Even on the sunniest days the place remains shrouded in the miasma that surrounds every prison, dungeon, or jail ever made, but even without the “hoosegow funk” Wildwood Correctional Complex is not one of the more picturesque sites in Alaska. It sits surrounded by the stunted spruce, marsh and moss of the muskeg that makes up a large part of the Kenai Peninsula and only the odd fence placement and discolored patches on the ground marking foundations of former structures hint at quite different times and a vastly different function for the facility
It was no accident that Wildwood Air Force Station seemed as if part of the more civilized part of the Lower 48 at been sliced off and transplanted to a few miles north of the small town of Kenai. American Cold War strategy called for the construction of military bases all over the world, and the installations were all built with a common layout and architecture that mimicked the look and feel of middle class Eisenhower-era suburbs “back home”. The uniform familiarity in the design fostered effective training and good troop morale while easing homesickness and the psychological shock of frequent relocation. All I knew was the place gave me a little bit of normal to hang onto as it felt so much like other installations I’d previously visited that whenever we went on board base I felt like I’d gone home.
Comprised of 4300 acres and 65 buildings (including 18 family units), Wildwood Station was established in 1953 as an Army Signal installation charged with the reception and monitoring of Soviet radio traffic, but when we moved to the peninsula the base was being transferred to Air Force control. Even though we lived thirty miles away in Sterling we managed to visit the base at least twice a month. As a retired service member, my father was entitled to the use of the facilities, which ranged from a movie theater, medical clinic, commissary, and Base Exchange, and as dependents my sisters and I could do likewise.
…but it wasn’t better prices and newer movies that had me psyched early one evening in June of 1965 as we passed by the sentry at the gate. I had been surprised at the end of the school year to learn that my best friend from Anchorage would be spending the summer in North Kenai and this was the first chance we’d had to meet up. Mark and I sat side-by-side during fifth grade, refighting World War II during every recess and the loss of that companionship had made the move difficult for me. His dad was working on summer-long project upgrading North Kenai road and he brought his family with him, and while there was still a forty-mile road trip separating Mark and I the chances of doing something together became much better.
One of those “somethings” was a plan to meet at the base theater to see In Harm’s Way, a war film starring John Wayne that was based on the James Bassett novel of the same title. Interest in the military was not something my current Sterling classmates favored, but it had been a major factor in my friendship with Mark, so a big-budget epic about World War II in the Pacific was an ideal choice for our boy’s night out.
Between bouncing on the seat and talking nonstop I must have driven my mom almost but not quite crazy during the hour it had taken us to get to the base. It had been a hard winter and I hadn’t been able to fit in with the Sterling kids very well. As mentioned in Anchorage we’d been refighting World War II at a fever pitch, battling over vacant lots with cap-firing Mattel Tommy-bursts® and Marx Monkey Division bazookas lobbing foam rubber rockets, but the closest my new classmates came to a military organization was a club called the “FBI” which I thought it was kind of cool until I was dismissed with the curt explanation that in this situation the initials stood for “Female Body Inspectors”. It had stung to be simultaneously mocked and ostracized but for the moment I was excited at the prospect of some good sessions of mock combat with Mark over the summer.
My first hint that things had changed was when he got out of his mom’s car sporting a new haircut. Up to this point neither one of us maintained any sort of recognizable hair style, opting instead for an unruly thatch of hair that would scare a comb to death. As Mark was getting out of the car that evening he was sporting a pompadour with slicked back sides that looked less like SGT Saunders and more like Elvis Presley. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just his hair that had changed: In times past meeting up with Mark involved equal parts yelling, arm-punching and cupped-hand-in-the-arm-pit faux flatulence, but this time he was very cool and standoffish. The vague disconnect continued through the film – when I’d get excited during a battle scene he’d roll his eyes, a move he repeated when Barbara Bouchet slipped her dress off during her beach romp with Hugh O’Brian and I wasn’t quick enough with a wolf whistle.
He seemed more like the old Mark when we hit the snack bar after the show was over. Maybe it was the sugar rush from milkshakes, but we slipped into the obligatory arm-slug and armpit-fart routine from years past, but on the ride home that night I came to the realization that a fundamental change had come about in our friendship and my life. Prior to our eventual landing in Sterling my family had moved constantly – by seventh grade I’d attended seven different schools and the visit with Mark was the first time I’d ever had a chance to go back and see a friend post-move. It was also the first time that I dealt with an important principle thrown over the fence by Wilson in the Tim Allen sitcom Home Improvement:
“He hasn’t been your best friend for twenty years. He was your best friend twenty years ago.”
The chaos and indifference of my growing up had left me reluctant to leave the trappings of childhood for adolescence, which put me in a difficult situation complicated by my tendency to hang on to friendships a bit too long. The change I saw in Mark showed me that it wasn’t just the move from Anchorage had changed my world – my age and the changing landscape of the 1960’s had also played a part in the chaos and I’d have to survive the turmoil of adolescence on my own. I could still fight battles with my plastic soldiers and keep a Mattel Tommyburst at home, from now on it had to be all sports and girls when I was at school.
What didn’t change was our periodic trips unchanged to Wildwood for shopping, medical care and entertainment. Social visits were added to that list two years later when I discovered in high school that I got along much better with other mobile military brats than my other classmates. Activities on base like a date with Cassie or an illicit beer with Mike so firmly stitched Wildwood Air Force Station into the embroidery of my life that it was a real shock when I returned home from my first year of college to find the base closing as part of the post-Vietnam realignment. Various plans for the installation were in the making when it was transferred to the Kenai Native Association in early 1973, but after consideration as a support facility for boarding students from Bush communities, and a brief tenure as rental apartments it was converted into a correctional facility in 1983 and the family housing units razed.
Seeing the place now is like looking at photos of actors from the same period. Robert Conrad was the star of the TV series The Wild Wild West which debuted soon after the time of this story, and as such he embodied the strength, wit, and charisma that my “Female Body Inspector” classmates could only aspire to. Sadly the photo of the hollow-eyed white-haired old man in his Wikipedia entry bore little resemblance to the action hero of my youth just as the faint traces of demolished family quarters and the copious strands of barbed wire gave no clue to the vibrant community and vital military installation that Wildwood once was…
… but even those days are gone I can still watch my DVDs of Conrad at his best and I can remember when Wildwood Air Force station was just as important to the emotional stability of a young boy as it was to the security of the United States.
(The book Military Brat by Mary Wertsch (Ballantine 1991) provides insight to the unique life and worldview of military dependents during the Cold War)
Clarksville is located in the No Parking /Tow Zone of Tornado Alley so warning sirens and verbal warnings echoing from downtown loudspeakers are no surprise on a stormy April evening. It’s an unnerving sound much like the albino plague victims in The Omega Man chanting “Nevvillle” as they ring around Charlton Heston’s apartment building and as it drifts with the wind it puts all of us on edge.It bothered my grandson Jayden more than anyone else last night: he will be eight in June and he’s starting to notice details in life that up to this point in life he had been oblivious to. He was also just coming off the medication he takes to combat the severe attention deficit/hyperactivity he battles daily so his reaction was even more pronounced.
He bounced around our bedroom, stopping by the open window screen at each lap to listen to those spectral voices warn everyone to “seek shelter now”. At first he would only stop for clarification or explanation of terms used in the warnings, but on the third stop he decided to take a more proactive stance. He has a marginally-functional smart-phone handed down to him after an upgrade and while it doesn’t work as a phone he can use it for games and camera work. He loves taking pictures and making videos but this time he put his phone to a more altruistic use.
He decided to broadcast his own warning announcements:
“Dere’s a reawwy bad storm coming everybody!”
“Everybody better get a good pwace to hide!”
