1965: (Not Really The) Submarine Races

Re-run Saturday. One significant omission in the original blog-post was the Edmund Scientific Catalog that Robert Eschleman added to our technical library. Periscope designs became much more ambitious after reading about the ba-jillion different lenses and optical devices listed in that publication.

David R. Deitrick, Designer

From its calm exterior you’d never guess that Sterling Elementary School was once a hotbed of naval architecture. During the mid-1960s the seventh and eighth grade classroom buzzed with the production of home-built submarine concepts, occupying all the spare time of a team of crack naval designers consisting of David Deitrick, Wayne McNutt, Dillon Kimple and Robert Eschleman. (There may have been more participants, but those four were the core members of the effort.) There are unfortunately no documents or drawings remaining from those countless boy-hours but I can personally attest to the several tree’s worth of  paper we went through during the project.

What started us going? It could have been any number of things. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was in its second year of broadcast and as Star Trek would not start airing until the next fall our attention was firmly focused on inner instead…

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1965: Three O’clock High

 “Colonel – we’ve got more flak holes than fuselage and Skippy is stuck in the ball turret!”

“OK – keep working on getting him out.”

“Pilot to crew: Keep a sharp lookout for enemy fighters. We’re going in!”

“Pilot to bombardier: We’re coming up on the IP.”

“Patches of cirrus clouds obscuring the area sir!”

“Get your boots on Gus!”

“Can you still see the target?”

“I said get your boots on NOW!”

“What?”

>click<

…and just like that I went from 25,000 feet over the armament plants in 1943’s Schweinfurt Germany to 3 feet above the living room floor in 1965’s Sterling Alaska. For some reason KENI TV had decided to run the second season of Twelve O’clock High on Sunday afternoons. For an equally mysterious reason my dad chose Sunday afternoons to go out and get firewood.

Oh, and did I tell you that it was the middle of winter?

I’d learned long ago that there was no point in arguing discussing the matter; after pulling on my work boots and grabbing my coat and gloves I’d slog out to the pick-up where (with any luck) Dad would have the heater already going. Riding in Dad’s 1941 Ford truck was one of the very few positive aspects to our firewood expeditions – I loved that old bucket-of-bolts and would eventually earn my license by driving it all around the pastures surrounding our house. The other slightly positive factor was the proximity of dead trees to cut: we lived in the middle of what had been the big fire of 1947 when a good part of the Kenai peninsula had been burned out – so there were plenty of cuttable dead trees fairly close by.

While this trip took us only a couple of hundred yards up the road it was still physically challenging as  years of harvesting left most of the suitable wood  at least fifty yards off the road. It was not an easy hike – after negotiating the earthen berm left from the road’s construction there were enough fallen logs, hillocks, and depressions in the ground to make the trip between cutting site and  truck more of an obstacle course than a stroll in the woods.

…all of which contributed to the blue funk I was wallowing in. In addition to the hike I was cold, the chunks of wood were heavy, and to be brutally honest I was kind of creeped out being around Dad (not that anything hinky was going on) – I just didn’t know him that well.

Dad had spent twenty years in the Navy, retiring when I was about five and during those five years I rarely saw him  – he was just this guy in a uniform that showed up about every six months. Unfortunately when he finally did become a full-time parent not much changed.  As I have mentioned before my dad wasn’t so much “raised” as dragged up; his birth father abandoned the family when Dad was an infant only to be replaced by a physically abusive step-father, so my father had little opportunity to observe much less develop parenting skills. I think that shortcoming bothered him more than he let on because his  first five or six post-service years always entailed  jobs  that entailed a lot of travel away from the family.

He was gone a lot until we moved to the Kenai Peninsula where  job duties and our living arrangements kept us all in close proximity for the first time. As the fifty-year-old-man-in-a-twelve-year-old’s-body that I was it didn’t take me long to figure out his past absence was a major factor in my discomfort, but that was information that I shared exactly one (1) time with my mom who unfortunately was in the middle of one of her bi-polar spells. It took time, effort and an icepack to extinguish the resulting metaphorical flames.

…but for the moment I was tired, cold,  my feet were wet, and there was a butt-load of   wood left to haul from the cutting site to the truck. A year earlier I would have been sniveling and crying at my cruel fate, but from the lofty perch of my 12-almost-13 years there was no way I was going to give in to tears. I think it surprised Dad – he’d started out gruffly giving instructions, but as  visibly started to tire his tone of voice started to soften a bit.

He asked if I was OK, mistaking my silence for whine-control, but when he saw the determined look on my face his expression hardened for a moment – then softened again. Then told me that I’d moved a lot of firewood, almost as much as a grown man would have and when his chainsaw stalled he called me over and explained the process as he manipulated the choke, then asked for my input and had me try pulling the start cord a couple of times too.

