1967: Second City

“Patrolling the city leaves me little time to rest, so I catch my breath as I move from one rooftop vantage point to another. Ridding the city of crime and corruption is a never ending battle, made all the more difficult by the need for stealth as each night I make my way from my secret headquarters on the edge of town to the crime-ridden alleys and avenues in the middle of the city. From such a vantage point I can scan for any sign of wrongdoing while I listen intently for screams, gunshots – even whispers that would betray nefarious deeds on the part of the underworld.”

“What’s that I hear? A cry for help?”

“DAVID! GET DOWN OFF THERE BEFORE YOU FALL AND BREAK YOUR NECK!”

…and with those words the tone-arm on the great record-player of life scratched across the 33 1/3 RPM record of my inner sound-track and transformed the rooftops of Gotham City into the top level of the Anchorage J.C. Penny’s parking garage. Brushing the cement dust off the lower legs of my Levi’s I mentally tuned out the inevitable snarky parental comments as I climbed into the back seat of our station wagon and settled in for the three hour drive back to Sterling. It was tough visualizing the life of a nocturnal urban crusader when the only available urban area was a smallish city 134 miles north of home.

Prior to our northward migration in 1962 I had ridden through several Left Coast cities, but Anchorage was the first city I had actually lived in, and learning to navigate an urban environment entailed just as much study as regular schoolwork. However, I soon learned that while they were few in number, (2!) there wereother larger municipalities in Alaska. Juneau had been our original destination when Dad transferred to the Alaska State Employment service just prior to our move north, but there was another city even further beyond, up in the Interior, that was larger than Juneau, but smaller than Anchorage.

That mysterious other place was called Fairbanks, and although the pickings from my pre-Internet research were slim, I learned that the city was situated amongst the following installations:

  • An army base similar in size to FT Richardson.
  • An Air Force base equal to or larger than Elmendorf AFB.
  • The flagship of the state’s secondary education system, i.e. the University of Alaska.
  • An international airport which served as a logistical staging area for the Interior.

…And even more important to a fourteen-year boy was the existence of the Tom-Tom, a drive-in kid hang-out in the middle of town that featured GO-GO DANCERS IN PLEXIGLAS BOOTHS flanking the DJ’s compartment. Unfortunately given the militant aspect Mom attached to religion  I avoided even looking at the Tom-tom’s location on the map when I was in her presence.

Such was the extent of my knowledge of the area before actually setting eyes on the city of Fairbanks in July of 1967 when our family made the trip to Alaska’s Second City. Like most of our summer expeditions we hadn’t planned on making the entire thousand mile round-trip journey at the outset; we had just been touring the Glenallen area when the ever-present family wanderlust prompted us to check out the scenery “just a little ways up the road” and extended our trip in increments – first to Gakona, then FT Greeley, and finally all the way into Fairbanks where we booked rooms at the transient quarters on FT Wainright and settled in for an extended visit.

Three “Fairbankisms” became very obvious the minute we started our exploration the next day:

  • Despite the difference in population, both cities had a similar vibe with a limited downtown area, and Army and Air Force bases sitting just to the east. Those installations continually advertised their presence with helicopters and jet interceptors constantly zooming across the sky, and (in the case of FT Wainwright) the M113 armored personnel carriers that periodically interrupted one evening’s picnic as they  burst through the trees next to our campground before clanking off in another direction.
  • The trees were much shorter in stature than those found in Anchorage and the Peninsula, and became bonsai-scaled when compared to the redwoods back in California.
  • Summer in Fairbanks was much warmer and brighter than southcentral Alaska. Temperatures were in the high seventies, and the extended daylight hours were even more …well, extended. The evening sky during a Sterling summer would see the sun dip just over and below the horizon, but in Fairbanks it stopped just short of the skyline and skirted along the horizon around us giving late-afternoon light the whole night through.

