In military terms I am conducting “retrograde” operations with Ankylosing Spondylitis, an auto-immune disease similar to rheumatoid arthritis which is very painful and prone to periodic flares. This latest bout with the disease has kept from doing much of anything so I’m falling back on reruns again…and as the historic 4th Avenue Theater in downtown Anchorage is rumored to be scheduled for demolition this summer its only proper a cinema-related post should be this week’s offering
As much as I loved the sweeping epic motion pictures of the Fifties and Sixties I did not see “The Great Escape” when it first came out. Oh, I saw all the previews and was extremely interested in the subject matter but wasn’t able to actually see the movie because I was on the losing side of an ideological divide as vast as Crown & Colonists or Union & Confederacy.
I was a Fourth Avenue theater kid and the “The Great Escape” was being shown at the Denali.
In those days before the Good Friday earthquake there were just two movie theaters in Anchorage and they were located at the two ends of Fourth Avenue. Kids from the west side of town went to the Fourth Avenue theater while the kids from the east side went to the Denali….and never the twain did meet.
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I recently wrote a post about my family’s trip to Fairbanks (see 1967: Second City). In that post I referred to the Tom-Tom, a drive-in/kid hang-out just east of the downtown area, Since then I have been informed that while the alliteration was correct the content was not, and that the name of the place was actually the Tik-Tok drive in.
Sorry for any confusion.
“Patrolling the city leaves me little time to rest, so I catch my breath as I move from one rooftop vantage point to another. Ridding the city of crime and corruption is a never ending battle, made all the more difficult by the need for stealth as each night I make my way from my secret headquarters on the edge of town to the crime-ridden alleys and avenues in the middle of the city. From such a vantage point I can scan for any sign of wrongdoing while I listen intently for screams, gunshots – even whispers that would betray nefarious deeds on the part of the underworld.”
“What’s that I hear? A cry for help?”
“DAVID! GET DOWN OFF THERE BEFORE YOU FALL AND BREAK YOUR NECK!”
…and with those words the tone-arm on the great record-player of life scratched across the 33 1/3 RPM record of my inner sound-track and transformed the rooftops of Gotham City into the top level of the Anchorage J.C. Penny’s parking garage. Brushing the cement dust off the lower legs of my Levi’s I mentally tuned out the inevitable snarky parental comments as I climbed into the back seat of our station wagon and settled in for the three hour drive back to Sterling. It was tough visualizing the life of a nocturnal urban crusader when the only available urban area was a smallish city 134 miles north of home.
Prior to our northward migration in 1962 I had ridden through several Left Coast cities, but Anchorage was the first city I had actually lived in, and learning to navigate an urban environment entailed just as much study as regular schoolwork. However, I soon learned that while they were few in number, (2!) there wereother larger municipalities in Alaska. Juneau had been our original destination when Dad transferred to the Alaska State Employment service just prior to our move north, but there was another city even further beyond, up in the Interior, that was larger than Juneau, but smaller than Anchorage.
That mysterious other place was called Fairbanks, and although the pickings from my pre-Internet research were slim, I learned that the city was situated amongst the following installations:
- An army base similar in size to FT Richardson.
- An Air Force base equal to or larger than Elmendorf AFB.
- The flagship of the state’s secondary education system, i.e. the University of Alaska.
- An international airport which served as a logistical staging area for the Interior.
…And even more important to a fourteen-year boy was the existence of the Tom-Tom, a drive-in kid hang-out in the middle of town that featured GO-GO DANCERS IN PLEXIGLAS BOOTHS flanking the DJ’s compartment. Unfortunately given the militant aspect Mom attached to religion I avoided even looking at the Tom-tom’s location on the map when I was in her presence.
Such was the extent of my knowledge of the area before actually setting eyes on the city of Fairbanks in July of 1967 when our family made the trip to Alaska’s Second City. Like most of our summer expeditions we hadn’t planned on making the entire thousand mile round-trip journey at the outset; we had just been touring the Glenallen area when the ever-present family wanderlust prompted us to check out the scenery “just a little ways up the road” and extended our trip in increments – first to Gakona, then FT Greeley, and finally all the way into Fairbanks where we booked rooms at the transient quarters on FT Wainright and settled in for an extended visit.
