When ritzy fur coats warmed old folks

August 07, 1991|By Elise Patkotak | Elise Patkotak,McClatchy News Service

BARROW, Alaska -- I don't remember exactly how they got our address. I just remember the arrival of a box of furs. It was quite something.

Mink, fox, ermine you name it and some object in the box was made from it.

The time was about 1976 or '77. Alaska'a North Slope Borough, located on the Arctic Ocean, and its Health Department were both very young. The whole department fit in one room with space left over for the innumerable boxes of furs that started arriving.

At the time, I was in charge of the department.

The boxes were from Mary Tyler Moore. The actress was spearheading a group that was opposed to the wearing of fur by any other than those who had a true need.

Apparently the group felt that Eskimos could prove true need due to the somewhat chilly weather of the arctic.

Since Mary is a TV star, her friends tended to come from that same milieu. Judging from the furs we initially received, most were doing fairly well.

We had no warning that the furs were about to descend on us. The boxes just started to arrive one day with an explanation that they had all been donated by people who had pledged to never again wear fur.

Since the animals that had once worn the skins were long gone, the decision was made to send them to the Eskimos of Alaska. In this way, the animals would not have died in vain.

When the boxes first arrived in Barrow, no one was quite sure what to do with them. Then someone had a brilliant idea. Give them out to the elders and others who might have need for extra warmth during the winter.

My staff's initial reaction was that this was some kind of hoax. By the time we opened the third box and unearthed the full-length mink coat, the initial disbelief turned to stunned disbelief.

These people were serious. Serious enough to be sending us coats that would have cost more than a year's salary for any of us.

Unfortunately, they were also coats that were relatively useless in the arctic. Most mink coats do not have the kinds of ruffs and hoods meant to be worn on sleds in 40-below weather.

But the people who had sent them were obviously sincere and we felt we could do no less than attempt to make these gifts into useful items.

So, we called in all the women in town who sewed and let them have at it. It was quite a scene. Within days parkas sprouted up in town made of gorgeous Hawaiian flowered print material lined with ranch mink fur. Mink hats mysteriously appeared on the head of every woman with a skin-sewing machine.

And still the boxes arrived with every fur-lined object known to man as well as a few we had trouble identifying.

In fact, that soon became the problem. Even rich people have a limited number of furs they are willing to send north. Soon the boxes started to contain totally unrecognizable objects.

It was when they started to arrive smelling that I really got nervous. I had this vision of headlines announcing how the North Slope Borough health director had eliminated the entire senior citizen population through a diabolically planned scheme of fur coats that produced strange rashes and disease.

And then, as quickly as it started, it ended. No more boxes. No more excitement. No more ripping mink coats out of the hands of my staff while they muttered about being as old and poor as the next person.

Thanks, Mary. For one exciting winter, our seniors were the best dressed Eskimos in Alaska.

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