1966: Billy and the Bear

Some people have a “Throw-back Thursday”; I have “Run-it-again Saturday”

David R. Deitrick, Designer

It is the nature of most frontiers to have boom-or-bust economies. Alaska is no different than any other frontier, but in some ways that boom-or bust mentality has permeated throughout the whole population in both mind and heart. It brings to mind a bumper sticker I saw on a car in the late 80s when the state was still reeling from a devastating downturn caused by OPEC’s reduction of the price of oil: “Lord, please give us another boom. I promise not to p*ss this one away too.”  I kind of doubt the driver followed through on that oath; as I said that all –or-nothing mindset is totally ingrained in the Alaskan psyche. Private industry investment, purchasing new vehicles, individuals’ spending money –there was rarely any in between. One night you’re sleeping on satin sheets and the next night you’re sacking out on steam grates.

With the Boy Scouts…

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1966: Mukluk Camp

Military service is a much more popular career choice now than when I was a young man. While public antipathy had ebbed from the poop-flinging, hippie-spitting antics common during the height of the Viet-nam conflict, wearing an ROTC uniform on campus didn’t exactly make me a babe-magnet. The kindest comment usually involved my military aspirations being motivated by not having brothers to play army with when I was in grade school.

…a comment that wasn’t all that far off. Living on a homestead in Sterling (AK) with only my four sisters for company left me with little prospects for recruiting playmates (oops!) squad-mates.  Living in Anchorage had been a different case entirely when on any given day there were at least two armies headquartered in Mrs. Green’s fifth grade class. These two armies were usually under the command of either Mark Davis or myself with national identity alternating between Americans and Germans, depending on who looked coolest on the latest episode of Combat!

That type of play was not happening when we subsequently moved to the Kenai Peninsula where I encountered a reverse sophistry in place. You’d assume that an urban institution would be much hipper and “grown-up” than a country school but the opposite proved to be the case: while imagination games were accepted at Woodland Park Elementary the kids at Sterling were much more interested in sports (and the female body). It may have been a natural change in attitude for that particular age so it was possible  the Anchorage kids were embracing older interests at the same time but as the change in attitude happened  at the same time as a change in locale I missed the memo and ended up being mocked unmercifully by my Sterling classmates for playing “baby games”. 1

Eventually I smartened up and learned to blend in at school by talking tough and playing sports during recess but at home my spare time was still taken up with living room maneuvers with my plastic soldiers, writing to former comrades-in-arms back in Anchorage or (on warmer days) getting outside to run and fight the phantom armies of my imagination.  Such activities were good for passing the time, but I never had as much fun as I’d previously had back in Anchorage with my buddies. Sadly, the situation didn’t look to get better anytime soon as there was little hope for recruiting the manpower to fill the roster for an elementary school infantry squad.

Then a solution came to me one evening as my whole family was gathered together watching Sink the Bismarck! on TV.  As I looked at the faces around me transfixed by the on-screen action I realized the answer to my manpower shortage was in fact girl power – my three little sisters who had had been pestering me to join in the war effort from the day I got my first Mattel Tommy-burst.  All along they’d been sitting right next to me watching Combat!  and The Gallant Men, and had been bitten by the imagination adventure bug, but in my grade school chauvinism I had classified all three of them as 3-F: three little females with no business on the battle field whatsoever.

It appeared that in the intervening year or so all three of my little sisters had grown out of their toddler clumsiness and would make good soldiers.  It also appeared that the tom-boy gene figured prominently in their DNA and they could all shoot and scoot right alongside of me without missing a step.  What’s more each one also brought a unique skill that added to the play:

  • Holly had the gait of a deer and made an outstanding scout.
  • Heather was deceptively strong and was good at negotiating obstacles.
  • Dana had a talent for camouflage and could literally hide behind a clump of grass.

They also collectively possessed something else that would add immensely to our experience: friends. There wasn’t a weekend that our squad strength was not augmented by the addition of Patty, Sandy, Bonnie or any number of the girls’ friends who were just as enthusiastic about pseudo-combat duty as they were.