“It’s reawwy scary so be careful of any tornadoes next to your house”
He’d record his messages in as loud a voice as he could muster, then hold the phone up to the screen and play them back with the volume turned up as high as it could go. His expression was stern as a only a second grader can achieve but at the same time I couldn’t help but smile at the speech impediment that is endearing even as it fades.
… but something else added to my grin: even while totally terrified he was doing his best to protect his family, friends and neighbors, showing a level of transpersonal commitment rare in someone so young. I was also thankful that he had a support system in depth, that in his time of fear he had parents and grandparents to reassure him.
It made the stormy night not so scary, even with the sirens and loudspeakers.
(As I’ve written earlier the third Gun Kingdoms book is slowly gaining momentum and we’re looking forward to a KickStarter campaign later in the year. In past projects my contribution has been purely visual but this time around Scott has challenged/goaded/double-dog-dared me to do some writing as well. What follows is a story set on the Hammerhead, a submersible boat that figures prominently in the third book.
The color art above will appear on the book’s cover. The sketch at the end of the story is a annotated diagram of the area in where the story takes place.)
(In naval terminology: a shorter than usual (2 hour) period of duty scheduled between the hours of 1600 and 2000 that staggers the watch schedule so the same personnel are not forced to stand mid-watch every night.)
(Time is signaled throughout the vessel by a system of bells: one stroke of the bell indicates the first half hour of a watch, with an additional bell for each succeeding half hour. Eight bells indicate the end of a four-hour watch, and then the bell cycle starts over and repeats itself for the next watch.)
Why didn’t he say anything about the smell?
In the months before embarkation all Uncle Beetlemeyer could talk about was the overwhelming advantage Alyver Gilgamesh would gain by starting his shipboard career as a cadet under the command of his old academy roommate, Dusker Trinidad. So far the only overwhelming aspect of his career was the combined stench of oil, mold, fish and sweat that came into being the minute the hatches clanked shut, and grew in funkiness until the Hammerhead once again broke the surface. Never mind cannon fire or drowning – the real hazard to life in a submersible boat was the ever-present stink that wouldn’t wash out of his clothes, ruined the taste of every meal, and made life more tedious than need be.
Not that life afloat was all that great – Alyver’s first clue that Uncle Beetlemeyer had once again embroidered the truth was the “ix-nay on the oommate-ray” hissed to him when reporting dockside to meet the legendary captain for the first time. It turned out that Beetlemeyer hadn’t actually been Trinidad’s roommate, but rather an upperclassman who’d unmercifully hazed the now-famous privateer during his first year at the academy.
The second clue came when Alyver was given his watch assignment: by title he was assistant to the petty-officer-in-charge of the portside secondary propulsion pod, but in real life he was referred to as Chief Petty Officer Tho’s dog robber, and assigned the dullest and dirtiest tasks, with an occasional respite from drudgery in the form of feeding the department’s canine mascot Nick, or running errands to other parts of the boat. He also seemed to be designated target for the incredibly short temper of the power-pod’s second-in-command, Petty Officer Rudy. The ever-squinting and sporadically articulate Rudy mocked Alyver for his spectacles and denied even the questionable dignity of the title “dog robber” and instead referred to the cadet in third person as “the pimply little snot” with a social standing just below the dog.
Alyver thought “At least he isn’t constantly trying to kick me” then smiled when he remembered that for all his kicking, Rudy had yet to connect with the dog Nick. He smiled even broader when he contemplated the bliss of the next couple of hours free of the customary drudgery while Chief Tho and the others were attending some sort of event with the Capitan Trinidad somewhere astern in the main hull. Alyver wasn’t too sure if it was a dinner, lunch or breakfast – since leaving safe waters, the Hammerhead had surfaced under the cover of darkness only, and that lack of visual reference combined with the as-yet baffling time-keeping system of bells had robbed Alyver of any internal sense of time.
With the others gone he would have to catch up with his cruise-book. In addition to the smell, upended time sense, and taunts from his crew mates, Alyver was dismayed to find that during his first cruise he was expected to learn about the vessel rather than just ride around in it. Every spare moment was to be familiarizing himself about the structure, systems, and operation of the boat, and documenting that knowledge by filling a blank book with carefully annotated notes and diagrams. At first he’d approached the task with indifference, but when Tho shared his own youthful misfortune at confusing a sewage life with a water line (“they’re painted brown for a reason!”) Alyver resumed his study with an increased sense of urgency.
The deck abruptly tilted down towards the bow, startling Alyver until his ears popped and he realized that the boat had just dived a little deeper. He wondered if the dive was a matter of evading patrol boats, and when a loud scraping sound echoed from the port side of the pod he wondered if they’d encountered a minefield or anti-submersible net as well, but when the deck leveled out and the boat kept moving he relaxed and started reading the instructions for the port pod department order book.
At least twice during each period between bells he was to make one complete round of all the watertight compartments in the pod, starting at the main access hatch to the passage leading to the main hull, then:
Aft to the upper level of the engine room,
Down to the ladder in the lower engine room,
Forward to the torpedo room,
Up the ladder to the observation bay,
And aft to where he began at the main access.
In addition, there were special areas such as hull sections with recent repairs and boarding pistols clipped to strategic points on the pod bulkheads required additional scrutiny, but it seemed that in making his rounds, updating the departmental log, and reporting by speaking tube to the watch officer there wasn’t anything particularly overwhelming in the standard orders, so he leafed ahead to the special orders section to check for any unpleasant surprises listed there.
Despite being written in Petty Officer Rudy’s near-indecipherable scrawl, the first special notice was clear enough: “All check-valves made by the Gold Turtle Guild is foltifawldi broke and gots 2 be checkt at evry bell”. What wasn’t made clear was the fact that in the interest of job security the Gold Turtle Guild had designed the check valves so that they could only be tightened or loosened by use of the rather unwieldly Golden Turtle Guild Hydro-spanner…which was longer and heavier than any other implement the pod’s toolkit. The balance of the special orders section – made up of two inch’s worth of stale-dated maintenance notices suggested skimming rather than study, and upon closing the cover, Alyver replaced the book on the shelf next to the speaking tube, then turned aft and started on his first inspection tour through the pod.
The transition from the brilliantly lit access hatch area to the dark and gloomy upper engine room was abrupt enough to stop Alyver in his tracks…or so he thought. As he looked around to try and orient himself he saw that it was in fact the raised edge of the door he had come through that was holding him back. He mentally corrected his lapse in nautical vocabulary as PO Rudy’s screech echoed in his thoughts “IT’S A HATCH NOT A DOOR YOU PITIFUL SANDCRAB!” as he groped for the ladder, but once in the lower level he found the atmosphere not nearly as fetid, and the engine noise reduced. It was even quieter as he moved through the torpedo room, the stillness disturbed slightly by the soft pat-pat-pat as Nick the dog brushed past his leg and bolted past him and up the ladder to the observation bay where he curled up in the gunner’s seat. Alyver lingered at the viewing ports for a moment, relishing the silence as he watched the moonlight flicker through the underside of the waves overhead when:
Even from a dozen yards away the alert whistle on the speaking tube felt like a razor slicing through the side of his head. Alyver smacked his shin against the raised bottom edge of the door (HATCH!) leading into the main compartment as he bolted back through the pod to the handset to the speaking tube, instantly cursing his haste as he was met with a near-indecipherable torrent of words:
Alyver stared at the handset, which at the moment seemed to be just as effective as putting it to his ear. While Chief Petty Officer Tho was adamant in his belief that the speaking tube was an appropriate means of intra-boat communication, the most Alyver understood from the garbled message was that it concerned his report – that maybe it was late – which he took to be correct when he responded to that effect and receiving in turn a pair of whistle-blasts that the handbook translated as “OVER!”
