John Ireton: A good listener

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One of the most remarkable human accomplishments is the population of the inhospitable Arctic. Half Inuit and half white, Anacortes resident John Ireton arrived in our town in 1981, perhaps guided by his inbred survival skills and sensitive ear.    

John was born in 1943 in Anchorage, Alaska, back before Alaska was a state. John was his parents’ first-born child, the eldest of 6. His father, John C. Ireton, was a civil engineer. His mother, Anna Albert, was an Inuit from remote Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost point on the North American mainland, west of Nome. Her parents died in the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918. Catholic nuns swept through Alaska gathering orphans, including Anna, and raised them in Pilgrim Springs, near Nome.

John’s parents met in Nome, where his father worked for the Civil Aeronautics Administration building communication towers during World War II.

John’s Inuit heritage has meant more to him than his Anglo-Saxon heritage, partly because he was closer to his mother, but also because he knew little about his father’s ancestors. In recent years he has learned more about them. His great-aunt Nell on his father’s side was the first white woman to be born in the Idaho Territory. Now, he says, “I’m proud of both sides.”

John has no early memories of Anchorage because he was only 2 years old when his family moved south, first briefly to Seattle, then to Pine Grove, California, near Sacramento. He has 3 distinct memories from Pine Grove.

He once petted a family of skunks and wasn’t sprayed. Another time he got lost in the woods by himself. He did not panic, but sat down and listened, then stood and walked in the direction of human sounds.

The family lived near a busy highway and John played with children on the other side. Once he crossed the highway and was almost hit by a logging truck. “Those tires seemed huge!” he recalls. The truck pulled over, the driver climbed out and ran back to John, hugging him and weeping. “Why is he crying?” thought John. He didn’t understand at the time, but now he does.

John reveals that his father “dumped” his mother and her children in Pine Grove and went off to work elsewhere in the area. He was gone for long stretches. “That was his M.O.,” says John. That was his father’s modus operandi when they moved to Stockton and then Pasadena, California, and then somewhere in Hawaii. John does not remember exactly where, except that they lived near a sugar cane field. He was not yet in kindergarten.

John attended kindergarten and 1st grade in Kailua, Hawaii, in an open-air structure with a blackboard. The young students napped on palm frond mats.

The family returned to Seattle, where John attended 2nd grade, and then moved to Leavenworth, Washington, where they lived for 7 years. “That was before it had that alpine motif,” he says.

“I never saw much of my father,” John repeats. His father was off working at nuclear test sites during this time. “He usually came home in February,” John continues, “and it was always traumatic when he returned. I remember shaking when I knew he was coming home. He and Mom never got along right. I never saw any closeness between them. Everyone else thought highly of him, but I knew he wasn’t a happy man. At home he blew up a lot.”

But another man served as a surrogate father to him, a man named Burl Norris, who owned the hardware store in town. John began to get in trouble in the neighborhood and in school, and Burl said to John, “You’re coming to work for me.” John was only eleven years old and eventually the state found out, so he had to quit, but he continued to work for Burl to earn tools instead of money.

Burl also took John fishing, and once Burl and the local priests – John was raised Catholic – took John, several other boys and pack horses to the Enchantment Lakes via the Snow Lakes trail.

“People have stepped into my life at opportune times,” says John.

When John was 14 his family moved back to Anchorage, where John helped his father build their home. His father owned a riverboat and took the family into the wilderness. John, his father and brothers hunted for moose and caribou, while his mother and sisters picked berries.

John attended high school in Anchorage, but did not perform to his father’s standards, so his father kicked him out of the house. “I camped nearby for three months, in the winter,” says John. “Sometimes my siblings visited me.” He admits that he was as stubborn during this conflict as his father was.

Finally his father broke the stand-off. He came to his tent and said, “Why don’t you join the service?” John listened to his father and followed his suggestion. He dropped out of high school and joined the Navy in 1961. He chose the Navy because he thought he’d see more of the world than he would in other military branches.

He served at Mayport Naval Station in Florida, near Jacksonville on the northeast coast of the state, aboard the USS Yellowstone, a destroyer/tender. The ship was basically a floating repair shop. The Yellowstone cruised up and down the Florida coast, to the Caribbean, and to Naples, Italy, where many of its crew repaired U.S. warships for several months.

John worked the first few months aboard ship as a boiler tender. John did most of the work because, he explains, “The guy I worked with was a drunk who slept behind the boiler.” Like everything else John says, he says this in a mild, bemused manner.

Then the ship’s photographer approached John and said, “You look like a photographer.” This was a rather peculiar statement and, John says, “The only camera I knew how to operate was a Brownie Starflash!” But the Navy photographer took John under his wing and taught him his trade. John was re-assigned from boiler tender to photographer.

