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Fiction #70
(published Early, 2002)
Harding in Alaska
by Paul Genesius Durica

It is yet too early to see him in true, full perspective— a modern Abraham Lincoln whose name and fame will grow with time.
Attorney-General Harry Daugherty

I would rather be ashes than dust.
Jack London

Seeing him is the most important thing. Not the words he says, made visible in smoky exhalations, never to be remembered, but the sight of the man before the people. All of the people, for they have all trusted him, unseen, as their true leader, steward, father. Sight is their reward. This is why he has sailed to this distant land. What he knows is snow and ice, oil and gold, the slick fang of the wolf and the roar of the Kodiak bear. What he knows comes from movies and ten-cent magazines.

An Inuit named Edward Marsdon, triumph of the Dawes Act, greets them. He brings along his daughter Marietta, named for the college in Ohio where he was educated. He talks of buckeyes and the slow turns of the Muskingum, which the President knows and remembers. A musician by trade, Marsdon presents Harding with a flute carved from whalebone.

"How's Nanook?" Harding chuckles, smiles, presses flesh.

A choir of native boys and girls stand behind Marsdon. With a flash of his wrist, they open their mouths and sing "Our Country 'tis of Thee" and then snatches of Hallelujah. Cherubic voices crisp the air. Circled in fur-trimmed hoods, their faces appear warm and happy. The children are not pale and weary like Harding. They are full of life. They are, he says, true Americans.

Aboard the warship Henderson, everything is gay. They could not take the presidential yacht Mayflower, which would have been appropriate, traveling full circle from the rocky shores of Plymouth to the silvery beaches of Juneau, because the party is too large. Sixty-seven men and women accompany the President. They dine on lobster and king crab, oysters wrapped in bacon and stuck on wedges of toast, a delicacy known as Angels on Horseback. They drink three cases of champagne chilled in buckets filled with indigenous snow. Beneath twin guns the US Navy Band plays. The revelers join in on "Maggie" and "Genevieve."

The year is 1923. High above the sidewalk Harold Lloyd hangs onto the giant minute hand of a department store clock. One careless slip and he will splat into the infinite. F. Scott Fitzgerald publishes stories in McCall's and The American Mercury, plots out Gatsby, and considers a move to Europe. Seventeen years later alcoholism and a failed heart move him from Hollywood to history. In Atlantic City the wife of Conan Doyle transcribes a message to Houdini from his mother; the magician disbelieves, for she would never sign her letter with a cross. Three years later, after promising to channel a medium if possible, he joins her. And Nanook, poor Nanook, having failed in the hunt, has starved to death.

Harding is unaware of much of this as he stands upon the deck of the Henderson. In the ship's dining room most of the party watch movies projected on a stretched tablecloth tacked to the wall; the silver and gray flickers mirror the ice on the shore. From his position on deck, Harding watches the films through cracked blinds and smokes his pipe. He puffs thoughtfully and turns his eyes toward land. A sudden shiver strikes him and settles in his chest. He grabs hold of the rail; the pipe slips from his lips, spilling the tobacco, red and orange embers, on the polished deck. Star Tobacco. A pity. He hadn't sampled it in years. The shudder he attributes to the cold.

See Mrs. Harding, neck entombed in black velvet and pearls, standing beside three totem poles, the carved faces of the fox, the owl, the slippery whale. In the village of Ketchikan, her face raw from the rainwater she uses to wash, blue eyes piercing the lens, she poses for pictures with the totems, some as tall as buildings, others not stretching beyond the top of her boot. Most people here travel in motorboats. Harding rides one to the heart of the village, the water parting before the upturned bow. White people live in Ketchikan. They have erected paper and cardboard arches hung with foil stars and spangled wreaths. They have a brass key for Harding and coat of the finest sealskin for his wife. Marsdon and his band have ventured over. The children sing once more. Harding removes his hat and coat, reveals a blue blazer, a regal blue, and white pants pressed smoother than any field of ice. His hair is the white feather of the gull. His brow is as sharp as a sledge blade. His features bear all the majesty of the mountains. When he speaks, the echo is that of the avalanche, enveloping and smothering all with force and grandeur. What he says does not matter. His presence is enough. Let no one think the President forgets his people. This is a day Ketchikan long remembers.

Aboard the Henderson, Harding submits himself to the care of General Sawyer, a homeopath and homespun physician. He takes the President's pulse, puts an ear to his chest, and proscribes clean living, industry, and moderation. Harding loosens his collar and lets his belly sag; he listens to it rumble and remembers how as a boy in Ohio it was lean from threshing in the fields. He did not know the taste of crab then and regrets knowing it now. Sawyer says the pain is nothing. Crab meat tainted by a bit of copper.

Maybe that night he writes a letter to Mrs. Phillips, the wife of a hardware salesman in Marion, Ohio. In lengthy paragraphs, part passion and part bluster, he relates the various scenes. The beauty of the native children's voices. The sheen of the sealskin coat. Maybe he writes how his heart is heavy with missing her. In a wilderness like this one, perhaps they could find peace. Who knows? History has nothing to say on the matter.

Others later whisper a seaplane lands near the Henderson. Its pilot brings news of troubles with the Cabinet. The twin tragedies of the Veteran's Bureau and Teapot Dome. Nothing exists save hearsay to substantiate this story, but there is something romantic about the seaplane and its urgent message, the twin propellers slicing the frosted air, the pontoons bobbing on choppy waves. In any case, Harding continues to feel ill.

Later that year Vladimir Zvorykin places a patent in Washington for a tube of glass and gas he calls an iconoscope. The iconoscope leads to the cathode ray, which leads to television. Finally, Harding's dream of people seeing him can be achieved.

In Juneau Jack London is not there to greet them, having died seven years before from gastrointestinal uraemia in San Francisco, where Harding is headed, where he will die. The largest of the territory's cities holds only two thousand souls, but Harding will commune with them all. First he struts along the colonnades of the governor's mansion, a White House in miniature, placed high above the harbor. He marvels at how the house contrasts the rustic setting; the mansion is the first sign of civilization he has seen. Then he motors sixteen miles out of the city to see a glacier. Pay attention here. This is the moment that makes a man. Confronted by a wall of blue ice, as thick and vast as the sky, Harding touches the infinite. The millennial lurch of the glacier makes presidents and governor's mansions seem less grand. Maybe for a moment he considers his place in history, the slow and capricious turns of time. Maybe he hums a bar of "Genevieve" and thinks of golfing in California.

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