It was only then that Alyver saw the faint trace of blood seeping through his trousers – those minor collisions with hatch rims hadn’t been so minor so he sat down and tied his handkerchief around his lower leg as a rough bandage. It felt so good to be off his feet that he decided to sit for a few minutes and work on his cruise book, but as he was inking a diagram of the pod’s secondary fuel line, he remembered the special notice in the orders book regarding the check-valves that he’d failed to inspect when he made his rounds. Acting in the calm and professional manner expected of an officer-cadet he panicked and grabbed the special Golden Turtle Guild Hydro-spanner as he bolted through the hatch to the upper engine room. If he worked fast enough he could check all the Golden Turtle Guild check-valves and “revise” the watch-log with a minimum of guilt and maybe even before (Heaven forbid!) a surprise inspection from Chief Petty Officer Tho.
He’d been surprised that Tho had accepted the captain’s invitation; at sea the Chief rarely left the pod, electing to string a hammock up in the observation compartment rather than bunking down in the main hull in the marginally larger space appropriate to his rank. He was rough mannered, profane, and thoroughly imbued with the cynicism expected in a combat veteran, but while he routinely swore that he “ate cadets for breakfast”, every order and correction Tho made came with a bit of instruction hidden amongst the pejoratives, and the Chief always stepped in when PO Rudy’s comments became too acidic. In was only then as Alyver was struggling to maneuver the hydro-spanner around in the cramped and dimly lit compartment that he realized Tho wasn’t the ogre he’d always thought him to be.
In fact, Alyver was thinking that a surprise visit wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all because it was getting kind of scary. Other than the hopelessly garbled call over the speaking tube there’d been no contact with anyone, not even idlers out in the passageway to the main hull. Other than the dog, it was like there was no one else on board, the smell seemed to be getting even worse and this check-valve problem was turning into a much more serious task than anyone imagined.
“Golden Turtle Guild?” Alyver thought. “More like Golden Turd Guild if you ask me!”
The sentiment was proved all too true as more than half of the accursed check valves were found to be defective, with those on the pod ballast lines damaged to point beyond the reach of the gentle ministrations of the hydro-spanner. A growing puddle of water on the lower engine room deck indicated that the ballast-line problem was a potential boat-killer requiring notification of the watch officer, but armed with that bullet-proof mindset endemic to adolescent males, Cadet Alyver Gilgamesh decided to handle the problem on his own.
He’d get a bigger wrench.
The hydro-spanner was already the largest wrench available, so he’d have to resort to a “cheat bar” – a long piece of pipe slipped over the spanner’s handle that increased the levering action and tighten the check-valve even more securely than before. Granted, they’d be so cinched up it would take portside with power-tools or an enchantment to remove them, but it seemed to be a reasonable trade-off. He slipped the pipe over the spanner handle and muscled the jaws of the wrench into place, then stepped back, reached up for the pipe, and started pulling, bouncing a bit to add his body weight to the force of the wrench.
“Yes!” he hissed to himself “Yes – these fittings will definitely hold until we get back to port for permanent repairs! What do you say now Petty Officer Rudy? Mr. Hatchet Face? What will you say when the little pimply cadet saves the boat! Maybe Captain Trinidad will–”
The whole world suddenly went black.
Utter blackness slowly coalesced into the dim illumination of the engine room as Alyver regained consciousness. Pain radiated from both the crown of his head and his shin and the slightest effort to sit up was met with a wave of nausea. His hand came away bloody as he reached up to lightly check his head and silently debated the risks of walking with a possible skull fracture against the royal ass-chewing he’d get for leaving his post unattended.
Alyver jackknifed to a sitting position at the shock of an unexpected voice from so close by but as he held a handkerchief to throbbing head he was unable to find the…
“Rmm-blee!! The soft voice was concerned but insistent.
He could see no one else in the compartment or through the hatch into the torpedo room. He briefly considered, then discarded, the speaking tube as a possibility reasoning that the message had been far too articulate to have come through that apparatus. It was only then that Alyver looked down to find Nick the Terrier looking up at him with far more understanding than he thought possible.
“You can talk! Why have you never talked to me before?”
“Roo ne’er ast!”
Alyver had read about familiars – four-footed animals that could think and talk, but he’d ever actually seen one, and the thrill of this new experience was as pleasing as the thought of –
Whatever injury he’d sustained to his head made the high-pitched alert whistle on the speaking tube even more painful to Alyver’s ears, but he raced up the ladder, then once again picked up the handset to deal with the tsunami of gibberish:
No mistaking that message – there was some sort of hazard to the submersible requiring all watertight hatches to be closed and while Alyver still had the freedom to move around in the pod, the big access hatch to the main hull was to be secured until further notice. As he had no idea what that threat might be it seemed prudent to make another round of checks and inspections with Nick alternately walking ahead and beside him while delivering a mostly understandable commentary. As they walked Alyver learned that ““Rmm-blee!! was Nick’s attempt at reproducing PO Rudy’s “Pimply” which he’d assumed was Alyver’s name just as he assumed his own name to be “Dammutt”. Alyver also learned that Nick’s true canine name was “One Who Stealthily Moves through the Night” which the rest of his pack had shortened to “Sneaker”.
The water was even deeper and the smell even worse when they climbed down to the site of his accident. It took several minutes of groping around in the dark to find both the hydro spanner and cheat bar and it took only a cursory glance at them and the valve they’d been used on to determine the cause of his injury: himself. As CPO Tho so bluntly put it, “Tools are designed for a specific use and any idiot using them another way is flirting with the undertaker.” When Alyver bounced his full weight on the cheat bar the hydro spanner bar slipped off the overly-tightened check valve and the tool and cheat-bar together came down on his head knocking him cold. That explained the headache, but not the wound on his shin which was bleeding much more than expected for a simple bump on a hatch rim.
As Alyver bent down to further examine his injury, a series of sharp yaps drew his attention from the lower engine spaces to the torpedo room, but his way through the hatch was blocked by an extremely agitated Sneaker crouching in full hunting stance, his stare fixed at what looked to be a pile of thicker-than-usual washers clustered around a waste disposal portal recessed into the torpedo room floor. As Alyver pushed himself past the full-arched Sneaker he heard the small dog growl an almost understandable warning, then was startled when one of the washers flipped up to a vertical stance and in three bounces flashed past Alyver’s left arm leaving a long, almost surgical slice in his bicep before slapping into the hull way behind him.
There was inexplicably no pain, but knowing that shock was soon to follow, the cadet scooped up the small dog and bolted back into the engine room space, slamming and securing the hatch behind him. Though shock was starting to set in, he managed to make his way to an aid locker and bandages before the nausea robbed him of his footing and he sat down heaving on the deck chanting the mantras and words of power his Nana had taught him that would hopefully allow his thoughts to blunt the pain that was just now starting to manifest. Then on his third time through the chant he was interrupted by Sneaker dropping a small circular object on the deck in front him and announced “Roo-bee”
In reflex, Alyver reached for the palm-sized disc only to have Sneaker bat his hand way while stridently repeating the warning “ROO-BEE!”. The oversized washer glittered in the dim lighting, and just as it flopped in a disturbingly fish-like manner it dawned on him that with Sneaker’s vocal limitations, “Roo-bee” was the closest he could get to “Loopie” and another wave of nausea crashed over him. As he sat back, he wasn’t sure if the resultant dizziness stemmed from the injury or the realization of the dire situation he was in.
He was in big trouble.
As the bells echoed down from the main cabin Alyver took stock of his situation: The pod was being overrun by “Loopies” – more properly Petits Loups de la Mer or “little wolves of the sea” Alyver shuddered – he’d heard equally valid arguments declaring them to be mammal, fish, reptile, plants, mechanical device, or thaumaturgical construct, and as he looked at the now-dead example on the deck, he could see aspects of each category, but it was the teeth that commanded his attention. Rather than the dull yellow of most fangs in nature they were a metallic gray like a surgeon’s scalpel or a craftsman’s chisel – and there were so many for such a small creature. Alyver was surprised not by their appearance but by the fact that the wound on his arm was so slight given the razor sharpness of the loopy’s fangs. The similarity of the two wounds led to the conclusion that the scent of blood from the gash on his lower leg must have drawn a loopy to the wound while he’d been unconscious earlier.
