1963 Turnagain Terror Trail

This week’s entry in the run-it-again sweepstakes!

David R. Deitrick, Designer

BikeInTree

Though my days of active hiking and biking over trails are behind me, I still find that I enjoy vicarious trail-bashing – looking over trails on a map and reading accounts of routes covered on foot or on bike by active sloggers. When my collection of topographic maps gets a little stale I turn to any one of the countless mountain biking websites containing various lists of superlatives such as “most scenic bike trail”,  “longest bike trail” and my favorite – “most dangerous bike trail” all of which are much easier to navigate via lap-top than in the saddle. As I surf the ‘net more and more it looks like Colorado’s Barr trail has a lock on the bike-specific dangerous paths. It climbs 7500 feet over 13 miles of widely diverse terrain and riders are warned to prepare for more than one weather state during their sojourn. The view –…

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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.

 

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  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]

1963: A Question of Cooties

It seems the minute modern medicine eliminated smallpox we were inflicted with an assortment of terrible diseases such as AIDS, Ebola, Swine flu, Bird flu and now this latest scourge Zika. Truth be told illnesses take more lives than any other cause of death –more doughboys in France died from swine flu during the Great War than were taken down by the Kaiser’s marksmen. However, as scary as all these diseases are they all pale in comparison to the most murderous epidemic of all:

The Great Cootie Plague of 1963.

Every male member of Mrs. Blinzler’s fourth grade class – nay, of the entire population of Woodland Park school lived in terror of contracting the cooties and would gladly undergo the painful “cootie shot” the minute the ailment was contracted i.e. he was touched by a (gasp) girl.

(*Cootie shot procedure: The individual administering the medication makes his right hand into a fist with the middle-finger extended but bent  at the second knuckle….like you were starting to “flip the bird” but changed your mind half-way through the procedure. The resulting protuberance is then “slugged” into the receiver’s arm, hopefully with enough force to cause a bruise, which was your “get out of jail free” card from further cootie shots.)

The whole girls-are-snot-gobbing-cootie-carriers dominated young male conversation up until our voices all began to deepen but I was always suspect in the eyes of my friends because of the number of sisters I had. Kid logic dictated that living with four females precluded true antipathy – but family composition wasn’t the most potentially damning factor in the equation.

I was under the suspicion of having a girl friend.

In a nice bit of foreshadowing her name was Lynne, and to this day I have no idea what it was about me that was so attractive.  Maybe it was the uniform – it was fourth grade, and once a week I would swagger into the classroom in my Cub Scout uniform covered with pins, embroidered badges and metallic cloth arrowheads – the sure mark of a true Cub veteran.  Maybe it was compassion – I had just recently had a cast removed after having broken three bones in my foot while sledding but was required to use crutches intermittently during the day until the healing process was judged complete.  It could have been a dozen other things – all I knew was that one day as I walked back from the pencil sharpener I found a note on my desk.

“Dear David” it read, “I think you are nice. Do you think I am nice? Please check one of the boxes for your answer. Yours Truly, Lynne”…and at the bottom of the note were two carefully drawn boxes, one labeled “yes” and the other labeled “no”. I looked around and saw a brown-haired girl with a red head band sitting two rows over and four seats back, looking at me and grinning. What I didn’t notice were the other girls sitting around her giggling and whispering behind their hands.

The romance progressed along similar lines of correspondence:

  •  “David – I like you. Do you like me? Please check one of the boxes for your answer.  Yours truly, Lynne”
  •  “David – I want you to be my boyfriend. Do you want me to be your girlfriend? Please check one of the boxes for your answer.  Yours truly, Lynne”

 Then came the bombshell:

  •  “David – I love you. Do you love me? Please check one of the boxes for your answer.  Yours truly, Lynne” … only this time there was only a “yes” box on the note.

It wouldn’t be the last time I was pressed into walking the tightrope that stretched from a young lady’s expectations to mine. I can’t remember my exact response – something about not being able to afford a mortgage on a fourth-grader’s allowance – but we managed to put together a workable relationship.

Between the two of us things were OK; it was just coping with the people around us that came problematic. It was like living in a sub-arctic version of “West Side Story”. We couldn’t openly show any sort of affection so we found ways to get around the rigid elementary school gender stratification.

