Communication has come a long way since the days when Kodiak Islanders vociferously paddled their kayaks from village to village to relay an important message. Today cell phones, the Internet and other quick ways of getting the word out are becoming so common that we take them for granted. The Alutiiq couriers felt the urgency of the message in their arms as they rowed, and in their lungs as they caught their breaths. We press a button, punch a key. It’s all so easy.
David Sharp, an electronics technician with Amee Bay, still gets a rush when he thinks of the intricacies of communication. He envisions satellite stations, receiver sites, solar panels, propane tanks, generators — machinery that most users can’t even name.
Amee Bay, a subsidiary of the Old Harbor Native Corporation, maintains eight Coast Guard communication sites at Sitkinak, Raspberry Cape, Pillar Mountain and Marmot on the Kodiak archipelago and Cape Gull and Rugged Island on the mainland. The sites are used in search and rescue cases and other missions.
In the spring and fall Sharp and his team check every circuit from top to bottom.
Between the seasonal check-ups, Sharp is on call 24/7, he said. He’s prepared to tend to emergencies and Amee’s ongoing projects. Tons of paperwork also keep him busy.
His job is “very exciting,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to have a job like this.”
Sharp did similar work in Oregon as an electronic technician for a private contractor that worked for the Coast Guard National Distress System.
When a company engineer asked him if he’d like to go to Alaska, Sharp quickly responded, “Sure.” However, he was surprised when the engineer told him, “You’re going in two weeks.”
Sharp packed everything he could take, put the rest in storage, and jumped on an airliner headed for Kodiak.
Living an adventuresome life on Kodiak Island and other places in the world seems to be a natural outcome for Sharp, who grew up in the San Bernardino Mountains of California.
Shortly after Sharp graduated from high school, he enlisted in the Army. Considering his immersion into aviation, he could have just as well settled for a career in the Air Force.
He worked as an aviation mechanic and a flight engineer for all sorts of innovative planes, including the C-7 Caribou, a twin engine, gasoline, short takeoff and landing plane and the C-23 Sherpa, a turbine jet version of the Dash 8, Sharp said.
“I’ve seen some country,” Sharp said, reflecting over his military career. “When you join the service, you’re going to be a traveling man.”
He flew cargo in Europe supplying food and ammunition (beans and bullets, as he calls it) to different operations.
Sharp was deployed to Panama where things were settling down following the ouster of de facto Panamanian leader, general, and dictator Manuel Noriega.
“I called it (the US mission) the Peace Corps with guns,” Sharp said. “We built bridges and health clinics throughout in the jungles of Panama.”
Spending six months in Panama was like walking through the pages of the National Geographic magazine.
“We’d come to a village in Chinook helicopters. People look at you like, ‘What are you doing here?’ One of my (most striking) memories was a woman with a child strapped on her back, with a pot on her head, walking up a 45-degree angle to a hut. It was just incredible.”
Sandwiched between Sharp’s tours in Panama and Europe was a mission in Abagaba, Iraq, during the Desert Storm Gulf war.
Sharp was a flight engineer and first sergeant for his unit in what was considered a safe port.
“We’d haul a lot of engines and helo blades north into Iraq to support the second aviation brigade.” One time he hauled three thousand pounds of night vision goggles for special forces.
There were numerous “beans and ammunition” runs as well.
“We’d land on roads or blown up runways, old airports, anything they could land on,” Sharp said.
“We went over there to oust (Sadam Hussein) under the direction of my government,” Sharp said.” I had two exceptionally good generals — General Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell. That’s why the U.S. was successful. They really had their act together.”
Sharp got to know the Schwarzkopf’s fuel truck driver on a personal basis. In exchange of two liters of frozen water, the driver provided quick service.
“If you ordered fuel the regular way,” said Sharp, “you'd be sitting there two hours.”
Sharp felt safe in Iraq.
“I could go outside of town and explore in civilian clothes, without a gun. That probably was not advisable.”
Sharp said he got to know the culture, because he was a part of it. “It wasn’t just a military operation; I was working with the civilian side.”
The people he talked with in Iraq had a great respect for America at that time, Sharp said.
However, attitudes have changed since the Second Gulf war in the beginning of the 21st century.
“We went in and took the government out, it destabilized the whole place. That’s what the US didn’t want to do the first time.
“When we went (into Iraq the) first time, everyone was praising us. But with our inability to know the culture, we put the wrong people in charge. That turned the culture against us. Now it’s nutsy and very hazardous.”
At times Sharp dreams of returning to Iraq as a rover technician to help rebuild its communication systems. It’s a dangerous fantasy.
Many contractors have been killed in Iraq, Sharp said. But potential danger does not prevent Sharp from following edgy dreams. After all, danger is part of the adventure.
“I’m at time in my life when I can fulfill that professional soldier dream. I don’t have any ties.”
It doesn’t look like Sharp will be returning to Iraq any time soon. But that’s okay with him. There is plenty to occupy him on Kodiak Island.
Being raised in the San Bernardino hills “bred in me this type of living,” he said. “I like it. That’s why I’m still here.”
Kodiak is “refreshing,” Sharp said. “I like small towns. It has small town values. I get to go out to remote places and villages, and that’s pretty nice.”