1967/68 Fiddlin’ On (Under)The Roof

When quizzed about my initial interest in comics my autopilot response is “Detective Comics issue 327 featuring The Mystery of the Menacing Mask ”, the Batman story by Carmine Infantino and Gardener Fox that introduced “The New Look” and saved the title from cancellation. In reality, interest in mysterious avengers was kindled five years earlier with The Mask of Zorro, Disney’s 1958 black-and-white retelling of the Zorro (Spanish for the word “fox”), sword wielding crusader righting wrongs and fighting oppression in the Spanish California of the late 1700’s. I loved the mask, I loved the swordplay, I loved the horses – but what really intrigued me were the secret rooms and passages which served as an 18th century version of the Batcave. These areas were accessed through a hidden door in his chambers where the foppish Don Diego changed into his mask, cape, and black garb before descending a stair to the cave where he stabled his black stallion, Toronado, and riding off into the night.

For days afterward all I could think about were those secret rooms and passages. On the surface the allure was the basic “ooo-wee-ooh-ooo” factor that comes with every unusual element in a mystery, but there was also a hint of empowerment offered long before that term became trendy. There were so many times when navigating through a screamingly bi-polar household made clearing a minefield seem like a parlor game, which made the ability to move around unnoticed, or just hiding an option to explore in every one of the eight homes we occupied between my cinematic epiphany and our final move to Sterling – options that included locations such as:

  • The laundry chute in the rambling ranch house in Little Shasta Valley.
  • A tunnel dug in a lot next to our duplex on Garfield Street in Anchorage.
  • Stairs to the cellar in the hall closet of our Barbara Drive home in Spenard.

…but it wasn’t until our travels finally rolled to a stop in Sterling that I unexpectedly found a true, functional, secret passage. While our home with attached garage looked like it had been plucked from an Anchorage subdivision, it was in reality a small homesteader’s shack repeatedly modified; the changes hidden by clapboard siding nailed around the exterior. All those changes left odd spaces and loose boards that that offered ample opportunity for further modification, but it wasn’t until I moved into the attic loft Dad and I built in 1966 that I was able to take advantage of the situation.

My loft was essentially a wooden box sandwiched between the top of the original cabin(s) and the overall roof. For the first year or so I was too scared to explore the space around my room as I was convinced aliens would use it as a base for their conquest of the Last Frontier, but I eventually gained enough nerve to explore the rest of the attic. Whenever possible I was scrambling over the gritty surface texture of the original shingles, and testing my luck by carefully making my way from ceiling-joist to ceiling-joist, ever mindful that a mere one half inch of fragile sheetrock separated me from the rooms below.

My survey of the entire attic took about a week, and during those explorations I found my secret passage. A plywood panel at the junction of the house and garage yielded a space which was easy to hammer and pry-bar, allowing access to the area above the rafters in the garage – and while it was unfinished, the sheets of plywood and old double mattress stored up there provided me with (at last!) a secret hideaway. More importantly, I was now provided with an unobserved entry/exit way from my room through the attic(s) to a stack of discarded cable spools, crates and stepladders piled rafter-high in the garage. Unfortunately by the time I’d gotten everything set up there wasn’t much of a need for a secret exit. I still wasn’t completely comfortable with hitchhiking so any activity worthy of the consequences of a foiled sneak-out would have to be within walking distance, and there were only two of those: the annual spaghetti feed and the Halloween party held at Sterling Elementary, but by the time they came around it was too cold and dark to warrant the risk.

It was a quite a different situation the following spring. Life had finally become tolerable after surviving the beat-downs, family crises, and a wicked case of mononucleosis that plagued most of my freshman year, but I’d reached a weekend where it was all but impossible to cope with the boredom of a slow Saturday afternoon at the homestead. It was also one of the last “buddy” episodes involving my friend Wayne as we had both traveled far enough on our respective paths to have little in common. Where we had once shared interests in music, hobbies, and television, we now had just one connection, i.e. girls, as in Playboy Playmate pinups and the party jokes printed on the non-Playmate side, so it had been a bit of a surprise when he showed up early that afternoon, when his new thug-friends were otherwise occupied, so we spent an hour or two listening to music:

  • “The Mighty Quinn” by the Manfred Mann
  • “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
  • “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred and his Playboy Band

