1962: Surf’s Up!

Sunny beach

After a grueling two-week road trip, it was no surprise that I had been asleep when we arrived, which in turn meant that I was understandably disoriented upon waking up in a place I’d never seen before. The room was in chaos with little sisters snuggled in sleeping bags tucked in between stacks of cardboard boxes. Other than a clock reading 5:00 the walls were bare but as I looked out the window the sky was much too bright for five in the morning. I shook my head and sat back bewildered until I remembered where we’d been headed during those fourteen days on the road.

We’d finally made it to Alaska.

The move north had been a long, complicated process that started with a movie the previous winter. My parents were serious John Wayne fans and when North to Alaska came to town they bundled us all up in the station wagon for a family night at the theater.  My parents had very different reactions to the show; Mom thought it was great simply because it featured the Duke, but Dad spent the two hours and two minutes making editorial comments about location shots – and that’s when we learned that ten years earlier he’d been stationed at Kodiak Naval Air Station. He laughed and said “So, what would you all think about moving to Alaska?” to which in turn we all laughed, then immediately went into a discussion about Ernie Kovacs sliding down the muddy hill, forgetting Dad’s question.

….so, it’s understandable that we were all surprised when two months later he informed us that we were moving to Alaska. He had managed to get a transfer from the state employment office he was currently working at to an equivalent agency office in Juneau (AK)…and not only was this short notice, the move itself was going to be a short-fused operation. In about a month he would head north driving his old Ford truck loaded with some of our larger possessions and our two dogs while we would go live with my grandmother in Grass Valley (CA) until he came back in August to drive the rest of us up in our station wagon.

The move went as planned but for two changes that came about in mid-summer.

  • Grandma Ester hit a saturation point for having kids underfoot so around the Fourth of July we relocated to my great grandmother Hilda’s home in Nevada City.
  • Dad was transferred (with a raise) from the main office in Juneau to the state’s largest office in Anchorage.

So, it turned out that Anchorage was our destination when we left California in early August of 1962.  I remember just a few details about the trip – but then what would be truly memorable about two weeks crammed in the cargo area of a 1960 Ford Falcon compact station wagon, two weeks that included two thousand miles of gravel road?

High points included:

  • A frustrated breakfast in Fort Nelson (the free toy offer on the back of the cereal box was open only to Canadian citizens.)
  • A Rocky & Bullwinkle comic my mom bought for me in Dawson Creek.
  • A plastic RMCP Mountie statuette my father bought for me in Fort St. John.

Mostly I remember the seemingly endless unpaved part of the highway.  Any other summer I would have rejoiced in a never- ending string of sunny days, but this time the lack of rain meant a bumper crop of dust, and while you’d assume that with such a small interior space our Falcon would be uniformly dirty, my section (the “berry back”) was the grimiest space in the whole car.  To hasten the passage of time I found myself sleeping as much as possible which was why I was dead to the world when we finally arrived at our Garfield street duplex apartment in Anchorage Alaska.

I couldn’t wait to get up and explore our new home turf and was so excited dressing I kept putting both feet into the same trouser leg. All I could think about was the beach! On the long drive north, Dad hadn’t said much about life in Anchorage but in the months leading up to the move I had learned that Anchorage was bordered on two sides by the ocean. KA-CHING! All I could think about were the three golden months we’d spent in San Diego two years earlier and how much I loved our weekends on the beach.

In the meantime, the beach could wait because there were so many other things to do, activities that I’d missed out on while living out in Little Shasta Valley.  To begin with I was starting fourth grade at Willowcrest Elementary which entailed a lot more than the social issues involved in going from a one room country school to a contemporary single-grade school class with thirty kids. Classwork at Willowcrest took a hefty step up in difficulty (arithmetic became mathematics) as Anchorage schools put a heavier emphasis on preparation for junior high.

I also got a job helping an older boy with his paper route for two weeks…until I used those newly acquired math skills to figure out that I was doing most of the work while he was getting most of the money. Cub Scouts also took up a lot of my time as I was starting a year later than usual and had to pass  all the Wolf requirements before joining in with my buddies working on the Bear badge, It was under the guise of passing off some Cub achievements  that I proposed a family outing to  Bird Creek, which according to the road map I picked up at the Chevron station was located within walking distance of  Turnagain Arm – you know the seashore.

The ocean.

Golden sand and blue skies here I come.

Dad agreed that a family outing was a good idea and would give us a good look at our new home so the next Saturday found us driving down the Seward Highway for a bit then pulling over to a parking area on the northwest side of the road. From what I could see on the trip  it looked like the tide was in but the view from our parking spot was partially blocked by the raised road bed and  a stand of willows on the other side. The best I could get was a glimpse of the ocean underneath the bridge and again all I saw was sunlight flickering on the water.

