1964: The Community Hall

(This post is a bit of a mystery. It wasn’t long after publication that I realized that my first book (The LIfe and Times of A Midnight Son: Growing up in 1960’s Alaska) needed to be a bit longer and this story was one of a dozen or more that I wrote in an effort to achieve that goal. As was the case with earlier writings those stories were published before being added to the book-manuscript…but I’m not sure if this one was included. In my extended post-COVID daze I was unable to find in among my WordPress files online and it wasn’t saved on any of my thumb drives or the two computers I used in maintaining this blog. It finally came down to digging up the archive copy and retype it word for word)


“She’s a doll, she’s a queen, she’s a tantalizing teen.”

“And Karen is her name (they call her Karen).”


“At a party she’s a stomper and a rock and roll romper.”

“Everybody’s glad she came.”


“Hey that’s Karen!”


NBC had great hopes for its “umbrella sitcom” 90 Bristol Court, but of the three sub-series, Karen, was the only program to survive – and I was very glad. Why? Well, it could have been the mental escape it provided from the isolation brought about by the move from Anchorage to the Peninsula, but then again I was on the cusp of puberty, and quite smitten with the fetching Debbi Watson, star of the teen sitcom re-running in my imagination. How smitten? Smitten enough to miss the car stopping and becoming totally bewildered when my inner review of last night’s television feast was interrupted.


Hiyako Jocko-san! We’re late!”

Dad motioned me across the gravel parking lot. It was our first regular Sunday, and unlike the post office, drug store, and local Air Force station, we hadn’t thoroughly checked out the church beforehand. The week before, a larger-than-usual congregation brought about by a missionary farewell took us to the Elk’s Hall, so I was looking forward to seeing the “real” chapel and comparing it to the one we’d just left in Anchorage…but at the moment I was confused because I could see no church. I looked around, but was met with only the lush greenery of 1964 Soldotna, and a rather dilapidated storage building made of grey, weather-beaten plywood. There was nothing to compare with the majestic 11th and E chapel that we’d been attending for the previous two years in Anchorage

…and then I realized with a shudder that the storage building was the church.

As rare as compliments were from Mom, she remarked very loudly at the reverent way her son was walking into church, but little did she know, it was shock rather than religious fervor prompting my reverent manner. “Church” was a single windowless room measuring forty by sixty feet, with a single door at each end, and walls covered with butcher paper. Environmental comfort was provided by what I suspected to be a Soviet heating unit left over from World War Two suspended from the ceiling in one corner. There were no bathrooms, and seating consisted of multiple pairs of old leather covered bus seats welded together, which meant that the first order of business on Sunday morning was moving the seats from the perimeter of the room where they had been placed for the teen dance the night before and lining them up into rows. In the process we would air the place out and sweep up the dirt and detritus left over from the previous evening1.

…not that the seats stayed put for very long. The dispersed geographical nature of our congregation meant that meetings usually held at separate times on Sunday were held back-to-back in order to save time and gas, so the seats were periodically rearranged like a great upholstered square dance changing from pew-like rows for the main worship service to separate clustered squares that would accommodate individual classes in Sunday School.

Life with attention-deficit disorder was already a losing proposition for a kid in the 1960s and attending church in this manner was particularly torturous with Sunday School class as the absolute low point. Four different instruction groups ranging from adults to toddlers were presented simultaneously in that one room, and I had difficulty paying attention, especially as I’d been held back to a church history course that I’d already completed in Anchorage the year before. I was also bemoaning the fact that there was a dead-ringer Debbie Watson look-alike in that class I had just missed2.

“She sets her hair with great precision,

It’s her favorite indoor sport,

And by the light of television,

She can even write a book report.”

So it was that I spent most Sundays leaning over with my head in my hands, fingertips surreptitiously stuck in my ears so I could alternately fantasize about Karen, or the Karen clone in the next class over – that is until the day we had Roberta Jackson for a substitute teacher for Sunday School.

The Jacksons were one of the cornerstone families in our congregation, a family with five sons that made every other young man feel totally inferior. To a man they were muscular, handsome, musically gifted, mechanically talented, and blessed with the coolest haircuts ever, that I was never able to duplicate no matter how much tie I spent in front of the mirror, or how many tubes of SCORE Clear blue gel I troweled on top of my head. I desperately wanted to hate all of them, but I couldn’t because they were just so damn NICE.

Given the family’s musical talents, it wasn’t a total surprise when Roberta brought a guitar case with her when she was asked on short notice to cover our class. At first she was a little hesitant talking to us, until she pulled out an electric guitar from the case and started to sing. I was loathe to halt my internal re-run, but if you’ve ever listened to someone picking an unplugged electric guitar, you’ll know it has a very delicate sound – and as Sister Jackson began to play, it was all too apparent that her sons had inherited their talent from her. Rather than sounding like a musical instrument, the notes were more like the ripple of a wind chime magically blending together in melody.

Fingertips popped out of my ears, and I leaned in as she began to sing.

“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.

I keep my eyes wide open all the time.

I keep the ends out for the tie that binds

Because you are mine, I walk the line.”

