1963: Rendezvous X 2

I’m old enough for polio to be a common health hazard in my youth, but rather than contracting that dread disease I contracted Greystoke’s Syndrome, an ailment that played havoc with my reading comprehension. It’s a condition common to children reading at a much higher level than expected – as a fourth grader I regularly read books written at a high school level and often came across words that I had rarely heard spoken, putting me in the same situation as John Clayton II, Lord Greystoke. Also known as Tarzan, young Greystoke taught himself to read by deciphering the small library his parents left behind when they were killed upon arrival in early twentieth century Africa. He rarely understood the spoken word as well as the written form, but fortunately I had an advantage the King of the Jungle lacked: my fourth grade teacher Cora Blinzler

Mrs. Blinzler was old school in the purest sense of the word and put great stock in proper classroom decorum maintained by percussive discipline, BUT she encouraged my extracurricular pursuit of knowledge as much as she could given her 30+ student class load. She spent extra time helping me develop my already prodigal reading skills, but despite that extra help I continued to struggle with penmanship and pronunciation: I eventually solved the first problem by turning from cursive to block lettering, but my continued mangling of verbal pronunciation destroyed words even worse than my horrible handwriting:

  • Idiosyncrasies became “Idio-crass-knees”
  • Taciturn became “tack-turn”
  • Hors d’oeuvres was mangled into “hour doves”

It was while I was her student that I encountered one of those mystery words when the subject of the up-coming Fur Rendezvous began appearing in conversations and broadcasts shortly after Christmas break. I didn’t immediately make a connection between the “Ren-dez-voos” I was reading about and the “Ron-day-voo I heard about on the radio until the week before the event kicked off, when I learned that both terms referred to an annual festival featuring cultural, sporting, and social events unique to our locale, combined with a general thumb-to-the-nose to Old Man Winter. The only down side was the lack of any kind of school holiday, but there would be a lot of interesting things to do and see during evenings and on weekends.

Mom in particular gushed about the way Fur Rendezvous would be a perfect opportunity to learn about our new home, but I was less than enthusiastic about giving up my weekend to look at what I assumed would be a dog show. I was still recovering from a foot fracture sustained during a sledding accident, which made the simple act of getting around difficult. But even more pressing was the animated cartoon issue – Mighty Mouse was aired on Saturday afternoons, and while he wasn’t a particular favorite, his show was the only weekend cartoon we had. Unfortunately my artistic entreaties fell on deaf ears, and Saturday morning I dutifully climbed into the back deck of our Falcon station wagon as my family eaded downtown for the Ren-dez-voos.

I silently cheered “movie” when we filed into the Sidney Laurence auditorium, but my elementary school funk returned when I learned that we were there for an exhibition of native dancing and not a movie. Confusion continued as the exhibition began – I knew about square dancing from school, and I knew about the Twist from American Bandstand, but I was clueless when dancers in Native American garb came on stage. I’d seen enough Westerns to expect lots of jumping and yelling around a fire but these guys were just kind of shuffling around.

We hadn’t had time to remove our coats so I was getting hot and restless as we sat in the dark. “Restless” soon morphed into “fidgeting” which brought on the reaction that any other nine year old would have had in that situation: passive/aggressive resistance, as in kicking the seat in front of me…but within just a few minutes I was surprised to find myself kicking in time with the soft drum beats from the dancers on stage. I was also surprised that I could just about understand the story they were acting out, and I deduced that one guy was some kind of wizard as he wearing a totally bitching mask that could change faces with a quick pull on a cord…

…but just as the story was getting good we had to leave and go find a decent place to watch the races. With the first Iditarod a dozen years in the future, “race” meant the World Champion Sled Dog Races that ran on a track laid out amidst the buildings, streets, and forests of a much smaller Anchorage (40,000 in the 1960 census). After twenty minutes of stop-and-go driving followed by as many minutes of shuffing through the snow, we found a good spot along Chester Creek close to the site of where the Sullivan arena would be built twenty years later – and as the start point was downtown on Fourth Avenue we still had at least an hour to go before any of the entrants would pass.