The day was beautiful in that golden manner unique to autumn in Alaska and was the first time I encountered that unusual acrid smell in the fall air that comes about from a combination of decaying leaves and cranberries.  While dad fished I climbed up the giant boulders that my classmates had forewarned me about and then  explored a couple of side trails – I got so caught up in that adventure I almost forgot  the real reason for the trip – the beach.

I ran over and started pestering dad, whining in that paint-peeling, glass-etching frequency that that only  a nine-year old boy’s vocal chords  can create. Admitting defeat Dad collected his  fishing tackle,  checked his watch, muttered about tides then sighed as we started towards the ocean. Keeping an eye out on both lanes he started to walk me across the highway, but something snapped the minute we crossed the center line and I shook lose his hand to run  the rest of the way by myself, bursting through the tree line at full tilt.

Between leaves slapping me during that transit and a day’s worth of staring into a sunlit sky my vision was kind of hazy, but I could see that the beach looked awfully dark and “funny-looking” to be sand-covered. My pace faltered for a fraction of a second but then I remembered reading somewhere about black sand in Iceland, Hawaii or New Jersey and picked up the pace to sprint level again.

As I hit that last yard I broke into a broad jump but as I was flying through the air the “funny-look” issue finally came together for me. The beach looked wet and shiny.

SPLAT!

Everything went black. Well, actually it wasn’t so much black as greyish brown. A sticky slimy greyish-brown. I was covered with the slimiest, stickiest gooiest mud I’d ever encountered in my short life that looked and felt like a mixture of chocolate pudding, axle grease and something out of my baby sister’s diaper after she’d eaten pureed liver.

Where the hell was my beach – my beautiful sandy beach?

I tried throwing a tantrum but all I did was fall back down into the mud. I got in a couple more attempts before Dad showed up with some rags and helped me scrub off the worst of the mud. While he was doing so he began to explain in very basic terms the reasons for the lack of sand – or more precisely the reason for the sticky mud. He pointed out the glaciers and talked about the silt that drifted down in the streams. He pointed out where high tide would reach and told me about the bore tides. In general, he spent about 20 un-Dad-like minutes getting my mind off the junk smeared all over me so the  squish-squish-squish walk back to the car wasn’t as miserable as I thought it would be.

I sulked all the way home and continued to do so while my mom stripped off my muddy clothes and dropped me in the tub, but while the mud washed away my disappointment lingered. As days went by the sadness lessened a bit, it didn’t completely go away and it wasn’t until Pack meeting the following week that I figured out why.

I was having so much fun with skits and games that I forgot to sulk; when we took a break the blues reappeared and at that point  I had one of my first fifty-year-old-man-in-kid’s-body insights. It wasn’t the ocean or the sand that I was feeling sad about – I was homesick. I had lots of new friends and lots of cool things to do in Anchorage, but my cousins and old friends were thousand miles south now and it didn’t look like we were heading home any time soon. It was going to take a bit longer to wash away those blues  than it took to wash out the browns and greys of the mud.

mudflats

1962: Arctic Armor

Mention the Trojan War and most people think of the contoured body armor worn by all the combatants – breastplates, greaves and armbands made to look like the ideal version of human musculature. You look so good in it that you don’t want to take it off – even for a lunch break or a trip to the “loo” – which is exactly why Michael Keaton would routinely “hold it” rather than change out of his body suit of similar construction during the filming of the 1989 version of Batman.

Do a little research and you will find that the people besieging Troy were actually Mycenaeans – predecessors to the Greeks with a much less impressive military wardrobe. Instead of form fitting suits resembling Michael Keaton’s Batman armor, Mycenean technology limited their suits of armor to cylindrical components lashed and riveted together in less-than-totally-functional armor. As they marched to battle they looked more like the Michelin Man than Batman.

I ended up in a similar situation during my first winter in Alaska. None of our family members anticipated weather-related clothing problems – after all we had extensive experience with chilly winter weather after surviving  three entire years in the Little Shasta Valley located on the California/Oregon border. We got at least four or five days of snow a year which often persisted through the night to a second day, so we weren’t exactly rookies when it came to be dressing for warmth.

Indeed, Mom’s expression was the very essence of smug as she showed me a picture of my first Alaskan winter coat as sold through the JC Penny’s catalog.  She was delighted; the listing showed a roomy and well insulated olive-green winter coat complete with vinyl shell and detachable hood, cut long enough for coverage to my knees.  I was not equally entranced – a garment made of polyvinyl plastic might work fine with my Rocky and Bullwinkle Color-forms set but that trendy acrylic wash rendering didn’t fool me for one second – It was one of the most hideous, least functional garments I had ever seen and for some reason I took to calling it simply Ugly Coat.

