“Patrolling the city leaves me little time to rest, so I catch my breath as I move from one rooftop vantage point to another. Ridding the city of crime and corruption is a never ending battle, made all the more difficult by the need for stealth as each night I make my way from my secret headquarters on the edge of town to the crime-ridden alleys and avenues in the middle of the city. From such a vantage point I can scan for any sign of wrongdoing while I listen intently for screams, gunshots – even whispers that would betray nefarious deeds on the part of the underworld.”
“What’s that I hear? A cry for help?”
“DAVID! GET DOWN OFF THERE BEFORE YOU FALL AND BREAK YOUR NECK!”
…and with those words the tone-arm on the great record-player of life scratched across the 33 1/3 RPM record of my inner sound-track and transformed the rooftops of Gotham City into the top level of the Anchorage J.C. Penny’s parking garage. Brushing the cement dust off the lower legs of my Levi’s I mentally tuned out the inevitable snarky parental comments as I climbed into the back seat of our station wagon and settled in for the three hour drive back to Sterling. It was tough visualizing the life of a nocturnal urban crusader when the only available urban area was a smallish city 134 miles north of home.
Prior to our northward migration in 1962 I had ridden through several Left Coast cities, but Anchorage was the first city I had actually lived in, and learning to navigate an urban environment entailed just as much study as regular schoolwork. However, I soon learned that while they were few in number, (2!) there wereother larger municipalities in Alaska. Juneau had been our original destination when Dad transferred to the Alaska State Employment service just prior to our move north, but there was another city even further beyond, up in the Interior, that was larger than Juneau, but smaller than Anchorage.
That mysterious other place was called Fairbanks, and although the pickings from my pre-Internet research were slim, I learned that the city was situated amongst the following installations:
- An army base similar in size to FT Richardson.
- An Air Force base equal to or larger than Elmendorf AFB.
- The flagship of the state’s secondary education system, i.e. the University of Alaska.
- An international airport which served as a logistical staging area for the Interior.
…And even more important to a fourteen-year boy was the existence of the Tom-Tom, a drive-in kid hang-out in the middle of town that featured GO-GO DANCERS IN PLEXIGLAS BOOTHS flanking the DJ’s compartment. Unfortunately given the militant aspect Mom attached to religion I avoided even looking at the Tom-tom’s location on the map when I was in her presence.
Such was the extent of my knowledge of the area before actually setting eyes on the city of Fairbanks in July of 1967 when our family made the trip to Alaska’s Second City. Like most of our summer expeditions we hadn’t planned on making the entire thousand mile round-trip journey at the outset; we had just been touring the Glenallen area when the ever-present family wanderlust prompted us to check out the scenery “just a little ways up the road” and extended our trip in increments – first to Gakona, then FT Greeley, and finally all the way into Fairbanks where we booked rooms at the transient quarters on FT Wainright and settled in for an extended visit.
Three “Fairbankisms” became very obvious the minute we started our exploration the next day:
- Despite the difference in population, both cities had a similar vibe with a limited downtown area, and Army and Air Force bases sitting just to the east. Those installations continually advertised their presence with helicopters and jet interceptors constantly zooming across the sky, and (in the case of FT Wainwright) the M113 armored personnel carriers that periodically interrupted one evening’s picnic as they burst through the trees next to our campground before clanking off in another direction.
- The trees were much shorter in stature than those found in Anchorage and the Peninsula, and became bonsai-scaled when compared to the redwoods back in California.
- Summer in Fairbanks was much warmer and brighter than southcentral Alaska. Temperatures were in the high seventies, and the extended daylight hours were even more …well, extended. The evening sky during a Sterling summer would see the sun dip just over and below the horizon, but in Fairbanks it stopped just short of the skyline and skirted along the horizon around us giving late-afternoon light the whole night through.
Discovery #3 dealt a deathblow to the possibility of one of my future career options in connection to the area. By now it should be fairly obvious that “Caped Crime fighter” still figured prominently in my list of future fields of employment, but I was pretty sure that by the time I was Bat-aged (and in much better physical shape) there was a good chance another caped crusader would have already set up shop in Anchorage. When I was working only with maps, Fairbanks seemed a good second choice, but continuous summer sunlight ruled out any sort of “dark night detective work”, and the limited road network and paucity of adjacent caves ruled out use of a secret headquarters.
(…all of which failed to leave any lasting impression on me after I walked into the Woolworths on Cushman Avenue and found one of my personal Holy Grails in the form of Aurora Model’s Captain America kit for which I had been searching the length and breadth of the South-Central portion of the state during the previous year.)
I was so stoked at finding the kit that I was ready to immediately head back to Sterling where my spray paint and model glue awaited, but we stayed two more days to attend church and take in the A67 Centennial Celebration, a state fair/media event commemorating the purchase of Russian America by the United States in 1867. The summer-long fair was located in what is now known as Pioneer Park, and featured a replica/reconstruction of an 1890’s Gold rush town, the SS. Nenana, a shallow draft steam-powered paddle wheeler that plied the Interior River system, a totally bitchin’ midway fairgrounds with the usual spin-and-barf rides and Up, Up and Away by the Fifth Dimension blaring endlessly over the public address system.
…and then in a flash we were on the road back to Sterling, which mysteriously seemed to take only a fraction of the time it took us to drive north. While it was true the trip north had been a stop-and-go thing as opposed to the relatively nonstop/straight-through trip south, it seemed like we got home much too quickly. The mystery was solved only after we’d been home for a day or two and I had an uninterrupted look at the map properly oriented.
Once I had “Map North” aligned to magnetic north via the compass, I concluded with flawless eighth-grader logic given that Fairbanks was located above Sterling on the map, our trip north had been an uphill journey, which made our return trip downhill.
Gravity had sped us along.
One month later
I couldn’t process the images I was seeing on Grandma’s TV. I was in California visiting her, Grandpa, and the rest of mom’s side of the family, but the real attraction for me was a video feast with more channels and a clearer signal than I’d ever enjoyed. Suddenly the program I was watching cut to a slightly fuzzy picture of a city landscape that I couldn’t quite make out until I recognized a Woolworth’s storefront, the Woolworth’s on Cushman Avenue in Fairbanks where I’d found the Captain America model a little more than a month earlier. In a disaster that would subsequently result in the passage of the Flood Control act of 1968, summer rains falling at three times the normal rate caused the banks of the Chena River to overflow and flood the city of Fairbanks and the surrounding area.
I wish I could say that I was profoundly moved by the damage I was seeing, but in those days of thirteen-inch black & white screens, all that came to my self-absorbed adolescent mind was how lucky I was to find the Captain America kit before it was swept away by floodwaters. It was only after I returned to the area in the fall of 1971 to enroll at the University of Alaska that I saw signs of damage from the flood still recognizable, even after four years of recovery, as well as evidence of the determination of the people who had worked to regain the level of commerce and development lost during the flood.
It was an amazing feat of community spirit and industry and more than just a little moving as I stood on the banks of the Chena, but some of the spirit of the fourteen year old that had stood in that same spot four years earlier lingered because all I could think was:
“Maybe I could use a boat for my anti-crime patrols…”