It was thoughts of the aforementioned pinups brought on by the name of that last vocal group that got us surreptitiously making our way out of the loft and into the attic proper where I kept my “library”. The climb up to my loft had become quite a challenge for mom, but she still made random visits and I didn’t want to risk discovery of any imagery of the female form, much less any of the less-than-fully-clothed variety. There was also the lurking menace of my three little sisters, Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather. With both Mom and Dad gone for the day their chief entertainment revolved about tormenting us, and the risk of one of them popping up through the hatch unannounced and spotting our contraband was as much a concern as a mom-visit, but the fortuitous appearance of a rather ragged cow moose in the front yard drew their attention away long enough for us to A) make a quick trip to my girlie-magazine stash in the attic and B) a equally quick move through the missing plywood panel and eventual access to the aforementioned secret hideaway above the rafters in the garage.

We had just started our formal debate on the merits of the curriculum vita of Nancy Harwood (Miss February) as opposed tp that of Gale Olson (Miss March) when the ear-piercing screams of Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather echoing like bloodhounds in pursuit of a fox broke out from the garage below us.

(Why were they screaming? There were always screaming. They would ring the downstairs landing to the loft access and keen for hours. It was like the albino zombies in The Omega Man chanting “I’m telling Mom” instead of “Neville! Ne-e-ville”.)

 The moose had left the front yard all too quickly, and upon returning to the ladder-in-a-closet entry to my attic loft they were all-too-briefly puzzled by our disappearance before fanning out to search the house and garage. Wayne and I did our best to remain hidden and silent but between the relentless searching of the three little girls and the finite interior space of our home, we were discovered within minutes.

I don’t know if it was the hypnotic effect of tthe sight of two brunette beauties au naturel, the soporific effect of the late spring sun heating up the space directly under the garage roof (or more likely) the mortal fear of my Mom’s Celtic wrath – at that point I stopped thinking rationally. Somehow I became convinced that our best course of action would be to dash back through the connected attics into my loft bedroom and then somehow convince my sisters – and by extension mom – that we’d never left my room, so after a brief side trip to stash the pinups I sped over the old rooftops, across the rafters, and through the back entrance to my loft with Wayne closely following behind me. Unfortunately, the requisite hop from rafter to rafter over sheetrock wasn’t quite as automatic with my friend, and as I hit the door a muffled crump caused me to spin around just in time to see sunlight erupt through the attic darkness around Wayne’s lower body.

He’d stepped through the sheetrock ceiling.

I scuttled downstairs to the dining area to meet with the never-to-be-forgotten sight of my friend dangling by his armpits between two rafters while his feet and legs bicycled in mid-air. I worked as quickly as possible to get him down and the worst of the debris cleaned up, but before I knew it almost an hour had passed, and even worse, mom’s station wagon was pulling into the driveway. In a colossal feat of legerdemain I managed to get Wayne out the door just as Mom was coming in, but the lady had a gift for noticing detail that would put and eagle (or Joe Friday) to shame and I I was sure she hadn’t missed a thing as she watched him walking briskly toward the highway and a thumbed-ride home.

I braced for the worst. My parents had only recently and reluctantly abandoned percussive discipline with me, but the poor grades I’d earned during the previous nine week grading period had already brought on severe restrictions of entertainment and social life, and I couldn’t think of how it could be made worse.  What really scared me though was Mom’s silence; after I took the bullet for Wayne and told her that it had been me who’d fallen through the roof, she just sent me to my loft and waited in the now-drafty dining area to confer with my dad when he came home. Listening to dad fix the ceiling was much like the unnerving swish/thud of the guillotine that French aristocracy had to endure while waiting for the world’s shortest haircut, but eventually it grew quiet and I was summoned to Mom and Dad’s bedroom for sentencing.

The first item of business was that despite my protestations, Mom knew that Wayne had been the ceiling-busting culprit instead of me. She’d made that determination based on:

  • My little sisters’ testimony.
  • My well-known lack of sufficient upper-body strength needed to suspend myself in the rafters for forty-five minutes.
  • My (almost) clean trousers as opposed to Wayne’s denim jeans covered with white chalk from the sheetrock he’d stepped through…

I waited for the ax to fall…but it never did. With a slight smile she made the comment that while I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer I was loyal, and with the uptick in my GPA when report cards were issued the following week, even that first observation was moot. Thrilled with the stay of execution I continued to keep my grades up for the rest of the school year, but the improved GPA wasn’t the only change to stay in effect: the “percussive discipline” never came back, and from that point forward Mom started to deal with me as a person rather than a Neanderthal, taking time to talk with me rather than at me.

