The final boat ride of Eli Solomon, Sr: soldier-fireman-rescuer-whaler-husband-father-grandfather - loved and respected by his community
Monday, November 26, mid-afternoon, Utqeagvik Presbyterian Church, Barrow, Alaska, USA
The speeches of remembrance - filled with many happy and humorous memories, told on a sad day, have all concluded. The eulogies have been given. The hymns and special numbers have been sung - by Barrow Search and Rescue volunteers, his grandchildren and great grandchildren, the Aiken whaling crew to which Eli Solomon Sr. belonged, by a host of firemen and women and by the congregation. The American flag that had been draped over Eli's coffin in honor of his World War II service with the Alaska Territorial Guard has been folded and, along with a fireman's helmet and another flag in honor of his decades of service with the fire department, delivered to the appropriate relatives.
Now, Eli receives a final salute from his fellow veterans, many of whom have served in foreign wars. Included among them are the last, two, surviving World War II Territorial Guardsmen, Wesley Aiken - in blue directly behind the casket and David Leavitt, standing beside him wearing the dark parka with the fur ruff.
Beginning back in the days before snow machines when he traveled tundra and ice by dog team, Eli had served with Barrow Volunteer Search and Rescue. In recent decades, he was there daily, at Barrow Search and Rescue Base, listening to the VHF radio, playing solitaire, visiting and joking with other volunteers, logging VHF calls from boat captains calling in to report the number of souls on board as his fellow hunters set out into the Beautfort and Chukchi Seas and to travel up the rivers inland to hunting and fish camps.
Whenever search and rescue operations had to be launched, a frequent occurence in the Arctic, Eli always was always among the leaders as the searches, rescues and sometimes body recoveries were coordinated, carried out and completed. Sometimes he was out on the tundra, sometimes on the water, sometimes coordinating from Search and Rescue Base. Always, he put his great knowledge of the land, the sea and his love for the people of the Arctic into his life-saving work.
He became "Attata Eli" to all the hunters in the Barrow area and those coming to visit by boat or snow machine. When he knew his time was short, he made a request - he wanted to be carried to the graveyard in the Barrow Volunteer Search and Rescue boat.
Eli was about to be honored in way no one else in Barrow had ever apparently been honored before.
As Andrew Brower rang the bell in the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church, his pall-bearers lovingly carried him through the chapel, towards the door.
Then Eli Solomon Sr. was lovingly hoisted into the Search and Rescue boat.
He was driven from the chapel at the head of a long procession that would pass through the large neighborhood of Browerville and then back through Barrow.
Larry Aiken stepped from the back of to the cabin and then, in respect, spoke as though he were talking to Rescue Base on the VHF. "Nine on board," he said - just as so many had reported over the radio to Eli these past several decades.
The long line of mourners who had come to show their respect looped all the way back from Browerville, around the lagoon road and beyond sight, still streaming out of Barrow.
As The boat passed the Barrow fire station, firemen stood in the stiff breeze that blew through the - 10 F (-23 C) air to salute their fellow firefighter.
After weaving through the community and back, the procession reached the southwest edge of Barrow, where houses perch on the bluff overlooking the Chukchi.
Then, as we all one day must, Eli reached the graveyard out on the tundra well beyond town. The full moon bestowed its light from above.
His final ride in the Search and Rescue boat had reached its end.
Eli was carried to his grave.
During the service, it had been reported that before Eli died, he had looked upon a face no others in the room could see. He had smiled, and had spoken a happy greeting to his deceased son, George. Those present felt that other loved ones who had passed on had also been there to greet Eli as he moved from this side of life to the other.
Family members gathered at Eli's cross for photographs.
Two days after the funeral, Larry Aiken stood inside the Barrow Volunteer Search and Rescue building, in front of the table where Eli so often played solitaire. For some time, Larry had been asking Eli to let him do a sketch of him. Thirteen days before his death, Eli consented.
This is it - Eli Solomon Sr. sketched into the breath of a bowhead whale.