The solution to that mystery led to another being solved – the diminutive creature stank with an overpowering stench that seemed to combine the worst aspects of sour milk and rotten fish. Unfortunately he was still faced with a third, as in how had they managed to get on board? It wasn’t like the case with rats – an infestation of loopies was a threat grave enough to require preventative measures far in excess of those meant to eliminate expected vermin like rodents, but then given their curious bounding/rolling method of locomotion It was doubtful a loopie could have successfully moved across the mooring lines the way rats did. The answer came only when he was able to examine at length the pile of “washers” thorough an inspection port set in the hatch he just closed
They’d gained entrance to the pod through a damaged waste disposal portal. Normally the portal worked like a miniature airlock with one of its two covers closed when the other was open, but it looked like the outer door had been sheared off by whatever had earlier made the loud scraping sound along the port side of the pod. The inner door also seemed damaged which meant only air pressure was keeping the seawater from flooding the pod.
Another wave of nausea swept over Alyver and he sat down and adjusted his bandage while wondering aloud: “A flood of loopies? What is the proper collective term for them? There’s a pod of whales and a murder of crows – what do you call a large group of loopies?”
He jerked awake at the unexpected voice “WHAT? WHO? WHO’S THERE?”
A brush of bristly fur on his right arm accompanied the soft humming voice as Sneaker elaborated” “Zylumm of roo-bees” but Alyver’s slight smile of amusement at the aptness at “an asylum of loopies” faded when the feline continued” ‘Rig trumles Rim-bee. Many, many roo-bees. Alpha roo-bee. Roo-bee go in all sip.”
Sneaker was right. When rest of the pod crew returned in a half hour there’d be so many loopies that Tho and the crew would be completely overwhelmed when the main hatch opened. Alyver gulped as he realized that the entire boat would be flooded with the bouncing slashing disc creatures so they had to be contained in the lower pod even if it was just a wounded cadet and a “damn mutt” doing the containing. Fortunately it appeared that the loopies were concentrated in the torpedo room with the aft hatch secured, but the forward hatch leading up into the observation bay was still open.
It all came down to a race up the ladder and forward to the hatch in the gunner’s cabin, a task that mysteriously seemed to be extremely difficult until Alyver realized in his third unsuccessful attempt to transit the a hatch that in his panic he was still tightly clutching the hydro spanner horizontally at his waist. As he entered the main cabin a squelching sound drew his attention to the forward end of the pod as an “asylum of loopies” boiled up through the hatch in the observation bay floor. Their collective bouncing was almost hypnotic, and while there was no telling how many of the disc-creatures were pouring into the damaged waste portal, all the motion made them seem much more numerous than could possibly be dealt with, but as he tentatively stepped towards them, the speaking tube alert whistle shrieked:
Alyver grabbed at the speaking tube handset, the hydro spanner clattering to the deck in the process.
The hatch! God bless us all – in a flash he remembered he’d earlier secured the main access hatch on the order of the watch officer so the immediate threat to the rest of the boat was contained – and given the lethal efficiency with which Nick/Sneaker was dispatching the squirming mass of disc creatures slowly squirming toward him it seemed that the integrity of the power pod would be shortly just as secure. He was also able to smash a number of them himself now that he was in full light and could dodge the slashing attacks that came at him in predictable arcs. His heavy work boots made short work of stomping the loopies flat, but when the attacks momentarily slowed he turned to unclip a boarding pistol from its mount as added insurance.
…but when he turned back to face the menace he saw what he could only guess to be the alpha-loopie squeezing up through the hatch. Any doubts as to the thatamurgical origin of the loopies was instantly dispelled by the decidedly unnatural appearance of this newest threat. It was circular in the same manner but much larger – the size of a true wolf and while it was also circular it moved in a horizontal rather than vertical manner. Alyver had never seen anything like it and the lack eyes, ears or mouth made a mystery of its basic existence much less the manner in which the mass of bristles, teeth, tentacles and talons slowly spun towards him.
All doubts of magical influence vanished when the single shot he was able to make with the boarding pistol flattened onto a purplish hemispherical shimmer that appeared at arm’s length from the creature. He frantically fumbled for a second cartridge but then the speaking tube whistle shrieked again.
Alyver instinctively reached for the handset, but just as he picked it up a talon-tipped tentacle flashed past him and added a second slice to the one on his left bicep.
“SOD THIS DAMN THING”
“SCREW THE SPEAKING TUBE! TO HELL WITH THAT DAMN HATCH” he screamed as he threw down the handset and turned towards his attacker, stumbling over the hydro spanner in the process. He’d had enough. In a flash he snatched up the hydro spanner and lunged toward the spinning nightmare, screaming every curse, oath and mantra he’d heard in his fifteen short years as he swung the heavy implement down, expecting it to be deflected by the same purple shimmer that stopped the bullet.
The spinning disc of tentacles and talons jerked to a stop with that first blow. Whether it was for “insurance” or to work out the tension, Alyver followed up with three more blows that started with a thunk and ended with a squish.
That final thunk was echoed with a corresponding thunk as the main hatch finally opened. Petty Officer Rudy entered the main cabin, loudly condemning the increased stench to “the pimply-faced cadet’s farts”, but as Tho and the rest of the pod crew filed through and saw the smashed remains the chief petty officer waved his second mate to silence.
Tho nudged the carcass of the alpha-loopie with the toe of his boot and said “, looking at them now they don’t seem like much but they can overrun a vessel in a flash. Happened on the first submersible I signed on with as a boy. Only three of us survived” He turned to Alyver and continued: “Sealing the pod off like that saved the whole boat. You might make a decent sub-mariner yet,” then waved in a sick-bay attendant to see to Alyver’s wounds.
Alyver assumed it was just a form of bedside manner when the medic cheerily prattled on as he went about dressing wounds, but it was also obvious he was gathering information for Chief Tho. The mystery of the killing blow with the hydro spanner was solved when he Alyver recalled the string of invectives he screamed as he made the killing blow. It turned out that the sick-bay attendant’s interest into things magical was just as intense as that of the cadet’s grandmother – included in the stream of epithets Alyver had let fly was a verse very similar enough to an incantation of a nullification that weakened the purple shimmer just enough for the hydro spanner to work its own type of magic.
A tot of rum from the sick-bay attendant took the edge off the pain and he sat back against the bulkhead feeling dreamingly warm. Nick/Sneaker was lying next to him on the deck, but when he tilted his head down to speak, the dog shook his head in a disturbingly human manner and the cadet assumed that a talking dog was not common knowledge to the crew. With thoughts of a possible second tot Alyver turned back to the medic, but then a deep rumble not immediately identifiable as someone clearing their throat brought his attention to the front again to see Chief Petty Officer Tho towering before him.
“A cadet that can handle a grave situation as well you did is capable of doing much more than polishing the brass work and looking after the dog. After you’ve spent some time on the mend we’ll see about training you for other more important duties–“
“…such as proper terminology when using the speaking tube.”
My mom was a living contradiction. She would think nothing of leaving me in the car for a lengthy subzero wait while she visited her church friends, but strictly managed bedtimes and television viewing at home, which made my introduction to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. nothing short of a miracle. That first viewing happened in the winter of 1965 and came about only because it was an “underwear night”, one of those rare instances when my dad and I would stay up late and watch TV together while lounging in T-shirts and pajamas.
I was eleven and languishing in the twilight zone that is prepubescence – starting to realize that an action hero didn’t necessarily need a cape, and those icky girls were starting to look interesting, but to be honest I was mostly just concerned with staying up past 9:00 PM, but when the sedate academic environment of Mr. Novak was abruptly replaced by trumpets blasting out the opening bars of one of the most totally bitchin’ themes ever I was riveted to the TV set.