I should have taken note of the small inset black and white photo of an Oriental boy modeling Ugly Coat in the catalog because it would have given me a better sense of size and cut –  not even the Army would ever give me a garment that fit so poorly in so many places. Rather than reaching my thigh the bottom of the garment barely overlapped the waistband of my trousers. The hood was so small that I had to tie the drawstring under my lip and none of the zippers or openings were lined to keep out the wind…and as I was still sporting the bright red hair of my toddler days donning that plastic monstrosity had me looking like a Spanish olive stuffed with a pimento.

…but lurid color would prove to be Ugly Coat’s smallest drawback – as daily temperatures plunged well past the mild chill we’d experienced in California I found  that in arctic weather vinyl freezes stiff and becomes very difficult to bend – and will eventually crack at bending points.  By Christmas time I looked like a Landsknecht mercenary wearing looted, slashed clothing as I moved about in the snow, my shirt and trousers flapping through the long cracks in the vinyl.

I considered just staying inside all the time but with only a single Mighty Mouse program on Saturday TV, , the only thing close to weekend kid video entertainment was mocking commentary that we made for  the announcers on ABC Wide World of Sports.  It started out as pure sarcasmm , but as I watched over the weekends I slowly developed an interest in winter sports, By Thanksgiving I was eager to master as many events as I could, unaware that Ugly Coat was going to spend the next five months working to keep me from doing just that.

Our family’s “all for one /one for all” motto meant that no one was going to get decent skates anytime soon, so a lack of suitable equipment forced me into a reasonable facsimile of skating through running and sliding on the ice in front of the 11th Avenue/ E Street chapel. If I left the building right as Sunday School ended I could get in ten minutes of faux-skating before we left for home; The smooth leather soles of my Sunday shoes were nice and slippery, and I soon learned that by adjusting my stance and center of gravity I could  stay both vertical and cover a good distance.

Unfortunately, the day came when the temperature took a nose-dive and I had to wear Ugly Coat over my church clothes. The closing “Amen” had barely left our lips as I hit the front door at a dead run, my legs  churning even before I reached the front sidewalk – but as I launched into my slide I discovered something was dreadfully wrong: It was almost impossible for me to move or bend in that frozen vinyl shell.  Any sort of course correction was impossible and within seconds I was in serious trouble, spinning and sliding along towards a frozen berm to one side.

I softly chuckled in relief.  “A nice soft snow bank” I thought to myself, magnanimously accepting second place in Olympic Sidewalk Sliding. I should be so lucky. I hit the berm sliding backwards and the heels of my feet hit the edge of the sidewalk and caused me to do the splits…the Chinese splits. My legs shot out sideways, my kiester hit the icy pavement and I pulled muscles in places that I didn’t know I had muscles…or even places.  My folks took me home immediately and put me in a tub of the hottest water I could stand but neither hot water or liberal applications of Ben-Gay seemed to help. I couldn’t walk properly for the next ten days and to resort to short hops and sideways shuffles to get around the house or classroom.

The three weeks spent hors de combat after the Chinese splits incident cut heavily into the time available for marking winter sports off my list, but my prospects got better when we started sledding after our weekly Cub den meeting.  Bobsledding was another favorite from the ABC Wide World of Sports and while there wasn’t a total hardware matchup a regular runner sled seemed a suitable substitute, especially when I was teamed up with Robby Gray.

Robby  was as thin as I was hefty, but our den chief Calvin had us stacked on the sled in such a way that disparity in weight was put to good use during our downhill run.…which again proved to be false hope from the very first starting push. As we slipped, slid and pirouetted down the track it was obvious that once again I was in first in line for  the “agony of defeat” category. Robby was able to bail out in time but once gain Ugly Coat proved my undoing. A strategically placed crack in the vinyl snagged on a corner of the wooden seat just long enough to ensure that my full weight was behind my right foot as it hit the fence post at the bottom of the run.

From that moment on I made my discomfort very verbally apparent but after three days of percussive counseling Mom relented and took me to the emergency room where she was horrified to discover her diagnosis had been incorrect. I really WAS hurt, despite her curt sniff to the charge nurse that I was making a mountain out of a molehill.  Initial inspection revealed that the “little baby bruise” was in fact one or more broken bones in the flat of my right foot. After a subsequent inspection by the doctor an Air Force medic slapped a plaster cast on my leg to support a considerable injury consisting of three broken metatarsals, during which my mother cuddled me in her lap and whispered sweet little maternal wishes of reassurance in my ear. (1)

As we drove home all I could think about was the upcoming four weeks that I would be spending in a cast, watching the hours of sunlight lengthen while the snow steadily melted. It seemed like my luck had run out when the day before my cast was to be removed an article in the Anchorage Daily Times announced that the Lake Hood skating area had melted past the point of safety.