Three “Fairbankisms” became very obvious the minute we started our exploration the next day:
- Despite the difference in population, both cities had a similar vibe with a limited downtown area, and Army and Air Force bases sitting just to the east. Those installations continually advertised their presence with helicopters and jet interceptors constantly zooming across the sky, and (in the case of FT Wainwright) the M113 armored personnel carriers that periodically interrupted one evening’s picnic as they burst through the trees next to our campground before clanking off in another direction.
- The trees were much shorter in stature than those found in Anchorage and the Peninsula, and became bonsai-scaled when compared to the redwoods back in California.
- Summer in Fairbanks was much warmer and brighter than southcentral Alaska. Temperatures were in the high seventies, and the extended daylight hours were even more …well, extended. The evening sky during a Sterling summer would see the sun dip just over and below the horizon, but in Fairbanks it stopped just short of the skyline and skirted along the horizon around us giving late-afternoon light the whole night through.
Discovery #3 dealt a deathblow to the possibility of one of my future career options in connection to the area. By now it should be fairly obvious that “Caped Crime fighter” still figured prominently in my list of future fields of employment, but I was pretty sure that by the time I was Bat-aged (and in much better physical shape) there was a good chance another caped crusader would have already set up shop in Anchorage. When I was working only with maps, Fairbanks seemed a good second choice, but continuous summer sunlight ruled out any sort of “dark night detective work”, and the limited road network and paucity of adjacent caves ruled out use of a secret headquarters.
(…all of which failed to leave any lasting impression on me after I walked into the Woolworths on Cushman Avenue and found one of my personal Holy Grails in the form of Aurora Model’s Captain America kit for which I had been searching the length and breadth of the South-Central portion of the state during the previous year.)
I was so stoked at finding the kit that I was ready to immediately head back to Sterling where my spray paint and model glue awaited, but we stayed two more days to attend church and take in the A67 Centennial Celebration, a state fair/media event commemorating the purchase of Russian America by the United States in 1867. The summer-long fair was located in what is now known as Pioneer Park, and featured a replica/reconstruction of an 1890’s Gold rush town, the SS. Nenana, a shallow draft steam-powered paddle wheeler that plied the Interior River system, a totally bitchin’ midway fairgrounds with the usual spin-and-barf rides and Up, Up and Away by the Fifth Dimension blaring endlessly over the public address system.
…and then in a flash we were on the road back to Sterling, which mysteriously seemed to take only a fraction of the time it took us to drive north. While it was true the trip north had been a stop-and-go thing as opposed to the relatively nonstop/straight-through trip south, it seemed like we got home much too quickly. The mystery was solved only after we’d been home for a day or two and I had an uninterrupted look at the map properly oriented.
Once I had “Map North” aligned to magnetic north via the compass, I concluded with flawless eighth-grader logic given that Fairbanks was located above Sterling on the map, our trip north had been an uphill journey, which made our return trip downhill.
Gravity had sped us along.
One month later
I couldn’t process the images I was seeing on Grandma’s TV. I was in California visiting her, Grandpa, and the rest of mom’s side of the family, but the real attraction for me was a video feast with more channels and a clearer signal than I’d ever enjoyed. Suddenly the program I was watching cut to a slightly fuzzy picture of a city landscape that I couldn’t quite make out until I recognized a Woolworth’s storefront, the Woolworth’s on Cushman Avenue in Fairbanks where I’d found the Captain America model a little more than a month earlier. In a disaster that would subsequently result in the passage of the Flood Control act of 1968, summer rains falling at three times the normal rate caused the banks of the Chena River to overflow and flood the city of Fairbanks and the surrounding area.
I wish I could say that I was profoundly moved by the damage I was seeing, but in those days of thirteen-inch black & white screens, all that came to my self-absorbed adolescent mind was how lucky I was to find the Captain America kit before it was swept away by floodwaters. It was only after I returned to the area in the fall of 1971 to enroll at the University of Alaska that I saw signs of damage from the flood still recognizable, even after four years of recovery, as well as evidence of the determination of the people who had worked to regain the level of commerce and development lost during the flood.