It was kind of nice, and for the first time in my life I stopped looking for an easy escape route whenever Mom started a conversation…

1967: How Do I Shoot a Basketball?

Boy/girl romantic mushy stuff kind of ambushed me; it seemed like overnight everyone went from playing army to “playing the field”, which was tough when there were eight boys to two girls in my eighth-grade class. Without an older brother to pattern on I was clueless when it came to managing the romantic side of life – but while there were several situations dealing with love & hate during eighth grade, none of which (unfortunately) involved girls. Living in Sterling was a love/hate relationship; while I hated moving to the Peninsula from Anchorage I was finally making some good friends. Participating in sports was a love/hate relationship; I loved doing things with my friends, but I hated the fact that I had absolutely no skill in sports at the time. Having Head Teacher in both a classroom setting and as a coach was not so much a love/hate relationship as an endure/hate situation.

On one hand Head Teacher was impressive – he fought across Europe with the glider infantry in World War 2, he was personally very intelligent, and he worked hard to improve Sterling School, establishing both a sports program and a controlled reading program that raised reading speed and comprehension in every student that participated. Most importantly he elbowed the school district into completing a badly needed but often delayed multipurpose room that served as combination cafeteria/gymnasium and counterbalance to student cabin fever.

On the other hand, he could be meaner than hell, especially if you embarrassed him.  I made the mistake of making the ethnic distinction that “Scotch is what a Scotsman drinks” and paid for it for the rest of my life. Head Teacher was one of those people unable to handle conflict with a kid without descending to a kid-level of thought and action himself; he took offense easily and never tired of carrying a grudge, an unfortunate tendency aggravated by the lunch he often took in liquid form.  I do have to say that he gave credit where credit was due; during class discussions he’d ask for my input when searching for a title, definition or some other bit of information from any of my areas of interest, and when I placed first in the school district science fair he showed just as much support for me as he did for his designated favorites.

Unfortunately, his model of character assessments placed a bit too much emphasis on athletics for an elementary school environment and as I consistently lagged two or three years behind my peers in developing strength speed and athletic skills it was a sure bet that I would miss getting on board with the Head Teacher sports machine.

The first sport of the year was softball, which for me was a qualified success: I got to suit up, but I sat on the bench for the entire season. As the year progressed and we changed sports I decided on a more attainable goal and applied to be the manager of the basketball team. Head Teacher somehow convinced me to try out for the team instead of that manager’s position and while I didn’t miss a single practice I never was tapped to suit up for even a single game. Given my relative lack of athletic talent at the time I wasn’t too troubled by the perpetual benching, but it soon became obvious that talent was not the deciding factor. No matter how well I did in practice I’d be passed over at game time, and it became quite a bitter pill to swallow when he started to fill the second team with fifth graders who routinely failed to get a ball even close to the net, much less through it.

It didn’t matter. I still showed up every Wednesday night and Saturday morning to participate in the all the exercises and drills to include the dreaded final four-lap run around the gym at the end of practice. It was a definite challenge to stick with the program especially since I was so bad at the sport that the only feedback I was given consisted of variations of the same message: “You’re a loser”.

I still showed for every practice – and I also went to every game without fail where I’d sit in the stands and cheer for my friends with the same dogged determination as when I’d try (and fail) to make a lay-up shot. Despite the vindictive and petty needling, it never occurred to me to quit.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my Mom worried about me the whole season – that I would somehow end up emotionally damaged because of the experience. Unfortunately, some of her fears were well-founded; any effort at bettering myself seemed pointless after being so thoroughly schooled in my own total lack of value that I ended up just drifting through high school until college and a change of venue altered my outlook.

…. but it actually wasn’t a juncture almost forty years later that Head Teacher’s tutelage showed its true value. In a deep discussion about permanent solutions to temporary problems Mom paused and said, “You know, Fritz can take the credit for this” – a comment which totally bewildered me at first. When I mumbled something about his actions causing the current situation she stopped me cold:

“No – he made it possible for you to survive!  I saw what Fritz was doing, and it broke my heart to see how he constantly (expletive deleted) with your head…but as hard as it was – never missing a practice but never playing – dealing with the constant belittlement in class– you never quit…

 “It made you stronger.”