For a moment I was confused – I knew that Johnny Cash had written and recorded the song a long time ago, and I couldn’t figure out why Sister Jackson was singing it in Sunday School, but then it hit me, and I had to fight the tears. Left to her own devices to teach a mob of unruly brats, Sister Jackson had reached to us in the way she best knew how to express love – through music. It was then that I also realized that she wasn’t singing about her husband, or an old boyfriend – she was singing to someone Higher, and in this context, walking the line entailed more than mortal affections.

…and in that moment the heater kicked into operation, simultaneously deafening and desiccating us all. Scant seconds after that explosion of sound a bell rang, prompting closing prayers, and before I knew it we were on our way home…but for the first time since leaving Anchorage I wasn’t scowling as we bounced and weaved along the thin concrete ribbon that was the Sterling Highway, running through the snags and stumps of a decades old forest fire. To be honest, our family’s church membership was more a matter of appearance than devotion, and I still hated the fact that we’d moved from Anchorage, but this particular Sunday had been different as Sister Jackson’s music, for the first time ever, prompted a spiritual feeling in my heart that was both unmistakable and indefinable. Was it a manifestation of Divine Power? It was a long time ago and I was only eleven, and as I try to conjure up memories of what I felt in my heart my mutant razor memory is for once a little hazy, but I do know that the experience was enough to start me pursuing matters of faith, not just for appearances, but for myself.

…and it was the last Sunday that I hummed a television series’ theme song to myself during the opening hymn.


  1. Cigarette butts, soda cans, and an item of girls’ underwear during one memorable occasion…as well as other items you really don’t want to know about.
  • Her name was Kristi, and I was totally twitter-pated and unable to talk to her. I would daydream about her constantly though, and as a prepubescent eleven-year-old, those dreams revolved around a scenario in which I save her after she falls into the Kenai River only to be rewarded with a kiss of gratitude when she recovers consciousness.

“Karen” written by Jack Marshall, Bob Mosher, and performed by The Beach Boys.

1964: Uneasy Perch for a Lame Duck

It stood out just enough for me to push the brake pedal on my morning Facebook crawl:

“Established titles! For just $49.95 you can own one square foot of Scottish land which will entitle you (as a landowner) to be addressed as “Lord” – or as the Scots say, “Laird”!” I went on to read that your not-quite-fifty bucks would buy you one (1) square foot plot of land on an estate in Scotland; a unique/numbered plot where they’d plant a tree if you so desired. Topping off the deal was your choice of either a digital or hard-copy version of a personalized certificate of Laird status.

Despite my strong distrust of Facebook sellers it was enough to make me pause for a moment before deciding to save my $49.95. The advertisement was very specific in noting that there was no substantive title of nobility transferred and I’d already been down that particular genealogical road with my Mom’s nonstop assertion that her maiden name (coincidentally “Laird”) was somehow proof that her family came from a line of failed Scottish nobility.

…but I still had to smile as I read about the “wee” plots of Scottish land for sale because there had actually been a time in my life when buying land in one square foot increments had been a very attractive proposition.

May 1964

I was a lame duck.

…a lame duck Woodland Park Elementary fifth grader that is. Normally summer was a great time for a kid, especially during the relatively rain-free summer of 1964 in Anchorage. It was a time for running and playing with my buddies until late in the still-sunlit evening, all the while discussing the events of the past school year and speculating on the school year to come, but  with my family’s impending move to Sterling down on the Kenai Peninsula all such discussions came to a screeching halt.…and it wasn’t just the move that bothered me. After two years of sharing a room with my three younger sisters I finally had my own digs, and even if it was just an alcove portioned off from the front room with two book shelves I was content with having my own space to set up the blue and yellow Roman soldiers I’d ordered off the back of a comic, and display models with a reasonable expectation of their survival. Rumor was that I’d be bunking with my little sisters again after the move south and I wasn’t looking forward to that.

I was caught up in those unhappy thoughts when I happened to see a pair of posters in the hallway of the church the next Sunday announcing construction of a new meetinghouse on Maplewood Street on the east side of town. Several adults were gathered around the first poster talking about the project but I was transfixed by the chart on the second placard labeled “Building Lot Purchase” which depicted a section of land divided up into numerous small squares of various sizes, each annotated with a dollar amount varying proportionally to the size of the square.

The group of adults slowly got larger as more and more people took note of the posters and I was slowly but surely edged away. I could hear snippets of conversation including such phrases as “stake center” and “fund raiser” but I tuned them out. In that continual suspension of disbelief underlying the thought process of all eleven year old boys I had found a solution to the impending move to the Kenai Peninsula and the loss of my personal space. I was going to buy my own place to live.

FOR the next few weeks I went from house to house on Barbara Drive, looking for chores to earn money for my budding real estate empire. I took on any chore offered to include raking, sweeping and on one occasion disposing of a small dead animal which brought in just over a dollar each week which I then turned over to the fund-raising committee on Sunday. As I marked off each square on the chart, I took great care in keeping my purchased lots together, even stooping to the stratagem of erasing and moving initials of other purchasers that appeared inside the boundaries of my proposed estate in the southwest corner of the main lot.