It was an amazing feat of community spirit and industry and more than just a little moving as I stood on the banks of the Chena, but some of the spirit of the fourteen year old that had stood in that same spot four years earlier lingered because all I could think was:
“Maybe I could use a boat for my anti-crime patrols…”
The time and effort I put into being a father reaped a double harvest when most of my children’s friends became my friends as well. It was a win/win situation for me: once those kids became friends with me, they were less likely to lead my kids astray while gently instilling in me a more youthful mindset. It’s also been nice I’ve aged and those “buddies of my kids’ buddies” relationships have slowly morphed into friendships in their own right.
That’s the situation with a young man named Arrison Kirby; I’ve enjoyed staying in touch with him over the tears and watching him as he builds his career as a professional in popular music and develops his own creative voice and vision.
It’s also been gratifying to play a part in his professional development – specifically a series of CDs based on astrology. I’ve just completed the cover for Lifeblood, analbum based on Taurus or sign of the bull. We’re both happy with what I came up with. I’m always happy when I finish up with a good solid cut-paper sculpture after my hit-or-miss production over the last year or two.
It’s also a “album cover art” which was as much an inspiration as comics were for me to go into into the illustration field in the first place.
Long before any current television series the phrase Mr. In-Between was the title of a folk song written and performed by legendary folk singer Burl Ives. The tune originally referred to a young adult but my parents thought it to be a perfect description of me1 during the age now referred to as the “tweens”.
“Mr. In-Between / Mr. In-Between,
Pickings mighty lean / Mr. In-Between,
I’m too old for girls / too young for women
I’ve looked all around / my hopes are a dimming
I feel like a fish not allowed any swimming
…and it makes a fellow mean.”
To be honest, at that point in my life the part about girls was wishful thinking, but the heart of the message was right on target: at age 13 I was the proverbial fish out of water. When combined with the innate chaos of a screamingly bipolar household, the nomadic life we’d led up to the time of this story had left me with little in the way of a support system, and I trailed sadly behind my classmates in growth, coordination, and relative coolosity. Fortunately by the end of eighth grade I’d learned to blend with my more sophisticated classmates, but then December 25th appeared on the calendar and triggered an existential crisis.
Dad was never able to reconcile his Depression-era childhood with what he felt to be the lavish living conditions enjoyed by his own children. If he had his way Christmas would have had a decidedly Dickensian flavor, but in past years we’d been repeatedly dealt a definite ace in the Yuletide poker game through my Grandma Esther. When it came to her grandchildren her reliability/certainty ran in the same league as death and taxes, which meant if you asked for it you got it.
For example the year before she’d send me the Holy Grail of toys in the form of Ideal’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. gun which I must have enjoyed too much as my parents had intervened in the current Christmas wish-list process; chronically stressed/obsessed by social appearances, they ruled that by this point in time (late 1966) I was too old for toys, so the holiday was shaping up to be underwhelming at best.
…until 6:00 A.M. on December 25th when a Christmas miracle arrived in the form of a Westinghouse Lumina clock radio equipped with an adjustable high-intensity study light. Given my Celtic heritage it is all too easy to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, but the wonder of combined timekeeping/entertainment that emerged from the box was so sleek and functional in a sort of Star Trekish2 manner that any attempt at a nickname slid from the off-white and avocado exterior like an egg off of Teflon, and it was immediately dubbed in hushed tones as David’s Neat Clock Radio or DNCR for our purposes here.
Music had always been an important part of my life, but it wasn’t until my tenth birthday that it became my go-to drug of choice. That was the year that I first got my own radio – a small transistor radio slightly larger than a pack of cards and equipped with a leather case and an earphone. That latter accessory was perhaps the most important feature because it meant I was no longer subject to the tyranny of the majority3 and forced to listen to the adult standards endlessly playing on the kitchen radio – I could now curl up on my bunk and plug into Kyu Sakamoto singing Sukiyaki while blocking out the 1940s big band music which continued to echo through the house.