For example, while she lived on the opposite side of the school from me, her home was in the same neighborhood as the place where my Cub Scout den meetings were held each Thursday. We would walk on opposite sides of the road until all the other kids cleared out, then we’d walk together until we reached her house.

Occasionally Woodland Park would show movies as fundraisers, showing them in the multipurpose room on Friday nights and charging a quarter a head for Hollywood classics like Red Nichols and his Five Pennies starring Danny Kaye. When the house lights went down Lynne and I would quietly slide our chairs together for some passion-filled popcorn sharing.

That same multipurpose room was at times a rendezvous point during daylight hours as well. Boys and girls did not routinely play together during recess but when the weather was really bad we had organized physical education activities in the multipurpose room which included square dancing…and it was just amazing how a “random” count-off for partners could consistently result in Lynne and me dancing together week after week.

These measures helped us keep our slightly-more-than friendship intact through the end of the school year despite efforts of the other guys to find proof of gender-treason, efforts that made the Spanish Inquisition seem like the work of rank amateurs.

Unfortunately the one thing we couldn’t combat was bureaucracy; a new elementary school was built south of our neighborhood and Lynne was zoned to attend it the next year. Despite promises to keep in touch, the gulf that separated our neighborhoods (otherwise known as Spenard Road) was just too expansive to overcome, and any prospect of continuing into junior high was squelched when my family moved to the Kenai Peninsula the year after that.

Time went by and I passed through high school and college, and then went into the Army. In the fall of 1980 I was assigned as a second lieutenant to FT Richardson (now a part of JB Elemendorf/Richardson) just outside city limits on the other side of Anchorage from Spenard. By that time Woodland Park Elementary School had been closed, but the building was being used as a neighborhood recreation center, which is why I ended up there one week-night to practice with a pipe band.

After practice I drove around the old neighborhood, marveling at how small everything looked in comparison to the way it did not-quite twenty years earlier. Suddenly the low-fuel light flashed on and jolted me out of my reverie so I stopped at little gas station, pumped some gas and went in to pay. While waiting for the cashier, I noticed a brunette about my same vintage standing ahead of me in line. After completing her transaction she turned to go and as she walked past she flashed me smile.

“No way,” I thought. “She’d have gone off to college in the lower 48 and married some guy from Indiana” – but I couldn’t help but think that there was something familiar about that smile. The fact that Harry Chapin’s classic ballad Taxi was playing on the radio as I started up my car may have contributed to that line of thought, but nevertheless, I took a slight detour on the way back home that night. It seemed like a perfect time to revisit a narrow lane in deepest, darkest Spenard where two nine-year old lovebirds had walked and talked hand-in-hand so many years ago.

The Lieutenant (NBC 1963-64)

Few people realize that Star Trek was not the first television series that Gene Roddenberry created and produced. The Lieutenant aired during the 1963-64 season and was every bit as thoughtful and well-written as the original adventures of Captain Kirk and company. It was also just as piercing on a sociological level; one hard-hitting episode dealing with race relations was rejected by the network, but Roddenberry ran it anyway and caught h*ll for the decision later on. That incident was the real reason Trek was such a hard sell; it was just as much Roddenberry-as-loose-cannon as the subject matter that made the NBC  suits  drag their feet.

It’s one of my favorites – it’s a show about the unique challenges of a peace-time military which I could definitely identify with. It was also one of the few common interests my dad and I had. Even when I was only ten years old we existed on the same planet but lived in different worlds – but we watched every episode together during that first run. A lot of my troop-leading philosophy came from listening to my dad’s comments while we watched The Lieutenant – he had only been out of the navy four or five years after retiring as a chief petty officer in the navy so the experience was still fresh.

I bought the entire series on DVD but many of the episodes are on YouTube or other network sites.

1963: He’s A Cool, Cool Cowboy

One of my most prized possessions is the cabinet to an eighty-year old RCA Victor radio …and you did read that sentence correctly; it’s not the actual radio but the wooden box that used to hold a working device. It’s a beautiful example of Art Deco styling made of warm colored wood with dark Bakelite (cellulose-based plastic) trim and a large cloth speaker panel located in the center. Just below the speaker is a glass frequency gauge that would glow softly when the radio was on – and for the entire two years we lived in Anchorage it was on a lot.  I listened to that radio every night without fail.

