washingtonpost.com
Palin's Strengths Rooted in Alaska
Family and Friends Hope She'll Show Trademark Confidence During Debate

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

WASILLA, Alaska -- The valley where Sarah Palin was raised is vast and tree-packed, and so quiet that once, when Palin's parents left a door open in their antler-festooned house, a moose poked its nose into their den.

You can't blame the moose for being curious. The wood-plank loft home of Chuck and Sally Heath is known for its odd, bristling lawn art. A towering sculpture of bleached antlers sits by the driveway. Bright buoys and fishing lures dangle from silver birch trees. But this riot of objects is merely a warm-up for the interior: Fox pelts. Orca teeth. Bear fangs. Owl wings. A brown, bony thing with a huge span occupies the living room wall. "That's a walrus scapula," Chuck Heath says brightly.

The unusual collection has been amassed over a lifetime by the inspiring Heath, a hard-chested, cinch-waisted 70-year-old retired public school science teacher and an inveterate naturalist. Children skitter in and out of doors: Palin's daughter Piper is newly arrived from New York. Piper's cousin, a small boy named Heath, hums to himself beneath the snarling pelt of a grizzly bear.

"Can I have a soda?" the child asks. "I want a soda."

"Did you earn it?" Chuck asks sternly.

That's how it goes in the Heath home, and how it has always gone. It's a household that explains much about Palin, 44, and how she acquired her set-jawed, swaggering demeanor, one that her mother first noticed "about the time she started to walk." Above all, the house suggests how she came by her dissident, out-of-category feminism, a code by which she tackles old-boy networks relentlessly, while remaining blank if not unsympathetic on traditional women's issues with a capital W, such as sexism in the workplace.

"I'm a little absent from that discussion, because I've never thought of gender as an issue," she told Alaska Business Monthly after being elected governor in 2006.

It's a code rooted in childhood experiences of backwoodsing and athletic striving "until she was literally red in the face," according to her sister Heather Bruce, 45. They included leading her tiny high school to a state basketball championship, an event Palin once described as "life changing." Composure was a genderless quality, earned under pressure -- as in the time a grizzly bear climbed on the family car. "It didn't matter if you were a man or a woman if you were going out to hunt," says her brother Chuck Jr., 46.

They are experiences Palin will draw on to deal with crushing pressure of a different sort: her vice presidential candidacy and her debate Thursday night with her Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr (Del.). Friends and family insist that she will reassert her famous self-will when she takes the stage in St. Louis. "We all know what's riding on it," Chuck Jr. says. "But she has a history of coming through in big events."

The Heaths have tried to ignore the contrail of their daughter's political comet, the soaring upsweep from unknown governor to national celebrity, fashion heroine and triumphant stump speaker, followed by a swoon in popularity resulting from uncertain answers under hard questioning. On the evening Chuck Sr. quizzed his grandson about whether he had earned a soft drink, Palin was faltering badly in an interview with CBS News's Katie Couric, in which she was less the huntress than easy prey.

"I can take anything but the blogs," her father says uneasily.

But Chuck has seen his daughter handle herself in other perilous situations and come out all right. A few years ago, he watched her pilot husband Todd Palin's commercial fishing boat in a storm. Todd was working at his oil-field job on the North Slope, and Palin and her father had been fishing on Bristol Bay. "It was the toughest work I've ever done, and it wasn't only hard, it was dangerous," Chuck says. At the end of the run, they had to get the boat on a trailer amid crashing surf. As cold, metallic-sheened waves tossed the trawler around, Chuck quailed.

"I'm not doing that," he said.

"Get out of the way," Palin said. "I'll do it."

She did.

Serenity Under Pressure

In 1970, Wasilla was a village of 400 on the edge of the wilderness in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, a river-split basin where the first leg of the Iditarod dog sled trail runs. There was one road to Anchorage, "and parts of it were gravel," recalls neighbor and close friend Marie Carter Smith, "so it was an all-day trip."

The Heaths lived in a small cabin heated by a wood-burning stove, all four children crowded in an attic bedroom, where they huddled under quilts and watched their own breath. Since store-bought food was hard to come by, area families relied on wild game as their main form of sustenance. The Heaths and the Carters hunted together, and "one moose would feed both families for a winter," Smith says.

Palin stacked firewood endlessly and worked in a large communal garden where winter vegetables were grown. Anyone who dined at the Heath home remembers large stews of whatever the family had shot. "Bear, moose, sheep," recalls Kim Ketchum, one of Palin's childhood friends.