Then he inexplicably stopped trying to restart the chainsaw, packed it back to the truck and started helping me with the rest of the cut wood. I was mystified – when we piled up the last piece the truck wasn’t nearly as loaded down as usual, which I most definitely did not comment on for fear of spoiling the moment and somehow prodding him into cutting and sawing again. Instead of more cutting and sawing something incredible happened – he started the truck up, briefly instructed me on the functions of the clutch, brake & throttle, then asked me if I wanted to drive the truck back home!

The trip back to the house felt more like riding a severely gaited mule than a truck, but eventually I made it back to the house driving all the way in first gear. After stacking the wood, we went in to hot chocolate and oatmeal cookies, with Dad and I bantering in “guy” talk with like he never had before…but then Mom started setting the table for dinner which was my cue for cleaning up and getting my stuff together for school the next day.

…and just like that the spell was broken…

If this incident had been a script for an episode of The Waltons my relationship with Dad would have changed for the better and from then on we would have become close buddies as well as father and son but unfortunately The Waltons would not be on the air for another seven years and our relationship didn’t change much. There were other non-video factors at work – in addition to his own self-doubt about fatherhood Dad had to operate under a set of strict guidelines my mom had given him regarding me, guidelines that guaranteed a permanent gap.

She had watched her older brother struggle with alcohol for most of his life, a condition that in my mom’s very black-or-white manner of thinking was brought about by excessive family pressure to excel in everything he did.  Her favorite example was when he would play the first half of a football game (both offense and defense) then play the tuba with the marching band at half time, THEN go back for the second half, again playing in both directions.

She was convinced I would follow that same path, so she told Dad that she didn’t want him forcing me into any kind of sport or interest – that I had to approach him to instigate the activity. It didn’t matter if it was just playing catch or collecting stamps – I had to express an interest first.  When you connected the dots between Mom’s restrictions and Dad’s own inner demons it was easy to understand why my father and I existed on the same planet but lived in different worlds.

Unfortunately, this was decades before even the idea of family counseling, and in our textbook bi-polar home the situation remained an open secret and was never discussed. Nevertheless that particular day we went chopping firewood together was a start. The door had been opened just long enough for me to see what Dad was really like and from then on, other doors were opened from time to time. We could be framing a shed, camping with the family or even just standing on the roof adjusting the T.V. antenna; I’d catch his eye, he’d look back and his expression would relax just enough for me to know that the door was open and for at least a couple of minutes the words “father” and “son” were not just titles.

1941FordStakeBed

 

 

1965: “….up in the air…”

Cordova DC3 art

Few things are as mysterious as kid-logic – the oft slightly warped reasoning children give for their opinions and explanations of events around them.  The intensity of our opinions as children was usually an inverse ratio to our actual knowledge. Debate between the merits of “Combat!” vs. “Gallant Men” had less to do with the fighting in France vs. fighting in Italy than it did with the fact that no one alive could walk or talk in a manner more totally cool than Vic Morrow, the actor portraying SGT Saunders  in “Combat!”

For example, the totality of our knowledge and experience with high school was limited to Archie Comics leavened with an episode of “Dobie Gillis” on TV. Nevertheless, attendance at East Anchorage High School would have been a fate worse than death for me, my buddies or any of the other students at Woodland Park Elementary School in the early-mid 1960s. Everyone knew that East was a windowless quasi-prison styled after an inverted coffee cup and that the students also had to attend class on Saturday. We were slated to attend West Anchorage High school – the Harvard of the north.

This rivalry and bickering extended to every aspect of our lives:

  • Fords vs. Chevies.
  • Batman vs. Captain America.
  • Green Bay Packers vs.…. (OK skip that one- Green Bay was the only NFL team we knew about).

It even extended to airlines, which may seem odd for our age group – but completely logical when given our neighborhood’s proximity to Anchorage International Airport and Alaska’s incredibly high rate of aviation-related activity.  In those regulated days of air travel there were actually a lot more airlines and many of the major players passed through Anchorage enroute to the Orient or over the North Pole to Europe. Because they serviced such far away destinations the big guys like Northwest or Western didn’t hold our interest quite as much as the small regional airlines did. London was a mythical place where John Steed and Emma Peel fought cybernauts but Palmer was a town that I had actually visited once, so it was real and the smaller planes that went there were easier to understand than big jets.

