The deep cuts progress made into the fabric of our community was one way my youth in Alaska was much more than a real-life (but colder) version of “That ‘70s Show” or ‘The Wonder Years”. For example, the mall in Clarksville sits over what was once a farm, but you can still identify the general lay of the land and orientation of the roads and buildings. That isn’t the case when I go home to the central Kenai Peninsula – there are “improved” places that have changed so much that I get totally disoriented. For example, the middle of Soldotna used to be the location of a rather large gravel pit. Now that gravel pit is gone, replaced by an extensive state maintenance facility, a school and the borough government and I have difficulty finding my way on the streets around it.
The gravel pit was the greatest kid hang-out ever, with a lunar landscape feel that only a gravel pit can have. We were doubly blessed to have a couple of large wooden structures lying haphazardly at different spots in the 10 acre plot. They were made of beams the size of railroad ties and probably started out as a barge or sledge for hauling large objects or equally large loads of smaller goods, however their original use didn’t matter much as they stood in nicely for the Atlantic Wall circa D-Day or an alien installation in need of some heavy phaser fire.
It wasn’t until I was finishing my junior of high school that we noticed signs of eminent change in the gravel pit. At that point we were far too cool for imagination games like playing army – at least when other kids our age could see us – so we “hung out”. Most of my “hanging out” in Soldotna was done in conjunction with Donny Thomas. (Donald is not too fond of his nick-name, but “Donny” is how I remember him and there is no disrespect intended.) Other than a weekly dance and a single pin-ball machine at Gladys’ Bake Shop there wasn’t much to do when we “hung out” so when something new came about it had our total attention. Such was the case when construction started on the borough building at the west edge of the gravel pit.
Alaska does not have counties – the level of government between municipality and state is called a borough. I know that there are some states on the east coast that have boroughs but the ones in Alaska are different; among other things our boroughs have more control over the towns within its boundaries. The Kenai Peninsula Borough was organized in the mid-Sixties and by 1970 the administration had far outgrown the hodge-podge collection of office suites and trailers they’d been squeezed into – so they were getting a new multi-story building.
I had just spent a week at Boy’s State where I got slight glimpse at how state and local government was supposed to work. I’d like to say that week was the reason for my interest in a new government office building, but it wasn’t. Right after Boy’s state I had attended a youth conference, and then spent another week+ working for a roofing contractor in Seward (AK). Since football practice was due to start in two weeks, I wanted to engage in some mindless kid mischief during the down-time.
It was a clear summer night when Donald, Marc Shelman and I took off for the building, excusing ourselves with a vague plan for “hanging out” that night. It was slightly eerie sneaking over to the building; while Don ‘s home was almost directly across the gravel pit from the building site there were patches of low-growth willow trees that covered the entire route, but that wasn’t the source of the eerie-osity. It was summer-time in Alaska, which meant that the sky at 8:30 PM was as light as the sky appears in Clarksville (TN) at 6:30 PM. As this was long before combat fishing on the Kenai River became the summertime tourist attraction of choice on the Kenai Peninsula there were few cars on the road and the town was very quiet – as you would expect for a weekday night in a small town. Given the fact that all three of us were quite imaginative, it’s no surprise that we were soon making lame jokes about the Apocalypse. I’m sure if this would have happened after The Omega Man premiered a few years later we’d have been howling “Neville. Nevvvvilllle”.
Sneaking over took ten minutes and to our delight the building was unlocked, letting us walk right in – to a totally darkened structure. It was going to be pretty tough to navigate even the sky was fairly light outside. Smaller windows don’t lose as much heat as larger ones do so Alaskan builders whole-heartedly embraced the minimal glass idea that post-modern architecture favored for government buildings constructed in the early 70s. Since most of the window openings had been boarded over it was dark inside – and if we went down into the basement it would be even darker.
Undeterred we set out to find the stairwells, groping our way like the three blind mice. After a dozen shuffled steps I remembered a book of matches in my pocket so the last couple of yards were weakly illuminated – which was a literal lifesaver as the stairs had not been installed and in those pre-OSHA years there was no safety railing or barrier of any kind. I looked down into the black depths with my heart pounding at our brush with the Grim Reaper and considered quitting for the night but then my adolescent ego kicked in. I wasn’t about to bail in front of my two younger companions so we turned around and made for the other end of the building, hoping to find easier access to other levels.