Discovery #3 dealt a deathblow to the possibility of one of my future career options in connection to the area. By now it should be fairly obvious that “Caped Crime fighter” still figured prominently in my list of future fields of employment, but I was pretty sure that by the time I was Bat-aged (and in much better physical shape) there was a good chance another caped crusader would have already set up shop in Anchorage. When I was working only with maps, Fairbanks seemed a good second choice, but continuous summer sunlight ruled out any sort of “dark night detective work”, and the limited road network and paucity of adjacent caves ruled out use of a secret headquarters.

(…all of which failed to leave any lasting impression on me after I walked into the Woolworths on Cushman Avenue and found one of my personal Holy Grails in the form of Aurora Model’s  Captain America kit for which I had been searching the length and breadth of the South-Central portion of the state during the previous year.) 

I was so stoked at finding the kit that I was ready to immediately head back to Sterling where my spray paint and model glue awaited, but we stayed two more days to attend church and take in the A67 Centennial Celebration, a state fair/media event commemorating the purchase of Russian America by the United States in 1867. The summer-long fair was located in what is now known as Pioneer Park, and featured a replica/reconstruction of an 1890’s Gold rush town, the SS. Nenana, a shallow draft steam-powered paddle wheeler that plied the Interior River system, a totally bitchin’ midway fairgrounds with the usual spin-and-barf rides and Up, Up and Away by the Fifth Dimension blaring endlessly over the public address system.

…and then in a flash we were on the road back to Sterling, which mysteriously seemed to take only a fraction of the time it took us to drive north. While it was true the trip north had been a stop-and-go thing as opposed to the relatively nonstop/straight-through trip south, it seemed like we got home much too quickly. The mystery was solved only after we’d been home for a day or two and I had an uninterrupted look at the map properly oriented.

Once I had “Map North” aligned to magnetic north via the compass, I concluded with flawless eighth-grader logic given that Fairbanks was located above Sterling on the map, our trip north had been an uphill journey, which made our return trip downhill.

Gravity had sped us along.

One month later

I couldn’t process the images I was seeing on Grandma’s TV. I was in California visiting her, Grandpa, and the rest of mom’s side of the family, but the real attraction for me was a video feast with more channels and a clearer signal than I’d ever enjoyed. Suddenly the program I was watching cut to a slightly fuzzy picture of a city landscape that I couldn’t quite make out until I recognized a Woolworth’s storefront, the Woolworth’s on Cushman Avenue in Fairbanks where I’d found the Captain America model a little more than a month earlier. In a disaster that would subsequently result in the passage of the Flood Control act of 1968, summer rains falling at three times the normal rate caused the banks of the Chena River to overflow and flood the city of Fairbanks and the surrounding area.

I wish I could say that I was profoundly moved by the damage I was seeing, but in those days of thirteen-inch black & white screens, all that came to my self-absorbed adolescent mind was how lucky I was to find the Captain America kit before it was swept away by floodwaters. It was only after I returned to the area in the fall of 1971 to enroll at the University of Alaska that I saw signs of damage from the flood still recognizable, even after four years of recovery, as well as evidence of the determination of the people who had worked to regain the level of commerce and development lost during the flood.

It was an amazing feat of community spirit and industry and more than just a little moving as I stood on the banks of the Chena, but some of the spirit of the fourteen year old that had stood in that same spot four years earlier lingered because all I could think was:

“Maybe I could use a boat for my anti-crime patrols…”

1967: MR. In-Between Finds His Groove

Long before any current television series the phrase Mr. In-Between was the title of a folk song written and performed by legendary folk singer Burl Ives. The tune originally referred to a young adult but my parents thought it to be a perfect description of me1 during the age now referred to as the “tweens”.

“Mr. In-Between / Mr. In-Between, 

Pickings mighty lean / Mr. In-Between, 

I’m too old for girls / too young for women

I’ve looked all around / my hopes are a dimming

I feel like a fish not allowed any swimming

…and it makes a fellow mean.”

