WASILLA — When Arlene “Buddy” Clay says she spends every night on the “net,” she doesn’t mean the Internet.
She was 32 and World War II was raging when she came to Alaska in 1944 with her husband, Earl, to work with the Civil Aeronautics Administration in Nome.
After serving their two-year commitment, the two moved to a new post at Aniak where they served another two-year term with the CAA, a predecessor to the Federal Aviation Administration.
But the young couple liked living with in the Yup’ik village along the shores of the Kuskokwim River and stayed for a third year, she said.
The Clays retired from the CAA, but had grown to love the land, the food and the people in Aniak.
“We liked Aniak and decided to stay for a while, not realizing we’d stay forever,” Clay said Saturday at the Mat-Su Public Safety Building in Wasilla.
She lived in the cabin they built three miles from Aniak overlooking the Kuskokwim River for 67 years — before health issues forced her to move into the Primrose Retirement Community in January.
Now 99, Buddy — as her friends know her — is the only Ham radio operator at the Wasilla retirement community.
“That’s the reason I decided to come to Primrose, because they let me have my radio with me,” she said.
Earl had a Ham radio license when the couple moved to Alaska. On the East Coast he was W1NOP. In Alaska, he was known as KL7EM and Buddy has been KL7OT since she earned her license in 1948.
“There aren’t very many two-letter calls left,” she said.
Earl and Arlene Clay came to Alaska after reading an ad in QST — a monthly magazine dedicated to amateur radio — that the CAA was looking for husband-and-wife teams to join the Civil Aeronautics Administration.
At first they were aircraft controls in Nome and later in Aniak.
“We applied for the job and were accepted,” she said. “Next we went to Boeing Field in Seattle for six months of training.”
And since the couple arrived in Alaska in 1944, Arlene has never left the state.
“I had no reason to go back home, so I just stayed in Alaska,” she said.
When they arrived in Aniak, there were around 150 Yup’ik people and 15 white people there, she said. Now the village has about 500 people.
In those days, the only phone was at the airport office and the CAA owned the only truck, she said.
“It was Ham radio or nothing,” she said of communication options in her early days in Aniak.
Everyone who lived in the area relied on subsistence to feed their family and their dog team. The Clays used a fish wheel to harvest fish for themselves and their dogs, she said. The couple spent the next decade fishing for food in the summers and traveling the region by sled-dog team in the winter.
After Earl’s death in 1956, she stayed in their cabin near Aniak and went to work to support herself and the dogs. She drove dogs for 35 years, she said.
“The lifestyle has changed. There are no dog teams. No fish wheels,” Buddy said. “There are only two dog teams in Aniak now and they are racing teams, not work teams like we used to have.”
To feed herself and her dogs after her husband died, Buddy said she worked half the day for the Post Office and the other half at the CAA office. In the winter, she traveled by dog team back and forth to work. In the summer, she used a 30-foot riverboat with a 40-horsepower motor.
“I miss the lifestyle and the diet,” she said. “Alaska used to be a state of dog teaming and mining. It’s not Alaska anymore. Now it’s just like anywhere else state-side.”
A career in music
On the East Coast, during what Buddy refers to as her first career, she was a musician.
A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, she performed in an all-girls orchestra and did some stage shows, she said.
And music is how she met her husband, Buddy said. She played trumpet and piano, and Earl was first trumpet and later a conductor of the New Hampshire State Symphony when they lived in Manchester, N.H.
The two took their music with them when they began their new careers as aircraft controllers. Buddy said she also played organ in the Aniak church since 1947.
When they arrived in Aniak, from the west coast of Alaska to Anchorage and from the south coast to Point Barrow, the Clays were the only Ham operators.
Buddy describes Ham radio as a hobby, but perhaps it’s more like a tether stretched back through time that connects her to her past, and Alaska’s.
The couples’ first Ham radio set was a “Homebrew” rig built on an aluminum cake pan running 10 watts powered by a 1.5-volt dry pack, Buddy said.
Every night you can still find her listening to the voices on the radio. She said she’s still trying to sort out all the new people, voices and call signs of members in the Matanuska Amateur Radio Association.
And Thursday nights at 6 p.m., it’s her voice you’ll hear taking roll on the Snipers Net at 3920 kHz. It is a roll call net, but visitors from any part of the world are encouraged to check in after the roll, according to its website, snipersnet.kl7.net/.
“She checked me in last Thursday,” said Charlotte Rose, secretary for the Matanuska Amateur Radio Association. “In fact, she was the only person who could hear me.”
Tom Rutigliano is the man who delivers the current roster of net members to Buddy each week. He also helped install the antenna for her Ham radio at Primrose earlier this year.
“She’s pretty amazing for someone that age,” Rutigliano said.
A second career as a judge
Arlene Clay’s next career was as a magistrate for 18 years for the Alaska Court System. She traveled thousands of miles from village to village in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska providing services as a magistrate.
“I enjoyed it all. It’s really been a wonderful life,” she said. “The lord has been good to me. He gave me a wonderful life and a long one.”
But her life nearly ended in 1986 when the stove in her cabin exploded and caught her and her house on fire. Although she kept two large fire extinguishers near the stove, she couldn’t free the safety pin on either that day to dose the flames. So she grabbed a nearby pail of water and rolled the water across the floor into the flames. It took three more buckets of water to put out the fire.
“I put it out. If I hadn’t, I’d have lost my cabin and my dogs. I had to,” Buddy said.
Doctors at Providence Thermal Center spent 18 hours grafting the skin back on her scorched frame. Both her feet had third-degree burns, and as a result she uses a wheelchair now to get around.
While recovering in the hospital, she still managed to make history when she got a phone call patched in off the Ham radio from Blake Ward, KA3PLZ/KL, who had reached the top of Denali about midnight.
“We had a short QSO, as he had to call his mother in New York to let her know he had made the top safely,” Buddy said.
Later, Ward sent her a picture of him taken at the top of Denali on chair made of ice cakes.
On the back of the picture he wrote, “Buddy, I really enjoyed talking with you. I hope this finds you healthy and happy. Blake.
“P.S. How does it feel to be the first person to receive a call from the summit of McKinley?”
Contact Heather A. Resz at email@example.com or 352-2268.