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Sorrels, Norton & Betty

by Betty Sorrels

I’d dreamed of going to and living in Alaska ever since I’d been a teenager. The hunger was fulfilled in the early autumn of 1946, after I’d graduated from Samuel Merritt Hospital School of Nursing in Oakland and had received my Nursing License from the State of California shortly after WWII had ended.

By flying from San Francisco to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, then by train, I arrived in Skagway to work in the Public Health Tuberculosis Sanatorium located about three miles out of Skagway. I loved Alaska immediately because of its clear skies, clean air, and the brilliant colors of the flowers, and especially the fireweed.

That winter of 1946-1947, I could easily have changed my mind for snow, ice and northerly winds were almost too much for me. Our hospital was an abandoned Army complex with multiple wind drafts as a defining characteristic. Snow filtered through the plywood walls. The medical staff used canvas as bedspreads to aid in keeping the patients warm. The few windows were covered with a constant sheet of frost and ice.

In February 1947, the entire population of the T.B. Sanatorium was moved to an island (Japonski, later named Mt. Edgecumbe) near Sitka. The weather was much warmer than Skagway.

In one of the beginning days of April 1947, my friend Ruth, another staff nurse, and I wanted to visit Juneau. We bought tickets on Alaska Coastal Airlines, roundtrip, Sitka to Juneau, but we never used them. The day of our scheduled departure Sitka was stormed in. Instead, we took the freight, passenger and mail boat, the MV Estebeth. The plane trip would have taken only a couple hours, but the Estebeth required two days because of its many village stops along the way.

However, I met my future husband, Norton Bering Sorrels, as he was the Estebeth’s mate. Pat Davis was the skipper and Ted “Kinky” Bayers, the purser.

I saw Norton a couple of times more, and then we were married, by a small ceremony, on the 27th of April, 1947, in the Presbyterian Church in Juneau by Reverend Booth. Charlotte Muriel Sorrels (Dail) was born in March 1948, and Michael James Sorrels completed the family package with his arrival in April 1955.

Norton was born June 14, 1918, at Ft. St. Michaels. His parents named him after the Norton Sound and the Bering Sea. He grew up in Haines. When we met, he had recently concluded five years of service in the Army and in WWII mostly operating boats on the Yukon River and the Aleutian Islands.

Now that he’d found a wife, it was time for him to fulfill his dream; build a troller and go king and coho fishing. He bought a surplus Navy “J” hull and built the superstructure while he worked at Juneau’s Northern Commercial Co. Before it was rigged, Charlotte and I moved aboard. We christened it the Grey Mist. I worked at St. Ann’s Hospital.

We finally had the boat ready, and rigged, and in April 1950, we joined the fishing fleet on the Funter Bay grounds. We did catch kings and cohos, but we didn’t ever get rich.

When Charlotte was ready for school, we stayed on the boat in Juneau’s Small Boat Harbor. She climbed up the gangplank with her lunch and books and met the rest of the children on the school grounds. We were a part of Scouts, 4-H and PTA. I worked for Joseph O. Rude MD in the Doctor’s Clinic.

We left Juneau in June 1962, in order for me to work for Donald O. Rude MD in Tonasket, Washington. Charlotte was a freshman in high school and Michael a first grader.

Due to Norton’s health, we transferred to Seattle in 1965, for him to be near the Veterans Hospital. I worked at Burien General Hospital, and Norton worked a short while in the shipyards for Lockheed Shipbuilders. Norton died in 1972, at the Veterans Hospital with a service connected disability.

I still live in Seattle, “retired,” writing, gardening and recalling all about the wonderful years I lived in Alaska and Juneau.

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