The summer of 1969 was a scary time for me in many ways. I had some big decisions coming up; I was half-way through high school and supposedly preparing for adult life but I was in fact totally clueless. There were a number of careers that had minor appeal but nothing that jumped out to me. I thought about police work but military service was also a strong possibility; not only was the conflict in Viet-Nam running hot at the time, I was a “navy brat” and military service – especially career military service – tends to follow family lines. I was a little worried though – while there were aspects of military life had great appeal to me, the very real prospect of death or wounding had very little appeal. The Purple Heart was a medal I really didn’t want to win.
There was more than school and career choices on my mind that summer though. It was literally, physically scary as well. Those of us who lived on the Kenai Peninsula in the summer of 1969 remember those times mostly because of the fires. At any one time there were three forest fires burning in the general area, giving us a haze and slight smell of burning wood that turned what was supposed to be a very warm sunny summer into a sepia-tone photograph. There was a large burn just south of Soldotna, one in the middle of the Peninsula sort of equidistant from Kenai, Swanson River Oil Field and the Spur Highway, and another one up by the Russian River close to where the Sterling Highway entered the mountains on the way to Anchorage.
The fires waxed and waned and we lived with an alert status that changed daily. During early August I spent most of my day sitting on the roof of our house armed with a garden hose, prepared to douse any burning embers that might be carried our way by the winds from the Swanson River burn. Roof-top duty didn’t give me much chance for any kind of diversion – besides we kept a bag backed in case we were told to evacuate so I didn’t get into Soldotna very often. Unfortunately I had run out of things to do; school was still two weeks off, my job had ended and starting any kind of project held little appeal when at any time we could be told to pack up and move. I bounced and fidgeted around the ranch until we finally we got a day that was a bit less smoky than usual so I thumbed a ride into town to pick up my last check from my work for the Neighborhood Youth Corps earlier that summer. While I was there I decided to take care of some other high priority chores which meant (A) getting some comics at the Big K and (B) going over to Donny Thomas’ house to see how quickly we could get collectively grounded.
I don’t know if the fires had already prompted a lot of folks to leave the area or if the rumors of looters had spooked everyone who had stayed but there were very few cars on the road that day; those who were out were very wary about picking people up so I ended up walking most of the way from Sterling to Soldotna. As I walked I thought again about the service – and how it would entail discomfort even if you didn’t get shot. I didn’t know if you could get a Purple Heart for sore feet but after covering seven miles of pavement I was all in favor of some sort of recognition. Maybe they could make another award for my current discomfort – call it the Purple Toe – but my reverie was broken as I glanced at my watch and found that it was much later in the day than I thought. The trek into town had taken me so that in order to catch a ride home with my mom I had to skip the comic run and head straight to Donny’s house.
The Thomas home was a beehive when I got there as Donald, his mom and sisters frantically loaded their station wagon with belongings. With all the activity going on I was surprised to hear that there was in fact no evacuation called for at the time. Donald was very ironic about the situation and was not taking things very seriously. His mom had him moving his dad’s firearms to the car but at the moment he was taking a rest, which consisted primarily of making caustic comments as he rested the barrel of his dad’s rifle on the toe of his shoe to take some of the weight off his arms and shoulders.
There was a loud report, some smoke and ‘vzzzzt along the edge of my right cheekbone. Don’s sister Lanie screamed “I’VE BEEN SHOT!” her comment in turn triggering a sort of critical mass in anxiety that had everyone but Donald and I running in circles and screaming. Don’s eyes were like saucers; I quickly reached up to my cheekbone expecting to feel blood but found nothing but intact cheekbone. I looked down at the ground to find a divot blasted out of the gravel driveway with copper and lead scraps at the bottom of the little pit. The rifle had been stored with a round in the chamber and when Donny bounced the muzzle of rifle on his toe it had gone off. I called up to Jody and Lanie not to worry, that I had found the bullet so she must have been grazed by a pebble (as I had along my cheek) kicked up by the impact of the bullet and couldn’t have been shot. Unfortunately that emotional critical mass had reached the point of ignition and Jody bustled all the kids into the car to take off for Anchorage.
As Donny was climbing in the car I learned why he had looked so stricken when the gun went off. Seconds before the gunshot he had almost raised the muzzle to aim at me at which point he was going to laugh and say “Bang – I got you”.
He was shaking like a leaf as they drove off…but then again so was I.
I thought again of Purple Hearts.
That seven mile walk into Soldotna no longer seemed that bad…