I was a die-hard Cordova Airlines man while my best friend Mark Davis favored Pacific Northwest Airlines (also known as PNA) and at that point the bickering began again:

  • Cordova operated twin engine Douglas DC3s while PNA flew four engine Lockheed Constellations.
  • Cordova flew into Soldotna and Kenai while PNA serviced only Kenai.
  • During World War II DC3s flew as the cargo / paratroop carrying C47 Skytrain (US) Dakota (UK) while the Constellation did some light lifting stateside.
  • DC3s looked like bulldogs ramming their way through the air while the Constellation’ dolphin-like lines caused it to more gracefully sail the skies (I had to concede that one to Mark….).
  • Cordova Airlines flight crews just looked so much more butch than the PNA guys did.

The debate took a practical turn over Christmas vacation 1965. Most childhood friendships fade away when kids move, but circumstances conspired to keep Mark and I in touch after my family moved down to the Kenai Peninsula southwest of Anchorage a year earlier.  One such circumstance was a medical specialist’s appointment my mom had scheduled at Elemendorf Air Force. We were in the middle of a unseasonably warm storm known as a chinook that made highway travel extremely dicey so mom was going to make the trip by air …and with tickets only $7.00 a trip she could easily afford to take me along with her.  I jumped at the chance – it was a visit with my best friend, I loved to fly and with Christmas Day itself already over there was little to do but squabble with my sisters.

We took an early morning flight out of Soldotna City Airport, flying out on a Cordova Airlines DC 3. I was so entranced by the orange, magenta and pink hues of an Alaskan mid-winter sunrise that I didn’t mind a bit of turbulence left over from the chinook and when the colors no longer kept my attention I started blasting Messerschimtts out of the sky with a mock machine gun I had cobbled together out of a fountain pen, a large spring-type binder clip and length of 10 gauge copper wire that I picked up from who knows where. It was a wonderful dreamlike flight.

It was the trip back that got scary.

It had been a perfect visit with Mark –meaning we argued for three days straight about those weighty matters only a twelve year old boy would really understand:

  • Who would be the better German Luftwaffe pilot (Mark did a great German accent while I was the proud possessor of a Teutonic surname).
  • The rumored upcoming Batman TV series (of which we had absolutely no details)
  • …and which airline had the better safety record: Pacific Northwest or Cordova.

The details of that last debate came to mind quite forcefully as our visit ended and I rode with Mom out to the airport, checked in and boarded a Cordova Airlines DC3. We would be flying home at night which wasn’t nearly as pretty as a day flight – and from the wind picking up it looked like it would be a lot more turbulent as well.  As I was buckling my seatbelt the pilot walked past – his face looked like it had been chipped out of granite, making wonder if he’d flown a plane like this during Normandy jumps Mark and I had argued about during the visit.  When we took off and the DC3 started to porpoise up and down as the landing gear clunked up I began to pray that he was as experienced as he looked. It was going to be a wild ride.

South-central Alaska looked a lot different from the air fifty years ago than it does now – a lot more empty. Anchorage was about a quarter of its present size, and the Kenai Peninsula was even more sparsely populated.  When you fly the route these days the dazzling glare of the Anchorage area at night keeps you illuminated as move southwest crossing Turnagain arm – and then it’s only 10 minutes or so before you’re over yard lights which slowly transition into the lit-up minimarts, schools and streetlights of more populated areas like Kenai or Soldotna proper.

We took off and flew into darkness.

There were some tiny points of light but they were few and far between. Occasionally there would be a bright flare on the horizon when natural gas would vent during operations at the Swanson River oilfield or related oil-industry sites on Cook Inlet. There would be occasional points of light which were most likely small dings and scratches on the Plexiglas window next to my seat.

Then the serious turbulence rolling off the mountains hit us and it got very scary as the DC3 started rocking and a-rolling with a vengeance.   As we neared the oil fields those natural gas flares got a little more personal and the view out of the window took on aspects of  something between Mordor or Germany during the World War that had just barely ended twenty years earlier. That started me wondering again if any of our flight crew had flown a DC3 under WW2 and when that thought came to mind I could relax a bit.

I gripped the armrest and closed my eyes, only to snap them back open at Mom’s comment to a cabin-mate that I might be scared. My twelve-year old ego goaded me into trying to sound nonchalant as we talked but the onset of puberty robbed me of even that little shred of dignity.  Then Mom stopped in mid-sentence, pointed up and out of our window and said “Look – it’s the Big K greenhouse” – I looked out at total darkness, and then glanced almost straight down to see the brilliantly lit facility directly below us and replied ”I’m looking, I’m looking!” In those brief seconds between Mom’s comment and my response the plane had banked/rolled more than 60 degrees!