I soon had them kitted out in mix of helmet liners, satchels, canteens, carry-cases that I had acquired as personal gifts, thrift store purchases or trade with other kids2, and I was able to issue each one of them at least two items of equipment. It was during the issue of this equipment that the experience took on an even more realistic Army flavor when Dana, the youngest and smallest of the three was invariably saddled down with the heaviest gear.

Once we were all equipped I started out with some very basic training:

  • How to wear and use the wide assortment gear I’d come up with
  • Basic terminology – as in using the term “weapon” instead of “gun”
  • Marching in step was right out so I just taught them to all move in the same direction
  • Proper use of our toy weapons to include proper sound effects3

One seemingly obvious training aid conspicuous by its omission was the use of pyrotechnics or in our case fireworks. At the time they were legal and when we lived in Anchorage my friends and I would add realism to our maneuvers by lighting off the occasional string of Black Cat firecrackers or peppering each other with torpedoes, a silver-colored munition about the size of a cherry bomb that would detonate on impact.  With my sisters involved it seemed better to rule out firecrackers, a seemingly altruistic decision that in fact came about when I discovered the hard way that I couldn’t lead troops and chuck Black Cats at the same time.4

Despite our rural location one of our biggest problems was finding areas to train in. There was a real danger from wild animals like moose or bear so we had to stay relatively close to the house but as LTGEN Arthur Collins states in his excellent book Common Sense Training you don’t always have to have large areas to conduct good training. The outbuildings behind our home worked well for house-to-house combat and while the barbed wire fences around the horse pastures weren’t quite the impenetrable obstacles that concertina coils were, they could still prove to be tricky to negotiate and added an element of realism to the activity.

Both my mom and older sister were working at a cannery in Kasilof so there wasn’t much to distract us from our training.  Other than the week I was at scout camp we spent the entire summer outside conducting operations, which says a lot when you consider that KENI TV began day-time television and Saturday morning cartoons in mid-June. The only reason we stacked arms and stood down in August was the start of school.

Like most aspects of my youth playing army didn’t abruptly stop but was slowly edged out by other activities competing for my attention. My relationship with my little sisters changed as well when I left Sterling Elementary for high school – it created an interest-gap just a little too wide to bridge. In the following years we would still have a good time playing outside but working every summer made it hard to keep the intensity going.  Playing army slowing morphed into a combination of hide & seek and tag with undertones of James Bond, but as I continued to take on further outside interests and activities the time we used to spend running around the outdoors was replaced by Risk and other board games played inside.

Then I blinked my eyes and I was leaving home for college, mission and the “for-real” army where I would run my platoon through collective and individual combat skills in the same way I trained my little sisters. Another blink and I was no longer a soldier but still passing hard-won leadership skills on to students, Scouts and Scout leaders…then I blinked a third time and found that I was old, and my body was cashing all the checks my ego had written years ago.

Now any shooting and scooting in my life happens only in my memory.

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1) It was my first exposure to mankind’s innate hypocrisy. All day long at school I was mocked for playing baby games (army), playing with baby toys (army men), and (gasp!) playing with dolls (G.I. Joe action figures). However, when George, Steve or any of the other kids at school came over to my house they’d make a bee-line for my Mattel Tommy-burst or my G.I. Joe, but the next morning at school they’d revert to type.

2) Between operations in the state during World War Two and the nearness of both Army and Air Forces bases Alaska was blessed with a plethora of surplus clothing and equipment. Quonset huts dotted the landscape, every contractor had at least one surplus Caterpillar tractor and thrift shops were loaded with personal gear.

3)There were several schools of thought on reproducing gunfire sound effects.

  • Single shot was easy – a loud raspy “K” sound formed inside the back part of your mouth.
  • The easiest machine-gun sound was a phonetic “duh-duh-duh” chanted out at low pitch.
  • Another option was a variation on the single shot method, with the raspy “K” rapidly repeated.
  • My favorite a combination of a tongue-stutter combined with a kind of deep gargling sound which a buddy’s  veteran father told me sounded disturbingly similar to an MG42 in the distance.

4)  The first accident involved a short-fused Black Cat that went off just as it left my fingers which required burn salve and bandages for a week. The second incident involved a torpedo that blew off the side of my sneaker. I didn’t wait for a third incident.

Dame Diana in Black & White

DameDianaLineArtWhat can I say?