By age 10, Palin was picking off rabbits out the back door and sniping at ptarmigan, an Alaskan game bird, on cross-country skis. Her father would rouse her at 4 a.m. to hunt duck before school. On hunts, she learned how to field-dress a moose, a fancy term for butchering it.

She was about 14 when Chuck taught her how. She helped lift the legs, which weighed more than 100 pounds, while her father gutted and quartered the animal and then used a bone saw to take off the ribs. Next he began removing various organs for his biology class. He wanted to use the eyes for dissection. When he tried to hand them to his daughter, she finally rebelled. "I can't," she said, shuddering.

In the summers, she took swimming lessons in a Red Cross program at a lake, in water so cold it turned her blue and had kids digging in their heels at the shore. "They'd report to our parents that we were afraid of the water," Ketchum remembers. Chuck thought his kids should learn "how to handle extreme conditions," Heather recalls, and he dared the older Heath children to sleep outdoors on the coldest snowy night.

Nobody watched much television. The Carter family had a battered old set that worked for about one hour a day before it conked out. The Heaths had a working one, but Chuck was always snapping it off and hustling the kids outside, and in the summer he put it away altogether.

On Sundays, Sally, now 68, exercised her own influence, shuttling the children to church for lessons in devotion. A lean outdoorswoman with feathered brown hair and a musical voice, she possessed "deep faith and convictions, hospitality, serenity in the eye of a storm," according to Heather. Though they were baptized Catholic as infants, they attended a small gray evangelical church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, and Sally enrolled them in summer Bible camps directed by the pastor.

On the family's long hikes and camping expeditions, Palin absorbed her parents' dueling views. "Sally is very devoted . . . and Chuck worships Mother Nature," says Marilyn Lane, a longtime family friend. Chuck may or may not attend church, but he wanted the children to appreciate the "grandeur" of nature. He lectured them on wildlife biology and was such a tireless dispenser of information that friends called him "Mr. Almanac." He collected furs, bones, shells and skulls.

He would stop his children on a footpath and point to fossils etched in rocks. "How old do you think those are?" he would ask.

Sally, meanwhile, wanted them to understand "the bounty of it all," she says. The wild game, meat and fish, "was a gift to have." Both messages penetrated. "We heard both sides and formed our own views," Chuck Jr. says.

The summer Palin was 12, she asked to be baptized at Bible camp and was dipped in the frigid waters of Beaver Lake. According to Heather's account of their conversion, "I vividly recall at about 10 years old, looking out at Alaska's beautiful scenery and wondering how anyone could not admit there was a God who created it."

There was one indisputable lesson the Heath children learned about the wilderness: how dangerous it was.

Once, a grizzly showed a frightening interest in the family car on a camping trip in Denali National Park. The Heaths were bedded down for the night after bagging a caribou, Sally and Chuck in one tent and the children in another, when they heard an ominous rustling. Sally peered out and saw the enormous bear just outside the children's tent. It was eyeing the caribou they had strapped to the top of the car.

"We heard this grunting," Chuck Jr. remembers. His father raised his rifle and told Sally to train the flashlight on the bear, but she was trembling so badly that the beam wavered. Chuck didn't want to take a potshot in the dark. Instead he put himself between the bear and the children, and yelled at them to run for the car. He followed them, and the family huddled behind the windshield while the bear circled the car for half an hour. At one point it stopped, put its paws on the door and pressed its nose to the window.

The next morning, they found the ravaged caribou remains, 30 yards from their car's wheel wells.

'All About Winning'

In Wasilla, physical command of one's own arms and legs was hardly a masculine virtue. Sarah Heath and her friends played ball with boys in the family's hard, dirt-packed back yard. "It was just what we did," recalls Palin's friend Jackie Conn, now a detective with the Anchorage Police Department.

Nor did anyone question Title IX, the 1972 law that mandated equal opportunity for women in public education. It's the rare feminist issue for which Palin is an unambiguous cheerleader. "I'll tell you, I'm a product of Title IX in our schools," she says on the stump. "Equal education and equal opportunities in sports really helped propel me into, I guess into the position that I'm in today."

At Wasilla High School, she ran with a set of tomboy friends who competed year-round, because that's all there was to do in town. They ran cross-country in the fall for the track team -- coached by Palin's father -- played basketball in the winter and softball in the summer. "We weren't trying to prove anything," Ketchum says. "It was all about winning the game. It wasn't an issue. It just didn't seem to be a barrier."

Chuck Sr. drove Palin hard, both as a father and a coach. "She gets her steel, her competitiveness, from him," says Marie Carter Smith, who was the school statistician. Chuck ran alongside on training runs for miles, barking maxims he picked up in his own career as a high school football player in Idaho, under a farm legend named Cotton Barlow. "Lead by example, not with your mouth," he said. Or: "Run through it! The more pain you're feeling, the more it will show in the performance."