Having my own radio gave me a wonderful sense of freedom, but it came with a price in that it was battery-powered, and on days of heavy listening I could rapidly burn through batteries – by the end of the day I discovered the Beatles I had piles of those little rectangular nine-volt batteries scattered all over my bunk and adjacent floor like spent shell casings around a machine gun nest on the Western Front. Unfortunately when we moved to Sterling the nearest store carrying nine volt batteries was fifteen miles away so I was once again stuck with the kitchen radio…
…until that fateful Christmas morning and the arrival of the DNCR.
Ignoring the other gifts I immediately took this wonder of combined entertainment and time-keeping up to my loft bedroom where I set it up on a box at the head of my bed, switched it on, and left it playing for at least a week. It would be still there playing to this day had my dad not threatened to “drop-kick that damn radio to the burn-barrel if that that ‘ya-ya’ crap wasn’t turned down.” But after a protracted period of testing and adjustment I found a volume setting that was simultaneously loud enough to resonate in my room yet still be “unhearable” in the rest of the house.
It was also at that time when I began “timestamping” the music in my life. I don’t know if it was the constant access to music through the DNCR or the onset of my mutant memory4 – but from then on the mention of a song title or just the sound of the first few bars never failed to trigger a trip back to the day I first heard the tune. Having that radio playing was like having an old friend – or the brother I never had – in the room with me.
The DNCR became even more important the following Christmas when I came home at the semester break with the absolute worst report card of my life. In my defense I was at the time dealing with:
- Recovery from mononucliosis5
- Life as a walking punching bag by a couple of upperclassmen
- The plethora of awkward questions swirling about my older sister’s precipitous departure after her sudden marriage to a guy not her boyfriend
…but none of that mattered. I’d embarrassed my mom so I was grounded, all my comics, records and books were taken away, and I was allowed only three hours of television a week. How they missed my radio is nothing short of a miracle, but the omission probably saved my sanity if not my life. I made sure it was out sight and kept the volume turned very low as I took to setting my alarm for the middle of the night when everyone else was asleep and unlikely to hear anything untoward.
For an hour or two each night/early each morning I was granted a respite from my oh-so-craptacular life. This was long before the advent of Dr. Demento, and with few exceptions parody/novelty records got played at most one time before going to the radio station’s library while the 2:45 standards such as Michelle, For What It’s Worth and MacArthur Park were played so often they could be used as timers for cooking three minute eggs. Fortunately most overnight DJs worked with such minimal supervision that their playlists routinely included records that would never get airplay during normal broadcast hours, including such gems as:
- Bears – the Royal Guardsmen’s little-known follow-up single to Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron.
- Runaround Kind – The lone single release from the Hartbeets who at the time were the hottest band in Anchorage.
- The Ballad of Walter Wart (The Freaky Frog) by Thorndike Pickledish Pacifist Choir.
I eventually stopped caring about what was happening to me during the day at school or even at home in the evening after dinner. It didn’t matter that my loft bedroom was cold and dark and that I could feel every bump and nail head in the wooden platform underneath my skinny mattress. As I snuggled down into my covers I felt safe, secure, and happy while my radio bore testimony of a better world far from Sterling.
When I left Sterling in 1971 the DNCR came with me, and with few exceptions it accompanied me in my journeys all over the country5, and with every move my first action was to plug that radio in and dial up a radio station whose hollow sound and the hiss and crack of the AM signal lent a bit of familiarly to a new home. Now that wonderful device sits in a box on a shelf in my shop (there are very few functioning AM stations in my area, and those that are here broadcast political crap) when a miracle of sorts came about the other day.
I had tried – and failed – to get some work done out in my shop, but after growing weary of repeated failures to hobble around on my crutches I pulled out the DNCR, plugged it in, and started playing with the tuner, only to be met with a static hiss that was occasionally broken with a snap, crack, and pop.
But then for a blessed few seconds I was graced with Stephen Still’s pure tenor
There’s something happening here,
But what it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there
Tellin’ me, I got to beware.
It stopped just as quickly as it had started – but the music had played long enough. It was late in the day and the gathering of the shadows emphasized the crisp chill of the unheated shop. The air was rich with the pungent smell of plywood recently pushed through a table saw, and as I sat on the bench my arthritic hips could feel every inch of the surface.