I miss AM radio – not the jungle of evangelists, sports talk and conservative ranting we have now but that magic ethereal net of music and words that held us all together years ago.  It might seem that I am a little young for “the golden age of radio” but growing up in early 1960s south-central Alaska made for an entertainment situation similar to that of the nation as a whole 30 years earlier. Radio filled the void made by the lack of day-time television in Anchorage, and on the weekends stations would play repeats of the old classic radio shows like “Jack Armstrong : All American Boy” and “Dragnet”.

…and as I said, AM radio was my companion during the weeknights as well. Our home in Spenard was tiny, an older place built when the high cost of building supplies and heating oil favored small homes, so my three younger siblings and I were bunked (literally) in one small room. In that situation pushing a string would be easier than getting us to settle down at night so Mom would leave the radio set at low volume, desperately hoping it would lull us to sleep.

That worked for my three younger sisters but for me it had the opposite effect – there was too much excitement involved with the radio. To begin with there were the lights; in addition to the frequency selection bands there were two lights at either end of the preset bands, one red and the other blue all of which conspired to create too much eye candy for me to ignore.

Then there was the country and western show that came on the air at 9:00 PM. A dedicated C&W station was still at least 5 years in the future for Anchorage but KBYR’s rather eclectic format had plenty of room for such a program. The music was not particularly great but I remember two songs well:

    • The show’s theme “He’s A Cool, Cool Cowboy” which leaned more toward Pop than C&W.
  • A local tune, the title forgotten but the first line indelibly inscribed in my memory “I want to be in Kotzebue / where the skies are always blue”.

The physics of radio was as fascinating as the music, and I was especially interested in the phenomenon of AM radio “skip” –  the way AM radio signals bounce off  the ionosphere  back toward Earth without being limited in range by the  curve of the Earth. The anomaly allows AM radios to  pick up signals from beyond the horizon, sometimes  at intercontinental distances. (If you think of the radio signal as a racquetball, the court floor as the earth’s surface and the court’s ceiling as the ionosphere you’ll get a good idea of how the principle works). I would carefully turn the dial and listen for station identifications – or maybe just a business name or address that I could research the next day in our library’s collection of phone books. The whole process pales in the light of our digital world but when your results depended on the steadiness of your hand, the sharpness of your hearing, and your skill in research, it became a fascinating hobby.

Not that we got all that many out-of-state “skips”. It’s not as obvious with an atlas or map, but one look at Alaska on the globe and it is plain just how far away the state is from anywhere else. Because of that distance most of the skips I encountered were Alaskan stations – Fairbanks, Juneau, or occasional missionary stations in the Interior. Occasionally I would pick up a Canadian station but there was one time where I think I got a signal from Washington State; I never got a station I.D. but the term “evergreen” came up several times during commercials, and since the word evergreen is a favorite appellation of the Pacific Northwest I made the assumption.  I also may have gotten a Russian signal once but it was too faint for me to positively identify given my scant knowledge of linguistics at the time.

Regardless – I was more interested in the local news reports. At that time all television programs were on a two week delay; which was bearable when watching entertainment but frustrating when you wanted news. Radio seemed a little more direct – it was the same information coming off the teletype but you got it right away instead of waiting until 6:00PM to watch Darryl Comstock sitting at a cardboard desk, facing the camera and reading the same stories off the teletype that the radio had been giving to us hourly for the entire day beforehand.

…or the entire evening afterwards. There was something special about listening to the regular updates to local news stories. I felt like I was part of a secret club. For example, we lived less than a mile from the railroad track and one night someone was hit by a train while walking along the track. The first report was simple: Someone had been hit while walking along the train-tracks. The update that came a half-hour later was meatier: The victim was an adult male and he’d been hit not far from our home where the tracks crossed Spenard Road. Thirty minutes later there was even more information: The man was Native American; he was seriously injured and had been wearing a dark colored coat so the engineer had no idea of his presence on the track until the time of impact.