“Diana Rigg” is what I can say!

I was thirteen years old and just becoming aware of my Anglo-Saxon heritage when series 4 of ‘The Avengers” hit the airwaves, which for those of use in Alaska meant two weeks after the rest of the country. We’d received very little in the way of advance promotions ; with the recent premiere of “Batman” I was cringing inwardly as I anticipated this  new British show to be a camp rendition of Marvel’s super-team.

…but from the first few minutes watching Steed and Emma stride across the giant checkerboard I knew this show was going to be good, especially the “talented amateur” Emma Peel.

The drawing  came about as a part of a 22-page self-promotional comic I did a couple of years back but it turned out much too nicely to stay buried in a binder on my shelf.

Enjoy!

 

 

1966: Super-Ball

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One unique aspect about growing up in Alaska was the sense of cultural disconnection we had to deal with – a disconnection that was even wider because we didn’t know it was there. I spent my young adulthood thinking that my youth and adolescence were just like everyone else’s – just colder and darker. There were in fact large communication and social gaps that made life on the Last Frontier more like life on another planet. For example, there were no same-day network news programs on television until I was a senior in high school and even then they weren’t simultaneous broadcasts. The early evening news was videotaped in Seattle then put on an airliner to Anchorage, where it was broadcast after 10 at night. It made watching the Super Bowl problematic; the game was broadcast live on radio so you were faced with either knowing the score beforehand as you watched the game or spending the early part of the day with card pinned on your lapel that read “Don’t tell me the score!”

Regular television shows were broadcast two weeks late, and pop music got air-time anywhere from a month to six weeks after debuting in the lower 48 – which had something to do with the practice back then of getting music to the stations – demo records went through the mail to radio stations and it just took that much longer to get from Los Angeles to Anchorage than it did from Los Angeles to Portland.

Oddly enough though there were some fads that made it north quicker than others – most likely they were brought up by people flying back and forth for work or vacation. My sister Robin got a copy of “Cherish” by the Association when a suitor mailed her a copy over a month before it was first played by Ron Moore on “The Coke Show” in Anchorage.  My only early jump on a fad was the Super Ball – by Wham-0!

Though Wham-o attributed the super ball’s amazing performance to a miracle substance called Zectron, they were really made from a synthetic rubber called polybutadiene. Invented by chemist Norm Stingley, polybutadiene required a complex process to manufacture, including molding for 15-20 minutes at 320 degrees F while compressed under a pressure of 1000 pounds per square inch .The result was a rubber ball with an extremely good grip that would instantly increase or reverse its spin depending on how hard and at what angle it hit the floor. It also had 92% resiliency which meant it would bounce 75 times for 30 seconds when dropped from 6 feet….and it wouldn’t just bounce over your head – the package said you could bounce it over your house!

…and that’s what got me into trouble.

It was early in the spring of 1966 – “break-up” as we called it in Alaska. There weren’t many places I could use my new Super-Ball – after several disasters I figured the best place to bounce a ball with 92% resiliency was the concrete basketball court just outside and to the side of Mr. Hall’s eighth grade class room at Sterling Elementary. On the first sunny day after the snow had melted off I went out during lunch-time recess to try out my Super-ball on the concrete.

I threw it down. It bounced back up close to the height of the basketball backboards. Impressive, but not higher than what I estimated the roof of our house to be. I tried throwing the ball down, this time jumping up before releasing the ball on my way down.  There was an even more impressive bounce, but again not high enough to match the rebound as portrayed on the package. As literal as I was it never occurred to me that there may have been a little artistic license in the illustration and I was determined to meet or beat the bounce on the package. I concluded that if the ball were thrown down from a higher point the added distance would increase the velocity of the bounce to the magic house-high altitude so I went back into the school, found a folding chair and brought it out on the concrete basketball court. I then stepped up on it, jumped up off it as high as I could and on the trip down I threw the Super-Ball down as hard as I could.

You know that bit about men never experiencing pain as bad as the pain women go through with labor pains? Well, I beg to differ. In addition to any extra velocity my Super-ball’s “extremely high coefficient of friction came into play” which meant that when it hit the ground the spin was reversed and bounced back up in between my legs.