The process gave me a purpose during the summer as my parents came and went on medical trips and attended various camps as we slowly packed for the move. Never long on praise my mom and dad both commented each Sunday on my faithfulness and generosity which I brushed off through my preoccupation with surveying old crates in the garage for use in cobbling together a plan for a small cabin large enough for a sixth grader to lay down in.

 It wasn’t until mid-July that I actually got to see the site of my future kid-stead. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning and members of several congregations had gathered at the lot covered with medium height birch and spruce trees typical of south central Alaska. The perimeter of the lot had already been cleared which allowed quick access to my personal area of interest. As I sat down on the moss mentally building my new home I noticed a group of men clustered in the middle of the lot, blueprints in hand and pointing out corresponding areas on the property. It was as I observed their purposeful movements and overheard bits of their discussion that I realized the situation might not be as I’d imagined – there were entirely too many “shuns” in the conversation, words like:

  • Construc-tion
  • Founda-tion
  • Dona-tion

…and the internal Stukas started their strafing run through my insides as I finally tumbled to the fact that the church hadn’t been in the micro-real estate business after all, but had in fact been conducting a fund-raising effort to raise the purchase price for the site of a new central meetinghouse.

Summer allergies provided a reasonable excuse as I started sniffling in disappointment until I remembered with relief that no one had been aware of what I had been doing…no one, that is except maybe my dad, a suspicion born out when the next couple of weeks saw me slowly regaining the money I had inadvertently donated towards the building project. Normally Dad was thrifty to a fault, hanging onto to every penny so tightly that Abraham Lincoln’s eyes bulged… but there were soon several instances when he would uncharacteristically give me the change after a small purchase or pay me for a normally un-paid chore so that by the time we made the actual move my losses had been made good.

As it was I didn’t have much time to mourn the loss – within weeks we were starting a new life 65 miles to the southwest in the tiny hamlet of Sterling on the Kenai Peninsula, and when later visits to Anchorage had us attending church in the beautiful new meetinghouse, I was more interested in the girls than my lost dreams of home ownership.

…but to this day there is one particular parking spot in the southwest corner of the lot where I will park even if I have to walk through snow or rain to get to the building.


“Anybody there?”

I’m a semi-shut-in (if that’s a thing) so I’m used to my horizons being clipped short and using Amazon for shopping…but from where I stand it’s not just the mall, church of my grandson’s school that seems deserted – it’s feels deserted here as well. I can’t speak for all of my other word-crunching friends but for me personally – I’ve never had such low readership figures, looks, likes whatever you call it. I hope it’s just quirk brought on by the virus and that as time goes on we all get back to reading and commenting.

To better days!

1964: One For The Road

We were living in Sterling for no more than a week when it became apparent that I wasn’t the only member of the family who missed Anchorage. From the middle of August to the end of September of 1964 we made the trip three times, for reasons ranging from coordinating Church programs to getting medical treatment at the Elmendorf AFB hospital to retrieving some odd item left during the move while crashing at night with mom’s best friend Jeanne Johnson, though Mom let me stay with my best friend Mark instead.

However, because of the recent Good Friday earthquake the trips could end up taking more than just the time required to transit the 276 mile round trip. A good portion of the highway curled around Turnagain Arm, the branch of Cook Inlet that extended to the south of the Anchorage basin. The trip around Turnagain is one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the world and takes in majestic spruce covered mountains with countless waterfalls as well as a few rivers and several major streams crossing under the highway to feed into the arm…and there’s where an element of chance entered in.

During the earthquake the ground level around the southern end of Turnagain arm dropped six feet and in the process guaranteed the eventual death of Portage, a small hamlet/railway station at the south end of the arm. The abrupt drop either destroyed or severely compromised all the bridges over the aforementioned waterways so as part of the recovery effort temporary bridges were erected to the side of the old ones and anchored on raised berms that put the driving surface an extra six feet above the original road bed to prevent damage from ocean waters that now flooded the highway during periods of high tide. it also meant that if you failed to consult the tide table when planning a drive around Turnagain arm you stood a good chance of being stranded on one of those elevated bridges until the tide receded.

…which was how we ended up stranded on a bridge late one August night. My mother, four sisters and I ended up spending four hours crammed into a our white Ford Falcon station wagon, though by that time the mud from transiting the regularly flooded highway had our car looking more than white. It could have been worse – August still gave us extended daylight hours and we were able to pass the time with a stack of comics and a box full of home-brewed root beer we’d been given as we left Mark’s house.

As Mom had forgotten her wristwatch on the trip we were clueless about when we could leave the safety of the bridge and it was a little scary when a set of disembodied headlights appeared off the end of the bridge, lights that slowing coalesced into the front end of a Alaska State trooper’s cruiser. The officer parked and walked up to talk to my mom sitting in the driver’s seat, slowly playing the beam of his flashlight though the interior of the Falcon while enquiring about situation.

Suddenly the flashlight stopped and the trooper asked “Mrs. Deitrick, is everything OK with you and your children?” to which my Mom breezily answered in the affirmative.

“‘Are you sure everything is OK?”