…and so on. Each update would be just a bit more detailed, and as I listened to them my mental picture would get that much more detailed, until finally I felt like I was actually on the scene with police and ambulance drivers huddled around the prostrate form of the victim, while the street lights and spotlights from the vehicles illuminated the ever-present clouds of exhaled breath.

As a visual person you’d think that I would choose a video presentation every time but I still find myself searching out radio coverage of sports events and listening to old radio programs on YouTube. I’ve read that when a person loses their sight the other senses become much more acute in order to make up the information gap caused by being blind. It may be that listening to a broadcast instead of watching it on TV did something similar , with the descriptions and commentary traveling full circle to recreate that much,  much more interesting visual picture usually found in a  ten-year old’s imagination.

1963: Ejection Seat

Forget “Fast and Furious”

Forget “Iran-Contra”

Forget anything y you may know about arms trading, illicit or otherwise. They all pale when compared to the rampant weapons dealings of Woodland Park Elementary School in the early sixties. More weapons (albeit toy weapons) changed hands during that year than at any other time in history. I personally went through two Mattel Tommy-bursts, a Marx Gung-Ho tripod machine gun, two Monkey Division weapons (bazooka and mortar) and a host of other off-brand toy firearms including what looked like an M1 carbine hybrid with a pistol grip that shot gold-painted wooden bullets….that I wouldn’t mind having a functional version of as an adult.

It was a very different political and social climate then. It had been less than twenty years since the USA had kicked Hitler’s and Tojo’s collective a**, the country was coasting off the red-hot economy of the Fifties and it was early enough that we weren’t caught up in dissension over Viet-Nam. Prosperity and generally favorable attitude towards the military created a climate favorable to the manufacture of military-themed toys –and it was just as well seeing World War II was being re-fought every afternoon and weekend by legions of grade-school boys populating American neighborhoods

They were primarily land-based battles though; if nothing else you could conduct a faux fire fight using just sticks for weapons but it was much harder coming up with a convincing naval or aerial set-up…which was particularly disappointing to me as I was an aviation buff. I was much too old to run around with my arms stretched out growling “DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-“ or “DAKKA-DAKKA-DAKKA” as I machine-gunned imaginary Messerschimtts and my one faltering attempt to tape a cardboard and elevators on the back of my bike was quickly laughed away by my buddies. Sadly most of my aerial activity was confined to reading the adventures of Johnny Cloud –Navajo Ace in the back-pages of DC Comics “Our Army at War”.

I had all but given up hope for anything aviation related when an official Steve Canyon helmet showed up in the after-school weapons market. It was like finding the Holy Grail – I had wanted a Steve Canyon helmet since I first glimpsed one on a TV commercial years earlier. It was made out of white plastic and came equipped with an adjustable visor made of green-tinted clear styrene and a mock oxygen mask with a built in vibrating wax-paper panel designed to simulate radio static when you spoke into it. I was thrilled – while I lacked an actual aircraft mock-up to plane in, with the official Steve Canyon helmet I could sit on my bed with a soup ladle and my sister’s transistor radio and mentally dive, loop and barrel roll my way into ace-dom.

steve canyon helmet

Unfortunately reality wasn’t kind in this matter. When I got the helmet it was not in prime shape. The tinted visor was broken at one pivot, the oxygen mask lacked its strap…and the helmet itself was just way too small. I had failed to take in consideration my own growth over the years since I’d first seen the mask on TV when we lived in California. The helmet had been designed for first and second graders and I was a ten-year old, and a husky ten year old at that. Wearing it made me look like someone had shoved a marshmallow over the end of a rolling pin – and given my family’s penchant for teasing the bunk-bed P-51 was permanently grounded.

I sulked about it for about a day then came up with a plan B. It had snowed and we had a runner sled that could ride it downhill while sitting up. What’s more with the long Alaskan nights I would be making my strafing runs during the hours of twilight and darkness, saving me from the mockery of on-lookers. I was back on flight status.

