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Teach Your Children Well

Living Free: The Story of "Just Breathing the Air"
By Mrs. Chancey
Sep 14, 2007 - 2:46:49 PM

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I can't count how many times I sat up with a well-worn copy of Little House in the Big Woods,churning butter with Ma or playing tea party with Laura and her rag doll, Charlotte. Living in a cozy cabin with wild animals and snow drifts outside sounded like the greatest adventure to me. I still love snuggling up with my children to tell them about the families who have gone before us and the difficulties and dangers they faced for our sakes.

Picking up Just Breathing the Air transported me back to my favorite childhood books but with a new twist: full-color photos and reminiscences from pioneers who lived adventurously only fifty years ago in the Alaskan wilds. I devoured the book in a single afternoon, then shared it with my little ones, all of whom loved seeing children playing and working on a homestead built by their parents. "Why can't we do that?" asked my oldest son. "I could help make a cabin like that!" (Hmmm... We'll just have to keep that thinking cap on!)

When Joe and Lillian McGaughey (mc-GOY) married in 1949, Lillian was just 19 years old, but she was ready for an unusual life. "We were game for anything," she wrote. "We just wanted to do something different." And that's exactly what they did!


Joe and Lillian in 1949 with their Plymouth.

Lydia Sherman has created a book that makes her parents and siblings come alive and dance across the pages with their vitality, energy, and can-do attitude. She says, "Our happy, carefree childhood was made sweeter by parents who guarded their seven children while sharing their amazing adventure." Homesteading 160 acres on the Kenai Peninsula began in 1953. Joe and Lillian marked out their L-shaped land on foot to stake their claim, then put down roots by building a tiny cabin of poles and boards. They used a tent for the roof and heated the one-room home with an iron cook stove and kerosene heater. Into the cabin moved Joe and Lillian with three children under the age of 2 1/2. The adventure had begun.

That first winter, temperatures often dipped to 40 degrees below zero, meaning Joe and Lillian had to take turns through the night to keep the fire going in the stove. On some moonlit nights, the cabin's single window afforded a view of moose walking through the snow--and one night brought a moose so close that he nearly poked his head into the cabin before the door slammed on his antlers!



After that first winter, the McGaugheys chose a real homesite and began felling trees and peeling bark to build a snug log cabin. Joe slowly built the entire cabin, calling on neighbors when it was time to raise the roof. He built a generator shed so the family could enjoy electricity by 1955. After moving into the big house, the children still enjoyed paying visits to the old cabin. Lydia writes, "Visiting that old cabin was an enchanting step for us, back into time. Although it was only a few years since we had left the cabin, it seemed like a century to us kids, and we enjoyed seeing how old everything was." The oil cloth remained on the table, along with candles, wax hardened around their holders. Old Sears-Robuck catalogs and a few dishes made the little cabin seem a perfect play house.

Throughout the book, the reader is struck time and again by the sheer pluck and ingenuity of Joe and Lillian, who didn't seem to have the word "can't" in their vocabulary. From adding a modern bathroom to the cabin to smoking salmon caught in the nearby stream, these pioneers knew how to carve a home and a good life out of the wilderness. In this environment, the McGaughey children learned first-hand about real inventiveness and thrift--not from "dos and don'ts" but from the daily realities of pioneer life.

One of my favorite stories in the book is one where Lydia and her siblings begged their parents for an allowance. They'd heard children in town got one, so they wanted one, too. Joe and Lillian finally relented but made it clear the allowance had to be earned. So the children set about odd jobs with determination, stacking wood, cleaning the yard, washing dishes, and other child-sized tasks. Finally, Lillian awarded the allowance to each child, but she had planned a way to teach them about money that they didn't expect! Lydia explains:

[Mother] prepared lunch and put it outside on a picnic table. Since some of the food came from the Best Western case lots stored in the shed on the side of the house, we were very excited. She had ordered treats that we normally didn't have. One such treat was a fizzy that you dropped in water to make a fizzy drink and it came in many flavors. Other tasty things were saltine crackers, powdered milk, canned sausages, and canned pears. We enjoyed these things so much and often asked to have them, so we were very pleased to see such a feast. "Not so fast," said our mother. "Each item on the table costs money. The fizzies are 5 cents each, the crackers are a penny a piece. The pears are 10 cents for a serving. Milk is another 5 cents." This was surely a different way of doing things, so we "played store" with our mother, sat down to eat, our pockets emptied of our heard-earned allowance. Daddy usually reminded us of the lesson that was learned here: "There's no such thing as a free lunch." It was my parents' way of teaching us about economic reality.

The lessons continued over the years, as the children learned how to tend the garden, fish in the lake, care for animals, make jams and jellies, and so much more. Lillian wrote, "These days were the best in my life, with my husband and my children and all that wilderness; the loons in the lake and the beavers in the swamp." As you turn each page, you feel you are right there in the midst of this busy, happy household, going to church in "the car that did not work very well," rowing on the lake in the Li'l Kathy, playing Daniel Boone, and making mud pies and grass salad.


Ready to go to church! The big cabin is in the background.

Joe and Lillian gave their children their deep faith in God and shared practical lessons from the Scriptures. They sang hymns together and weren't shy about sharing their beliefs with visitors. Lydia tells a touching story of a man who came to visit and asked Joe about salvation. After a long q&a session, the man said, "I am convinced that I must be baptized." Joe assured him the preacher would be happy to baptize him the following Sunday, but the visitor was insistent. It had to be now. "You can do it," he said and pointed at the scripture passage Joe had been sharing about the Ethiopian asking Philip to baptize him. The man said he couldn't sleep until he obeyed the gospel! So at midnight, Joe took him down to the lake, heard his confession of faith, and baptized him then and there.

Each page of this unique book holds story treasures like this. You're tempted to remark, "These people are too amazing. How could they do it?" But the more you read, the more you see that these were ordinary folks who just decided to do instead of dream. Too often today we're told that we simply can't do things. We need experts. We need professionals. We need permission. But Joe and Lillian McGaughey and their children let nothing stand in the way of living free and creating a home life that readers can acclaim and even envy. But the distinct, subtle message of this book, woven throughout its pages, is this: "You can do it, too." We may not feel prompted to move to the wilds of Alaska or take up cabin building, but we can certainly benefit from the kind of vision that says, "God gave me two hands and a brain; how can I best use them? Let's just find out!"

I encourage you to get your own copy of this inspiring and downright fun book. It's one to read with your children. It's one to pore over and think about. It's a delight from cover to cover!


Rowing the Li'l Kathy on the lake.

For more information, or to purchase Just Breathing the Air,visit this link. You won't regret it!

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