I started to duck for cover – Trooper or no trooper, one thing you never did twice was contradict my mom, but in some random act of sanity she resisted verbally blasting the officer, and glanced back to the spot where the officer’s flashlight was shining…on my five-year-old sister Heather guzzling from an Olympia beer bottle. There was a moment of awkward silence then we all started laughing and explained that Mark’s mom hadn’t removed the label when she refilled the bottle with home-made root beer. She had been a war-bride from Helsinki and had grown up with Finland’s much more relaxed attitude towards alcohol so the thought of removing the labels had never occurred to her.

The trooper got good laugh as well, and after clearing us to proceed he left with a copy of the root beer recipe that Mark’s mom had given us, a recipe that my family also tried shortly after getting back to Sterling.

We just made very, very sure to remove all the labels from the bottles before we used them ourselves.

Batman ’64


It delights me to see the attention lavished on the mid-sixties Batman TV series. Yes, I know it was the height of camp and I was none too pleased myself.( it was even worse for those of use in the Last Frontier –  KENI Channel 2 in Anchorage managed to broadcast  the two episodes in reverse order)  I was twelve when it first aired and had been an ardent Bat-fan since the first issue with Julius Schwartz at the editor and it was painful to watch my hero become a buffoon…but if we’d never had the series I doubt we’d ever had the movies or the animated series.

You see, Batman needed all the help he could get at this point of career. When “Julie” took over as editor Batman and all the related titles were on the verge of cancellation, avoided only when transformation from cowled scoutmaster to scientific detective caused a dramatic rise in sales. Aesthetics had a lot to do with it too; Carmine Infantino took over the artistic reins in Detective  with issue 327 and “Mystery of the Menacing Mask” and became the first artist that I could identify by style alone.

So, it should be no surprise that my upcoming World’s Finest piece should include that version of the Dark Knight that had more of a mid-level intensity.


The Big One (Part 3)

April in Alaska was a slightly schizophrenic period of time: The snow was melting faster than the ground mass could absorb the water, creating so much mud that the season is referred to as “break-up”  instead of “spring”. April of 1964 seemed to fit that pattern when the first hints of green appeared and changes started to happen outside as the weather got warmer.

Oddly enough the first big changes were inside our house: When the dust settled from extensive furniture and bookshelf rearrangement I had my own room again…or to be more precise I had an alcove partially blocked off from the rest of the front room.  It was enough for me to have a trace element of privacy and a place to keep some of my things out on display without instant destruction at the hands of my little sisters.

One of the first items I wanted to put on display also happened to be the product of my first lesson in the principle of caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware”. Like all fifth graders I was powerless to resist the styrene siren call that came from the back of every comic book in the world: The 132 piece Roman Army set. One look at the lavish Russ Heath-rendered battle scene and I was hooked enough to turn a blind eye to the small print which would have alerted me to the fact that

  • The 132 figures included “16 pieces of harmless ammunition” for the 4 working catapults.
  • There were only a half-dozen poses.
  • The figures were one inch-tall flat figures cast in hard styrene plastic instead of the 2 inch full-round soldiers that made up the rest of my collection.

None of which had any bearing on the massive earthquake we’d experience a month earlier, which is in fact  my point. In my fifth-grader’s world we’d all moved on. Never mind we’d just gone through a record breaking quake – more important matters took center stage, like these army men, and comic books.

There were some odd events that I couldn’t help but notice:

Like most growing cities Anchorage had a number of half-rented little strip malls, but within a month of the quake many of those empty storefronts around town began to advertise clearance sales. None of them were established businesses with signage, business cards or normal retail ephemera, just big banners graphically screaming “SALE” or ‘CLEARANCE”. It didn’t bother me that the merchandize was half-heartedly displayed in piles because the prices were great: For example I bought a pair of zippered galoshes for a dollar; a bargain even if the solid color fabric lining the left boot was different from the plaid lining of the right one. It took me a couple of years wearing those mis-matched boots to piece together what was happening with all those  little fly-by-night retail place; they were selling merchandise salvaged from the major stores that had been destroyed during the quake.

There was also the slow decline of the little town of Portage, located at the southern end of Turnagain arm at the junction of Sterling Highway and the access road to Portage glacier. Ground level there had dropped several feet during the quake which meant high tide now flooded the area and all reliable local sources of fresh water were gone. The tides also played havoc with drivers just passing through -. failure to check the tide table could mean a four hour wait parked on replacement bridges that had been constructed above the high water mark.

The roads and bridges were repaired fairly quickly, but the little town never did recover. Being true Alaskans a couple of small businesses tried toughing it out by trucking in potable water, but eventually the residents moved to areas further up the highway to Anchorage. Recovery efforts were made in other areas as well, though as late as the summer of 1978 you could still see the remains of boats that had been tossed like toys when the tsunami hit the small harbor in Seward.

As time passed, the urgency to “quake-proof” buildings and infrastructure was pushed aside by issues like the massive oil reserves found on the North Slope, the Alaska Native Land Claims act, and (for me personally) girls. The Big One was never completely out of my mind though, especially when we’d get another earthquake, be it large or small. I’d always wonder if those efforts to come up with more quake-resistant designs ever came to pass.

