Shortly, I will take Mom and Dad’s sleeping bags to the homeless shelter. With a bit of a heavy heart, although I know it will lighten when the deed is done.
These bags were well-used over the past 65 years. Mom and Dad used them as blankets in their Quonset hut during their two years in Utgiagvik (Barrow), Alaska in the early ’50s. We used them (with special permission) for childhood sleepovers. Dad carried the heavy things (canvas, flannel, and lots and lots of down) on family backpacking trips. Later, Mom and Dad used them as their blankets throughout 30 years of weekends at their trailer in the redwoods. Although the bags are a bit ragged from the years, they are still warm and full of cuddling loft.
PET4 (Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4) is stenciled on each of them. That is the old name of the NPRA (National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska), a 37,000-square-mile (≈ an area 192 x 192 miles) land of amazing tundra vegetation and wildlife, patterned ground, lakes, and wind.
PET4 means a lot to our family, in part because Dad worked there (from summers in high school up through much of his career as a geophysicist), and because of how the landscape affected Dad, and then us; in part, because Mom and Dad spent time there together early in their marriage; and in part, because my brothers and I then spent time in the arctic that affected us in our own ways. I’m the youngest of the three of us. I got an M.S. degree in arctic biology that introduced me to good people, unforgiving landscapes of beauty and discomfort, and ways of inquiry and wonder that have helped me find channels for my life.
When we were children, the bags were “warm-ups” for the stories we’d hear. Later, they served as reminders of where we’d come from. Now, when we come across them, they are symbols that trigger thought. But they have sat in my basement for the past several years. That is not their highest use anymore. My brother and I agree. Even my children agree.
I found that the homeless shelter is seeking sleeping bags, and that warm, heavy bags like these are ideal for people living in their cars. I suggested this use to my brother–he agreed; to my children, they agreed. With those endorsements, I made the suggestion to my dad. He pumped his arm in the air, and with a broad smile, said he agreed.
I washed and dried the bags, then spread them around the living room for a couple of weeks. This morning, I sat with them a final time. Even rolling them up gave me memories. Now I will carry them for a last time into the car and take them away.
I know that someday, perhaps soon, the bags will get soggy from a mishap, or the flannel will split from an overactive dog. Until then, I hope that all that is stored in these bags–shelter from cold and monsters, dreams of adventure, tokens of decisions made and paths taken–becomes available for those who get them next. May the bags bring comfort, protection, and wondrous dreams that help the owners through cold, dark times.