…but I felt safe, secure and happy.
- I had been holding out for No-where Man, but after the “bigger than Jesus” debacle, my dad refused to even acknowledge the existence of the Beatles much less their music.
- My other life-changing discovery for 1966, Star Trek caused me pain just one time when I noticed the resemblance between the DNCR’s adjustable study lamp and Sulu’s equally adjustable navigation viewer on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. There’s still a faint scar just to the side of my eyebrow.
- Thank you Lani Guinier. We might not totally agree on political matters but you turn a mean phrase.
- Hyperthymesia: a highly superior but extremely rare autobiographical memory that enables a person to recall life experiences in vivid detail. Rare as in only 60 have been officially diagnosed. Best known case is actress Marilu Henner of TAXI fame.
- Mononucleosis AKA “the kissing disease”, an infection transmitted by saliva (or in my case obviously) a shared drink. This requires a medical diagnosis, and symptoms include fatigue, fever, rash, swollen glands, and body aches. This is a member of the herpes virus family which may explain the coaster-sized canker sores that plagued me at the time.
- To include Idaho, Utah, Virginia, Alabama and multiple locations in Alaska – everywhere except military deployments and m
(This was published in a slightly different form a couple of years back – I’m in the process of putting togeether a second/expanded edition of my book and this was one of the sections that has been reworked)
During her lifetime my grandmother went from “If man were meant to fly God would have given wings” to “That’s one step for man, one giant leap for mankind!” .In her all-all-too-short “three score and ten” the world changed almost beyond recognition and when she talked about those changes I wondered if all the really cool stuff had already happened before my time,
I was mistaken.
(I promise to not queue up “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel at this point.)
There have actually been a lot of changes in my life, but most of those changes were subtle. For example, when we moved to Sterling, Alaska in the summer of 1964 most people – including many Alaskans – had no idea where Sterling was located, but since that time the area has become a very popular vacation site. In 1965 the same stretch of riverbank at the confluence of the Kenai and Moose Rivers where my friends and I would leisurely spread out to fish now holds at least 65 “combat fisherman” every day and hour of the season.
However, in 1965 location was far from being the sole requirement to be considered a true angler. Veteran Fishermen from Sterling Elementary had to possess two other items:
- A fishing license (depending on your age)
- A Lu-Jon lure
I’m sure you know what a fishing license is, but you may not understand the majesty of a Lu-Jon Lure. Shaped like a streamlined abstract Paul Manshipesque vision of a salmon, these lures were silver in color and sold for a dollar. They trailed a treble-hook behind them (yes, they were legal but then so was snagging!) and we knew they were irresistible to anything with fins. However, these silver treasures were nothing in comparison to gold Lu-Jon lures…in fact the mere idea of a gold Lu-Jon still takes my breath away 50 years later. The difference in color no doubt was a matter of what color lacquer was in the spray-gun when the workday started at the factory, but through some quirk of distribution the gold ones were rare in Sterling. Scoring a gold Lu-Jon was akin to winning the Irish sweepstakes. They were unbeatable.
Fishing technique was basic – you cast the lure out as far as you could across the water, then you would vigorously yank the pole back, winding the line up as fast as possible. No bait was used – as I said snagging was legal, so your goal was to make as many casts and get your line out as far as possible to increase your odds of getting a fish. My sister Holly still stoutly maintains that the reel and line would moan “llluuuuuu-jjoooonnnn…. llluuuuuu-jjoooonnnn” during all that yanking and rapid-reeling. I missed that soundtrack as my buddies and I were too busy talking, sharing the Playboy Party jokes that Jesse was reading to us from the back of the pin-up of one Belgian lass by the name of Hedy Scott a.k.a. Miss June 1965…though we really didn’t understand the jokes or the shapely Miss Scott all that well at the time.