I got my answer in 1982 at a Christmas party put on by another officer in my unit at FT Richardson. I found myself in a long conversation with a municipal planner and when I asked him about the status of quake-proofing efforts In Anchorage he looked like a deer in the headlights. I told him that I had gone through the Big One and made an observation about the tremendous growth that had come about in the interim, including growth close to some of the worst-hit areas in 1964.  He stuttered, he stammered then begged off to freshen his drink…and I figured I got my answer.

…and every time a story about seismic activity in Alaska pops up on the Internet, I wonder what the next Big One will do.


1964: The Big One (Part Two)

Normally I didn’t get up very early on Saturday mornings; other than a half-hour of old Mighty Mouse cartoons on television at 2:30 in the afternoon and spattering of old radio serial episodes on the radio there was no kid-specific entertainment to drag us out of bed. What did eventually get us out of bed was Mom’s wooden spoon as she “encouraged” us to do our chores, but on this Saturday everyone was more subdued than usual, especially as more solid information came in.

The tsunami news had been as bad as we originally heard, and we got our first notice that Anchorage had its own death toll. Local destruction was principally focused at two places: Turnagain Subdivision and the heart of downtown. Both places took a lot of damage for the same reason: They were situated on bluffs fairly close to the inlet, and both areas had a substantial layer of colloidal clay in the strata underneath. As it was later explained to me, the manner in which the particles of clay were suspended was such that during normal conditions it remained solid, but when it received a sharp shock (such as a major quake) the clay would instantly turn into something resembling talcum powder, which allowed the bluff area to move around more drastically than other places.

Situated on the far west side of town at the point where Cook Inlet splits into two arms, Turnagain was the city’s most upscale residential area until the quake. Seventy-five homes were damaged; many of them so far beyond salvage 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 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 last name ‘Bradshaw’.) The house was habitable but it did have this totally b*thin’ crack running lengthwise down one wall of the basement upon which Zsa-Zsa used to base his claim that he came from a “broken home”.

Downtown took a drubbing as well and the media was quickly filled with dramatic photos showing one side of Fourth Avenue sitting several feet below the other. Down at the elementary school level we still didn’t get much hard information (heaven forbid we should read the paper) but the grapevine quickly filled with several interesting stories.

Jeff, Curtis, and a couple of the cooler guys in school said they had gone downtown and thrown rocks at soldiers guarding the area from looters, but that story smelled fishy even to a ten-year old. For starters there were no buses and in those pre-Minnesota By-pass days walking the entire length of Spenard Road would have taken all day. Some of the more elaborate details hurt their credibility as well, such as their account of being chased home at bayonet point with one of the boys getting jabbed in the butt.

The basic account of the collapse of the façade of the new J.C. Penny’s store turned out to be true but again some of the specific details were hard to believe. For example, a sales clerk was supposedly using the rest room when the quake hit, and when the shaking stopped he was trapped sitting on the “throne” in full view four stories up, the bathroom having been located against the wall that fell off.

Government Hill Elementary was rumored to have been completely swallowed up in a crevasse but that also didn’t bear up well under scrutiny.  However, when we finally got a chance to drive past it weeks later I learned that the rumor wasn’t all that far off: half of the school was sheared neatly off where the ground had collapsed underneath the southern part of the building. The second story of West Anchorage High also collapsed though the damage wasn’t as dramatic.

One major reason for the lack of news was the telephone situation. Bear in mind that telecommunications was a drastically different animal than it is now; we had no cell phones, fiber optics or satellite links. Communication was a real concern so after the initial quake authorities asked everyone to limit their phone calls to genuine business or emergency calls – and even then they asked that calls be limited to just a couple of minutes.  A few days after the quake we got through to Grandma and Grandpa who had been distressed by some of information they had been getting.  Most of the news coming out of Alaska ranged from concerned to wildly inaccurate with some passengers arriving at Anchorage International airport (now Ted Stevens International) wearing waders and expecting Anchorage to be knee-deep in water.

As if we weren’t emotionally shaken up enough it was announced that there was a good chance the city’s water supply had been comprised via broken water mains and we were all required to get typhoid shots. Again it was a different time and there wasn’t the controversy about possible side – effects from immunizations so we lined up with what seemed like half the city population to get them after church.   I got my shot and went home sleepy and not so inclined to rejoice when it was announced that school was cancelled for the entire next week…

To be honest I would have stayed close to home even if I wasn’t dozing off and on, or unable to use the phone to plan stuff with my buddies. It was easy to get kind of scared once you got any distance away from home and familiar turf; there were weird cracks in the roads and the continual slight aftershocks accompanied by odd rumbles kept shaking us up periodically. There was one huge mega-puddle by the school that was simultaneously being filled by a small geyser on one end and drained at the other by a particularly deep and scary looking crack in the ground.

It was scary enough to prompt visions of little imps with pitchforks jumping out to chase fifth graders and I gave the place wide berth when walking over to visit my friend Mark the next Friday.  Our plan was to watch an episode of Fireball XL5, both of us hoping that they would air the episode that had been cut short the week before by the quake.