Bond films were a year or two in my future, so it took me an episode or two to figure out the whole secret agent thing. Even at age eleven I was fueled with a strong sense of transpersonal commitment and the idea of a benign secret world-wide organization composed of people from all races and nationalities fighting evil was an idea I wished I’d come up with myself. I was struck by the casual but deadly teamwork between veteran enforcement agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriyakin, and when you factored in the witty banter, cool equipment, and slinky ladies (which were starting to be extremely interesting at that point in my life) I was sold …but unlike previous television favorites I didn’t want to just sit and watch images on a screen.
I desperately wanted to be an actual U.N.C.L.E. agent.
I figured they had to have some sort of feeder organization, kind of like Boy Scouts, but without the knot-tying and flag-folding. Unfortunately there was no U.N.C.L.E. number in the phone book and to make matters worse, my parents and school teacher told me no such organization existed (the question alone was enough to trigger one of my mom’s legendary rants about the United Nations). As my dad had briefly worked in intelligence during his naval career I finally concluded that the denial had been implanted in his brain during those years afloat as some sort of protective measure because at the end of each episode ran a credit line:
We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law Enforcement without whose assistance this program would not be possible.
However, I was undeterred by the lack of information or contact. If I couldn’t join the organization I would:
Train myself as an agent
Acquire and become proficient on the equipment
Organize a subunit of U.N.C.L.E. there in Sterling
Taking on the persona of uber spy Napoleon Solo was the logical yet the most unattainable first step. For starters no matter how many tubes of SCORE clear hair gel I worked into my unruly ginger mop there was no way it would be mistaken for his carefully tonsured brunette locks. My single attempt at wearing my dark-colored woolen go-to-church suit to school ended with a disaster involving a faulty milk carton, but to be honest the suit situation wasn’t a deal-breaker for me –I was rapidly outgrowing the suit and when the wool material itched so bad that I had to wear long underwear year-round I ended up looking less and less like a secret agent and more like Ken® dressed in three outfits at the same time. I decided to stick to the everyday plaid flannel shirt, denim trousers and Tuffy® work boots, reasoning that I was working in very deep cover for the time being.
As for training in spy craft there wasn’t much I could do with a foot of snow on the ground and not access to any sort of gym, so I resigned myself to the fact that training would have to wait.
Equipping myself was bit more difficult. In those dark pre-mobile phone days the best I could do for secure communication was a Marx Monkey Division® walkie-talkie set handed down to me from my cousin Gary. Unfortunately it was a sound-powered device just one step up from a pair of tin-cans connected by string and while the olive-drab military design of the handsets fit the mission, the twenty-five feet of copper wire connecting them would be counter-productive to any sort of covert function.
As for the requisite attaché case: while neither Napoleon nor Illya had anything nearly as cool as James Bond, the 1965 Sears Christmas catalog featured a four page color insert of 007 related toy that included a detailed diagram of the aforementioned attaché case that I referred to during my planning. I momentarily considered asking for the 007 set for Christmas but I was sure such a request would trigger a Mom-rant worse than her United Nations tirade so I settled on using a generic book bag until I accumulated enough summer baby-sitting money to buy a for-real attaché case when school started in the fall.
The gun was simultaneously easier/more difficult to get. The single element in the universe more certain that death or taxes was a Christmas gift request to my Grandma Esther. Once she understood that the IDEAL Man from UNCLE Napoleon Solo Gun set was what I wanted I knew that nothing would stop that from happening, but it wouldn’t be happening until December. As a stop-gap measure I created a model using a fountain pen with extra cartridge, a 2 inch binder clip, Bic® pen and a #3 bulldog clip which worked great until Tacky Powell’s white shirt ended up blotched with blue ink during a recess training session.
The organization consisted mostly of compiling lists of names and organizing them into sections in rosters made up of official stationery made by pasting UNCLE logos carefully cut from Gold Key comic adaptations. Of all the aspects of my self-made covert training this lasted the longest with the organization going through several name changes until my freshman year of high school when the rosters morphed into “reliability ” lists of classmates I compiled as I was getting bullied . The list-making was discontinued only upon discovery by my parents and my explanation was met with something very similar to the “have you no shame” comment that helped take down the red-baiting Tail-gunner Senator Joe McCarthy thirteen years earlier.
For years I assumed that longest-lasting benefit from my tenure as a junior U.N.C.L.E. agent was my eventual work as an intelligence officer with both the Army and the Navy Reserve when I took great delight in pinning my triangular U.N.C.L.E. badge inside my jacket during classified exercises. I wasn’t aware that the most beneficial aspect of my interest was the least tangible and one that I didn’t appreciate until I was much, much older.
My dad spent his entire life running, dragging us from one out-of-the-way spot to another, never staying anywhere for longer than a year or two, even after he retired from the navy. It was a murky situation made even murkier as more and more snippets of “what really happed” came to light after my parents passed away and I’ll probably never know anything other than that Sterling was the end of the road and the running.
The seven of us were crammed into a tiny three bedroom house in the middle of an ocean of burned-out snags from a catastrophic fire seventeen years earlier, ten miles from town with no local radio stations, and spotty radio and a single TV channel from Anchorage, 65 miles to the northeast. Even more distressing was the fact that no plausible explanation was ever given as to why were there. After traveling the entire length of the west coast of the United States, Sterling was end of the road, and an unfriendly end to boot as my classmates there were all “territory babies” and understandably reluctant to accept a chattering mob of Californians into their midst.
Every night I struggled to find sleep as I worried about what I had done to deserve the exile, but at nine o-clock on Tuesday nights everything changed. Never mind that the back streets of Los Angeles were standing in for New York, London, or Paris. After fifty minutes of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriyakin using the coolest guns to fight evil THRUSH Agents, restful sleep was no longer a problem. While drifting off to sleep with the strains of the most totally bitching closing theme echoing in my mind, I was no longer stuck in the middle of a burned out wilderness – I was traveling the world.
Once you get past the Fireball crew and the headquarters personnel there aren’t too many recurring characters. One of the few is the engineer/mechanic Jock. Following the “tweaking” trend I’ve set for myself the dour Scot Jock has been transformed into the purple-tressed Jaqui, the Indian subcontinent’s contribution to the team, equipped with a mechanical prosthetic.
(Sound of incredulous reader tapping their foot)
OK! OK! Her hair isn’t purple (nice nod to the live-action series UFO and the lack of skin color makes her ethnicity hard to determine. I am the victim of a collision between artistic passion and the realities of aging. I got the drawing done but my ever-present fine tremor has not been so fine lately and any attempt with markers or colored pencils looks like a Jackson Pollock painting
It’s been said that of all the senses, smell is the strongest trigger when it comes to recalling memories – and that has definitely proved to be true for me. The smell of linseed oil and turpentine instantly takes me back to the winter of 1974 and the chaos involved when my first “for-real” painting class coincided with a rather painful break-up. Play-doh1 has a similar, though indirect, effect as it has a smell confusingly close to the classic Coty perfume Emeraude, a fact that I was quite vocal about until I realized it was the fragrance of choice for my girlfriend at the time.
But for me the trifecta of olfactory cues consists of damp canvas, diesel exhaust, and the pungent ammonia reek of Brasso.2 The slightest whiff of any one of these three aromas instantly transports me back to 1980 when I was serving as a platoon leader at FT Richardson Alaska, as it did the other day when the ammonia I was using to clean the hall bathroom had me time-tripping back to the days of steel helmets, green fatigues, and the constant rumble of multiple M34A2 “deuce and a half” trucks idling in the background.
