1968: “…smoked!”

I’ve heard it said that behind every stereotype lies a grain of truth and the term “absent-minded professor” goes a long way towards proving that concept.  The smartest people I’ve met in life are usually the most spaced-out, and I’m not talking about just Star Trek fandom or Jedi Knight wanna-bes.  Somehow pure- intellect brain cells cannot co-exist with practicality-neurons in any large number, and because of that tendency I spent a day of my sophomore year of high school doing a great impression of a slab of bacon.

It’s not that I hadn’t had prior training in brainiac-distraction identification. One of my sixth grade classmates never lost a chance to read – to the point that we’d wonder aloud about just exactly when he’d get so engrossed in the story line that he’d take a bite out of his book while trying to read his PB&J. Weak sixth grade humor? Yes – but proven to be all too true when he returned my copy of “Tarzan and the Forbidden City” with the edges of a missing corner of the back cover sporting a suspicious dentelated pattern.

…so I should have recognized the signs when I met Paul, son of the plant foreman at Swanson River Oil Field where most of our fathers worked at one time or another. Like my other friend, Paul had a voracious appetite for the written word, but unfortunately his family lived out on the field itself -n 20 miles from any other kids and 30 miles from the local library or any stores that sold books. It would have been a very frustrating situation for him had not his parents wisely planned each week to have him  get off the bus in town on Wednesdays, go to the library to load up on books then meet his mom at the post office to catch a ride home after she’d gone shopping. It was a great system and kept Paul happy, until one very, very cold day in November 1968 when he got off the bus a day early and was left stranded in town.

Paul was in a fix; it was bitterly cold but he had no place to go. The post office was closing, as were most of the other businesses and it would be at least an hour before someone could get back into town to retrieve him. My mom was working at the post office that  day Tuesday and couldn’t help but notice Paul’s situation, so rather than have him shiver in the sub-zero dark while his mom burned up a tank of gas coming after him Mom brought him home to stay with us for the night. It was OK with me – while we weren’t exactly bosom buddies we were on friendly terms . Besides Tuesday night meant Star Trek and it would be a lot better watching the hokey third season episodes with a buddy.

We had such a good time that ten o’clock rolled around before we knew it and it was time to turn in, which involved more than just brushing  teeth and saying prayers. I had to prep my attic bedroom, which was more like a compartment on a submarine than a regular room, even down to  entry  via a ladder in the hall closet. My dad and I had built it two years earlier and it was a bit more “severe” than the rest of the rooms in the house. We had no central heating or ductwork so in order to keep the temperature in rest of the house regulated I had to close both the closet door and a plywood “hatch” in my floor and rely on an electric heater to keep my room habitable. While I had plenty of blankets Paul had to make do with sleeping on the floor, though we did have a down-filled sleeping bag that kept him reasonably warm.

Nothing puts you to sleep faster than a warm bed in a cold room and I was asleep before we finished our discussion on that night’s Star Trek episode. Normally I would have spent a full eight hours in  that  dead-to-the-world slumber only a teen-ager achieves but to my dismay I woke up in the middle of the night with a sore throat to beat all sore throats.

My first thought was “Dang it. I’m going to have to miss school” (Did I say I was having a very good time as a sophomore) but as I became more awake and aware I thought “what’s that smell?” I reached over and pressed the button to the lamp on my clock radio to be met with minimal, hazy light. I clicked it on and off several times, getting that same soft glow when suddenly it came to me:


I got up and turned on the main ceiling light to the sight of a very hazy room with Paul in the sleeping bag on the floor and rolled over against the grille of the little electric heater. What I had thought was a sore throat was the smoke from the charred sleeping bag shell as well as a smoldering section of Paul’s shirt that had somehow gotten pushed against the heater.  I stepped over to my window to vent out the smoke but found it frozen shut! I then went to the opposite end of the room and kicked down the attic access door, at which point the air immediately began to clear, the attic being vented to the outside at the far end of the house. Gulping a breath or two of air I went back in and shook Paul awake, then set up my summer-time fan in the doorway to hasten the circulation of air.

At this point I could hear my mom at the bottom of the ladder and I told her was going on. We got Paul downstairs and as Mom started to treat some small burns on his side I started for the bathroom with a remark about how I didn’t want to go to school smelling like a camp-fire

“Honey – the water’s frozen.”

Have you ever washed with snow? In all our activity the balance of the night had passed by and it was getting close to time to catch the bus. I tried getting cleaned up as best I could, rubbing as much smell off my skin with wash-rags wrapped around snow while more of it sat in a pot on the stove melting into water to rinse my hair. I’d be able to get even more cleaned up at school during physical education class but I had to do something to make myself presentable for the three classes I had before PE.

It was right after I loaned a shirt to Paul to replace his burnt one that I realized I had nothing else to wear, all my other shirts smelling either totally smoky from the fire or totally funky from sitting at the bottom of the dirty clothes hamper.  The closest thing to a clean shirt was a light-blue turtle-necked top from a pair of pajamas that had never been out of the package.  It seemed shirt-like enough when worn under a blue vest; wearing that and as much Old Spice Lime aftershave as I could wear without passing out would get me to fourth hour and a blessed hot shower.

Of course as I got on the bus I was met with “Geez Deitrick you smell like a French whore” or “Have ever tried eating the bacon instead of wearing it?” Then it turned out that the previous Christmas the guy sitting next to me in World History had gotten the same set of pajamas as I was wearing but even so it was O.K.

As great as my sophomore year was going l was still not too terribly over-loaded with confidence, but on that thirty minute drive to school that day I felt a measure of pride. With the massive amount of heating required to keep Alaskan homes warm in the winter, and the nature of homestead electrical wiring, fires are not a rare thing – just two years earlier a home  down the road had burned to the ground from a fire that came about just like ours did – something had been pushed up against an electric space heater. Our house could have gone up in smoke the same way but I had been alert enough to realize what was going on and steady enough to apply the proper corrective measures in a timely manner.

Maybe I wasn’t as hopeless as I thought.

lethal heater

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