After kicking my boots clean and placing them in the entry way I hopped next to Mark on the couch in front of their television.  As we went through the traditional fifth-grader’s meeting ritual (punching each other on the arm and commenting on the source of flatulence) the XL5 credits started to roll. The topic of conversation then changed from  “whoever smelt it dealt it” to a critique of the show and finally to our individual lack of fear during the earthquake the previous week.

That’s when the Really Big Aftershock hit.

It wasn’t nearly as severe or as long as the Big One itself but it was bigger than the countless other small aftershocks we had already experienced. I only remember that seconds later I was out of the house and across the street in my stocking feet. Mark said he’d never seen me move that fast before; Mark’s mom wondered why we couldn’t move that fast when she called us for dinner or chores. I wondered if I was ever again going to be able to see an entire uninterrupted episode of Fireball XL5, as by the time we got back into the house and settled down the closing credits were running.

By then the sun was starting to set and visions of imps with pitchforks jumping out of cracks in the ground came too easily to mind so I went back , collected my shoes and coat, and walked home

(End Part Two)


Alaska Earthquake March 27, 1964. Wreckage of Government Hill...

Alaska Earthquake March 27, 1964. Wreckage of Government Hill School in Anchorage. The south wing of the building, shown here, collapsed into a graben at the head of the landslide. Slip of the graben block is shown by displacement of the roofline. Photo by W.R. Hansen, 1964. – ID. Alaska Earthquake no. 62 – ake00062 – U.S. Geological Survey – Public domain image

1964: The Big One (Part 1)


As I start out let me note that there many more definitive and accurate treatments of the Good Friday earthquake in print. I’m just relating the story from the viewpoint of an almost-eleven year old boy…who was secretly pleased that the initials of this ruined café matched his own.)

One of the bonding elements of the Baby Boomer generation was the assassination of John F. Kennedy; ask that rhetorical question “Where were you when Kennedy was shot” at any gathering  of members of that demographic the room usually goes silent as everyone remembers back…or tries to remember given the stage of senility we may be in. I was in the tail end of the b00m and I most definitely remember Mrs. Green bursting into my fifth grade class with “Oh my God the president has been shot!”…but there was an event that is even more firmly fixed in my mind and memory, an event that came four months and four days afterwards which is referred to at various times  as the Great Alaskan Earthquake, the Good Friday Earthquake or as we called it – the Big One.

At the time we were living on the corner of McRae Road and Barbara Drive not too far from Woodland Park School. I’m not sure if there is a construction term for the manner in which our home had been constructed; 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-due 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 and decent building supplies even harder to come by.  I firmly believe that “tacked-together” aspect of the house gave us a good measure of protection during the Big One.  I think that it just kind of leaned and squeezed and bounced, absorbing the quake’s 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 in that little house on March 27th 1964 that I rode out the Great Alaskan Earthquake, when one tectonic plate slipped under another near College Fjord north of Prince William Sound and triggered an earthquake that measured 9.2 on the Richter scale that killed 15 people outright and another 106 from the subsequent tsunami hitting the Alaskan coast. However, for my family it started out as a hop, skip and jump down Memory Lane.

At that time my sisters and I still considered ourselves transplanted California people, having moved north just the previous year for what we assumed was a temporary move. I had a California state flag tacked inside my closet door, we’d perk up at references to the Golden State in television and radio broadcasts, and when we all turned out to be better than average swimmers we made sure everyone was informed that such skill was merely the birthright of every native born Californian.  However, nothing evoked thoughts of home as much as earthquake

Not that we had ever gone through a truly monumental quake before that time. With the exception of a brief sojourn in San Diego Naval Base in the fall of 1960 my time in California was spent in the Bay Area or points central and north. We had plenty of earthquakes – just no major ones, most of them of the same intensity of the mild quake I experienced during my pre-school years  – which my toddler-logic passed off as the effects of a semi falling tipping over  on the interstate highway behind our house. A shudder through the ground was a novelty that tickled your tummy rather than a cause for concern.

…which is why I turned and smiled at my Mom when the ground started shaking on the afternoon of March 27th, 1964. It was not quite 5:30 PM and I was capping off the Good Friday holiday by watching an episode of my favorite show, Fireball XL5. A British import produced by Gerry Anderson, XL5 chronicled the adventures of Steve Zodiac and his crew as the stood vigil over our part of the galaxy as members of the World Space Patrol. This episode in particular was a nail biter as it told the story of a mysterious fleet of ships intent on invading Earth.I felt a slight shake in the floor and  glanced over to my mother from the TV just as the ships were landing

“Hey Mom – just like home. An earthquake!”

 I turned back to the set to find a blank screen. The TV was off. Puzzled, I looked around and saw that the living room lights were still on, and then noticed that the set had become unplugged which  puzzled me even more until realized that the house was really shaking at this point and the plug had been pulled out of the socket when the set rattled away from the wall. It was at this point that I went into TARDIS-time with external events happening at a much slower rate than my mind was working.

