A blog by Bill Hess

Running Dog Publications

P.O. Box 872383 Wasilla, Alaska 99687


All photos and text © Bill Hess, unless otherwise noted 
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Wasilla is the place where I have lived for the past 29 years - sort of. The house in which my wife and I raised our family sits here, but I have made my rather odd career as a different sort of photojournalist by continually wandering off to other places to photograph people and gather information, which I have then put together in various publications that have served the Alaska Native Eskimo, Indian and Aleut communities.

Although I did not have a great of free time to devote to this rather strange community, named after a Tanaina Athabascan Indian chief who knew Wasilla in the way that I so impossibly long to, I have still documented it regularly over the past quarter-century plus. In the early days, my Wasilla photographs focused mostly upon my children and the events they participated in - baseball, football, figure skating, hockey, frog catching, fire cracker detonation, Fourth of July parade - that sort of thing. 

In 2002, I purchased my first digital camera and then, whenever I was home, I began to photograph Wasilla upon a daily basis, but not in a conventional way. These were grab shots - whatever caught my eye as I took my many long walks or drove through the town, shooting through the car window at people and scenes that appeared and disappeared before I could even focus and compose in the traditional photographic way.

Thus, the Wasilla portion of this blog will be devoted both to the images that I take as I wander about and those that I have taken in the past. Despite the odd, random, nature of the images, I believe they communicate something powerful about this town that I have never seen expressed anywhere else. 

Wasilla is a sprawling community that has been slapped down hodge-podge upon what was so recently wilderness of the most exquisite beauty. In its design, it is deliberately anti-zoned, anti-planned. In the building of Wasilla, the desire to make a buck has trumped aesthetics and all other considerations. This town, built in the midst of exquisite beauty, has largely become an unsightly, unattractive, mess of urban sprawl. Largely because of this, it often seems to me that Wasilla is a community with no sense of community, a town devoid of town soul.

Yet - Wasilla is my home and if I am lucky it will be until I grow old and die. Despite its horrific failings, it is still made of the stuff of any small city: people; moms and dads, grammas and grampas, teens, children, churches, bars, professionals, laborers, soldiers, missionaries, artists, athletes, geniuses, do-gooders, hoodlums, the wealthy, the homeless, the rational and logical, the slightly insane and the wholly insane - and, yes, as is now obvious to the whole world, politicians, too.

So perhaps, if one were to search hard enough, it might just be possible to find a sense of community here, and a town soul. So, using my skills as a photojournalist and a writer, I hope to do just that. If this place has a sense of community, I will find it. If there is a town soul to Wasilla, I will document it. I won't compete with the newspapers. Hell no! But as time and income allow, it will be fun to wander into the places where the folks described above gather, and then put what I find on this blog.


by 300...

Anywhere within a 300 mile radius of Wasilla. This encompasses perhaps the most wild, dramatic, gorgeous, beautiful section of land and sea to be found in any comparable space anywhere on Earth. I can never explore it all, but I will do the best that I can, and will here share what I find and experience with you.  

and then some...

Anywhere else in the world that I happen to get to, such as Point Lay, Alaska; Missoula, Montana; Serenki, Chukotka, Russia; or Bangalore, India. Perhaps even Lagos, Nigeria. I have both a desire and scheme to get me there. It is a long shot. We shall see if I succeed.

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Niece Sujitha of India brings a new Thomas the Train into our lives - along with a huge amount of excitement; Jobezilla goes on the rampage

This is Sujitha Ravichandran, who became my niece after the second daughter of my sister Mary Ann married Suji's first cousin, Vivek Iyer. I attended the Bangalore wedding of Vivek and Khena and it was there that I met Suji - and her sister, Soundarya.

As I have written before, Soundarya, or Sandy, as she often liked to be called, and I bonded instantly. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, we kept in near constant communication; I called her Muse and returned to India to be there for her when she married Anil Kumar. After my return back to the US, we again resumed our online communications for another year-and-a-half - until that black day just over 13 months ago when she answered the accidental death of her husband with the intentional death of herself.

Soundarya and Sujtha had been extremely close. Sandy called Suji "Barbie" and Suji called Soundarya, "Soundu." Soundu - such a beautiful, sweet, affectionate nickname!

In times of tragedy, unspeakable heartbreak and bitter grief, one turns to any source of comfort one can find. Without a doubt, we both had others, but Suji and I did turn to each other - and in ways that we could have turned to no others. We made a pact to keep the lines of communication open between us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all month long, 12 months a year.

I began to sleep with my phone, to ensure that I would not miss her should she call.