…and I was ecstatic about it for about 30 minutes, after which a brief trip down the hill “DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-ing” imaginary bombers lost its appeal. I cast about looking for ways to enhance the experience when a brainstorm hit me – I needed an ejection seat. Never mind that they hadn’t appeared until very late in World War II and then only in specialty German aircraft – an ejection seat was just the thing to take my faux-flight experience one step further. The only problem was how to pull it off.

I spent the next two nights, three pencils and a ream of paper coming up with a workable idea. Actual ejection was right out – it was winter time and any fireworks stands that may have enough skyrockets to actually life me off the sled weren’t due to open until June.  I couldn’t find any sort of spring large or bouncy enough to levitate me but as I was rooting through my dad’s stuff looking for any sort of usable hardware I found a spool of 550 cord. That’s when the light-bulb went on.

550 cord is a woven nylon line about 3/16” in diameter with one length being able to support 550 pounds, hence the name. As it is used for the risers in parachutes I would see a lot of it as a paratrooper later in life but the spool dad had been used in the preliminary steps in connecting cables, hawsers and pipelines during underway replenishment activities between two naval ships at sea. I took the spool and proceeded to make a harness patterned after a careful drawing I had made, with loops around my arms at the shoulder and at the tops of my legs at my hips. The harness was then tied to a rather long stretch of line that was tied to a tree just to the side of the slope. The plan was that wearing the harness I would slide down the hill sitting up; when I hit the end of the connecting line voila! I would be pulled into a nice soft snow bank alongside the sled run.

There was no way I could miss. After all, I drew a picture of it and it worked on the picture.

I was very meticulous in my planning when I tried the ejection seat out the very next night. Like I good pilot I checked the weather – it was clear and cold but with the recent snowfall I had a measure of cushion on the ground. Next I carefully paced off the distance from a large tree at the top of the hill to a point about two/thirds the way down the slope, carefully cut the 550 cord to match and tied it to my harness – I wanted at least a brief dog-fight before “punching out”. I pulled the loops over my arms and legs, crammed the Steve Canyon helmet down over my stocking cap, sat down on the sled and kicked off, spouting sound effects and dialog gleaned from the aforementioned adventures of Johnny Cloud, Navaho Ace.

DAKKA-DAKKA-DAKKA!

DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH!

“Roger That Red Leader!”

I wasn’t sliding down a hill in Spenard, Alaska – I was swooping through the skies of World War II!

DAKKA-DAKKA-DAKKA!

“Take that Adolph!”

“Eat hot lead you Tojo-stooge!”

“DAKKA-DAKKA-UUURRRRKKKKK!”

Mean old Mister Inertia was not my friend as my arms, legs and head snapped forward against the harness of 550 cord that resolutely held my torso back against any further movement. I saw many, many more stars than usual for an Alaskan night as I made a bone-shaking abrupt halt that knocked the wind out of as I immediately hit the ground. I probably would have broken a bone had I not been for the recent snowfall and the fact that I was so bundled up against the cold.

Have you ever seen a G.I. Joe action figure with its interior retaining elastic broken or missing? The arms, legs and head/neck become loose, wobble around and are easily lost. That’s pretty much the way I felt at that point. C-3P0 would have had a better chance of controlling his detached limbs in Return of the Jedi than I had of controlling my arms and legs at that point. Had I not been so bundled up with warm clothing I probably would have gotten some sort of welt or friction burn around arm pits or “other area” but as it was I survived the fall with little more than a headache and wounded pride.

Sensation in my extremities slowly returned as I shuffled back to the house with the sled in tow, stopping only once to drop-kick that stupid Steve Canyon helmet into the vacant lot across the street. It was only seven thirty when I got home so I had some reading time before going to bed, but that night I set the war comics aside, reaching instead for the Disney comics. Donald may have been hard to understand but he wasn’t going to get me quite as bruised up as Johnny Cloud, Navajo Ace

1963 Turnagain Terror Trail

BikeInTree

Though my days of active hiking and biking over trails are behind me, I still find that I enjoy vicarious trail-bashing – looking over trails on a map and reading accounts of routes covered on foot or on bike by active sloggers. When my collection of topographic maps gets a little stale I turn to any one of the countless mountain biking websites containing various lists of superlatives such as “most scenic bike trail”,  “longest bike trail” and my favorite – “most dangerous bike trail” all of which are much easier to navigate via lap-top than in the saddle. As I surf the ‘net more and more it looks like Colorado’s Barr trail has a lock on the bike-specific dangerous paths. It climbs 7500 feet over 13 miles of widely diverse terrain and riders are warned to prepare for more than one weather state during their sojourn. The view – and the ride back down – is supposed to be second to none, but as I read the description I have to shake my head in sympathy for the ignorant.

