1964: One For The Road

We were living in Sterling for no more than a week when it became apparent that I wasn’t the only member of the family who missed Anchorage. From the middle of August to the end of September of 1964 we made the trip three times, for reasons ranging from coordinating Church programs to getting medical treatment at the Elmendorf AFB hospital to retrieving some odd item left during the move while crashing at night with mom’s best friend Jeanne Johnson, though Mom let me stay with my best friend Mark instead.

However, because of the recent Good Friday earthquake the trips could end up taking more than just the time required to transit the 276 mile round trip. A good portion of the highway curled around Turnagain Arm, the branch of Cook Inlet that extended to the south of the Anchorage basin. The trip around Turnagain is one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the world and takes in majestic spruce covered mountains with countless waterfalls as well as a few rivers and several major streams crossing under the highway to feed into the arm…and there’s where an element of chance entered in.

During the earthquake the ground level around the southern end of Turnagain arm dropped six feet and in the process guaranteed the eventual death of Portage, a small hamlet/railway station at the south end of the arm. The abrupt drop either destroyed or severely compromised all the bridges over the aforementioned waterways so as part of the recovery effort temporary bridges were erected to the side of the old ones and anchored on raised berms that put the driving surface an extra six feet above the original road bed to prevent damage from ocean waters that now flooded the highway during periods of high tide. it also meant that if you failed to consult the tide table when planning a drive around Turnagain arm you stood a good chance of being stranded on one of those elevated bridges until the tide receded.

…which was how we ended up stranded on a bridge late one August night. My mother, four sisters and I ended up spending four hours crammed into a our white Ford Falcon station wagon, though by that time the mud from transiting the regularly flooded highway had our car looking more than white. It could have been worse – August still gave us extended daylight hours and we were able to pass the time with a stack of comics and a box full of home-brewed root beer we’d been given as we left Mark’s house.

As Mom had forgotten her wristwatch on the trip we were clueless about when we could leave the safety of the bridge and it was a little scary when a set of disembodied headlights appeared off the end of the bridge, lights that slowing coalesced into the front end of a Alaska State trooper’s cruiser. The officer parked and walked up to talk to my mom sitting in the driver’s seat, slowly playing the beam of his flashlight though the interior of the Falcon while enquiring about situation.

Suddenly the flashlight stopped and the trooper asked “Mrs. Deitrick, is everything OK with you and your children?” to which my Mom breezily answered in the affirmative.

“‘Are you sure everything is OK?”

I started to duck for cover – Trooper or no trooper, one thing you never did twice was contradict my mom, but in some random act of sanity she resisted verbally blasting the officer, and glanced back to the spot where the officer’s flashlight was shining…on my five-year-old sister Heather guzzling from an Olympia beer bottle. There was a moment of awkward silence then we all started laughing and explained that Mark’s mom hadn’t removed the label when she refilled the bottle with home-made root beer. She had been a war-bride from Helsinki and had grown up with Finland’s much more relaxed attitude towards alcohol so the thought of removing the labels had never occurred to her.

The trooper got good laugh as well, and after clearing us to proceed he left with a copy of the root beer recipe that Mark’s mom had given us, a recipe that my family also tried shortly after getting back to Sterling.

We just made very, very sure to remove all the labels from the bottles before we used them ourselves.

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