We conversed at any hour of the day or night. We shed many tears together, and groped to find answers where answers could not be found. She, a Hindu, and me, a lapsed Mormon Christian, found solace and faith in the spirits of each other.

Had it not been for Suji, I do not know how I would have got through these past 13 months. She has always been there for me, even if weeping, and I for her.

As we communicated, Suji came to better know my family - my family also being her family - and she fell in love with every member. She grew a deep fondness for Margie and the grandsons, Jobe in particular.

Last spring, she left Bangalore for London to be with her fiance, Manoj Biradar, who she plans to marry in a formal Hindu ceremony in March - and I plan to be there.

She was able to get a better paying job in London than any she had ever had in India, and so did Manu. Yet, life is a financial challenge for them, particularly with the wedding coming up.

So I was a bit stunned when she told me that she was wiring a generous cash gift to my bank in Wasilla, as a Christmas present for Margie and me.

It was the first Christmas present that she had ever given, she informed me. She worried that it might not be up to American standards of Christmas, but she wanted to give something that Margie and I could enjoy together - dinner out, perhaps. Something that would bring us joy - and if her gift brought a bit of joy to the family at large, so much the better.

Now I will tell you about Sujitha's gift, and show you how it impacted our Christmas, 2011:

I was a little bit lost as to how to spend that money, but I wanted the gift to encompass more than a dinner or two or three or four for Margie and me. Someday, we will accept the treat of dinner from Sujitha - in person, when we can all sit at the table together, Manoj, too. I wanted this gift to be something that could bring pleasure to the whole Hess family - joy that I could photograph and then share through the photos with her.

Something that my entire family enjoys is... Kalib, Jobe and Lynxton, whether we call them grandsons, sons, or nephews. We all enjoy these boys like crazy.

And Kalib and Jobe enjoy Thomas the Train. I will bet anything that it won't be long before Lynxton does, too. Kalib and Jobe have little wooden Thomas the Train engines and cars, tracks, and other Thomas the Train toys.

Those wooden toys are just right for them. They are rugged and tough. They can be grabbed and thrown, run over, driven off cliffs; they are a perfect fit to be grasped by hands that have yet to develop fine motor skills.

As regular readers know, I am an HO train modeler of sorts. I don't have the kind of elaborate setup that many serious electric train enthusiasts do, but, after I lost my first black cat, Little Guy, I was extremely distraught and since he loved to chase and pounce on electric trains, I built an HO scale electric railroad in his honor at about the seven-foot level on my eight-foot office walls.

I had never seen an HO Thomas train set, but I figured they must exist. To make a long story short, after some searching both online and on the ground, I found a Thomas the Train HO set at the Hobbycraft store in the Dimond Mall. It was priced a little higher than Suji's gift, but not by much. By adding $34.00 of my own, with Margie's full approval, I was able to purchase it.

On Christmas Day, I was the one who handed out the gifts, one by one. I had a plan for Suji's gift. I was going to hold it until near the end. Then I planned to stop, explain how Suji had given a gift of cash and had left it up to me as to what to buy and that I had decided that everyone could get some pleasure out of a Thomas the Train, HO scale.

I would explain my plans to keep it at the house and when the boys came out and wanted to play with it, I would set it up and we would all have fun. I knew that Kalib would want to take it home, but I planned to explain that it was a gift to us all and was too fragile to be played with in the rough style of little boys, especially "Jobezilla," but we would all have a good time with Thomas the HO train here at the house.

Yet, I had barely begun the gift distribution when Jobezilla hurled himself into action, grabbed the paper that I had wrapped Sujitha's gift in and ripped off a large section. Kalib's eyes went wide. "Thomas!" he shouted.

Kalib has not fully grasped the spirit of Christmas giving. His strategy this year was to refuse to open any gift until someone else started to open it and then if he saw something he liked, to claim it for himself. Thus, he had claimed a very cute stuffed dog meant for Lynxton and then when he had to yield it to his baby brother had wept bitterly.

Now, before I could begin my little speech about his Aunt Sujitha, her generous gift and my master plan, Kalib ripped off the remainder of the wrapping paper.

I now tried to give my speech, but it fell on preoccupied ears. In Kalib's mind, the HO Thomas the Train was now his. It was not a gift from the aunt he had never met and could not visualize; it was not a gift from grandpa. It had been bestowed upon him by natural order of the universe. It was his and no one else's.

Thus, he grew very angry when I returned Thomas, still in the unopened box, to my office for safe keeping until after we all shared Christmas dinner together.