The stairwell at the other end of the building was in a slightly different condition. Access to the basement had been completely blocked off with plywood, but it looked like we could get up to the second floor by climbing up a section of scaffolding, crossing to some partially installed stair supports and inching along some planks laid across the more open spaces. Donald knew the most about the layout of the building so he lead the climb, while Marc went second and as the largest and strongest I trailed, figuring I had the best chance of catching anyone that fell.
It was not a pleasant experience. I couldn’t simultaneously climb and hold burning matches so we had to move in whatever light that found its way through the gaps between the plywood sheets covering the window spaces. Marc was tuckered out by mid-climb; Donald grabbed an arm while I wrapped my arms around his lower legs and lifted him like a fence-post. Once he was up I grabbed the edge of a wooden beam and started to chin myself up when a flash of intense pain shot through the top of my head accompanied by a hollow coconut “conk” sound.
In an effort into a more comfortable an secure perch Mark had knocked a two-by-ten plank loose and down onto my head, which triggered a string of “colorful metaphors” coming from me that would have turned the air blue had there been illumination enough to see it. Marc started to mumble something about “people who go to church” and “swearing” but quickly shut up when saw the murderous look in my eye. We decided to call the adventure off for the night.
…but then we saw the crane as we started walking home and our resolve disappeared in a flash.
You couldn’t go anywhere those days without encountering someone running a piece of heavy equipment, with that someone often being a friend or relative. Between the oil industry, fire-fighting, road construction, road maintenance and the general construction inherent to a frontier there were cranes, back-hoes, tractors, graders, scrapers and dump-trucks running all over the place. Their ubiquitous presence made them functionally invisible at all times other than late at night in the company of three teenage boys.
There was a brief flash of heated discussion:
• “I’m tired”
• “Am not”
• “Someone can see us”
• “Am not”
I clambered up into the cab, intent on scoring the coup-of-all-coups by firing the crane up, but alas, as I looked down at the instruments and controls I recognized nothing. I flipped some switches and turned some knobs but nothing happened.
I looked over at the control levers, paused for a moment and yanked back on the largest one.
There was a click and kind of buzz-hum that got louder and faster. I bolted out of the cab and ran diagonally in front and away from the crane but when I got about twenty yards from the crane there was a >crash< and the noise stopped. I had unwittingly released the cable-brake; the noise had been the cable unreeling as the clevis fell from the end of the elevated crane-boom where it had been secured at the end of the day. Donald told me that I had run directly across the spot the clevis landed – had I been three seconds slower it would have hit me on the head, leaving me with a much larger lump than the one the falling two-by-ten had left earlier in the evening.
At that point we really did call it a night.
When football started up a week or two I had little time for hanging out so I didn’t see the borough building again until it was finished and functioning – and looking so different painted up and surrounded with landscaping and parking lots that the whole late-night foray was soon forgotten. It wasn’t until almost twenty years later than I thought about the incident again.
I was back in Sterling while my young family and I were house-sitting for my parents while they were serving as missionaries on Prince Edward Island. I would drive by the now-very-prominent Borough building at least once a week but never had reason to go inside it until the spring of 1989 when I needed to get some documents. When I first entered the building all I was thinking about was the Belinda Carlisle music video I had seen the night before, but then something changed – a certain “colorful metaphor” came to mind that I hadn’t used or heard in a couple of decades. I shook my head and looked around, mentally removing the cheery pastel paint and found that the map office was located right next to the stairway landing where Marc dropped the plank on my head. I shivered and shook off the spine-tingling rush of déjà vu long enough to select and pay for the documents …but when I left the building I found that a truck & trailer rig hauling a crane was sitting in front of the building – with the engine idling. I shivered as my inner seventeen year old struggled to come to the surface, but in the end the adult “me” won out and I managed to get to my car and head home.
…but as I drove I said a silent prayer, giving thanks that Donald was now a high-powered Anchorage attorney and Marc was a data entry supervisor for a Seattle firm – and there was no one around to taunt me into trying to finish a nineteen year old mission.