Editor’s note: Through March, Jennifer Niesslein (@jniesslein) is contributing interviews with interesting, “ordinary” people, who do extraordinary things worthy of the big screen—to complement our Winter 2013 issue. This installment features Heather Nelson Brame and David Brame.
Pitch: For women dating in Alaska, there’s a saying: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” A good—and odd—Alaskan love story.
Heather, you grew up in Virginia, and Dave, you in Florida. What were you doing in Alaska?
H: I went there after college to spend a year between college and grad school. My dad got a job in Alaska and my mom had recently passed, and he asked, “Why don’t you just come with me for a year?” I thought, Okay, maybe I’ll get a guy, maybe I’ll get a Husky and a Jeep. So I went. After I went to grad school in Philly, I got a job offer in Alaska, so my one year became seven. I started a program for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
D: I went up there in the Army, spent four years, got out of the Army, and started selling cars. I was working at a GM dealership when Heather and I met. I spent fourteen years up there.
What’s Alaska like? What’s the dating scene?
H: At that time the ratio was about ten men for every woman, but stereotypically, people who go to Alaska tend to be weirdos. They want to be on the outskirts—they want to stay in the woods with their beers and their guns.
D: It’s Alaska, and all the stereotypes you can think of Alaska and Alaskans are true. I did the finance paperwork for Sarah Palin when she bought her car. I worked in Wasilla for a while—it was the most redneck place I’d ever been.
For me, there were husband hunters. There was this chick upstairs from me who wanted to get married so badly, and I dated a woman and what she wanted was a husband. I was coming out of a thirteen-year marriage and [immediate matrimony] was not a viable option for me.
There’re only a few places to go if you want to go out. There’s Humpy’s, named after the humpback salmon. There’s a place called Chilkoot Charlie’s. That’s about it.
H: And the Alaska Bush Company.
D: That’s a strip club.
What’s it’s like being a person of color in Alaska?
H: There’s more color than I thought there would be because of the military. So it’s not all white, by any stretch. There are a lot of Samoans. So there’s color, but there’s a lot of rednecks and the opposite—Green Peace, tree-huggers.
How did you meet?
H: For Big Brothers Big Sisters, I tried to find people who were willing to spend an hour a week with a kid at a school near where they worked. So Dave’s car dealership was near a big elementary school. I went into the dealership to recruit some volunteers. Very few people came. Dave couldn’t come, but he was interested. He ended up being my only guy from this humongous dealership.
Once I match a kid and an adult, I monitor how they’re doing but I don’t really get into it—I don’t really get to know the person very well. But Dave got matched with a kid whose family moved a week after their first meeting. And the next kid got sent to a group home out of state. So I had to match Dave three times in a month, and I ended up getting to know him because of that.
D: There were two sorts of populations we served at the dealership. There were the affluent and middle-class people, and we also had a huge sub-prime market—people with marginal credit, bad credit.
It was winter, in the middle of the day, and Heather pulls up in this beat-to-hell, piece-of-crap 1985 Honda. It was kind of comedic because all the other salespeople saw this black girl riding up in this beat-to-hell hooptie. And they scatter. They figure it’s someone with bad credit with a piece-of-crap car that isn’t worth anything. They think it’s going to be a waste of time. I’m all alone on the showroom floor, and sure enough, it’s her to interview me and sign me up for the Big Brothers program.
I had to go to this orientation that she was doing, and at the time I was body-building. I was getting ready for the Alaska State Championship, and I was drinking these protein shakes. I had one of those 44-ounce Big Gulp cups and it was full of this muscle-building drink, chocolate-flavored and I had all sorts of other stuff in it.
H: It was nasty looking.
D: I walk over, slurping on this big frothy, foamy drink, and she’s looking at me like, what the hell are you drinking? She busted my chops about it.
When did you start dating?
D: I bought tickets to that play Tony and Tina’s Wedding. I was thinking of asking her out and I was kind of vacillating. We had a secretary in the finance office, and she said, “You should ask her out! Ask her out! Come on, Dave, ask her out!” I called Heather up about some mundane business about the match, then I said, “By the way, I have an extra ticket to Tony and Tina’s wedding. Would you like to go?” Yeah. “With me?”
H: When Dave asked me out, I did not all see it as a date. I thought it was a-nice-guy-who-happened-to-have-an-extra-ticket-to-a-play. The people in my office must have overheard me say yes, and they were like, “Oh, that bodybuilder guy? He’s cute!” And I said, “What? No, no, it’s not like that.” They were adamant that it was, and I was adamant that it wasn’t, but as the date approached, I found myself getting nervous, and I thought, Oh no.
I looked up his file—the one I’d created for him at Big Brothers Big Sisters—and I’d inadvertently transposed the numbers when I entered his birth date, so it said he was born in 1946 instead of 1964, and I thought he doesn’t look that old. Also, the date that the play was happening was his birthday. And then I wondered, should I acknowledge his birthday or is that creepy because then he’ll know I probably looked in his file? Or would it be rude not to? And then I was tripping on myself because I knew that I cared. I decided to get him a Mylar balloon—not too weird, but at least I acknowledged it.
So you were together for two years in Alaska?
D: We dated for a year and lived in sin for a year.
H: Dave was itching to move more than I was. I kind of wanted to sit still just because I could.
D: Then that Y2K thing happened.
H: Oh yeah! Every year downtown Anchorage has a fireworks celebration, but because it was Y2K, it was going to be awesome! Amazing! So we went because we could walk from our cool little house.
D: It was sub-zero.
H: It was colder than Alaska cold.
D: And the show got cancelled because the fireworks froze.
H: And I began to really get the idea of leaving here. So in February, it snows. Normal Alaska snow. We had this long driveway in the back of our house, and you have to keep it maintained. Dave snow blowed the whole driveway—it took him two hours. He came in the house and fell asleep for a long nap because it was hard work. Then I hear him shout, “Holy crap!” While he napped, it had snowed enough to make it look like he’d never even snow blowed.
In that moment, he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we were like, Okay, we can go.
We spent a long weekend in San Francisco, pretending that we lived there, and it totally gelled.
When you think of your relationship as a movie—which, probably you don’t because you’re normal people—what kind of movie do you envision?
H: Not a romantic comedy.
D: No, God, no.
H: Nothing starring Jennifer Aniston.
D: I was kind of joking earlier that it would have to be a Quentin Tarantino movie because of the profanity.
H: We both swear a lot. We’re both gun owners. The music we listen to is like a soundtrack from Quentin Tarantino movie.
D: It’s a wild ride that doesn’t always have a happy ending, but when it does, it’s a more realistic happy ending. It’s certainly more like The King’s Speech than We Bought a Zoo.
Who would you want to play you in the movie?
D: Jeff Bridges. He’d have to somewhat reprise his Dude role. The Dude with a job.
H: What about Pam Grier? The actress who played Jackie Brown?
D: There’s an element of Jackie Brown in you. And … you’re not a paper doll. I like you like that.
H: Maybe Regina King [Cuba Gooding’s wife in Jerry Maguire] or Taraji Henson [Jaden Smith’s mom in the new Karate Kid].