Wax popped out of my ears.

I couldn’t breathe.

I couldn’t move.

I think I began to see through time….

I don’t remember how I got back into the classroom but the next clear memory is of sitting at my desk with my head laid down on top while I tried to breathe in short shallow gasps. I also remember that for the rest of the day I spoke in a key at least two octaves higher than usual, prompting me to wonder if this was the sort of thing that could halt puberty. I also remember a great deal of pain radiating from my crotch.

That wasn’t the worst pain of the day though. I guess when I went in to “recover” some of the other guys decided to try out my Super-Ball as well. The deepest pain came during that discussion when they all agreed that the Super-Ball “bounced higher than a house” when Ticky Powell tried bouncing it.

Ticky – or more formally Robert Powell. One of my best friends, a dead ringer for actor Andrew Prine and not bigger than a kitten. Seriously – he measured maybe 4’6” and possibly weighed 65 pounds soaking wet but somehow put me to shame with my own Super-Ball.

The pain radiated all that much sharper…..

1966: Fighting Crime on Scout Lake Loop Road

I’m not sure what initially (please forgive the pun) drew me to comics and superheroes. The genre was not nearly as popular then as it is now so it wasn’t a social thing. I liked the art…but there was something about the idea of making people safe and avenging wrongs that really appealed to me. Having endured varying degrees of pain at the hands of others I liked the idea of someone preventing that sort of thing.

My cousin Gary introduced me to comics in the early sixties but the hook was set during the summer of 1964 not too long after the Good Friday earthquake. I can trace my interest to three specific issues:

  • Detective Comics # 327 “ The Mystery of The Menacing Mask”
  • World’s Finest #142 “The Composite Superman”
  • Justice League of America “29 “Crisis on Earth-Three.”

My buddies and I had a great time reading comics as well as trying to draw them and make the uniforms but it all came to a screeching halt at the end of the summer when my dad’s employment required a moved down to the Kenai Peninsula where we settled on a 5 acre ranch miles from any other kids.

It wasn’t just the distance either. Living in Spenard meant that the roads were regularly plowed, which (when you considered the streets in the Tip-Top trailer court) meant there were a lot of places to play in the winter time. In Sterling nothing  other than the road in front of our place was plowed, and as kicking your way through endless drifts of snow was not very conducive to effective crime fighting winter was spent making my equipment.

I had been a Batman fan before the TV series so it was no surprise that I wanted a utility belt. I managed to get an old cartridge belt which resisted every effort with paint or fabric dye so I set it aside and started on Batarangs. The first one was carefully carved out of balsa in a proper airfoil profile, but that profile and the light weight made the ‘rang flutter like a maple leaf seed pod every time I tried to throw it. I also had very  little faith in its ability to support my weight in the event I was able to somehow get it hooked on  the roof with 550 cord attached.

Enter Batarang 2.0. After I managed to hack the Batarang shape out of some ¼” plywood scrap I was still unsure of its strength so I attached a grappling hook along the center. It was a great grappling hook – a U-shaped piece of metal with 4″ arms that spanned a three inch gap and even had a hole drilled in one of the arms sized perfectly for tying 550 cord.  Unfortunately I didn’t realize  it was a magnet – and a particularly strong one to boot. Strong enough to pop out of my hand and scratch the paint on the refrigerator as I was carrying Batarang 2.0 through the kitchen.

The atypical flower drawing that appeared taped over the scratch was a real hit with my mom…which was much, much nicer than the “real hit” I would have gotten had she seen the scratch  before the flower appeared.

Exit Batarang 2.0.

Continuing with the non-powered hero theme I tried making Captain America’s shield – which worked quite nicely. I found an extra trash can lid and using small nuts, bolts and lock-washers I attached a handle made from a strap of rubber cut from a discarded inner tube. The elastic strap held the shield on my arm nicely and the shield was extremely accurate when thrown, even when making a deflection shot, which I learned to my dismay when knocking my sister over while leading her with my throw as she ran across the yard.

Exit Captain America’s shield.

