I acquired my first Harry Chapin album in the fall of 1972 when I arrived in Anchorage.  Heads & Tails it was titled.  It was the first of 11 albums Harry would produce over his too-short career that ended tragically in a car accident in May 1981, the same month and year my best friend Nick Hauck crashed and died as an Air Force Thunderbird during an airshow at Hill AFB in Utah.  I knew all 11 albums intimately and purchased each as it was issued.  Of the few tunes I can play by heart on my piano, three are Harry Chapin tunes and I play them often.

Harry Chapin

Mrs. tVM and I attended two live Harry Chapin performances during our time in Upstate New York in the ‘70s.  Each was extraordinary.  I fondly recall one three-hour performance Harry gave without his band at the Landmark Theater in Syracuse, 1978 I think.  The band was trapped in a blizzard, but Harry trudged through the heavily falling snow to make it to the theater and give a memorable performance.

That evening, Harry sang one song a capella, Mail Order Annie that was particularly moving and brought back a magical memory…

Mrs. tVM and I met in Alaska.  One beautiful spring day in 1974 we ventured with Honi “No Baloney” and his girlfriend to Eklutna, a small town just north of where I lived in Eagle River.  Our intention was to enjoy the day outdoors and wander through the old Russian Orthodox cemetery known for the ‘spirit houses’ that lie atop the ground, a melding of native and Christian spirituality.  The day had far more promise…

Eklutna spirit houses

Wandering through the woods that surrounded the cemetery, we chanced upon a small, one-room cabin no larger than the one Clarence and I now occupy in River Falls.  A rusted padlock barred the door.  We easily removed it and entered the dark room.  The windows were cloudy from ancient dust accumulated untouched through six decades.  How do I know it was six decades?

Once gray traps now brown with rust and lack of use hung from high nails on the perimeter of the ceiling.  Our attention was drawn to a large chest in the center of the room.  I remember little else, only the traps and the chest.  The chest creaked and groaned as we raised the lid.  It contained a complete set of World Book Encyclopedia from 1924.  World Book was first published in 1917.  Several dozen National Geographic Magazines lie there surrounding the encyclopedia and beneath them….

A small brown, weathered leather volume, a diary… The ink was smudged, but we could make out enough to understand that this diary was the diary of a mail order bride written in 1910.  She told of the months of solitude in this very cabin while her husband went about his trapping business.  She was lonely…

We four sat quietly after reading several entries.  We had entered another time, same place, but another time.  I was sad.  I believe the others felt the same as I did.  In one sense, we intruded upon this young woman’s private life.  Where and when she died, what her name was… we would never know.  We left her to the peace of the Alaskan wilderness.

Mail Order Annie?

I’ve thought about her occasionally throughout my life, but more so in recent weeks as Clarence and I share our small shed in rural America.  Harry Chapin’s song runs through my mind.  She did not have a dog.  It would be difficult to live like this without a dog.  Electricity powers a small refrigerator I have in my shed, and I use it to charge my cell phone and computer which enables me to stay connected to the ‘outside world.’  She had neither.  I drive to Aldi’s once a week and spend $35 on groceries.  What did she do?

She has long since left the land of the living.  I hope she found happiness in Eklutna.  Perhaps she still walks among the spirit houses.  I will think of her during my evening walk.

Mitakuye Oyasin

 

At first I did not think it could be you.
But you’re the only one that got off the train.
So you must be my wife Miss Annie Halsey
Yes, I guess I am your husband, Hello I’m Harry Crane.

Mail Order Annie, never mind your crying.
Your tears are sweet rain in my empty life.
Mail Order Annie, can’t you see I’m trying
To tell you that I’m glad you’re here,
You are the woman who’s come to be my wife.

You know you’re not as pretty as I dreamed you’d be,
But then I’m not no handsome fancy Dan.
And out here looks are really not important.
It’s what’s inside a woman when she’s up against the land.

Mail Order Annie, never mind your crying.
Your tears are sweet rain in my empty life.
Mail Order Annie, can’t you see I’m trying
To tell you that I’m glad you’re here,
You are the woman who’s come to be my wife.

You know it’s not no easy life you’re entering.
The winter wind comes whistling through the cracks there in the sod.
You know you’ll never have too many neighbors.
There’s you Girl, and there’s me, and there’s God.

You know I’m just a dirty man from the North Dakota plains.
You’re one girl from the city who’s been thrown out on her own.
I’m standing here not sure of what to say to you
‘Cepting Mail Order Annie, lets you and me go home.

Mail Order Annie, never mind your crying.
Your tears are sweet rain in my empty life.
Mail Order Annie, can’t you see I’m trying
To tell you that I’m glad you’re here,
You are the woman who’s come to be my wife.

Harry Chapin, Mail Order Annie

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