When John was in the Navy, he attended a Catholic church in Jacksonville, “But no one said boo to me,” he says. So he began to attend the Methodist church next door. There he met a couple named Lillian and Everett Perpall, who eventually invited him to their home after church to join other sailors and single women for lunch. “I was awestruck by how well Lillian and Everett got along,” says John. Soon he was going there regularly, though he didn’t date any of the women. He says he didn’t date at all while he was in the Navy.

He and Lillian developed a special rapport. One of her daughters had died, and she confided her feelings about her loss to John. Because he listened to her he became the Perpalls’ special guest, and sometimes he was invited to spend the night. Once again, John found surrogate parents.

When he was discharged from the Navy, in 1965, John returned to Anchorage. Unemployed, he earned his GED and “bummed around in the bush,” he says. Then a friend decided it was time for John to meet a woman, and set him up for a blind date with Betty Woods Hunter. Their first date was a 23-hour hike in the wilderness. John, a seasoned mountaineer who survived 4 avalanches, was training to climb Mount McKinley (a feat he accomplished in 1967), and he often left Betty far behind. He stopped and slept on the snow until she caught up with him.

It could not have been a pleasant experience for Betty, though in fact she did like the outdoors. She liked to go canoeing and rafting as well as hiking. But she did not complain and even asked if they could do it again, though not for 23 hours. They took hikes together every Thursday and eventually became serious about each other. They married in late 1967.

Betty was a pediatrician, 13 years older than John. She had been married before and had a 10-year-old daughter, Anne, when she married John. (Anne now has 3 children and one grandchild.) In 1969, Betty gave birth to John’s child, Douglas, who is now married and has 4 children of his own. He lives in the Ballard area of Seattle. “He’s a computer geek,” says John.

When John got serious about Betty, he decided he’d better get a job. First he worked as a vault teller for 2 years at a bank in Anchorage, then as a photographer for 12 years for the Corps of Engineers, using a skill he learned in the Navy.

As a photographer in Alaska, John sometimes photographed military ceremonies, but usually the job was adventurous. He took photographs from airplanes and helicopters, and in ice caves and rock tunnels, wearing a headlamp, seeking brass survey tags to photograph.

Shortly after their marriage, Betty said to John, “You have to tell me you love me every day.”

“But I already told you that at the altar!” he protested.

Nonetheless he listened to her and did what she asked. “At first it felt like it was coming from the ether going to her,” he says, “but eventually it came from me and (he pauses) it came back to me. I learned to feel love.”

Tragically, in 1974, Betty died of kidney problems. “Right before she died she told me she wanted me to remarry someday,” says John.

He continued to work for the Corps of Engineers after Betty died, but finally quit in 1981 and moved south to Port Townsend, where he lived in a horse trailer and helped a friend build a boat. “All that was a big mistake, except I did meet Peggy.” He took a few square dancing classes in Port Townsend, foretelling his meeting his second wife.

He moved to Anacortes in the fall of 1981, to be near his parents, who had retired here. “Things were still not good between them,” says John. Eventually his father moved back to Alaska. After he died, his mother felt free to move back to Alaska as well, where she really wanted to be.

John enrolled in square dancing classes again, this time in Oak Harbor. It was there that he met Peggy Burrill, in December 1982. She, too, had been married before and has a son, Andy, by her first husband. After courting for a year and a half, John and Peggy married in June 1984.

In Anacortes first John got odd jobs, then he worked at Marine Supply & Hardware – perhaps his experience back in Leavenworth years before came in handy. After about a year and a half he was offered a job at Ace Hardware, where he worked for 21 years. In 1987 he started his own business, Crystal Clear Window Cleaning, which he continues to operate after retiring from Ace Hardware. “Anacortes has been good to me,” he says.

Peggy has a beauty salon in their home, where she works part-time.

Now that John has more free time, he and Peggy spend more time with their beloved grandchildren, and John is helping a friend build a replica of a Piper J-3 Cub airplane. The Piper Cub is a small, simple and light aircraft that was built between 1937 and 1947 by Piper Aircraft, with tandem (fore and aft) seating. Its trademark color is bright yellow.

Still an outdoorsman, John hikes and snowshoes with the local Audubon club. “I do it more for the hiking than the birdwatching,” he admits. He plans to take a canoe trip this fall with his son Douglas to Bowron Lake Provincial Park in British Columbia. The circuit is a chain of lakes and rivers, with portages between waterways.

John does not seem to begrudge his difficult childhood, and enjoys the good that has come his way. Married to Peggy for almost 30 years, he says, in her presence, “What Betty taught me about love has really helped me with Peggy.”