Google turns up pictures of a small orange carton that these lures were supposed to be sold in, but I never saw them come in anything other than a plastic zip-loc bag – which is the real subject of my story. My first Lu-Jon was given to me by an older fisherman, so the first time I actually bought one of my own I was surprised to find that the local store sold them in Zip-Loc bags. That might not mean much – but I had never seen a Zip-Loc bag before….and while the Lu-Jon lure was a real prize, that Zip-Loc bag was stunning. I did not know the name for the field yet, but I was already interested in product design, and I was captivated by the beautiful simplicity of the closure/lock process. It helped that it was made of a heavy mil plastic – nothing like the flimsy sandwich bags that use Zip-loc feature now so there was a very satisfying zip and pop when opening and closing the container. I knew of nothing else like it. There were some forms of plastic wrap available, but we all took our sandwiches to school wrapped in wax paper.
As I think back to that moment two thoughts came to mind:
- While I grouse about finances, the fact is that by owning a car and more than one set of clothes I am far richer than 75% of the world’s population. Even now there are third world countries where something like that heavy-duty Zip-Loc bag would be considered a valuable tool to be carefully maintained and secured when not in use.
- I miss being able to totally focus on something like a Zip-Loc bag the way I could when I was young. Between naiveté of youth and the lack of all the electronic distractions of current times I was unencumbered enough to zero in on anything with the precision of an electron microscope.
I don’t know if I can personally eliminate income, inequality, and hunger referred to in thought #1 but I try as best I can with the resources that I do have. As far as the second concept goes: Is there any way to regain that Zen-state of focus? We have so many electronic distractions with “cool stuff” that it is hard for anything to hold my attention for long. I just must hope that as I continue to age the brain cells, I lose the ones that are infatuated with flashy, noisy electronic things. Maybe at some point I will regress to that second childhood everyone talks about and I will finally be able to figure out if the gold or silver Lu-Jons work the best!
In November of 2018 I wrote a post entitled I Wish I’d Written That containing a list of written passages that (obviously) I wish I’d come up with first. While making a long (and very slow) recovery from COVID-19 I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reflect on that post and I’ve come up with one more item I’d like to add.
It’s from an essay written by Tom Bodett – always a favorite for the way it captures the quirky blend of cultures and technology (dogsled vs. limousine/urban vs. rural) so typical of Alaskan life. This particular essay addressed the change in lifestyles that came about with his success as a writer and leaving construction as a means for earning a living for his family.
“…I miss the way my hands would ache after swinging a hammer all day.”
Chronic pain aside I live a life a lot of men aspire to, with most of my days spent sitting in a recliner while reading or watching TV. Unfortunately, I’m one of those odd people who actually likes physical labor and at this point in life the closest I can get to doing any kind of work is picking up a book or tapping something out on the computer. It makes my life a sort of upholstered purgatory that was difficult enough when I was dealing with just the pain and stiffness of ankylosing spondylitis and age, but even after recovering from Covid I am weaker than the proverbial kitten. I long ago tired of staring at the four walls of my bedroom so it’s all too easy to get lost in memories of my life as a younger man and thinking of all I left behind.
In addition to the aching hands that Mr. Bodett wrote about, I miss:
- The pungent smell of a sun-warmed two-by-four I’ve just cut on my table saw
- The reverse spasm in my shoulder that came with setting down a bag of horse-feed
- The crunch of my boots while I’m walking down a gravel road
I readily admit that I am richly blessed with a strong emotional support system starting with my Beautiful Saxon Princess and do what I can on my own to cope with my situation in the here-and-now by writing, making art, lifting barbels and getting in as many steps walking as the discomfort will allow me.
… but the prognosis for A/S is not a cheery one, and sometimes living in the past is the only way to catch a break.
In response to people asking about Roberta from my XL reboot.
Still moving pretty slow so I’m reprinting another XL5/Roberta image…
I’ve personally had to battle severe mobility issues lately so it should be no surprise that the subject would manifest itself in my work as I was going back through my XL5 designs. In the original series Robert would use a regular jet-bike just like the rest of the crew but after I replaced legs with the “uni-ball” that option is – well – no longer an option.
,,,then it occurred to me that given her modular construction Roberta could be plugged into the jet-bike rather than riding it which would save weight/mass/maintenance. I’m not sure where the unplugged parts would be stored while she’s flying around – there would be plenty of room on Xl5 and possibly room for internal storage on this vehicle.