To be honest, at that point in my life the part about girls was wishful thinking, but the heart of the message was right on target: at age 13 I was the proverbial fish out of water. When combined with the innate chaos of a screamingly bipolar household, the nomadic life we’d led up to the time of this story had left me with little in the way of a support system, and I trailed sadly behind my classmates in growth, coordination, and relative coolosity. Fortunately by the end of eighth grade I’d learned to blend with my more sophisticated classmates, but then December 25th appeared on the calendar and triggered an existential crisis.

Dad was never able to reconcile his Depression-era childhood with what he felt to be the lavish living conditions enjoyed by his own children. If he had his way Christmas would have had a decidedly Dickensian flavor, but in past years we’d been repeatedly dealt a definite ace in the Yuletide poker game through my Grandma Esther. When it came to her grandchildren her reliability/certainty ran in the same league as death and taxes, which meant if you asked for it you got it.

Period.

 For example the year before she’d send me the Holy Grail of toys in the form of Ideal’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. gun which I must have enjoyed too much as my parents had intervened in the current Christmas wish-list process; chronically stressed/obsessed by social appearances, they ruled that by this point in time (late 1966) I was too old for toys, so the holiday was shaping up to be underwhelming at best.

…until 6:00 A.M. on December 25th when a Christmas miracle arrived in the form of a Westinghouse Lumina clock radio equipped with an adjustable high-intensity study light. Given my Celtic heritage it is all too easy to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, but the wonder of combined timekeeping/entertainment that emerged from the box was so sleek and functional in a sort of Star Trekish2 manner that any attempt at a nickname slid from the off-white and avocado exterior like an egg off of Teflon, and it was immediately dubbed in hushed tones as David’s Neat Clock Radio or DNCR for our purposes here.

Music had always been an important part of my life, but it wasn’t until my tenth birthday that it became my go-to drug of choice. That was the year that I first got my own radio – a small transistor radio slightly larger than a pack of cards and equipped with a leather case and an earphone. That latter accessory was perhaps the most important feature because it meant I was no longer subject to the tyranny of the majority3 and forced to listen to the adult standards endlessly playing on the kitchen radio – I could now curl up on my bunk and plug into Kyu Sakamoto singing Sukiyaki while blocking out the 1940s big band music which continued to echo through the house.

Having my own radio gave me a wonderful sense of freedom, but it came with a price in that it was battery-powered, and on days of heavy listening I could rapidly burn through batteries – by the end of the day I discovered the Beatles I had piles of those little rectangular nine-volt batteries scattered all over my bunk and adjacent floor like spent shell casings around a machine gun nest on the Western Front. Unfortunately when we moved to Sterling the nearest store carrying nine volt batteries was fifteen miles away so I was once again stuck with the kitchen radio…

…until that fateful Christmas morning and the arrival of the DNCR.

Ignoring the other gifts I immediately took this wonder of combined entertainment and time-keeping up to my loft bedroom where I set it up on a box at the head of my bed, switched it on, and left it playing for at least a week. It would be still there playing to this day had my dad not threatened to “drop-kick that damn radio to the burn-barrel if that that ‘ya-ya’ crap wasn’t turned down.” But after a protracted period of testing and adjustment I found a volume setting that was simultaneously loud enough to resonate in my room yet still be “unhearable” in the rest of the house.

 It was also at that time when I began “timestamping” the music in my life. I don’t know if it was the constant access to music through the DNCR or the onset of my mutant memory4 – but from then on the mention of a song title or just the sound of the first few bars never failed to trigger a trip back to the day I first heard the tune. Having that radio playing was like having an old friend – or the brother I never had – in the room with me.