The flashback was enough to prompt me into sitting down for a break, but as I perched on the edge of the sink and thumbed through the digital edition of the Anchorage Daily News on my phone, I came across a name that completed my forty-one year trip through time faster than you could say “Doug and Tony”.3
It was an obituary for one Thomas Bentley of Wasilla, Alaska. The location threw me as the Bentley I’d known had grown up in the Great Lakes region, but as I looked at the picture and mentally trimmed four decades of grey hair and jowl I realized that this recently deceased gentleman was the Bentley that figured so prominently in my eighteen months as a platoon leader.
As I have written elsewhere I was simultaneously elated and depressed to be assigned to FT Richardson AK after my unexpected grounding from flight status due to an undiagnosed vision problem. It was a literal comedown to accept that instead of cruising at 1000 feet AGL (above ground level) in a UH-I helicopter I would puttering around at 3 feet AGL in an M151 jeep. However, I had been blessed by a valuable lesson I’d learned as a missionary to “bloom where I was planted” and make the best of a bad situation. Maybe I wasn’t going to be the dashing aviator I’d always hoped to be but I was going to be the best freaking truck platoon leader ever! After a two-week period of observation I put into action a two-part plan to raise performance standards through an ambitious training program and regularly scheduled technical inspections of assigned vehicles. It was an ambitious plan that could have easily ended in failure if either one of the following “ace cards” had not been in play:
An outstanding company commander in the form of CPT Robert Moore who provided me with the perfect balance of guidance and freedom.
Preparation in life that most of my fellow lieutenants lacked: I was five years older with a good part of that time spent working as a roustabout for Chevron USA at the Swanson River oil field, I was the son of a career non-commissioned officer in the Navy and I had seen every John Wayne movie from The Alamo to The War Wagon!
It took a week or two for me to firmly establish that “things were going to change in Delta Trans” but eventually when I showed up at the side of a truck clad in coveralls with creeper and flashlight in hand drivers took me seriously and eventually would go to great lengths to best my inspection checklist, especially when the highest scoring driver got the rest of the day off.
Unfortunately some of the more senior drivers remained a little jaded; one of the most vocal being SP44 Fourth Class Thomas Bentley. Bentley was already hampered by an inflated sense of self-esteem brought on by logging thousands of miles as a truck driver both in and out of the Army, but he also harbored a deep resentment towards me personally. I had been involved in a domestic disturbance call at his quarters late one Friday night and subsequently intervened in a scuffle he’d gotten into with his temporary barracks roommate a few nights later, so I knew that at some point there would be a showdown.
The clash came about during a field training exercise that had him detailed to stay back to repaint parking lines on the motor pool floor, a task that was possible only when most of the vehicles were out of the motor pool). Citing his aforementioned driving record he snarled that he was “a god-d*mn truck driver and not an f**king painter” then stormed out of the building to his five-ton tractor parked right outside. Feeling a bit irritated myself5 I followed him out to his truck, jumped on the running board, pulled open his door and as I assumed my best Duke stance6 barked:
“Get back in there and start painting, or I am going to kick your ass!”
“What – you’re gonna write me up?”
“No, I’m going to drag you out of that cab and literally kick your ass!”
Time slowed down to a crawl as he scowled at me – then he quickly switched off the truck and sped back inside. I trailed him with my own scowl but stopped at the door after he entered so he couldn’t see me collapse with pent-up tension and relief when a) he didn’t call my bluff and b) I’d avoided an ill-considered career-ending incident.
Something must have clicked because from that point onwards we had an uneasy truce, but despite that slight improvement life just got harder for Bentley. A few months later he was served with divorce papers in the middle of a work day7; given the domestic disturbances of the preceding months it came as no surprise to me, but the development visibly shook him. However I didn’t suspect the depth of his turmoil until my next round of technical inspections a couple of weeks later. As usual, each driver tried to one-up the next, but I knew the competition had kicked into high gear when I looked into the engine compartment of a five-ton truck and found all the copper fuel lines polished to near-solar brilliance with Brasso. I was a little surprised because the five-ton section held most of the grumblers who scoffed at “training stunts” – but I was even more surprised when after calling out “I’ve found a winner” I looked up at the driver behind the wheel to find Bentley with a slightly sad smile on his face.
It was the first positive measure I’d seen him take so I wasn’t completely shocked when he put in an application to attend a professional leadership course the following spring. The real jaw-dropper came about when he graduated first in his class then spent the rest of his tour as an outstanding soldier. He was transferred to another duty station close to the same time that I left the platoon for assignment to battalion staff, and as all the good-byes were being made I felt compelled to ask him what prompted the change.
“I dunno. Maybe I just got tired of kicking back. Maybe it was the ass-kicking that didn’t happen…or maybe it was because for the first time in my life somebody gave enough of a rat’s-ass to threaten an ass-kicking for a good reason.”
Other than a comical case of mistaken identity8 I never saw Bentley again. I assumed that he’d eventually end up in Minnesota or Wisconsin but according to the obit he returned to Alaska and became a commercial truck driver based out of Wasilla. He also remarried – and that time it stuck as a widow of some 20+ years was mentioned in the write-up. I was pleased that he finally had a happy ending, but I also had to smile at the two “happy facts” I’d learned from him; principles that served me well during the years ahead as I worked with young people in the military, academia, and Scouting:
Don’t give up on a “problem child” no matter how obnoxious they may be.
I had to stop using John Wayne as a template for leadership.
Play-doh: modeling compound intended for use by toddlers. First formulated as a wallpaper cleaner in the 1930s, it has been sold as a toy since 1956, is produced in several brilliant colors, and has a slightly musky vanilla like smell that was trademarked by the current manufacturer Hasbro in 2018.
Brasso: Metal polish designed to remove tarnish from brass, copper, chrome and stainless steel. Made up of ammonia and isopropyl alcohol. First sold in the UK in 1905, it has been the bane of an American G.I.’s existence since before the World War II.
Doug & Tony: Protagonists in the 1966 Irwin Allen sci-fi series The Time Tunnel.
SP4: Specialist Fourth Class. Junior enlisted paygrade equal to corporal but without the leadership role.
The post facilities engineers ran tests in the motor pool building the following spring that found a frightening number of exhaust fans non-operational. We’d been breathing dangerously elevated levels of CO1 (carbon monoxide) which was the likely cause ed for the high level of agitation most of the preceding winter.
Colonel Marlowe fromThe Horse Soldiers.
The MP (military policeman) serving the papers was quite arrogant and when questioned about the appropriateness of serving I the papers in Bentley’s workplace sneered “I can go anywhere on this post I want”. He wasn’t quite so arrogant a year later when he was reassigned to the battalion as a supply clerk, having been punitively reclassified after failing a drug test.
See 2003: “Have You Ever Heard of An Artist Named David Deitrick?”
Thought I haven’t written about it for quite awhile my Fireball XL5 reboot is never far from my heart and mind. Unfortunately, I am coming to the end of the named characters, so I’ll have to go through my DVD collection and come up with guest characters.
A lot was made of the fact that Space City is located on the equator on an island in the Pacific. Finding it has proved to be somewhat of a challenge as the “landing back on earth” sequences show a mirror image of South America with Brazil pointing to the West instead of the East. It looks like the Space City island is located roughly in the location the Galapagos islands exist in real life. How that works out with the reverse UNO card dealt to Brazil is beyond me.
Yep at this point I am definitely overthinking this, but while I was overthinking things it occurred to me that names on the personnel poster should reflect the Central/South American location so Commander Wilbur Zero became Commander Null Jade Jaguar of the Mayan contingent of the World Space Patrol complete with a pet flying serpent named Quetzalcoatl.
I am of a generational vintage that encouraged its members to alter reality, when in addition to weed and alcohol many of my peers experimented with LSD, peyote, and even dried banana skins in an effort to “get outside their heads”. That concept had little appeal to me – I may have a inherent twist to the way I view life, but it’s my twist (thank you) and I’ll keep it the way it was issued to me.