 I was familiar with the competitors in the same way that I knew about sports figures in general: I knew some names but not much else. I was pretty sure that Bart Starr was a quarterback and Gordy Howes played hockey, but the only athlete I really knew anything about was Willie Mays, and that was because he played center field for San Francisco Giants – Dad’s favorite baseball team. Unfortunately, lack of knowledge about the mushers aggravated the disconnection I felt towards my new home and friends – while my buddies could swap names and statistics, the only racer I could recognize was the returning champion, Roland “Doc” Lombard, who while also an outsider, had the grace to be based in Massachusetts  (which actually got snow in the winter) rather than my sunny native California.

However, there was one nameless racer who stood out – a man in his thirties from someplace up in the Interior. There was a strikingly different cadence to the way he ran behind the sled that included an odd kick, and as he passed us I could see his face was set in manner that left no question about his intent. We learned later that he was an Athabaskan native from Huslia, a small town located up in the interior along the Koyukuk River, and that he was contending with and triumphing against serious physical problems. I was struck by his courage as was the rest of my family, and even though we would only attend one more Fur Rendezvous as a family there was always a positive comment when this particular racer would show up in the media.

The mushers passed quickly and I was surprised when Dad called us back to load up the Falcon to make our way home to deepest, darkest Spenard. It had been a much better day than expected and I wasn’t even miffed when I found out I’d missed Mighty Mouse. We’d had a lot of fun, and the day also proved to be the first real distraction to the disorientation that came with moving to Alaska. Despite its status as the “Last Frontier” we were living in an urban environment more developed than any other area I had lived in up to that point. At the same time it was also the only part of Alaska I knew about, the furthest I had been out at that time was a fishing trip to Bird Creek twenty minutes south of town. We still felt ourselves to be transplanted Californians, our only prior connections to the Last Frontier being Dad’s deployment to Kodiak Naval station with a P2V Neptune squadron in the 1950s and Mom’s great-uncle Ned who’d been a participant in the Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the century. The Fur Rendezvous we’d just experienced had been a blessed jumpstart to an adjustment to our new home in the north. It could have been the displays, the dancing, the dog races or just the fact that it was one of the rare weekends my family spent together without someone getting hit, but by the end of the weekend we felt just a bit more connected to Alaska.

Decades later

Even if genealogy hadn’t been actively encouraged by our faith, Mom would have been a fanatic in the art of tracking down ancestors. She’d always loved mysteries – and mysteries combined with family history were both entertaining AND a welcome distraction to the heartbreak of watching her beloved “innocent-shepherd-turned-sailor” slowly succumb to the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. She was sitting at the kitchen table with pedigree charts and family group sheets scattered all around when she was startled out of her genealogical reverie by the loud ring that only pre-touch tone telephones can produce. Like others of her generation she picked up the receiver automatically (“if it’s a phone call it must be an emergency!”) but when she heard the unfamiliar voice she started to hang up…until she caught the faint hint of an accent in the voice.

 “Hello?”

There was an odd roll to some of the vowels that could have come from the Yukon Territory.

May I speak to June Laird please?

Maybe the Great Lakes?

“HELLO?”

“Laird is my maiden name.” said mom as she shook off her distraction: “My name is June Deitrick now. May I help you?”

The caller introduced herself as middle-aged woman named Rose researching her own family lineage which appeared to include the aforementioned Uncle Ned. That revelation triggered a torrent of names and dates between the two ladies – a benign sort of mania peculiar to those who have been bitten by the genealogy bug…but after ten minutes Mom could no longer contain her curiosity:

 “Please forgive me but I’ve always been interested in languages and your accent baffles me. If I didn’t know better I’d think you were an Alaskan Native.”

Rose paused…

 ‘Well, maybe that’s because I am Athabaskan and I’m calling you from Huslia…”

It turned out that Uncle Ned’s sojourn into the North had involved a lot more than just prospecting for gold. When the Klondike proved to be less-than-profitable Ned headed west to the Koyukuk area in Alaska where he made an attempt at prospecting before turning to running a trap line and supplying wood to passing riverboats…but then the story of Uncle Ned gets hazy. Most of Mom’s notes from her conversation with Rose have been lost and those that survived are nearly indecipherable (Like mother/like son: penmanship was not her strong suit). What we can figure out gives us all the ingredients for either a soap opera or a Gary Cooper western:

  • Ned, or Ed as he was sometimes known, had a family with a local Athabaskan woman.
  • A feud over trade concessions developed between Ed and his son-in-law Viktor.
  • Ed killed Victor in self-defense after the younger man attempted to murder him.
  • Though found innocent, Ed rode off into the sunset, leaving the Koyukuk for the Lower 48.