I was undeterred and remained sure that I could mark “ice skating” off my list with just a few more sessions on the family rink3 Use of the word “rink” was charity of my part; what we had was in fact three large uneven blogs of ice blobbed together, the whole thing looking like a giant frozen amoeba. The idea that people would groom, and smooth ice never occurred to me (2) just as I had never thought to flatten and level the ground underneath the ice – I just found a part of the lawn that was closest to being level and started to haul buckets of water one evening. It was used only on nights we couldn’t get to Lake Hood and now looked to serve as a last-ditch substitute since the weather was getting warmer.…in fact the undulating surface of the rink added an element of novelty; any one could skate on level ice but only a real sportsman could negotiate our bumps and swerves – at least that’s what I was telling myself on that last night of the 1962-63 winter sports season.

…but to be totally honest melting ice wasn’t the only reason I liked to skate on the family rink. In my ignorance I had committed the most heinous of sins when getting my first pair of skates – instead of getting those bastions of testosterone-laden footwear otherwise known as hockey skates I’d picked up a pair of figure skates.

…. otherwise known as “girl skates”

The simple act of owning them was bad enough, but possession also capped off the preexisting charge of insufficient fourth-grader misogynism brought about by my excessive number of sisters and a fleeting romance earlier that winter(3). A confined and bumpy skating area was a small price to pay for protection from such withering retorts as “TWO-LITTLE-LOVEBIRDS-SITTING-IN-THE-TREE / K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”. Lacking those crude distractions, I could slowly circumnavigate the small splotch of ice, the chill tweaking my nose, the Northern Lights presenting a light show and-

KA-SNICK!

 THUD!

“OWWWWWW!”

I’d been so caught up in the beauty of the night sky that I had failed to keep a proper look-out and hit one of the mid-rink ridges at an awkward angle. I tried to retain my balance, but Ugly Coat’s stiff frozen polyvinyl chloride carapace prevented any attempt at a wind milling recovery and down I went to fall flat on my behind on the ice.

I should be so lucky.

Instead of a flat fall one of my legs had buckled and folded underneath me, the sharp trailing end of the skate blade on that leg passing through the only break in that area of Ugly Coat’s vinyl shell. Lloyd Bridges on Sea Hunt couldn’t have skewered a shark with a spear gun any better than that skate blade pierced my “cheek” that night.

Memories of my transit indoors from the rink are fuzzy but one thing I am sure of: that coat was gone. I must have ditched it in the garbage barrel on the way in and until the weather got warmer I relied on sweaters and long underwear and played indoors as much as possible.

I was also very involved in the purchasing process of my winter coat the following year. It was made of thick but pliable-under-all-temperatures cotton, had a looser fit but thicker insulation and truly did reach down to mid-thigh. The hood was an interesting design – it normally lay like a short cap across my shoulders and upper back, but the zipper ran from my neck to the apex of the hood, turning into something resembling an elongated point on medieval serf’s hood. It gave a slight “pixie” vibe to the garment but I didn’t care.

It might be 100% total dweeb wear, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t out to get me.

 

——————————————————————————————————————————

  1. “…if you ever tell anyone I HAD YOU walking on a fractured foot for three days I WILL KILL YOU!”  …did I mention she was very proud of her status as a registered nurse (vs LPN) with a four-year degree from a WW2 Army cadet program?

2. I thought “Zamboni” referred to a recipe for Italian veal.

3.  See 1963: A Question of Cooties

 

[MG1]

1962: Gary’s Birthday Party

scan0001Most folks tried at least once as a kid to play one parent off another. As for me:  My spider-sense went off at full volume the first time I heard a friend talk about asking for a “yes” from one parent when the other parent had already given a “no”; that sort of action would have earned me an instantly butt-kicking so the idea never really came to mind on its own. However I finally tried it, but only after being goaded mercilessly (see Wikipedia entry “peer pressure”). I got caught in the deception almost immediately and was punished “almost immediately” as well.  It wasn’t a kicking my butt got, but it was close enough.