After dinner, I set the train up, then invited Kalib over. He was thrilled and squealed mightily. Jobezilla was taking a nap. In fact, Jobezilla had napped right through Christmas dinner.

Jobezilla soon woke from his nap. His mom brought him to us, to see what kind of havoc and destruction he might wreak.

At first, Jobezilla was too tired and groggy to wreak any kind of destruction. Look closely and you will see his milk bottle and his cute little wrecking toes on Jacob's lap as Kalib lovingly watches Thomas pull his load around the track.

Jobezilla knew that he had a mission to accomplish, so he worked himself into position to better study the layout of his next destruction project. His dad tried to keep an eye on him and his big brother at the same time. In his enthusiasm to try and run the train and handle it, too, Kalib was prone to exercise his own moments of Kalibzilla.

Oh, did Kalib love this Thomas train! Before setting up the track, I had tested the Thomas Train on my own office railroad tracks. Lavina had come in to witness. She had wondered if maybe Kalib would lose interest after five minutes or so of watching it do nothing but go round the track.

Perhaps he would have, had Thomas stayed on the track seven feet above the floor.

According to the metadata, I took my first photo of Thomas in action seconds before 5:45 PM and my last seconds before 9:12 PM. Not for one second would Kalib's interest lapse. And, after 3.5 hours, in no way would he be ready to stop and go home.

When Jobezilla finally struck, he struck fast, without warning. I was not quick enough to photograph the moment - just the aftermath.

As his dad tried to restrain a screamining Jobezilla, Charlie came over to help put the train back together. Kalib wanted to do it all himself, but, as earlier noted, his motor skills are not there yet. There was a very real danger that his repair job could do more damage than the crash itself - which, fortunately, appeared to do no damage whatsoever.

Jobezilla quickly broke through his restraints and jerked Thomas off the track once again. I missed the more dramatic shots of the action that followed this capture. I was too busy trying to save Thomas and his cars from total destruction.

Charlie then put the train back together again as Jobezilla fought to find his way back to continue his rampage of destruction.

Peace was restored. Thomas the Train found himself with time to safely round the track, again and again. This should not be interpreted to mean that Jobezilla had been put out of action...

...No... Jobezilla had turned his attention elsewhere. Jobezilla now drove trains across his grandmother's head, who, with great courage, dedication and a strong sense of genetic survival, continued to feed her youngest grandson with his mother's own milk.

Then, as Kalib labored to put the windmill so necessary to keep water supplied to Thomas's steam engine to work, Jobezilla suddenly charged onto the railroad. Thomas the Train was about to experience a head-toe-on collision.

Yet, the derailed train was soon re-railed again. Kalib now began to pick up some train engineer skills.

It was a beautiful thing to see - Thomas the Train, steaming past the windmill that provides the water for his steam.

But where was Jobezilla?

It all seemed just too safe.

Oh, the horror! The horror!

There he is! Jobezilla! Or at least his thumb, toppling the windmill right onto Thomas! I feared this might have inflicted some lasting damage.

But it didn't. These HO Thomases are truly more rugged than I would have imagined. Soon, Thomas the Train was righted and running again. Then Kalib saw Jobezilla's bare feet threatening. Kalib shot his little hands out to grab the train.

"No, Jobe! No, Jobe!" Kalib screamed.

Naturally, his protective hands derailed Thomas, but Thomas survived.

And then, using the toes of his left foot, Jobezilla knocked Thomas askew, but Thomas did not stop. His wheels half on the tracks and half off, Thomas steamed past by Jobezilla's right foot, hoping not to get toe-clobbered again.

Jobezilla's dad pulled him off to a "safe" distance. With Jobezilla out of the way, Kalib gazed upon Thomas with love and adoration.

Jobezilla broke free again. Now, with great finesse, he derailed the trailing cars with a mere touch of the extended big toe.

Kalib again takes over the engineer's spot. Whenever he would goof up and his dad would try to take over, he would shout, "No, Daddy! No!"

"No Daddy, no Daddy, no Daddy, No! No, no Daddy, no!"

Well, look at this! It's Thomas, cruising fast and unbothered.

Oops... Jobezilla returned with a Thomas of his own, not an HO Thomas but a big, floor-running, Thomas. As Kalib shouted, "No, Jobe, No Jobe!" Jobezilla thrust the big Thomas onto the track in front of the speeding HO Thomas, causing a head-on collision.

It was horrible!

Just horrible, I tell you!

Oh, the enginamity!

Somehow, a revived Thomas squeaked through between the toes of a towering Jobezilla.