As Marvel comics were the exclusive domain of my buddies’ big brothers, I was slow to pick up on Spiderman. However, given Marvel’s skyrocketing popularity it was inevitable that I’d soon “Make Mine Marvel” and I got in a  good start on a Spiderman outfit with a red ski mask I’d gotten the winter before. Even better:  medical emergencies forced the prior owners of the ranch to move out rather precipitously and in the rush they left a treasure trove of cool “stuff”, including some fishing nets which were soon to become Spiderman’s web.

I spent an afternoon designing and modifying the nets into a hemisphere of mesh that would instantly immobilize my foe – which I knew would work because I drew a picture of it working. Now I needed to test it.

(At this point you’re wondering how kids living out in a 17 year old forest-fire burn could come up with anything remotely like the urban environment Batman and Spiderman worked in. We lucked out – the original homesteaders made several sheds and outbuildings, all with flat roofs in order to speed construction and conserve wood. Add to that the several stacks of crates, lumber and “sh-tuff” that Dad constantly collected and you got a sprawling multi-level play area that stood in quite well for Whatever City)

I planned my test well. I climbed up on the top of the front shed and laid out my net so it was ready to throw. I cannily lured a sister into going into the shed by way of the door just below me.

“Hey – there’s some Trix just inside the shed!”

You have to understand that with my mom’s passion – nay mania for proper nutrition there was a better chance of heroin showing up on our property than Trix so my sister  made a beeline for the shed. As I heard her enter the door I threw the net over the edge then dropped back down giggling, waiting for my sister to thrash about in frustration at being immobilized by my net-web… just like the guy in the diagram was thrashing.

Where’s the cereal? Did you eat it all? I’m telling?

IT DIDN’T WORK! The net had stayed in place for all of 7 seconds before it fell off my sister of its own accord. I knew there had to be a way to make this net-web work so I went back to the drawing board.

(Actually it was a  kid-record cover drawing board but let’s not get too technical)

Enter Spiderman Net-Web 2.0. I had found an old chain in a pile of sh-tuff in the shed and laboriously stitched the chain around the net-hemisphere from my first attempt. At this point caution should have kicked in because it was not a watch chain or a tie-up-the-Chihuahua chain I was using – it was logging chain with three inch links. It would be more a matter of me dragging the chain to the edge of the roof than it was of deftly tossing it, but feeling much smarter than a fifth-grader I set up the same testing procedure:

  1. Hide on the shed roof
  2. Lure the sister-now-designated super villain  into shed with promises of Trix
  3. Trap herwith the net and watch her thrash about in frustration at being immobilized by my net-web just like the guy in my diagram was thrashing.

Except this time there was a thud. Followed by a bellow that did not sound like a fifth grader crying.

I’d hit her – on the head. I thought for a minute about what my options were as a responsible older brother, then immediately ran to the back of the shed, down the piled crates and on out into the brush on the back end of the ranch. In my flight I had the presence of mind to ditch my red-ski mask, thereby rendering me indistinguishable from the hundreds of other chunky thirteen year olds in the area, but other than that I drew a blank for an escape plan so I found a small tree just out of sight of the house to hide behind and wait for my impending doom.

They say when death is eminent your life passes before your eyes; at thirteen I had so little to see that I had to ask for a re-run. I thought again about an escape plan and again came up dry. I heard the station wagon rattle back from Mom’s grocery run over at the Wildwood AFS commissary and flinched; waiting for that terrifying cry “DAVID RALPH DEITRICK!” but it never came. Finally ravenous hunger forced me back to the house ( it had been two whole hours since lunch) so I trudged back up to the house to face the music, my death or (gasp) two hours weeding the garden.

I walked in the back door to be met by my mom’s glare. I flinched, waiting for sentence to be carried out. “Where were you? I needed help unloading the car. No “Batman” for two weeks”

?

As she left the kitchen I slumped in the middle of the kitchen, amazed at my continued existence in this mortal sphere. I started to snicker until I idly started looking around at the debris left from unloading the groceries. My sister (who until recently was a super-villain) was at the end of the table, grinning wickedly at me. Instead of picking at the remains of the usual grocery-day treats like yogurt or bran muffins she was slurping up the contents of the only two boxes of Trix from the package of individual serving cartons of cereal that Mom had inexplicably bought this time at the store.

My first lesson on how karma can be so incredibly cruel…