After some analysis and interpretation (a spook even as a kid!) after the swelling went down I reasoned that there could be an alternate method.  By trial and error I figured out that that if I wanted to get permission to go some place Dad was the person to ask.  At the same time you could forget asking him for any sort of “financial backing” – so if I needed money Mom was the “go-to” parent – in fact she was pretty open about the difference between the two types of permission. The system worked well for most of my youth, but sometimes  there were situations  that required special handling- times where I needed both pocket money and the “dad-passport” to wander all over town unimpeded. Such was the situation when I got invited to my cousin Gary’s birthday party – when I had to put a  bit of a spin on the usual route to gaining permission to roam.

It was in 1962 when we were living alternately with my Grandma Esther in Grass Valley, California and Great Hilda (my great grandmother) in Nevada City – also in California. We were waiting for Dad to come down and move us to Alaska; he had been hired by the employment service up there and had gone up earlier in the year to get things set up before the whole clan made the move. As I said I was invited to my cousin Gary’s birthday bash; Aunt Doris and Uncle Roy had set up a party for him at one of the many ice cream parlors that lined the bottom of the main street as you first got into town. That was simple enough, but there was a wrinkle, a statue in a small park a couple of blocks east of the party site with a statue of a soldier shooting what looked to be a machine gun, and I wanted a closer look. I had just moved out of my Civil War phase into a World War 2 phase and up to this point all I had for reference were comics – hence my interest in the statue.

Unfortunately I knew there was no way I could talk anyone into talking me down to look closely at the statue, so this party was my golden opportunity. When quizzed about the logistics of the event I assured my mom that Uncle Roy would make sure I got to the party – but when I talked to Uncle Roy I gave a fuzzy answer that basically meant  I’d show up at the scheduled time  – without going into details. I assumed (correctly)that they’d all be too concerned with getting the event going to double-check on me.

The day finally came and I took off for the party. Unfortunately I have always struggled with processing the passage of time and even though it was a down-hill trip it took me a little longer to get to the soldier with the machine gun than I had thought. As I said before I was just then developing an interest in World War 2 and my knowledge was very limited, but even so it didn’t take me too long to realize that the “soldier” with the “machine gun “was in fact a mine worker using a water cannon to loosen dirt and rock as part of the gold dredging process that had been so prevalent in the area in an earlier time.

I fussed and fumed – though my disappointment with the statue was nothing compared to my disappointment with myself…then with a start I realized that with Uncle Roy’s strong left-brain sense of punctuality the party would have already started and anyone that may have been standing on the sidewalk – waving in late arrivals like myself – would have gone into the ice cream parlor for the festivities. I‘d have to figure this out on my own.

I ducked into the first place I saw.  My heart leapt – there was a party going on! My heart sank – everyone was Chinese. I edged my way back out into the street trying to erase any sort of excited Caucasian expression that would instantly show me up as a fraud in the wrong party and walked up to the next shop.

There was no heart leaping at this place; there had been a party but it was over and the store employees were cleaning up. I walked back outside, my lip trembling and a curse in my heart for the fake machine-gunner/water cannoneer who made me late when I heard the unmistakable sounds of a kid-party at the third parlor up the street.

I ran up the street and inside the door to find a spectacular view of cake and ice cream dished up and party favors sitting out for all the attendees. There was music playing, all sorts of party games going and there was a huge crowd of kids, but then I figured that my uncle Roy knew everyone in town from the mayor on down. As an out-of-towner I wasn’t worried about the fact that I didn’t know any of the other kids,until after an  hour or so when I realized that I didn’t recognize anyone. I didn’t see my cousins or my Aunt Doris and Uncle Roy…and when they introduced the very non-Garyish birthday dark-haired boy I knew that I was in the wrong party. I quietly finished my ice-cream and cake, cleaned up my plates and utensils and edged my way out the door.

At this point I was pretty much of the “screw the party” frame of mind. I was tired, my feet were sore from all the walking and as it looked like I was going to be late getting home it would be my behind and not my feet that would end up the most sore.  I groaned a bit and had just turned towards home when I heard “Gus – GUS! Where ya been?” It was Gary, yelling from the door of what was the final ice cream parlor, the one hosting Gary’s party and after a short lecture from Uncle Roy about punctuality and manners I tucked in yet another serving of ice cream and cake and scored another set of party favors.

As I was drifting off to sleep later that night I thought back to how the day had gone. Yes, my feet were still sore from all the walking, I was disappointed about the statue, and there was some mild residual embarrassment from ending up in the wrong parties. However on the plus side I‘d gotten two servings of ice cream and cake, I got to hear Happy Birthday sung in Chinese, but most importantly Uncle Roy and Aunt Doris just dropped me off instead of coming in to visit when they drove me home. My mom remained unaware about my little deception and as a result my behind remained “un-spanked” that night.