However, there are times when my reality has been changed without my intent, and it hasn’t been pleasant, to include ta miserable session I’ve just gone through. In an effort to more effectively deal with the symptoms that accompany ankylosing spondylitis one of my prescriptions was changed to a medication I hadn’t used in almost fifteen years, a medication that had disastrous side effects. To simply say that it brought on depression would be like saying the Great Chicago fire was a weenie roast. I would end up in a pit of despair so dark I didn’t want to just die – I wanted to be erased, and what was maddening about it all was I could think of no reason why I should be feeling so extraordinarily bad.
Fortunately, there was a light at the end of this particular tunnel. My Beautiful Saxon Princess literally (and lovingly) hovered over me and a miracle in scheduling got me in to see the doctor to get a change in medication. Once the change was made I was able to “dial it back” from soul-crushing despair to the regular day-to-day ennui that accompanies life as a sixty-seven-year-old with a chronic illness and I’m back to scribbling, sculpting and writing stuff like this.
…and I’ve also walked away with some very valuable insights:
I’ll never, ever take this particular medication again
Looking back I’m wondering if particularly bleak periods of my life may have been the result of this drug more than the craptivity of the situation itself.
It’s been a while since I’ve taken a look at this page, and I was surprised to see that the last time I posted anything was the 28th of last month – and while I long ago came to grips with the way time sprints even faster with each year, I was saddened that I haven’t been able to keep up with the race. I always figured that whether I was sitting at my desk in the studio or balancing a keyboard on my lap while curled up in my papa chair I would always be able to write.
Well, it looks like I may have been a little overoptimistic, but then I’ve had my share of distractions, with most of them involving health issues to include:
An upcoming Mohs treatment to deal with a trace of basal cell carcinoma on the tip of my nose.
An upcoming second injection of Covid-19
A change in pain management for my never-ending battle with ankylosing spondylitis is not going well.
…all of which means a marked uptick in pain, anxiety, and depression. I’m hoping that I will make my way through this particular rough patch, but I always wonder if this is the point at which I become bed-ridden or worse. I try to fight the fear but sometimes it gets ahead of me and all I can do is drift through the day and continue trying…which includes typing out something out like this.
In the same way marching a unit soldiers requires “marking time” – keeping step in the same place – to keep the parade running properly writing notes like this will hopefully keep me functioning until better days.
“Whaddya mean? Gus! Baby! (Sniff) – Its pure gold. Emmy material.”
“Maybe, but it’s not for me. I had to struggle just wading through the series treatment.”
“What’s not to like?”
“Are you kidding me? “COP ROCK 2025.” The original series was so bad that I can’t unsee it, but you’ve managed to make something so tasteless that I doubt even Fox would run it!”
“(sniff) Are you going to start whining about seeing Dennis Franz’ ass again?”
“For the record that was “NYPD Blue” – but I’d still take that image over suffering through Justin Bieber as Frank Furillo Jr. Holy hell Brandon, that’s yet another classic you’re butchering. I can’t work – I WON’T work on crap like this.”
A very unbrandonlike pause gave me just enough time to worry about the effect this conversation was having on my already troublesome blood pressure, but then he continued at a lower volume and slower rate.
“Yes, yes you can…and you will. (sniff) May I remind you that we have a contract and you still owe us a script?”
I knew at that point there was no getting through to this broadcast wunderkind any time soon so I mumbled something about time zones and headaches, hung up and slumped at my desk disgusted. Actually at this point “disgusted” was an understatement, but I wasn’t sure who I was more disgusted with – Brandon for his patently offensive series proposal, or me for prostituting my talents by working on the aforementioned offensive material.
What happened to the novel I was going to write?
When did I become such a whore?
Is there a word for what I’d become? Writer-whore? Wr-hore? Whorter?”
…I longed for (much) earlier days – university days when I wrote for myself and enjoyed what I did. I doffed my glasses and pinched the bridge of my nose as I wrestled with the fact that I was getting more depressed by the minute and needed to distract myself, so after replacing the lid on the container of mixed nuts that fueled my creative efforts, I grabbed the mouse and started clicking through websites. In most situations this would be every wife’s nightmare – it’s late at night and her husband is hunched over a computer, his attention riveted to images on a flickering screen, but in my case it wasn’t pornography fueling my imagination and causing my heart to race – it was Alaska creating the fantasies. At my age porn holds far less appeal than the thrill of vicariously revisiting the mountains, forests, and paths of my youth, but unfortunately the after-effects of this type of digital dalliance are just as debilitating as any erotic addiction. When I finally shut down my computer I was feeling so flat that Gina didn’t even notice when I crawled into bed beside her.
The Second Night
I forget the precise label to my geographic enabler – Google Earth, MapQuest, or one of several other virtually identical services providing a satellite’s-eye view of the earth’s surface so precise that instincts lingering from a previous incarnation as an intelligence officer screamed “Who the hell cleared this?” When I finally convinced myself that what I was seeing was not a breach of national security I started digitally exploring the various scenes of my youth, but then as is the case with all addictions, my gateway drug began to pale, and I graduated from the alleys of my Anchorage childhood to the “hard stuff” – close-up views of Fairbanks and the University. I don’t remember when I first found the camera aimed down Cushman Avenue but I do remember the thrill that came over me when I took in that modest skyline for the first time in five decades. The intersections had changed slightly, and captions told me that most of the buildings had changed owners and names several times, but as long as the Immaculate Conception Church was still on the east side of the road the scene was just familiar enough to make my heart skip a beat the same way it did the day Debbie helped me unpack my bags for my first year at the university.
My early childhood as a service brat meant that unlike some of my former high school classmates, moving five hundred miles away from home held no terror for me. If leaving home for college equated to some sort of symbolic death of adolescence, I’d been resurrected to an eighteen year old’s idea of heaven with plenty of beer every weekend, cool music playing all the time, a stone-cold fox for girlfriend, and no parental supervision.
The Third Night
While the task was far from easy, I was able to hammer the beginnings of a script out of Brandon’s craptacular concept. Unfortunately the task required ingestion of caffeine far in excess of any recommended levels so by the time I hit control-S I had a splitting headache bad enough to preclude any more cashew-crunching for the night…but as tired as I was I still felt drawn to the webcam aimed down that particular stretch of pavement in downtown Fairbanks. Getting a good day’s worth of word-crunching was always a mixed blessing: I was thankful I had an income, and if pressed I had to admit that what fame I did enjoy was …well, enjoyable, but I couldn’t help feeling that I could have done something better with my life. I rubbed my eyes, replaced my glasses, and looked back at the screen as the scene changed slightly – even though it’s referred to as a real-time view, it’s actually a series of still photographs that change almost imperceptivity, giving you something more like flipping through a sequence of still photos than live photography.
Half aloud I wondered, “How many times had I walked past that church?” – Which was followed immediately by the equally quasi-vocalized, “More times than I care to remember” – The long hair, boots, and tattered surplus parka made hitchhiking in subzero a hard sell no matter how innocuous the inane smiley face embroidered in yellow on the left shoulder. I’d walked down that street countless times because the university bookstore’s stock of girlfriend-getting ammunition was extremely limited, requiring frequent trinket runs into town, which in turn meant that I got to know that stretch of Cushman like the back of my hand…or mitten as the case may be. From what I could see on the screen, not much had changed over the years as there was no lack of scruffy people walking along under the gaze of the sub-arctic webcam, but I passed that off as yet another quirk of life in the Last Frontier. College kids down here in the lower 48 came surprisingly well equipped with cars, laptops and smartphones, but judging from what I saw, current Alaskan students would fit right in with us back in the day… even down to the long-haired figure in an Army surplus parka, blue jeans, and work boots that was crossing the screen as it powered down.