…and blessedly at that moment the drone of the engines changed and I knew we were almost there. Before we knew it the plane was making its final approach and landing at Soldotna Airport and we were on solid ground again.  Ever the comedian I made a big show of hugging and kissing the ground after we deplaned  but to be honest there are few times when I have ever been so thankful to be on the ground again – and especially so close to home and my own bed. Weather conditions had gotten so bad that the balance of the trip to Homer had to be cancelled for the night – and PNA hadn’t flown at all that evening!

We were home and safe.

 

1965: “Luuuuu-jon! Luuuuu-jon!”

Image

During her life my Grandmother went from “if man were meant to fly God would have given him wings” to “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. There’s no denying that the world has changed radically in the last century but there was a time in my life when I thought all the really cool stuff had already happened before my time.  I was mistaken. (I promise to not queue up “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel at this point)

 There actually have been a lot of changes in my life but most of those changes have been subtle. For example, when we moved to Sterling, Alaska in the summer of 1964 most people – including many Alaskans – had no idea where Sterling was located but since that time the Kenai Peninsula has become a very popular vacation site. The spot at the confluence of the Kenai and Moose Rivers where Jesse, Spencer and I could leisurely spread to fish now holds at least 65 “combat fisherman’ every day and hour of the season.

In 1965 in order to be considered a true angler at Sterling Elementary you had to have two things:

  • A fishing license (depending on your age)
  • A Lu-Jon lure

I’m sure you know what a fishing license is, but you may not understand the majesty of a Lu-Jon Lure. Shaped like a streamlined abstract Paul Manship-vision of a salmon, these lures were silver in color and sold for a dollar. They trailed a treble-hook behind them (yes, they were legal but then so was snagging!) and we knew they were irresistible to anything with fins. However, these silver treasures were nothing in comparison to gold Lu-Jon lures…in fact the mere idea of a gold Lu-Jon still takes my breath away 50 years later.  The difference in color no doubt was a matter of what color lacquer was in the spray-gun when the work-day started at the factory, but through some quirk of distribution the gold ones were rare in Sterling.  Scoring a gold Lu-Jon was akin to winning the Irish sweepstakes. They were unbeatable.

Fishing technique was fairly basic – you cast the lure out as far as you could across the water, then you would vigorously yank the pole back, winding the line up as fast as possible. No bait was used – as I said snagging was legal so your goal was to make as many casts and get your line out as possible to increase your odds of getting a fish. My sister Holly still stoutly maintains that the reel and line would moan “llluuuuuu-jjoooonnnn…. llluuuuuu-jjoooonnnn” during all that yanking and rapid-reeling. I missed that soundtrack as my buddies and I were too busy talking, sharing the Playboy Party jokes that Jesse was reading to us from the back of the pin-up of one Belgian lass by the name of Hedy Scott a.k.a. Miss June 1965…though we really didn’t understand the jokes or the shapely Miss Scott all that well at the time.

Google turns up pictures of a small orange carton that these lures were supposed to be sold in, but I never saw them come in anything other than a plastic zip-loc bag – which is the real subject of my story. My first Lu-Jon was given to me by an older fisherman so the first time I actually bought one of my own I was surprised to find that the local store sold them in Zip-Loc bags. That might not mean much – but I had never seen a Zip-Loc bag before….and while the Lu-Jon lure was a real prize, that Zip-Loc bag was stunning. I didn’t know the name for the field yet, but I was already interested in product design and I was captivated by the beautiful simplicity of the closure/lock process. It helped that it was made of a fairly heavy mil plastic – nothing like the flimsy sandwich bags that use Zip-loc feature now so there was a very satisfying zip and pop when opening and closing the container. I knew of nothing else like it. There were some forms of plastic wrap available but we all took our sandwiches to school wrapped in wax paper.

As I think back to that moment two thoughts came to mind:

  1. While I grouse about finances, the fact is that by owning a car and more than one set of clothes I am far richer than 75% of the world’s population. Even now there are here are third world countries where something like that heavy-duty Zip-Loc bag would be considered a valuable tool to be carefully maintained and secured when not in use.
  2.  I miss being able to totally focus on something like a Zip-Loc bag they way I could when I was young. Between naiveté of youth and the lack of all the electronic distractions of current times I was unencumbered enough to zero in on anything with the precision of an electron microscope.

I don’t know if I can personally eliminate income inequality and hunger referred to in thought #1 but I try as best I can with the resources that I do have. As far as the second concept goes: Is there any way to regain that Zen-state of focus?  We have so many electronic distractions with “cool stuff’ that it is hard for anything to hold my attention for long.

I just have to hope that as I continue to age the brain cells I lose will be the ones that are infatuated with flashy, noisy electronic things. Maybe at some point I will regress to that second childhood everyone talks about and I will finally be able to figure out if the gold or silver Lu-Jons work the best!