The DNCR became even more important the following Christmas when I came home at the semester break with the absolute worst report card of my life. In my defense I was at the time dealing with:

  • Recovery from mononucliosis5
  • Life as a walking punching bag by a couple of upperclassmen
  • The plethora of  awkward questions swirling about my older sister’s precipitous departure after her sudden marriage to a guy not her boyfriend

…but none of that mattered. I’d embarrassed my mom so I was grounded, all my comics, records and books were taken away, and I was allowed only three hours of television a week. How they missed my radio is nothing short of a miracle, but the omission probably saved my sanity if not my life. I made sure it was out sight and kept the volume turned very low as I took to setting my alarm for the middle of the night when everyone else was asleep and unlikely to hear anything untoward.

 For an hour or two each night/early each morning I was granted a respite from my oh-so-craptacular life. This was long before the advent of Dr. Demento, and with few exceptions parody/novelty records got played at most one time before going to the radio station’s library while the 2:45 standards such as Michelle, For What It’s Worth and MacArthur Park were played so often they could be used as timers for cooking three minute eggs. Fortunately most overnight DJs worked with such minimal supervision that their playlists routinely included records that would never get airplay during normal broadcast hours, including such gems as:

  • Bears – the Royal Guardsmen’s little-known follow-up single to Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron.
  • Runaround Kind – The lone single release from the Hartbeets who at the time were the hottest band in Anchorage.
  • The Ballad of Walter Wart (The Freaky Frog) by Thorndike Pickledish Pacifist Choir.

I eventually stopped caring about what was happening to me during the day at school or even at home in the evening after dinner. It didn’t matter that my loft bedroom was cold and dark and that I could feel every bump and nail head in the wooden platform underneath my skinny mattress. As I snuggled down into my covers I felt safe, secure, and happy while my radio bore testimony of a better world far from Sterling.

When I left Sterling in 1971 the DNCR came with me, and with few exceptions it accompanied me in my journeys all over the country5, and with every move my first action was to plug that radio in and dial up a radio station whose hollow sound and the hiss and crack of the AM signal lent a bit of familiarly to a new home. Now that wonderful device sits in a box on a shelf in my shop (there are very few functioning AM stations in my area, and those that are here broadcast political crap) when a miracle of sorts came about the other day.

I had tried – and failed – to get some work done out in my shop, but after growing weary of repeated failures to hobble around on my crutches I pulled out the DNCR,  plugged it in, and started playing with the tuner, only to be met with a static hiss that was occasionally broken with a snap, crack, and pop.

 But then for a blessed few seconds I was graced with Stephen Still’s pure tenor

There’s something happening here,

But what it is ain’t exactly clear.

There’s a man with a gun over there

Tellin’ me, I got to beware.

It stopped just as quickly as it had started – but the music had played long enough. It was late in the day and the gathering of the shadows emphasized the crisp chill of the unheated shop. The air was rich with the pungent smell of plywood recently pushed through a table saw, and as I sat on the bench my arthritic hips could feel every inch of the surface.

…but I felt safe, secure and happy.

Notes                                                                                                                                         

  1. I had been holding out for No-where Man, but after the “bigger than Jesus” debacle, my dad refused to even acknowledge the existence of the Beatles much less their music.
  2. My other life-changing discovery for 1966, Star Trek caused me pain just one time when I noticed the resemblance between the DNCR’s adjustable study lamp and Sulu’s equally adjustable navigation viewer on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. There’s still a faint scar just to the side of my eyebrow.
  3. Thank you Lani Guinier. We might not totally agree on political matters but you turn a mean phrase.
  4.  Hyperthymesia: a highly superior but extremely rare autobiographical memory that enables a person to recall life experiences in vivid detail. Rare as in only 60 have been officially diagnosed. Best known case is actress Marilu Henner of TAXI fame.
  5. Mononucleosis AKA “the kissing disease”, an infection transmitted by saliva (or in my case obviously) a shared drink. This requires a medical diagnosis, and symptoms include fatigue, fever, rash, swollen glands, and body aches. This is a member of the herpes virus family which may explain the coaster-sized canker sores that plagued me at the time.
  6. To include Idaho, Utah, Virginia, Alabama and multiple locations in Alaska – everywhere except military deployments and m

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.”