had set up with the phone company at the time in the Federal Building on Fourth Avenue, right across from Woolworths. You had to make an appointment to make a telephone call Outside.

“So I made this call — and it cost me a lot of money, too. Anyhow, I made this (15-minute) appointment for 10 o’clock Sunday morning, and when my mother picked up the phone and said ‘hello,’ I started crying, and I never said nothing for my 15 minutes’ allotted time. My mother talked. I tried to sniff and answer her, but that’s how homesick I was.”

Hollier traveled back to Talkeetna without really knowing why she hadn’t received any cards or presents, but the truth soon materialized.

In those days, sending a card or a letter by regular mail required a 3-cent stamp, which was fine except where the Territory of Alaska was concerned, especially in 1945. Mail tagged for ground delivery got as far as Seattle, where it sat until it was loaded on a ship for the long waterway trek to Alaska. Once in the state, it traveled by rail or other overland means to its destination.

Had the members of Hollier’s family back in Wisconsin used 8-cent stamps for their holiday cards, the airmail rate would have ensured that she received her Christmas booty on time. Airmail rates also applied to packages, but the Bahnubs hadn’t known that paying the extra money was necessary, so they’d sent everything the slow way.

Sometime in January, Hollier received a large pile of presents and cards. Christmas at last, better late than never.

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