(For details consult Sidney Huntington’s 1993 biography Shadows on the Koyukuk)

What does all that mean? Evidently Rose was my Mom’s second cousin through Great Uncle Ned, which means that all those years ago when I was taking classes at the University of Alaska (in Fairbanks) there could have been “shirt-tail relations” among the Native students I was sitting next to in my classes.

It gets even better.

Remember that one young musher we cheered so hard for during that championship race – the one with the special kick? That young man was Rose’s brother, and that kick became well known as the trademark move of world champion dog-musher George Attla. We didn’t know it at the time, but when our little family of disconnected California beach bums went to that Fur Rendezvous in 1962 we were rooting for that one tenuous but very real connection with our new home in the North that I’d always hoped for.

The connection I’d always hoped for had always been there.

1963: Slushers

To many people, eight is the age when a child assumes accountability for his actions, but experience has shown me that number is an average, as I have seen children of six with wisdom beyond their years, and adults in their mid-thirties that have all the maturity and good sense of a toddler. In my case it was when I reached my tenth birthday that I made a firm connection between my actions, intents, and consequences. It was also when I learned about fear. Mind you, life with a severely bi-polar parent made for scary experiences throughout my entire life to that point, but events during fourth grade taught me the meaning of capital-F Fear. If nothing else, the change from Little Shasta School to Woodland Park Elementary was unsettling whereas in the first six months I experienced:

  • My first after-school fight.
  • My first fracture (multiple bones broken in my right foot from a sledding accident).
  • My first experience with city traffic and near-accidents.

Education in fear continued even after school let out for the summer as we witnessed a total solar eclipse during a weekend getaway to Palmer, and my grandparents had a near miss with the Reaper when they drove up the ALCAN for an extended visit. However, none of these teeth-chattering experiences could compare to the terror with which I struggled during our week-long excursion to Valdez when I was convinced beyond all doubt that the mountains were going to fall on us.

The trip had started out uneventfully, but when we stopped enroute at the Matanuska Glacier I finally understood how totally isolated we were from the Lower 48. I had slept  through most of our migration north from California, and other than a few side trips, we never left Anchorage, so most of my knowledge of the Last Frontier came from glimpses of the Chugach Mountains to the east, and the Kenai Peninsula across Turnagain Arm to west. What little I knew about the rest of the state came from school assignments and events of our first Fur Rendezvous the preceding winter, but at that particular rest stop I was gob-smacked by the huge river of ice every bit as impressive as the mountains that bracketed either side.

The glacier was impressive, but it didn’t spook me as badly as it did my youngest sister, Merriweather, who took one look and ran back to the car screaming, “I DON’T WANNA LOOK AT ANY SLUSHER!”, a comment that mystified us all until we figured out that in her mangled four-year-old vocabulary, “slusher” equaled “glacier.” As far as I was concerned the only problem was the complete absence of any sign of a hobby shop to support my recently-acquired  plastic-model addiction that would put a junkie to shame.

After a very brief look at the glacier I hopped back into the car to drink the last of my orange soda. Unfortunately, I was unable to drink it all before we hit the road again, and when Dad asked for “just a sip” I knew it would be gone. When he handed back the bottle it took all of my nascent stoicism to hold back the tears. For once Mom responded to my distress and took my father to task with, “No wonder you have a pain in your gut1 – look at the way you put your groceries away.”

I cringed.

Dad wasn’t physically abusive with any of us and would usually go into passive/aggressive mode when arguing with Mom, but one thing you never did was mess with, or argue with him about food or drink. Expecting a full-on fist fight I grabbed a pillow for protection, but was surprised when instead of going ballistic he verbally lashed out:

“Not only do I have a pain in my gut – I have a pain in my butt from traveling with people like you!”