 She was right, and that’s why when I heard of his passing I smiled instead of making my usual snarky comment. I haven’t won every battle in life, but I’ve always stood up one time more than I’ve been knocked down. It had never occurred to me that each time I got knocked down Head Teacher’s antics would come to mind – and  would jolt me into getting up again, and for that I must give him credit where credit is due.

The experience also gives a clue to the question in this post’s title.

I have no affinity for basketball in any form or level of competition. My sort-of twin sister Heather loves the game and maintains that Head Teacher is responsible for that attitude, but to be totally honest it is a chicken vs. egg type of situation. I wasn’t a fan before I tried out for the Sterling team in the winter of 1967 and afterwards…well the only time I even thought about the game was when I had to deal with the irritating and pointless distraction it presented to every pack, troop, team and post that I worked with in my 30+ years as an adult leader in the Boy Scouts.

How do I shoot a basketball?

With a shotgun.

1967: FIREWORKS!

A word of fore-warning: To the best of my ability I have thoroughly “MacGuyver’d”  this manuscript, taking out any useful “how-to” information, but just to be sure: Don’t try any of these stunts.

My good friend , fellow veteran and gaming superstar Marc Miller once posed a question: “ Why is it in news photos we always see RPG-7s ( Rocket Propelled Grenades) in the hands of young “freedom fighters” all over the world. Why are so many anti-armor weapons found in hot-spots that are relatively free of tanks? “. It took me a minute, but the answer flashed in my mind: “They’re the world’s largest firecrackers!” There followed some chuckles and comments about Freudian symbolism but no real answer came about.  I forgot about the conversation until the other day when I looked at some family photos from our first years in Sterling, a time smack dab in the middle of my own period of frenzied fireworks fascination.

We had just moved down to the Kenai Peninsula from Anchorage which caused quite a cutback from the loads of pyrotechnics  I had enjoyed exploding the prior summer. At that time we had just recently moved north from the sparkers-only weenie-dom of California and I was thrilled to find that firecrackers from M-80s on down were legal in Anchorage, Alaska. Living in town meant easy access to fireworks stands but living out in the country would put any source out of reasonable bicycle range. It wasn’t until my older sister’s boyfriend bought her a half-gross of M-80s that things literally got popping again. She’d use them to bribe me into doing some of her more unpleasant chores – or to help me to conveniently forget things  I had inadvertently witnessed.

Kid-lore held that an M-80 was equal to a quarter stick of dynamite, so you can say that it was at this point that I began learning the fundamental principles of demolitions work. One of the first concepts involved tamping a charge to increase the effects of the blast. I had inherited an egg crate full of car models, which I disposed of one at a time by placing them in the well of a cement block along with a lit M-80. I was dismayed to find the ensuing explosion would fail to obliterate the plastic vehicle  so on my next attempt I slid a second block flat-side down over the well containing the firecracker and the model, reasoning that the enclosed space would cause a much larger part of the explosive force to be directed inwards.

I lit the fuse, slid the horizontal cement block over the vertical one, turned and ran. I was less than ten yards away when the M-80 went off, making me jump – not because of the loud noise but because chunks of cement went flying past me on both sides. Big sharp jagged chunks of cement – cement shrapnel that would have “killed me dead” had one of them hit me in the back of the head instead of providentially landing to each side. Instead of directing the force inward putting pressure on the explosive cause the outward force to increase greatly.

I had no chance to further test that principle when my supply of M-80s finally dried up but that didn’t stop my fiery experiments with leftover kits. I had even more old aircraft models that car models to dispose of – not surprising as “12 O’clock High” was my favorite show on TV at the time. Hidden away in my attic bedroom with its small window oriented away from other bedroom windows I was able to conduct “crashing Nazi” experiments early the next spring by setting the tail of an old plane model on fire, then carefully tossing it out the window in a proper crashing-fighter-plane angle  once the fire was going good. There was still snow on the ground which meant little danger of starting a brush fire and I was also careful to clean up the debris before anyone wandered out behind the house. I was having a little bit of fun but all that work wasn’t producing nearly enough fiery drama for my taste….

