Re-Visualizing Alaska

August 11 2015

I was born on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. Six months later, I died.

I contracted Spinal Meningitis when I was six months old. I had a really high fever and eventually my body gave out. We lived in a logging camp called Coffman Cove in south east Alaska, only accessible by sea plane or boat. Another child brought the bug from the Seattle airport and didn't survive. I died on the emergency plane ride to Ketchikan, Alaska. The co-pilot grabbed me and resuscitated me.

Whenever people hear that I lived in Alaska they inevitably ask how I survived all the snow and cold. Alaska is HUGE, and isn't all ice and snow. South East Alaska doesn't get nearly as much snow as people think; it is actually a temperate rainforest. Ketchikan receives on average 137 inches of precipitation a year, over 11 feet.

That much rain makes the island of Prince of Wales one of the most beautiful places I have been. The landscape and wildlife are unbelievable. The only large mammals on the island are black bear and Sitka blacktail deer. The Prince of Wales flying squirrel is found nowhere else.

I grew up in this wild landscape and I also moved a lot as a child. I ended up attending 13 schools, lived in 5 states and I don't know how many houses. Unfortunately I don't have any visuals from anywhere that I have lived. I can't tell you about my bedrooms, schools, teachers, or friends. I believe due to the high fever associated with spinal meningitis, when I close my eyes I can't visualize. I read somewhere that less than 1% of the population can't visualize. It is difficult to explain how this affects my life. But one of the biggest problems I deal with is people's faces and memories of locations. My memories aren't pictures in my mind. I can't see what my mother, spouse or child look like when I close my eyes. One way that I combat my visualization problems is to label everything in my mind. I use words to describe what everything looks like and I label it in my mind. This isn't a perfect solution but it does help.

Because of my word-oriented brain, I have always been fascinated with acquiring language. When I was young I read about feral children, children isolated from human contact. They have little or no experience of human care, behavior, or, of human language. Since that day I have wondered what happens if you do not have a language. Can you even think? Think about something-you are talking in your head. How would you do that without language? Would it just be images? What would happen with a brain like mine-empty of images and never having words to use?

I left the island and returned throughout my childhood- moving away for good in 1993 with little stored in my mind to remember the place. But my father lived on the island for most of his life. He was basically a hermit. He logged from when he was 18 years old and retired in his late fifties. My father passed away a few years ago and left my brother and I some cabins and land. We now rent them out. I went back to the island when he died to tie up the loose ends. I took tons of pictures. Now my collection of photos is my visual memory so I don't have to rely on my labels so much anymore.

I welcome all replies.
William Cunningham
[email protected]
Columbia, MO

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