“Get under the door jamb!” my mom yelled. We had learned during quakes back home that with its double construction a doorframe is much stronger than most parts of a house’s wall. I dove from my perch in front of the TV to the door between the living room and the kitchen.

Not only did the ground continue to rock – it rocked harder.

“Get under the table” my mom yelled. (She’d seen a newspaper article earlier in the year that suggested  riding out an earthquake under the kitchen table was the best bet,  the tables structure making up in protection what the roof and walls may have lacked)


The top three courses of our chimney collapsed and the bricks fell, which in turn accomplished the following in rapid succession:

  1. Broke the kitchen window
  2. Severed the propane line leading to the kitchen stove
  3. Bent the line so that it now faced into the broken window, spewing propane into the kitchen


I stumbled outside and held myself up by hanging onto the swing set in the front yard. Next to the fence were my little sisters, completely oblivious and laughing as they had the time of their lives trying in vain to stand up but being knocked down at each attempt by the ground shaking. I could hear the ground rumbling and our dogs were barking up a storm…and it was then that I realized I had made the dash outside without the benefit of coat or shoes. After checking with my mom I dashed quickly inside the entry to retrieve both items then went around by the broken kitchen window where I turned off the propane line and leaned a piece of plywood against the wall to keep the wind out until my dad got home.

It was awhile before we got any information about the extent of the earthquake’s damages. Dad had been out camping on a distant FT Richardson training area with his boy scout troop and it was mid-evening before he finally got back after slowly but surely making his way police barriers and damaged roads to get all the boys safely delivered home. A relatively mild “break-up” (Alaskan term for “spring”) meant that the house hadn’t gotten too cold and after making short work of the broken propane line and covering the broken window we found we could stay cozy with a blower-less furnace if we all cuddled together in the front room. A quick search of the house produced a half-dozen large candles and it was good news all around when I found that I had a fully charged battery in my transistor radio…which was quickly followed by  the bad news that the speaker was broken and  I would have to served  as a radioman, passing on pertinent news as it came via sporadic local broadcasts.

Concrete information was hard to come by. We knew that it had been a record quake, measuring at least 9.0 on the Richter scale and it was estimated that about a hundred people had been killed.   Kodiak, Valdez, and Seward were all heavily damaged by tsunami, which proceeded to scare the bejabbers out of all of us until Dad explained that the wave would have to make two contrary-to-the-law-of-physics right angle turns to even reach Anchorage at all – and even at that we were far away enough from the ocean to preclude anything reaching us. He told us that we didn’t have anything to worry about….but as I peeked out the curtains at the isolated points of feeble candlelight in the windows of the other dark houses in the neighborhood I wasn’t so sure my dad was right.

(End Part One)


1964 Bike Ride to Mike’s House

I threw exactly one tantrum as a kid. I was normally pretty placid – an old man in a child’s body – but in the spring of 1964 when my dad announced that we were moving from Anchorage down to the Kenai Peninsula something snapped. I can remember screaming and yelling that I didn’t want to go, I wasn’t going to go and that we were all going to be eaten by bears. I was surprised that my parents let us rant like that (my older sister Robin was pitching a fit as well) but there were no spankings or shakings. They let us go on and on until exhaustion – then calmly moved us the following August to a small ranch in Sterling.

We had moved as a family many times before so why was this time so much more traumatic? There were several reasons, mostly social in nature. I had lots of friends in the neighborhood, I enjoyed going to Woodland Park Elementary school and I liked my Cub Scout pack. I also like living in a city; prior to Anchorage we lived in Little Shasta Valley in northern almost-Oregon California where the school I attended had 12 students in grades 1-8, we had one (intermittent) television station and the closest town was ten miles away. All of those factors paled though in comparison to the main reason I did not want to move to the Kenai Peninsula.


There are countless icons in our world representing the idea of freedom. Uncle Sam. The lone Tiananmen Square dissident facing down a Chinese Type 59 tank. Marianne – the bare-chested lady the French use as a symbol for Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (who was becoming pretty interesting at about the time of this story I might add). However, if you ask me, there is one image that perfectly conveys the idea of freedom.

A ten-year old on a bicycle.

I occasionally used a bike when we lived in Little Shasta Valley, but there weren’t many places within reasonable distance so it wasn’t until we moved to Barbara Drive in deepest Spenard that my love affair with the two-wheeled conveyance began. According to Mark Davis and all of my other buddies it literally was a love affair because the bike I used was a girl’s model with the lowered cross-bars. Their comments didn’t bother me though – I’d have used any bike that promised to free me from the tyranny of foot travel. Without a bicycle my furthest travels reached no further than the school or Mark’s home which was located a little more than a block further. With a bicycle I could get to the hobby shop, to the fireworks stand – even over to Turnagain where my church buddy David Bradshaw lived. I wasn’t so sure I would be walking (or biking) into the same kind of situation when we moved away to the sticks.

My fears were well founded. Oh, there were roads in Sterling – but the only paved road was the highway, all the others being covered with gravel. We were living under similar conditions as we did in Little Shasta Valley: one television station, the nearest town ten miles away and no kids living within a reasonable distance. That last one was the toughest to deal with as my main social contact at the time were letters I’d been getting from my best friend back in Anchorage – and they had been pretty “snotty” , full of jokes about ravenous bears and my pending engagement to the local Eskimo chief’s daughter – so I was hoping to find new buddies of a more amenable nature.