…then Greg Barclay introduced me to spray-can flame throwers. I’m not sure what prompted the action but he demonstrated the principle to me one Sunday afternoon while we were taking a break from tormenting our little sisters. He did something with a can of spray paint and a lighter and suddenly WHOOOSSSH! It was the flame-thrower scene from Sands of Iwo Jima.

I spent the next week refining my technique after school. It seemed to be dazzling but harmless fun until I held the spray button down just a bit too long and  flame started to climb up the liquid spraying out of the nozzle. At that point I threw the entire can out of the window into the snow, narrowly missing an explosion that split the can apart.

That near-miss impressed me enough to postpone any more explosions or flame throwers for a over a month and by that time the snow was gone , leaving me no way to control the explosions or flames the way I had during the winter. Then my birthday came up, school ended and I started watching my three younger sisters while my mom and older sister worked in a fish cannery. Taking care of the three of them was annoying at first, but then the Anchorage television stations started day-time broadcasting and I was able to enlist the aid of the one-eyed monster in my baby-sitting duties, leaving me un-annoyed and free to search out opportunities to experiment once again.

Opportunity made its proverbial knock a week later as I was rummaging through the mounds of stuff out in the garage. We had several heaps of assorted clothes, tools, wood scraps and broken toys to contend with around the ranch that  got their start when the wife of the original owner had become deathly ill two years earlier. In their haste to get to the lower 48 for proper medical treatment they leased the property to a family without references…who turned out to be less than ideal tenants , never paying  a dime of rent, never cleaning the house and trashing the place on their departure, leaving the aforementioned mountains of “stuff”. heaped in the middle of every room of the house as well as in the garage and the sheds. We quickly got the house into habitable shape but it was quite awhile before the outbuildings were cleaned up. It didn’t help that dad had made his own sizeable contribution to the mess when he dumped his carpentry tools, hunting gear and leather-working supplies on top of the existing piles.

Not that it mattered: These mountains of cast-off items were sheer joy to dig through – you never knew what you’d come across and one day that summer I hit the mother lode: a box of shotgun shells. I had taken a hunter’s safety course during the previous spring so I knew how ammunition worked and that the components of a shot-gun shell included gun-powder.

After “de-loading” a dozen shells I had enough gunpowder to experiment with so I gathered up what remained from the cartridges and tossed it into an adjacent barrel, with plans to recover the incriminating evidence later on in the day. Unfortunately that detail was never attended to properly; while making a test burn of the gunpowder I singed my eyebrows and all my attention was taken up with A) making them look normal again and B) getting rid of the nasty smell. The lapse of memory would come back to haunt me.

Four months passed by. For some reason KENI TV had decided to run “12 O’clock High” on Sunday afternoons at 4:00 PM. I was lying on the front room floor, totally engrossed in watching B17 gunners shooting down an utterly fantastic number of German fighter planes; engrossed so totally that I failed to notice my dad stomping up behind me. Suddenly he grabbed me by my heel, pulled me up and whacked me on my backside a half-dozen times.

“WHAT THE HELL YOU TRYING TO DO? KILL ME?”

I was baffled more than hurt, and didn’t piece together what was going on until I happened to spot the half-dozen small objects he’d dropped next to me while grabbing my ankle. They were the primers to the shotgun shells from which I’d removed the gunpowder the summer before. Still baffled I went outside to the garage to find the barrel I had used as a hiding place. It was still there, only now all the other barrels and boxes had been cleared away from around it. What I had assumed was another junk barrel was in fact the barrel stove with the front door propped open and hidden from view by a couple of boards. Dad had been cleaning up the garage and as the autumn chill had set in that afternoon he started to make a fire. As he was reaching in with a flaming match the light rippled across the bright brass primers, which would have been set off once the fire was going good. They would have been shooting out through the sides of the barrel stove like miniature machine gun, and while they probably wouldn’t have actually killed my dad, it could have hurt him quite badly.

I learned my lesson – no more explosives or flaming experiments. It was obvious I wasn’t smart enough to cobble together my own materials so any cartridges I encountered were fired from a weapon in the proper manner.…in fact it wasn’t until I encountered the Claymore landmine at FT Lewis a decade later that I found something I could safely explode without hurting myself.

That is if I remembered to always follow the warning embossed on the front of the weapon:

“Front Towards Enemy.”