Gospel scholars teach that the Savior conducted his ministry while he was in his thirties but based on Matthew 13: 55-57 I think he was seventeen. This particular scripture refers to an incident when Jesus was preaching to the people in his hometown, and their less-than-warm reception was: “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary …Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, a prophet is not without honor, save in this own country and in his own house” ….which is precisely the reaction that I got as young man when returning to my hometown when I accomplished anything!
“Who does this kid think he is?”
As I aged it didn’t get much better; I went directly from being June’s Boy to Holly’s Brother to Lynne’s Boyfriend to Lori’s Husband, rarely having an identity of my own. Respite from this labeling came only during events that kept me away from home for an extended period of time. Only then did I have a chance to reinvent myself and escape from my own inherent tackiness.
The summer of 1970 gave me ample opportunity.
It helped that I had gained a bit of confidence during the preceding spring. I had lucked into taking a beautiful young lady to junior prom and while any hope of post-dance relationship wilted as quickly as my boutonniere the experience of having a Katherine Ross wannabe on my arm for an evening gave a boost to my confidence and relative eligibility with other girls at school.
What’s more my height gained a couple of inches and my waist lost some, I cultivated both a totally bitchin’ set of sideburns and a nice carpet of chest hair but there were issues concerning my teeth. Two front teeth had been damaged when I was eight and were still discolored to a degree. I felt very self-conscious so I had devised various coping mechanisms:
- I told people I was a vampire.
- I stopped smiling for school pictures.
- I borrowed stand-up routines from comedians like Robert Klein and Dave Steinberg, hoping that the jokes would draw attention away from my mouth.
None of which seemed to be effective going into the summer of 1970, which was otherwise stacking up to look like three great months living outside of the aforementioned stereotype. First I was to attend Boy’s State which was followed shortly after by a church-sponsored Youth Conference in Anchorage. When that was over I had an extended gig in Seward working for a contractor replacing the roof on the high school and when that was over – football season! It was an incredible line-up , but it wasn’t what I had on my mind the most.
You see, I wanted to be James Bond.
It was just past the crest of Bond-o-mania during the dark times when all the movies could offer was George Lazenby looking like a kid in his dad’s suit but fortunately I had discovered Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. While Sean Connery definitely had style Fleming’s written descriptions left me with just as much of an impression and as I was trying to solve my dental aesthetics issue Fleming’s use of term “cruel mouth” piqued my curiosity.
As first I thought that maybe it had something to do with kissing too hard but eventually I determined that it referred to something like the pouting lower lip on the face of Robert Lansing, star of ABC series of Twelve O’clock High). I gave it a try, though I can’t remember how sticking my lower lip out was supposed to hide two teeth directly under my nose. I decided to lose the lip after Mom kept asking me if I’d caught one in the face while playing dodge ball.
Setting up a mock state government in the all-male environment of Boy’s State gave me little time or incentive to worry about my appearance. It wasn’t until I left for the summer’s second event – Youth Conference – that my teeth became something to worry about again.
Youth conference was an annual event when Church kids ages 14-18 gathered together from Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula and the Matanuska/Susitna valley for three or four days of workshops and activities. The stated goal of the conference was spiritual growth1 but to be totally honest my own goal was getting acquainted with young ladies and for once I was successful. Early on in the conference I became reacquainted with Ellen, a girl from Fairbanks that I had met at a previous youth conference. With the iconic 007 theme running through my mind I coolly reached for her hand and we paired up, spending the balance of the time being a bit more exclusive than the chaperones may have liked.
They would have been even less happy had they noticed us slipping out the door during workshops on the next-to-the-last night of the conference. Again channeling Sean Connery as best as I could, I suggested that we walk home instead of waiting for rides; earlier in the evening Ellen had not-so-subtly let slip that her host family lived not far from the stake center and as I knew Anchorage fairly well I figured the walk to be a good opportunity to “get better acquainted” and still get her home in a timely manner.
She knew the address was north of our location (“…maybe on West 16th Avenue…) so we set out in the almost-midnight-sun that is a June evening in Alaska. We’d walk a little. We’d talk a little. Tease a little but never getting into any real trouble. but when I happened to look at my watch I was alarmed to see that it was 10:00 PM! I began to doubt Ellen ’s sense of direction but she stuck to West 16th avenue as a destination until it finally started to get dark, which in summertime Alaska means it is about to rain or really, really late.
At this point we were in a part of town that I didn’t know as well and I started getting edgy, mostly because I didn’t want Ellen to get in trouble. I finally admitted defeat and did something that no one in their right mind will do in Anchorage of 2017…
I knocked on a door and asked to use their phone.
To this day I have no idea why that lady let me in. Maybe it was the fact that I was with Ellen and we were both dressed semi-nice. Maybe it was the subtle perfume Ellen was wearing. Maybe she was just being charitable. Mostly I think it was the fact that no matter how hard I tried to channel James Bond and have a “cruel mouth” I’m just a nice guy and it shows. Whatever the reason she let us stand in her entryway while I dialed my friends to come get us – and then let us stay there until we were picked up.
The teasing was merciless on the ride back home and doubled in intensity when we dropped off Ellen and found that she was staying at a place not more than a block away. She’d transposed “east” and “west” and didn’t know Anchorage well enough to orient herself correctly.
It was all coolness and sly looks the next day as we finished the conference and went our separate ways. Shortly afterwards I started the roofing job in Seward which turned out to be one of the hardest things I had ever done in my (then) short life. It was extremely hard and dangerous2 work; between the dislocation and fatigue I was feeling pretty emotional and made an idiot of myself writing letter after letter to Ellen , all of which went unanswered. I called her a month later and while she maintained that she’d written at least one reply it was obvious that I had been a “summer thing”. I folded my ego up and moved on, permanently retiring the “cruel mouth” look in the process.
1972: I was back to Fairbanks to spend the Fourth of July weekend with my Best Friend. While we were at a formal dance I was left unattended during a “nose powdering break” when a sudden wisp of a perfume I hadn’t smelled in two years prompted me to turn… to find Ellen coolly standing next to me. We had no more exchanged brief greetings when my Best Friend returned from her break; she smiled at Ellen then led me out to the dance floor for a waltz3. I was surprised at her calm demeanor until she hissed through a smile “if she makes one move for you and I’ll scratch her eyes out”.
1976: I ran into Ellen while changing classes at BYU. It was a pleasant surprise but seemed like something out of a Harry Chapin song (“…whatever we had once was gone…”)
2017: We tend to view the past through rose-colored glasses and while I’d like to think that with my razor/laser memory I am a bit more objective than most but in one instance of looking back there is no nostalgic tint to vision at all. It was better back in 1970. I get newspaper headlines from the Anchorage Dispatch (formerly the Anchorage Daily News) via email and I have been distressed in that the hottest stories of this past year has been the unusually high murder rate.
Of particular concern is a playground area called Craters of the Moon where at least six people were killed there during an alarmingly short period of time in 2016. Why am I mentioning this? Craters of the Moon is just south and down a slope from the house where I made that call from in 1970. Had I knocked on that door this last summer I would have at best gotten a face full of pepper spray and at worst .45 reasons why I shouldn’t have knocked on the door.
1I put an honest amount of effort into the workshops. It was during a scripture chase there that I first encountered the scripture from Matthew about prophets and home towns that I used in the introduction
2This was before OSHA and child-labor laws put limits on the hours and types of work for kids
3 We were really good at waltzing, having been on a dance demonstration team the previous year.