Mike Endsley seemed like a perfect candidate. I have to confess that I first noticed him because of his totally cool Fireball XL5 lunch-box but he also was the first kid at Sterling Elementary to introduce himself to “the new kid from Anchorage”. With less than eighty students in grades one through eight Sterling Elementary had a lot more in common with Little Shasta than Woodland Park Elementary, but it still was hard getting adjusted to a new school and Mike made sure that the process was a pleasant one .. It was only natural that when I started thinking about places to bike to on the weekend Mike’s place was first on the list.

We were on different bus routes so I had just a vague idea where he lived so I had him draw a map for me. It wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of the cartographic arts; he’d taken a piece of notebook paper and made a line down the length of it which he labeled “Sterling Highway”, then he added just five more details:

• A perpendicular line crossing the highway at the bottom of the page labeled “Robinson Loop/Scout Lake Loop”

• A small box below that line representing the school

• A wavy perpendicular line two inches about the first indicating Moose River.

• Another line halfway up the page that split away from the highway for about an inch before joining it again – like a very short divided highway. Mysteriously labeled “Feuding Lane”

• A box at the top ( Mike’s house)

He had no idea about distance – just he thought that riding in a car from his house to Moose River took as long as a song playing on the radio. I wasn’t much better with estimating distances but assumed that I was looking at riding about the same distance as the hobby shop was from my home in Anchorage – a couple of miles. Armed with that knowledge and Mike’s map I happily set out after lunch the next Saturday, eager with the anticipation of playing with someone other than my sisters for the first time in six weeks.

It was a beautiful day – golden in only the way an autumn day can be in Alaska. I bounced down Scout Lake Loop to the blessed pavement of Sterling Highway and started pedaling east towards Mike’s place. The Chugach Mountains also lay to the east and the initial distance flew by as I admired their rugged beauty. Before I knew it I had crossed Moose River and as my map indicated I was well on my way I decided to take a break at the Chevron gas station just across the bridge.

As I got off the bike to stretch my legs I glanced at the gas pumps and had a flash of insight. I pulled out the map and looked again at spot on the map labeled “Feuding Lane.”; based on the location and orientation of the short parallel lane Mike must have made a spelling mistake – obviously he meant to write “Fueling Lane” to mark the short paved pull-off at the Chevron station that drivers used to reach the gas pumps. That meant I was halfway! This was going to be breeze.

…and breezy it soon became as the afternoon wind off the mountains started to pick up as I made my way through Naptowne – the alternate name for our community favored by folks living on the east side of Moose River. As the wind picked up it started getting a bit harder to pedal, but wind resistance was nothing compared to the uphill slope I shortly encountered. This was getting to be a chore.

It started getting kind of scary too. Homes had thinned out to nothing so I was alone on the highway with only my bike and the rustling leaves to keep me company. I recalled with a start the bears Robin and I had moaned about earlier in the year – and then remembered that there were moose and lynx in the area as well. I picked up my pace and started scanning the area on each side of the road for signs that those dangerous critters were looking for a snack in sneakers when I saw a sight that was even more terrifying.

It was a road extending off to the right (south) side of the highway with a sign that read “Feuding Lane”. Mike hadn’t made mistake – I had and instead of being almost at Mike’s house I was only half-way.

I jumped off the bike, throwing it down in the process. I was thankful I was alone when the tears came – I’d rather take my chances with a bear than get teased about crying but then the specter of stalking critters came back and I resumed my trek. Looking back I don’t know why I kept going but at the time it never occurred to me to turn back short of my goal. It was just as well that I kept going because the land leveled out and the distance between Feuding Lane and Mike’s house was shorter than the map indicated.

I arrived at scattering of homes clustered around roads leading off both sides of the highway. In addition to Mike living out there Robert Eschelman and Mike Card homes were close by and the three of them along with some younger siblings had been out playing softball. I jumped right in the game, my laborious trek forgotten as we threw balls and swung bats in the later afternoon sun.

….and all too soon it was time to go home. Both Mikes and Robert were called in by their respective parents to do chores so I saddled up and headed home. Having covered the territory once before I was no longer quite so scared and as the wind off the mountains was now at my back instead of my front the return trip was much quicker and much easier. “Try to catch me now Mr. Bear” I thought as I sped along.

I got home just as Mom was setting the table for dinner. She was pleased at how quickly I had come in after she rang the dinner bell – and at that point I realized that I had failed to tell my folks where I was going when I set out on my trip. My stomach lurched a bit as I realized that had I gotten hurt or lost no one would have known where to look for me but then I saw we were having hamburgers and all higher-order thinking stopped while my stomach shifted from “fear” mode to “Mmmmm!” mode.

…and I had other things to think about, like the letter I was going to write to Mark Davis after dinner. It would chronicle an epic bicycle trek featuring snarling bears, rabid lynx and stampeding moose chasing me for the 20 miles to Mike Endsley’s home.

Up hill in both directions.