As a service brat one of the first lessons I learned was the transitory nature of my ‘stuff’. As much as I’d like to always keep a favorite possession, there was always a certain amount of attrition among my toys and books. The trend continued into my adult life and other than a couple of paperback books and the suit I was married in there’s not a lot of stuff around here that dates its existence further back than 1983 – with the exception of one small object I have held on to with a death grip for almost fifty years. It’s small, maybe an inch wide at its broadest point and is made of enameled brass, and even though the enamel is chipped it holds more value to me than just about any other tangible possession. It’s the pin given to me at the conclusion of Alaska Boy’s State in June of 1970.
Boy’s (and Girl’s) State is a summer citizenship training seminar held for high school juniors and has been conducted in each state of the Union by the American Legion starting in 1935. My selection to the program was a fluke – up until the year of my eligibility, Boy’s State delegates from KCHS were selected by the principal and faculty from our school’s upper crust: athletic team captains, student body officers, and National Honor Society members. The new principal assigned to our school in the fall of 1969 changed the selection process to one based on a competition in public speaking, which was my only asset other than a slim portfolio for my time as a teacher’s aide in Physical Education,
As expected, our Boy’s State would be held on a campus, but unlike Alaska Girl’s State and most of the other programs in the nation we would meeting not at a college campus but at a boarding school in Copper Center, located near Glenallen (AK) and absolutely nothing else. Getting there was an adventure in its own right as we flew via puddle-jumper commuter airline to Anchorage where (in a nice foreshadowing of my military service) we would bunk in the National Guard Armory along with delegations that had flown up from the Panhandle. The next day we were bussed to Copper Center.
(School during Construction)
The school’s floor plan was based on an octagon with several wings radiating from the domed center structure each with a specific use such as:
(center hub interior)
(The view that met us as we left the bus)
Our arrival was marginally less stressful than arriving at bootcamp; as soon as we grounded our luggage in the parking lot we were immediately lined up for assignments to a dorm room with each floor designated as a political subdivision or city. We were allowed to name our cities, a decision the staff debated when one group adopted Yakadang which they swore was the term for ‘rotten fish’ in some obscure native dialect. We were also assigned a political party (the Pioneer Party in my case) and assigned to one of four schools of instruction:
- Government Executives
- Judicial Law
- Law Enforcement
Half of each day was taken up with instruction in those schools while the balance was used for general assemblies, (including astronaut John Swigert in one of his earliest post-Apollo 13 appearances) athletics, and in my case, work on the newspaper and election material. Boy’s State kept us busy…and when the incredibly good chow was factored into the equation it was easy to see why didn’t have much of chance to get homesick.
I was assigned to the House of Representative as part of the Legislative school and in yet another bit of foreshadowing I was designated as the house minutes clerk. During the day we’d conduct mock legislature, introducing and passing bills and making ersatz law in much the same manner as the ‘for real’ legislature did in Juneau. There was little spare time, but there were a few random holes open in the schedule when we could just hang out – and it was during those periods that I learned the most.
The first thing I learned was that there was a lot more divisiveness in the state than I had anticipated, beginning with the first session of the mock House of Representatives when a delegate from the Panhandle stood up and angrily urged all the delegates from outlying areas to band together against the Anchorage delegates as they “were all going to move the capital to Anchorage if it’s the last thing they do”. Guys from the larger metropolitan areas were much more politically minded in the Sixties sense of the word with much of their legislative efforts going towards condemning the war in Vietnam, condemning anti-ballistic missile systems as destabilizing the Cold War standoff and instituting social measures like population control and decriminalization of ‘victimless’ vice offenses.
At the other end of the spectrum were the delegates from the outlying Bush areas who were primarily concerned with very basic issues like housing and infrastructure. Fishing regulation was their hot topic and one discussion over international relations dissolved into a near brawl over Russian proclivity towards cutting Native fishermen’s nets and floats. As a delegate from one of the ‘in-betweens’ like Kenai, Palmer and Haines, I was a little lost – not much in common with the smaller places but culturally lagging behind the urban group by about ten years and not really hip enough to mix with them.
There was also an interesting schism between the service brats and those from a purely civilian background. At the time there was a proportionally much larger military presence in the state with three major installations each for the Army, Navy and Air Force. My status as the dependent of a retired service member (and Pearl Harbor survivor) was the one arrow in my professional quiver and I made sure to network with every service brat I could identify.
There was the inevitable booze party planned, oddly enough by one of the local Glenallen delegates rather than one of the more sophisticated Anchorage guys. My one claim to Boy’s State fame came about because of that party: I’d been washing-up in the restroom during the party planning session but noticed a chaperone slip out after the discussion, having gone unnoticed while occupying one of the bathroom stalls. The heads-up I then gave the ringleaders earned me a bit of public ridicule, but each ringleader later thanked me for keeping them all out of trouble.
The week wound up with elections and selections: state officers from Governor on down were elected from the Boy’s State general population and the two delegates to Boy’s Nation in Washington DC were elected from a short list prepared by the program administrators. Out-processing and the backhaul home were a mirror image reversal of the trip to Glenallen eight days earlier and before I really knew it I was back sprawled on my bunk in my attic loft bedroom in Sterling listening to my stereo…but this time my biggest concern wasn’t whether the new Blood, Sweat and Tears album was as good as the previous one.
For the first time in my life I was seriously concerned about my future.
My trip to Boy’s State had been based on wanting “something to do for summer vacation” and while I had a great time at Copper Center I was totally blown away by the manner in which my fellow delegates were preparing for their future, not just in terms of good grades but in real-life experience like internships and pursuit of appointments to West Point and Annapolis. They shared many of my values but were really doing something instead of just listening to music and drawing barbarians and superheroes.
That one real life-skill that got me into Boy’s State? I went into the experience thinking I was a pretty good speaker, but after listening to all the speeches given at Boy’s State I realized that I was in fact a shallow bulls**t artist that ran out of steam after three to five minutes – and while this might sound overly self-critical, thinking about it got me going in the right direction in life, though it was four more years before my change in course was complete.
Another benefit had to do with career choice: after wading through the complexities of the legislative process I became interested in the law and during my final year of high school and first year of college I was planning on a legal career. Obviously that wasn’t the path I took in life, but something must have taken root because both of my sons are practicing attorneys now.
(Senior portrait taken the following September)