This trail has nothing on the Turnagain Terror Trail.

Turnagain is a neighborhood on the west side of Anchorage (Alaska) and was the city’s most upscale residential area until the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake when it suffered some of the quake’s worst damage. The neighborhood’s location on bluffs overlooking Knik arm was a major factor in the destruction of 75 homes , so many damaged beyond repair that local banks let owners walk away from mortgages as they left the state to start over in the lower 48. Eventually the destroyed area was converted into a recreation area appropriately dubbed Earthquake Park.

My best buddy Zsa-Zsa’s family was in that situation, though their house was located away from the major damage area and wasn’t totally demolished. (Lacking even a drop of Hungarian blood, my friend’s nickname “Zsa-Zsa” came from my youngest sister’s garbled attempts to properly pronounce his name ‘David Bradshaw’) The house was habitable – but it did have this totally b*tchin’ crack running lengthwise down one wall of the basement which Zsa-Zsa used to base his claim that he came from a “broken home”

We didn’t spend much time inside though; their lot was on the east side of Turnagain where the bluffs made a more gentle slope down to an undeveloped area made up of the forest, ravines, and wetlands alongside a broad railroad right-of-way.  Any period of warm weather was spent outside whittling, exploring, making forts, biking, catching stickleback fish in the creek – everything except traversing The Trail.

The Trail lay just outside our regular wooded stomping grounds with the trailhead proper located a hundred yards or so up the street from Zsa-Zsa’s house. From there it curved slightly to the south as it ran downhill in a southeasterly direction, ending at the creek at the bottom of the Bradshaw family’s yard. As it started out the path was fairly level, snaking through fairly open woodland with the greatest perils consisting of small trees fallen over the trail, roots growing across it or chuck-holes gouged below its surface.  It was only when the trail hit the edge of the bluff that its character changed.

At that point it began to twist and turn as it cut diagonally across the face of a rather steep slope. At one place there was an abrupt drop where the trail crossed a gully cut into the face of the hill; at another the brush line on the left side of path briefly disappeared leaving a fifty-foot drop-off that ended in a pool of water which held mangled bike frame partially submerged at one end. Next came a second gully, another drop-off to the left (this one with a rope swing) and a third less extreme gully just before the trail started to level out and coast into the level area alongside the creek.

Word in the neighborhood was that two kids had gone down the trail the summer before and one of them had ended up in the hospital after falling into the pool. We held a conference and after much deliberation determined that we wouldn’t get hurt like those kids: we’d found a weathered table of contents page from a Playboy magazine along with a smashed Shasta root beer can when we first started down the trail and according to grade-school logic all this was evidence that those guys were “hoods” and ineligible for the cosmic protection we would be entitled to.

However, as we gathered at the top of the trail the next afternoon we weren’t quite so confident. Why?

  • It was one thing to talk about doing something scary but quite another to actually do it.
  • Zsa-Zsa and I were saddled with a strap-hanger, a smarmy rich kid who lived across the street and owned a three-speed “English Racer” – the closest thing anyone had to a mountain bike or ten-speed at the time.  He’d scoped out what we were doing and threatened to rat us out to Zsa-Zsa’s mom out if we didn’t let him tag along.
  • I was riding the GGM that day

The GGM, or Gold and Green Monster was a bike, a recent gift that came with very mixed emotions. It was always a good thing to get a present but I had been quite happy using my mom’s otherwise unused white Schwinn. Unfortunately the one time in my life dad actually listened to anything I said just happened to be the time I was moping about other guys teasing me about using a girl’s bike…hence the GGM.

