1971: Alaskan Graffiti

My sister Heather always insisted that I was “naturally straight” but truth be told I had just as much difficulty as any other eighteen year old with controlling the influence popular culture had on my outlook and behavior. Granted, the messages I dealt with were minor in comparison to our current digital erotic  tsunami, but the effect was still there.  It wasn’t too terribly obvious – I loved “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” and after watching the film I went out and bought A) a paperback novelization of the movie and B) a pair of harness boots. Kelly’s Heroes had me emulating Donald Sutherland’s Oddball by parting my longish hair in the middle and a wearing an OD wife-beater with fatigue pants bloused into boots while working construction.

OddBall

American Graffiti? That was an unusual case – kind of a time-warpy sort of situation because the connection happened three years before I saw the movie. As I sat in the theater in January of 1974 taking in the antics of Terry the Toad and Harrison Ford in his “farm car” I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to an event in my life that happened not quite 3 years earlier.

In the early summer of 1971 I was no more unsettled than any high school graduate but that average befuddlement was enough make me worry about my future.  After attending Boy’s State the previous summer I had developed a passing interest in law school and continuing the family tradition of military service was a given, but in the meantime a year of school at the University of Alaska seemed a good way to start my life. As all this was happening well before Pell Grants and I’d made the mistake of lacking independently wealthy parents, I’d be working that summer earning money for school.

This was long before the TransAlaska pipeline and work was hard find but fortunately I found a construction job west of Soldotna. The job entailed building a house from the ground up:  clearing the land, digging the footings, pouring the slab, laying cinder block, trimming /setting logs and building roof trusses. I didn’t make bundles of money but I learned a lot about building and got into great physical shape. The only hang-up was transportation: In the morning I would ride with my mom as far as her job at the post office but I had to hitch rides out to the site then back to the post office at the end of the day

Mom’s schedule would occasionally change so there were times when I’d have to wait an hour or more until her shift was over. Waiting in the car quickly got old and the Soldotna of 1971 had little of interest for a teenage boy, so out of desperation one afternoon I walked to a nearby clothing store to kill time until Mom was ready to drive home…

The ubiquitous bell tinkled as I entered and I walked over to the tie rack, looking for something suitably garish with which to annoy fellow congregation members at church.

“Give me a break! What are you trying to do – look like Donald Sutherland?”

Endorphins kicked in as I turned to the source of that comment  (someone had recognized my Kelly’s Heroes get-up!) but when I saw who had been speaking my heart skipped a second beat as well. It was my friend Marie who was also working during the summer, clerking in the clothing store. The odds for a much more pleasant summer just went up three points.

Marie had shown up on fox-radar during my sophomore year, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1970 and the beginning of my second year as a teacher’s aide in physical education that we really became acquainted.  I went into gym class assuming we’d be participating in physically demanding exercises, drills and games as in years past, but to my surprise those more arduous  sessions were interspersed with combined activities with the girls class – one day we’d run laps all period long and the next day we’d play coed badminton. The shift was just one of many that would herald the dynamic social changes of the upcoming decade, but for me it meant interaction with the teacher’s aide in the girl’s class, who just happened to be Marie.

Formal introductions weren’t necessary – I had known her previous boyfriend fairly well, our respective older sisters had considered sharing an apartment in Anchorage, and we’d actually gone on double dates with other people from school1. As we started working together setting schedules, laundering towels, supervising games and occasionally breaking up fights and/or budding romances between the freshmen our relationship evolved into  what is now called a “work marriage” – a unique but platonic relationship that includes some of the trust and support normally found in a romance but without the physically intimate aspects. Marie would make sure the part in my hair was straight – I’d check the hem of the back of her skirt. She’d ask me for insights about two guys vying for her affection while she coached me through a messy post-Christmas break-up with another girl. When she came limping into class after a bizarre accident with a toothpick stuck in her carpet she had me check the wound in the sole of her foot and apply a band-aid, after which she teased me with “you are such a Boy Scout!”

…but through it all as we worked and interacted every day I was always “Deitrick” .

That chance meeting at the clothing store turned into a regular event that summer and at the end of each day I found myself hoping that Mom’s schedule would run late again. Even if I missed a visit to the store we’d still see each other at dances and the movies on the weekends while on dates with other people, but as the summer wound down and my departure date approached there was an almost imperceptible change in the way we talked. At some point I became “Dave” instead of “Deitrick” and the light-hearted banter drifted into deeper discussions about the decisions and changes in life that were coming soon.

There were also brief moments of silence that I didn’t understand until the day I left for college. I’d made a quick trip to town to get my last paycheck and throwing my itinerary aside I stopped for a moment at the clothing store to see Marie.  My heart sank when I found she had the day off but as I turned to leave her manager gave me a sly smile and said Marie was at home and definitely wanted to see me.  I coolly started to stroll out of the store and across the street but the second I was no longer visible from the store I broke into a dead sprint to Marie’s home where her mother promptly waved me through the house to the pool on the back deck.

As I stepped from the deck to the poolside I stopped  stunned and tongue-tied for at least three minutes. Marie was in her swimsuit sitting on a poolside lounge, her beaming expression only partially obscured by a pair of oversized sunglasses. She waved me over to sit beside her and we talked…for a lot longer that I really had time for. She gently teased me about becoming one of the “enemy” I had complained about before – older guys that poached high school girls away from the high school boys. As we spoke I nodded dumbly while my inner voice chanted “David you’re an idiot/David you’re an idiot/why are you leaving now? /David you’re an idiot/David you’re an idiot” and when I finally found my voice there was scant time for anything  but exchanging addresses and promises to write – and before I was ready for it I was driving 138 hopeful miles to the airport in Anchorage, unaware that this would be my last conversation with Marie ever.

1974: As Susanne Somers blew a kiss and drove her convertible off into the sunrise the house lights came up and the credits rolled. I sat in the theater while the other viewers filed out. I was in no hurry – no one to see and nowhere to go. January 1974 was not a good time for me. A month earlier my Best Friend had broken off with me and got engaged to a guy in the Air Force. Two weeks earlier the red-headed rebound that had vowed to “help get you through this” had spent the weekend in bed with her previous boyfriend.

It wasn’t that I had low self-esteem – I had no self-esteem whatsoever, but as I thought about the parallel between what had just happened on-screen and what had transpired in August of 1971 the cold place in my heart warmed just a little bit. Maybe I’d been discarded. Maybe I’d been cheated on, but there was a time when I could put a twinkle in the eye of the most ravishingly beautiful brunette I had ever met and for now that would get me by.

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  1. See 1970: Natural Gas

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