When Chuck chewed her out like a football player, she stared back at him and nodded. "She just looked me straight in the eye, didn't talk back or anything," he says. "It's a wonder she didn't whack me."

By all accounts, Palin didn't need an external motivator. She understood she wasn't a gifted athlete, so she decided to be a tireless worker. "She ran her guts out," Smith says. And she did it with an obvious edge. "She was small and thin and active," Heather remembers. "There was no slacking when that girl was practicing or competing."

Palin had to wait until her senior year to become the starting point guard and co-captain on the basketball team, and then no one gave her squad much of a chance to go to the state finals the way the team had the year before.

Wasilla High had a hard-knocks pride and a good coach in Don Teeguarden, a teacherly sort with a buried temper who in the heat of practice or a game would suddenly throw his gum and make the players run "killers," sprints up and down the court. "The girls weren't sheltered," he says.

They developed a reputation for upsetting larger schools around state, especially their rivals in Anchorage, which had student enrollments upward of 1,200. "That was when the giant-slayer first appeared," says John Bitney, a former friend and aide to Palin. "And the poise under pressure. You have to realize we were tenfold smaller, and it was the boondocks. It was a Hoosiers kind of thing."

They rode buses six or 10 hours to get to games, and spent nights bunking in classrooms of rival schools. "The kids were incredibly proud of their ability to spend time on a bus, sleep on a floor and be ready to go," Teeguarden says. They passed time on the bus by blasting music from boomboxes -- AC/DC, the Charlie Daniels Band and Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust." If they had to travel on a Sunday, they held impromptu prayer services. Once, on a road trip, Teeguarden couldn't find his players and wondered if they'd stayed out all night. He ran into them coming back from church.

Palin wasn't a prolific scorer, but she was an ideal point guard, a whip-wristed passer and smart distributor of the ball, and she had a great target in Wasilla's star player, 5-foot-8 Wanda Strutko, now an emergency room nurse. Palin also set the emotional tempo for the team and was a harrying presence on defense. She usually had the responsibility of stopping the other team's high scorer. Her nickname "Sarah Barracuda" is well known. But they also called her "The Pusher" for her ability to drive opponents to one side of the floor.

No one gave the Warriors any chance to win a title when they drew East High, a large Anchorage school that had beaten them by 40 points earlier in the season, as their first-round opponent in the state tournament. Wasilla won, 50-48, but shortly before time expired, Palin came down wrong and sprained her ankle, an injury she would play through during the rest of the tournament.

In the championship game they met another large institution, Service High. Wasilla took a comfortable early lead, but Palin, playing on her heavily wrapped, swollen, blue ankle, couldn't move well enough to defend, and Service began to catch up. Teeguarden motioned her to the bench. "I just had to get her out, it was painful to watch her," he says. Palin was devastated as she took a seat, and the coach put an arm around her. "Without you we wouldn't be here right now," he said. "You're not done."

She remained on the bench until slightly less than a minute remained. Then Teeguarden turned and motioned her back into the game. Wasilla was nursing just a four-point lead, and Palin was one of his coolest heads. He wanted her on the floor.

With about 30 seconds left, Palin was fouled. She went to the free-throw line. If she missed, Service would get the ball with a chance to cut Wasilla's lead to just two points. If she made the shot, her team would be up five -- making it a three-possession game. She licked her fingertips, dribbled the ball a time or two, and knocked down the shot. "That iced it," Teeguarden says. "At that point we exhaled." Wasilla won, 58-53.

Michele Kohinka, who was the center for Service High, described Palin this way: "She was a little floor general. She didn't score a lot, but she was a scrappy defender and was always the first to the loose balls."

Palin had scored nine points in three games, and her sprain had worsened into a stress fracture.

If it's not quite a story worthy of lore -- Cinderella team wins state thanks to future governor's epic game-winning shot -- it's still a good one. More important, it's one that may well have been the making of Palin. "Sarah's not stuck in a high school victory trance," Heather says. "But she has taken that feeling of accomplishment, of being part of a winning team, and all the hard work it took to get there, and uses those skills today."

Palin has said she learned more on the basketball court than in any other arena. It remains to be seen how her athletic, outdoorswoman, post-feminist confidence holds up in the heat of the vice presidential debate.

But her old friends suspect that a part of Palin may actually be looking forward to it.

Says Teeguarden: "The idea of being in awe of people just isn't in her nature." Ketchum adds, grinning: "She likes an opponent."

Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company