The GGM had seen better days….a lot of better days because it was clearly an old bike from the fifties with most (but not all) of the rust and dents removed. It was as a heavy as a half-track with Edsel-esque fins, countless reflectors and a massive boy-bike crossbar on the frame that looked like a motorcycle gas tank. Somewhere along the line it had acquired a horrible two-tone paint job in green and gold applied with spray cans on their last two cubic centimeters of propellant…and did I say it was heavy? It was heavy. How heavy? Going uphill was a wish rather than a likelihood and required hopping back and forth on alternate pedals with both feet. It did have one redeeming quality; with all that mass it would coast down a hill faster than a Stuka taking out a Belgian bridge.

That dive speed wasn’t the most comforting though as we kicked off down the trail, Zsa-Zsa leading with his lightweight bike, me in the middle and the straphanger trailing behind us. At the time I wasn’t sure what bothered me most – the trail ahead or the androgynous reddish-pink color of the strap-hanger’s bike.  However, my anxiety very quickly faded as I realized the GGM’s massive weight was smashing through the branches and chuckholes rather than bouncing over them resulting in a fairly smooth ride.

Then we hit the edge of the bluff. Literally. I had been so focused on the smooth ride that I forgot about crossing that first gully and I got the wind knocked out of me when I impacted rather than landed on the other side. Momentarily unable to catch my breath I struggled to control the GGM as I passed the first drop off – the one with the derelict bike in the pool of water. No matter how hard I tried to steer away from that precipice I kept getting closer and closer, as if my wheels were caught in a rut. To this day I have no idea how I avoided adding a second derelict bike to the pool because I am sure I went over the edge but somehow Coyote & Roadrunner physics intervened and I was able to regain the trail.

BAM!

I hit another gulley.

OOF!

I had the wind knocked out of me again.

I caught up to Zsa-Zsa just as he passed the second drop-off with the rope swing. To this day he maintains that he grabbed the rope, swung around the tree and landed back onto the trail all while riding his bike but his derring-do was more like him waving to the rope as he passed by. Trailing him closely I cleared the last gulley and settled down to that final long coast down the creek-side…only to find that my front wheel had slipped down into a real rut this time, one aimed directly at a BIG tree alongside the trail

Suddenly everything went black…

…then immediately got light again as opened my eyes after barely missing that massive trunk. I ground to a halt, dismounted and walked my bike the rest of the way down the trail to the creek, where Zsa-Zsa was already vocalizing a theory that stickleback were in fact baby Alaskan piranhas. I waited for the smarmy rich kid to cut into Zsa-Zsa’s comments then realized with a start that the strap-hanger was nowhere in sight. For that matter I hadn’t heard his porcine squeals at all after the first gully so I assumed he’d chickened out early on and went home.

Years later

They say that you can’t go back home again, and the same can be said about the Turnagain terror trail. I had a couple hours free while I was in Anchorage to pick up horse feed and decided to revisit my old haunts. I had been by our old home in deepest, darkest Spenard plenty of times over the years so I gave the old neighborhood a pass – then the thought came to me that I hadn’t been to Turnagain since the Bradshaw family moved away early in 1965 so I turned west on Northern Lights Boulevard and drove further out .

The new owners of the Bradshaw’s home weren’t home which ruled out any backyard exploration so I walked up the street to The Trail. When I got there I was saddened to see the trailhead even more littered that it had been on the day of our descent; more torn-out pages too decomposed to read, more smashed soda cans (one of them Shasta Draft Orange Soda, mute testimony to one of the odder marketing ploys of the late sixties) and what I hoped wasn’t a used condom.

I started down the path and as I walked along I was immediately struck by how smooth and level the trail was. At first I dismissed the change as the effects of erosion over the years but as I got to the edge of the bluff it became evident that it was my frame of reference rather than the terrain that had changed. Mud from a decent rain meant risking a fall by walking the whole trail but as I got to the drop-off over the pool of water I realized it was a moot point. I could see the end of the trail from there and it was much shorter and much less steep than it had seemed all those years ago.

Looking over the edge into the pool was even more disappointing. It was at most a ten foot drop and most of the metallic debris consisted of old Olympia beer cans and a rusted piece of a shopping cart.  I shook my head in disgust. William Shatner wearing a toupee, the Monkees not playing their instruments – none of those disappointments could rival the buzz-kill of knowing that our death-defying ride had not really been that death-defying at all.