A cacophony of popping joints accompanied me as I slowly stood up from my chair and stepped over the now unused outdoor gear that littered the floor of my office towards the bedroom and my sleeping sweetheart. I felt the slightest twinge of guilt when I realized my memories of this patch of frost-heaved cement were substantially clearer than those of the streets around Gina’s first apartment, but driving an air-conditioned Trans-Am through Pawtucket in 1980 didn’t have nearly the same impact on my life as hitchhiking along a highway just three degrees south of the Arctic Circle ten years earlier….
The Fourth Night
The door was ajar, so I peeked in, assuming she’d been asleep for hours, but I’d figured wrong. An improbable “Hey G.I!. Me so horny love you long time!” hissed through the doorway followed by a throw pillow. I walked in, sat on the edge of the bed and whispered back: “…and here I’ve been thinking all along that it was student loans that paid your way through college!”
Gina elbowed her way up from reclining to semi-reclining, her long raven-colored hair spilling down across the pillows. She kissed me, then said “You’ve been spending a lot of time with that machine lately. Is there anything I need to be worried about?” I kissed her forehead then looked at her. In forty years I’d never done anything to cause those eyes to view me with reproach. I loved my wife more than life itself, but late-night digital forays came from a world that she never was a part of and knew nothing about.
“Naw. It’s no big deal. It’s just some barbarian warrior stuff Bernie and I have cooked up. Still trying to write our own version of Conan without Arnold Swartznegger. Bernie just wants to get my feedback on what he’s come up with so far.
“Gus!” It was long and drawn hiss out like a dying inner tube. “I don’t think any of you guys ever emotionally matured past nineteen. Still daydreaming about guys in fur jockstraps swinging swords and rescuing bimbos in metal underwear.” She planted a kiss on my cheek. “Just don’t stay up too late – you’re supposed to see the cardiologist tomorrow – remember?”
I left the room and headed towards my laptop. I thought: “Oh my God – I’ve just lied to Gina. I have never lied to Gina. Never. Ever!”
“What the hell is the matter with me? I’m acting like an addict hiding away his habit.”
Unfortunately as is the case with any drug used to excess, nostalgia can bring on unexpected damage. I can readily detect the warning signs for excessive use of alcohol or drugs, but reliving both the joy and pain of that time so long ago was doing more damage than anything I could have snorted, injected, or ingested, and by now it had brought on an elevated pulse and blood pressure that worried my doctor, but how could I explain that 2021’s heart issues had their origin fifty years earlier?
Without warning, the clock in the hall started to chime… eleven times. It was late, and the mild annoyance at meeting with my cardiologist so early in the morning wasn’t nearly as bothersome as the cold sweat brought on by just the mention of the word “stint,” but as I reached for the power button something showed up on the left side of the screen that stopped me mid-yawn. As the web cam image refreshed, a faint figure progressively became closer and clearer until it was distinct enough for me to make specific details:
Blue jeans and work boots
An army surplus parka with a yellow happy face embroidered on the shoulder.
The Fifth Night
It was a favor guaranteed to put a strain on any friendship – even a friendship a half century old – but there were compelling reasons Bernie was the only person I could call for help. For starters he had the insight brought on by the (slight) difference in our ages. When my primary goal in life was to meet William Shatner he had well-mapped out plans for a career in local government. While he and his girlfriend were exploring the Kama Sutra I was still wondering if Debbie’s new retainer would make French-kissing her taste metallic. Most importantly for this situation he was the only one of us to end up back living in Fairbanks, and by default, the only person I could call on to verify what I thought I was seeing. It was a tribute to his character that he agreed to help me out by waiting at the site of the web-cam and verifying what was visible over the Internet.
I started this latest legume-fueled session just as I had the previous four nights but when his red SUV was nowhere to be seen in the foreground of the web-cam’s image my ears began to boom with the trip-hammer heartbeat that always came with blood pressure climbing. Fortunately a panic-fueled volley of text messages established that he was in fact parked down in front of the office building, so close that upon inspection I could see that a thin red line – the front of his SUV’s hood – poked into the image area.
The rotating illuminated sign across the river first read a balmy -26o then announced that the appointed time had arrived. I tapped out a “see anything?” text on my phone which was answered almost immediately with a terse “Nope”. I screwed my eyes shut, pinched the bridge of my nose out of habit, and thought to myself “I’m going fricking crazy,” as my pulse and blood pressure went into a roller-coaster ride that couldn’t be doing me any good. A couple of key strokes gave me a slightly more distinct image …and a better view of a figure now moving past the church on the left, a hooded figure in the grey-green parka moving down the left side of the screen, passing Immaculate Conception Church in screen-refresh intervals. The harsh street light illumination and fog coming up off the river obscured details, but I definitely could see the damning yellow happy face grinning like a jaundiced maniac from his left shoulder.
Me: “Do you see him?”
Me: “A young guy in an old army parka.”
Me: “The way I used to look. Me. Him. Screw it.”
Our text-message badminton was abruptly cut short by an incoming FaceTime call from Bernie showing absolutely NO ONE walking along the sidewalk next to the church, while the continually refreshing web-cam showed the figure in the parka continuing to walk down the street and past the Immaculate Conception Church, until the last image when he/me turned, looked straight into the lens and flashed the peace sign.
The Sixth Night
I’m going to die tonight. I’ve lied to my wife and now I am mixed up with something right out of Twilight Zone – no, not Twilight Zone – Night Gallery because this is a whole lot scarier than Twilight Zone at this point, but I can’t pull myself away from my laptop, and now God is going to strike me down for lying to Gina.
My phone chirped out an incessant summons. but when Bernie’s number showed up on caller I.D., I sent the call directly to voice mail and reflected on my self-made bastard status. He was genuinely concerned after last night’s fiasco and knew better than most the toll it had taken on me and my heart…but there was no way I was going to walk away without at least a few questions answered. In purest cinematic fashion He/me appeared right on time and started walking down Cushman Avenue just like he had for the previous nights. I had ceased trying to make any sense of the situation but found it impossible to look away even though I could feel my pulse thunder in my ear and there was something terribly wrong with my left arm.
“Dammit! Not now. Not when I’m so close”
He/me slowed a bit before passing off screen to the left then he abruptly stopped, looked up into the webcam camera and pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket. He smiled and opened the sheet up to reveal neat block printing:
IT’S BEEN A GOOD LIFE, EH?
IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON.
…then he/me tucked the paper into his pocket and the he/me image started to break into pixilated shards, but as he walked past the church and out of view I found I couldn’t breathe. My inner Cro-Magnon howled at the merciless irony of a heart attack robbing me of closure to a half-century of heartbreak…then there was a kind of “huff” sound and I could breathe again. What I’d thought of as cardiac arrest was in fact a piece of Brazil nut that had gotten temporarily lodged “in the wrong pipe,” …and it turned out that the pain in my arm was brought on when the day pack slung on the back of my chair slid down with the strap catching and eventually numbing my arm.
I took a deep breath and felt a wave of warmth spill over my shoulders while the pins and needles in my arm slowly faded. It had been too easy to let the advancing years send me mentally and emotionally fleeing to that simpler and easier time in my life – and whether it was an episode of Night Gallery I was experiencing or not, I couldn’t take up permanent residence. If I’d been able to freeze the calendar at 1971 I’d have missed so much in my life: Gina, the kids, my career, the first time we saw Full Metal Jacket in Sensurround– hell, even After The Love is Gone by Earth, Wind and Fire, which had been inexplicably playing in my internal mix-tape since I first heard it five years after I left Fairbanks.
Whatever this anomaly may have been , it made me realize something I needed to accept: as comfortable and carefree as 1971 seemed from the vantage of the 21st century I would have been a much poorer man had there really been a way to break the dial of the cosmic TV set of life and just stayed in that place forever. After putting the lid back on the mixed nuts I clicked on the Arctic-Cam URL, deleted it, and went to bed.