Knowing my mother’s mercurial temperament, I pulled the pillow tighter and mentally gave a salute to the suicidal bravery in that remark but was surprised when the Mom-bomb didn’t detonate. She sat stone-faced while several miles of pavement ran by, then unexpectedly broke out into a chuckle and commended Dad for his witty retort. Exhausted by our miraculous escape from disaster, I shoved my former armor-pillow against the side of the interior and closed my eyes in my now-routine effort to sleep away the miles.

Heavy fog interfered with my first glimpse of Valdez the next morning, and as I made my way to the small cluster of buildings that passed as downtown, the vista didn’t seem that much different from what I was used to back in Anchorage. After being chased out of a small shop for reading (but not buying) comics, I found that the fog had burned off, and that’s when Fear grabbed my ten-year old heart and gave it a squeeze.

It was the mountains – they were so damn high (did I mention that Woodland Park was also where I first learned to swear?) and much, much higher than the Chugach range overlooking Anchorage. I’d heard snarky stories about Native kids on their first trip to Anchorage who would cower in the street for fear that the tall buildings would fall on them, and while the mountains surrounding the fjord were also part of the Chugach range they loomed over the town so terrifyingly close that  I knew exactly how those kids from the Bush felt. I promptly fled to the motel  where the security of four walls and a ceiling more than made up for the lack of television.

The next day we did a little exploring with the emphasis on “little.” In 1963 the town of Valdez was made up of buildings clustered around the Richardson Highway where it entered the valley along the Lowe River between MT Francis and the run-off from Valdez Glacier. The town hadn’t always been there – when the area boomed with the Klondike gold rush and the development of the Kennecott copper mine most people settled along the north side of the fjord. The center of the population moved east with the construction of the Richardson Highway, and when we drove out to what was called the Old Town, there wasn’t much other than gravel roads, tumble-down buildings, and a bridge. Little did we know that in nine months’ time a tsunami generated by the Good Friday earthquake would level the new town that we were now visiting in 1963, and it would be rebuilt as the New/Old Town on the site of the original settlement. 

Upon returning to our lodging I made another trip to the shop I’d been chased out of the day before, where my presence was more graciously tolerated after I bought a small plastic model kit of a B-172. We left for home the next morning, which meant that for once I was awake for just about the entire trip, and by the time we passed Copper Center and entered the Copper River Basin, the scary mountains were well behind us. We continued north on the Richardson Highway until turning left onto the Glen Highway at Glenallen3, then continued on to Anchorage a little over three hours to the west.

That we had actually walked the ground in Valdez made its destruction that much more horrifying when the tsunami leveled it the following March. The town was often in the news during the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline – which also figured prominently in contingency planning when I was stationed at FT Richardson in the early 1980’s. The closest connection I had with Valdez after that was when I accompanied my older son Conrad to an environmental camp on the south side of Katchemak Bay in 1989 – as we were crossing back to Homer the first fingers of the oil sheen from the wreck of the SS EXXON VALDEZ were just entering the bay.

…and now there are only two situations when I am prompted to think of Valdez:

  • Any time I see a mountain range I instinctively compare them to those oh-so-tall mountains that I was sure would fall over on me.
  • Whenever I work on a model kit I think of that little B-17 model and those ridiculous rivets.

_________________________________________________________________________

Notes

  1. Though I never saw an official diagnosis, my dad suffered from what he assumed was an ulcer and was constantly self-medicating with buttermilk and TUMS. Like most ‘60s dads he worried about his work situation and bills, but he also struggled with the fact that his children had a better standard of living than he did during the Depression.
  2. It was a small-scale model – possibly 1/200, but even as a ten-year-old I was skeptical of the rivet-head detailing on the wing. They were prominent enough to make a “zip” sound when a fingernail was drawn across like a comb…which meant that they would have been an inch or two in height if enlarged to actual size.
  3. I’ve been through that area several times, but my only lengthy visit was in the summer of 1970 when I went to Boy’s State at the boarding school at Copper Center. I’m still convinced that if you stood in the middle of Glenallen and looked off in the distance, all you could see would be the back of your own head. As wretched as the move to the Kenai Peninsula was the next year, I really did dodge a bullet with the move as Dad had also considered bidding on a job in even-more-isolated Glenallen.

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.