When I was a child I saw a made-for-TV movie called “Hey, I’m Alive” about two people who survived an airplane crash in the remote Yukon. The movie, being as it was made in the mid-seventies, was rebroadcast many times over next few years, and I always watched it. The movie was based on a true story, and even as a nine-year-old when it first came out, I was captivated by the tale of survival. Hey, I’m Alive! by Helen Klaben with Beth Day is survivor Klaben’s story of forty-nine days in the frozen wilderness with only her injured pilot for company.
Klaben’s memoir was originally written in 1963 yet the edition I read was a Scholastic Book Services imprint from 1974, one year before the movie came out. I came across this book as a library donation which we did not need. I realized what the book was about the moment I saw its title and cover photo: that of Klaben recuperating in the hospital after undergoing toe amputations due to frostbite.
Klaben, 21, was an adventurer, who had already worked at many jobs. She wanted to work all over the USA and see the country. While stopping over in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, she replied to a newspaper ad placed by a pilot, Ralph Flores. Flores, 41, was looking for a passenger to share expenses on a flight to San Francisco, and Klaben replied to the ad.
Flores’s Howard five-seater crashed in a heavily wooded region, which no doubt saved their lives. The treetops softened the crash landing yet left the plane listing at an angle, making an uncomfortable shelter for either of them to lie down. Both Klaben and Flores were injured with various broken bones, and each had limited mobility. They were not prepared for an emergency and thus had no winter supplies or extra food. Their scant supply of food ran out after being stretched to siege-of-Leningrad proportions over ten days. I recall a dramatic scene from the movie where Sally Struthers, who played Klaben, discovers a tube of toothpaste which she shows Flores, played by Ed Asner. The two treat the toothpaste as a precious meal, which is exactly how Klaben described it.
Flores was a Mormon and spent the seven weeks trapped in the snowy Yukon woods trying to convert Klaben from Judaism to Mormonism. He would have annoyed the crap out of me if he had told me, starving, shivering, with a broken arm and gangrenous toes:
“Ralph was practically beside himself with anxiety. He seemed to think I must believe–because he told me to. He even had an idea we would not be rescued until I recognized Christ.”
“Then he started telling me again I’d be rescued when I accepted the divinity of Christ. I just listened. Ralph said he was now more certain than ever that it was his mission to convert me to Christianity, so that I would be an example to the Jewish people.”
Once after saying her prayers, Flores told Klaben:
“‘God is not listening to you,’ Ralph said as I finished, ‘because you did not pray in the name of Jesus Christ.'”
Can you imagine being trapped in the frozen wilderness with a man like this? Klaben did have her moments of tearfully yelling back at Flores, but I am surprised she let it go on for seven weeks. In addition to thrusting a Bible into her face and telling her that she was responsible for them not being rescued, after three days Flores took to calling Klaben “Daughter”, which sounds spookily kinky. Perhaps Flores, who was the father of six children, only used this term with Klaben because he missed his own family.
Once all food ran out, including the toothpaste, the pair took to re-chewing their gum and by drinking melted snow. I am amazed that they could have survived on only water for five weeks. Flores, hearing a mysterious buzzing in the distance, was determined to find out what it was. I won’t spoil the story by revealing if he found out the source of the buzzing or not, but when he returned to the crash site he and Klaben moved camp to a clearing, miles away from the trees. Klaben, who could not walk because her gangrenous toes were decaying, with bone pushing through the skin, was towed along on a toboggan made from the fuselage.
The move precipitated their rescue as they became more visible outside the canopy of trees. Two weeks ago marked the fiftieth anniversary of their rescue, and after I finished Hey, I’m Alive! I looked for news stories on-line that may have marked the occasion. Flores died in 1997 yet Klaben, 70, has spoken to the press about her ordeal half a century ago.