I hiked back up the hill, scowling as I tried to make sense of it all. Suddenly it hit me: the strap-hanging rich kid with the English racer! He never met up with us at the bottom of the hill – and for that matter I didn’t see him around Zsa-Zsa’s neighborhood again after that day. Had we just scared him off or did something happen to him on the ride down? Hmmmm. Just moments ago when I was looking at the pool of water there had been the slightest glint of pinkish-red between the shopping cart and beer.

I started to turn back to check  the pool one more time….then stopped, smiled and walked back up to the car. Let the legend of the Trail live on!

1963: Spenard Cuisine

Those of you who know me well will be surprised to hear me say that I made dinner the other night. I am by no means a gourmet cook. I make a nice mild chili, great Swedish pancakes, good sandwiches and I can put together an Army breakfast that will keep you running all day. Other than that – pfft.  Any talent with cooking took a flying leap from my dad and completely skipped over me to my sons. Because of that I usually have to cook Spenard cuisine.

So you ask: what’s a “Spenard” and what is so special about the food?

Spenard is a section of West Anchorage and we lived there in the early sixties. It was a nice enough place to live then but it has gotten a bad reputation in the intervening years, as much for the drubbing in print it received from Anchorage News columnist Satch Carlson as for any actual changes that have occurred.  I loved it there, and my fifth grade year (1963-64) was  one of the happiest times of my life. I had lots of friends, a good teacher at school and access to activities and facilities that we’d missed out when we lived in the country.

Though I had no idea of it at the time, we didn’t have a whole lot of money and the place we lived in was little more than a lean-to against a small frame house. There were only two “real” bedrooms so an alcove off of the front room was pressed into service as additional sleeping space. Nevertheless, it was the coolest home out of all the homes of my friends…and some of my friends lived in Turnagain. Turnagain was the upscale part of town and some of the homes there had   rooms that our entire little house would have fit into.

Nevertheless, we had the coolest home.

There were several reasons why, starting with secret passages. The closet in one of the bedrooms abutted the closet in the front room alcove, and for some reason the owner/builder never divided the two spaces thereby creating a “secret passage” from one room to the other.  There was also the secret staircase to the cellar. Before we moved in the only access  to the cellar was by way of an outside entrance, but my dad built a staircase through the floor of the closet in the hall off the kitchen so we didn’t have to exit the house to go downstairs during cold weather. Voila! Another secret passage!

The cellar was my kingdom. The main area was semi-finished and contained a workbench, some shelves and a light…and it was there that the entire Luftwaffe was reconstructed in 1/72 scale styrene during that winter of 63-64. There was also a “less-finished” area where the furnace was located, and just past that was a mysterious opening that led to the area under the main part of the frame house. It was unlit back in there leaving a dark opening that looked like a mine shaft but I never made past one or two baby-steps inside the opening.

The whole house was like an old colonial home in New England in that there wasn’t a perfect right angle in the whole place, what with all the shifting and the make-do method of construction it was made with. You have to remember that Anchorage only had 40,000 residents when we moved there – and this place was built when the population was even smaller than that and decent building supplies were hard to come by.  As it was the tacked-together aspect of the house gave us a good measure of protection during the Great Alaskan Earthquake in 1964; I think that it just kind of leaned and squeezed and bounced around, absorbing the quakes tremors like a great big wicker basket while other nicer places with basements made of cement block collapsed because of their rigid nature.

It was more than the house though that made it the coolest place. It was what went on in the house. While it is true that we were the family that put the “fun” in “dysfunctional”, there never was a dull moment (for bad or good), we loved each other and there was always a measure of creativity and humor in everything we did.

That’s where the term “Spenard Cuisine” comes in. As I mentioned we didn’t have a lot of money back then – and at the same time food shipments could be slow during winter months and both those factors showed in our diet. A lot of canned food was included in our diet back then and my lack of culinary skill put us in the same situation last night. However, just as my mom did fifty years ago I figured out ways to make everything look and taste good. It wasn’t money but rather love and creativity that made everything taste so good… and I hope I took after my mom in that manner last night.