Going off to college was not the first time I had travelled away from home alone. By the time I left for the University of Alaska* I had flown between Alaska and California by myself on three different occasions, had been to several church youth conferences and attended Boys State. As a dependent of a retired Navy chief petty officer I had also spent a lot of time visiting military bases shopping, seeing movies, swimming at the pool and receiving medical care. Living away from home as part of a large institution held no terror for me.
While I was not overly concerned about living away from home, I was unsure about the social conditions As my departure date neared I would mentally try on different situations, wondering what the rooms would be like and whether or not I would run into old friends from Anchorage or other former Boys State delegates. This was 1971 and the entire country was still reeling from the massive cultural changes of the Sixties – network news would have you think there was open warfare on every campus and in every urban center in the country. However, with the usual “bullet-proof” mindset that every eighteen year old male meets uncertainty I pushed on, confident that I would cope.
At that time most students from Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula took the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks. It was a sweet set-up; it was before the Parks Highway so the train halved your travel time to Fairbanks, and if you kept your ticket it could be redeemed for a return-trip ticket at Christmas time. Despite my relative experience the first couple of weeks were pretty tough but eventually life became a bit less uncomfortable especially after I became smitten with a young lady at Church.
I fell into a comfortable routine and found the classes to be not as difficult as I had anticipated, though my grade point average from the year could lead you to think otherwise. I was amazed at the size and diversity of the university’s physical lay-out and at every chance I was off exploring the classroom buildings, dormitories, the athletics facilities, and the library and arts complex.
As I was exploring I noticed a couple of things.
- The summers in interior Alaska were much warmer than South-central Alaska, and had all that many more mosquitoes because of the added warmth
- There was music playing everywhere, with two albums in particular getting heavy play:
- “James Gang Rides Again”: by (obviously) the James Gang
- “Tapestry” by Carole King.
The bug problem seemed to be well in hand; almost everywhere I went I encounter the aroma of Buhach Insect Repellant Powder. Buhach Insect Repellant Powder is the commercial version of Buhach Pyrethrum, a natural pesticide derived from the Chrysanthemum flower. Most of it comes from East Africa and 60% of the commercially prepared version is sold in Alaska
It wasn’t until after the first heavy snow-fall in October and we all started spending most of our leisure time indoors that I found out that I was mistaken, that what I had assumed to be Buhach was in fact another “medicinal herb” that was quite popular at the time…and that I was faced with a decision.
Vocalist David Crosby said once that if you remembered the Sixties then you weren’t there and while usage was not as universal as he would like you to believe; in certain sectors of the population there definitely was near-universal consumption, such sectors including the student bodies of post-secondary educational institutions, like the University of Alaska.
There finally came a point when I had to take a position on the issue and I chose not to participate. It was a hard choice to make but I had two very impelling reasons, one of them very noble and the other total self-serving.
- The selfless reason: The young lady I had become smitten with had extremely high standards and made me promise not to partake. Being the kind of person that I am and given the direction our relationship was taking I was not going to lie to her.
- The selfish reason? My former brother-in-law lived in the area and spent a lot of time on campus. I have no doubt that If I would have partaken he would have found out and I would have been his b*tch forever under the threat of ratting me out to my parents.
So I went through an academic year as the token “straight” of my dormitory. There were some rough moments at first but when it was established that I was in fact not a narc we all got along OK. It has only been just the last couple of years that I realized why everything got so laid back towards the end of winter.
My roommate and I inherited some lumber from a couple of guys living down the hall that had to leave rather precipitously (see 1972 Subterranean Spring Break). Dorm rooms by definition are sparse and uniform in layout so we used the lumber to make a raised bunk for me with a little lounger underneath furnished with a fishnet hammock and a chair liberated from the lounge. Sometimes we’d have friends stop by to visit late at night and we’d have great conversations, my roommate sprawled on his bed, me up in my bunk and our visitor(s) ensconced in our little lounge area.
Invariably someone would bring out the medicinal herbs, and while I didn’t partake I didn’t raise a fuss when someone else did, figuring it was a live-and-let-live situation. As I was recently describing this situation to a friend he stopped me in mid-description and said “Wait. You were up on a bunk and your buddy was sitting right below you, lighting up? Spike -did it ever occur to you that hot air rises?”
Postscript: (a semi-connected event the following summer) I had just gotten up for work and was walking out to my car when I passed my sister’s room and smelled the odor of “medicinal herbs” burning. I turned, kicked her door open and snarled “WHAT THE H*LL ARE YOU DOING SMOKING THAT STUFF IN H-“ then looked down mid-sentence to see my terrified little sister kneeling down and trying to light a little pile of Buhach Insect Repellant.
* I am fully aware that the proper name for this particular institution is “UAF” or “the University of Alaska Fairbanks”. That was not the case four decades ago; we were THE University of Alaska. Period.