This time, the Jobezilla toes won. Thomas the Train went down again. This time, it was Melanie who came to help right the Thomas Train.

I told you the whole family would enjoy this gift!

Knowing that Thomas needed to cool off, Kalib improvised and turned the windmill into a fan.

It was a grand evening - the most fun evening of all to take place in this house in a very long time.

But it had to end. Kalib did not want it to. He wanted this evening to last forever.

He refused to leave and go get his coat on. There was nothing to do but for me to disassemble the railroad and put Thomas and his cars back into the box.

I began to do so. I tried to get Kalib to see if he could show me which cars fit in which impressions in the packaging, but he refused to be ameliorated.

"No! No!," he screamed. "I want Thomas! No, no, no!"

I packaged Thomas up, picked up the box and began to carry it back to my office.

"Bye, bye, Thomas..." I heard Kalib weeping and sobbing behind me. "Bye, bye, Thomas!" Oh, it was a sad, sad, sound!

His parents got him bundled up and his dad carried him to the car. He screamed all the way. "No! No! Thomas! I want Thomas!"

Finally, he was buckled up into his car seat. I opened the door and went to give him a hug. "No! No!" he screamed, shaking his head violently. I had never seen him so angry - and he was angry at me. He did not see me as the one who had brought the HO Thomas into his life, with crucial help from his aunt Sujitha from India who had made a big sacrifice that he had no appreciation for or understanding of. 

He did not see me as the one who would keep Thomas safe until he can return to play with him again. He saw me only as the meanie bully who had now taken Thomas away from him.

To be quite honest, even though he was only about two hours short of his fourth birthday, this offended me a bit.

"This Thomas isn't for you alone, it is for the family!" I spoke sharply. "If it wasn't for your Aunt Suji and me, this Thomas would never have been here for you to play with at all! And if this how you are going to act, if you are going to be mean to me when I have been nice to you, then next time you come back, I won't even get Thomas out. You won't be able to play with Thomas at all."

I knew that in my own anger I was speaking over Kalib, I knew he would not grasp my meaning at all.

But suddenly, he quit screaming. He went silent. He looked at me with a surprising expression of having suddenly understood. He lifted up his arms and extended them toward me. I leaned in. He gave me a hug. I gave him a hug.

In short order, I knew, this would all come together. Kalib would soon know that when he came out, we would get Thomas out. When he left, we would put Thomas back.

Even so, he cried all the way home.

And the next afternoon, when I showed up at his house for his birthday party, he was not very happy with me. But he was happy with his wooden Thomas trains - as you will soon see.

Yes, it will all come together. Thomas will bring much joy to Kalib - and to Jobezilla, and to Jobe, once Jobezilla morphs into Jobe once again. 

And joy to Lynxton; joy to Dad Jacob and Mom Lavina. Joy to Margie. Joy o aunts and uncles. To me.

Thank you, Niece Sujitha.

I guarantee you, had you not wired your generous gift that you could so truly have used across the ocean, there would be no Thomas the Train HO in this house. It was your love that made all this happen. Someday, Kalib will understand this. He will love you, as I do, as do we all - we, your family in Alaska.

This goes for you, too, Gane, brother to Sujitha, brother to Soundarya. I know you will be reading this as well. Please pass our love on to your parents.


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Reader Comments (7)

Tears n Smiles... mised emotions after reading this...
Lovely Thomas! I love him! Too damn cute... I am so glad you chose to buy this.. I really am... because I was thinking about a miniature Citabria! I am so excited myself to see the HO trains! wow! My love n hugs to the "Hess" compartments!!!! :P

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuji

Miss Ada is a big fan of Thomas the Train as well. When she went to get new undies to encourage her potty training, she chose Thomas the Train undies. Of course these are for little boys. Curious about the construction of her new clothing, she asked if they had"pockets!" HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLittle Sister

what a lovely gift of the heart

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertwain12

So so touching.. I laughed,, giggled,.. and cried tears of sadness and Joy.. Geez Bill everyone here at the Job Center thinks I cry all the time.. I have yet to share your blog with them.. Then they will understand!

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterannette donaldson

I felt bad for both of you...
In time both of you will be happy, one with knowing going to the grandparents is extra special and the other will recieve happy hugs...& both looking forward to the next go-round...
Thank you Suji for the special gift, we hope you can someday enjoy it with all of us...

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLavina~mom of the grandsons

all i can say, bill, is WOW! look f/w to your wedding photos in march. what a beautiful international family you're part of.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Deming

What a beautiful christmas story. I'm glad you all had a lovely time. All because of the goodness of someone and their gift :)

December 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShoshana

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