Visitors to Soldotna Alaska find themselves in a small but well-kept little town, something they usually don’t expect in a frontier community. Set amidst a dense spruce forest next to the Kenai River, the town possesses an up-to-date hospital, two high schools, and a top-notch emergency services department, making it look more like a place you’d find in the Pacific Northwest, northern New England or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s only during the metrological extremes of the two solstices that dramatic differences to the Lower 48 manifest themselves.
It was also much different fifty years ago when I was a teenager living there.
It was September of 1968, and I was standing in a lot just off Sterling Highway which served as the main drag through a Soldotna smaller than it is now.1 It was a marvelous day, absolutely stunning in the way only September on the Kenai Peninsula can be – crisp and cool with a slight breeze offset by the sun beaming down from a cloudless sky. I felt as good as the day seemed, having slept well the night before and fueled by a sumptuous breakfast with what I assumed would be hours before me uncluttered by homework or chores.
…which was why I was bewildered I found myself standing in a recently cleared lot along with my Dad, our good family friend Al Hershberger, his son Greg, and Greg’s friend Earl; the five of us eyeballing a wooden framework carefully laid out and squared up on the ground in front of us. Instead of driving over to Wildwood Air Force Station to witness my high school’s nascent football program tested against one of the Anchorage schools, we would be pouring concrete footings for Al’s new store.
My mind was a goulash of emotions. September was one of the few months in the year that felt ‘normal’ enough to spend a lot of time outside. It wasn’t too warm or cold, night and day were of equal length, and after a totally wretched freshman year I’d been surprised by a pleasant beginning to my second year of high school. I’d initially been disappointed to ‘lose’ such a promising day, but there was always the possibility that I’d roll seven/eleven with Dad and have a decent time working alongside him. I got along after a fashion with Greg and Earl, but the real treat would be working with Al. He was one of the very few members of our little congregation that gave me any sort of credibility, and in return I ranked him in my personal pantheon of respect just short of Captain Kirk level2…and he’d most likely slip me a couple of bucks when the job was done.
The needle on my teen-age snark-o-meter inched down a notch or two when Al gathered us around while we were waiting for the cement truck to arrive, and explained in detail the preparations he’d made beforehand, the sequence of events that would occur when the truck arrived, and the clean-up/wrap-up we’d engage in when the pour was completed. It would be many years before I recognized that speech as a frag order; a brief set of instructions small unit leaders would issue to their troops before operations– hardly surprising as Al had been a sergeant in the Army in WW2 – another reason I held so much respect for him.
I’d seen cement pours from a distance, and I was curious, but I felt a bit of anxiety as we waited for the truck. I knew I could work hard but was still terrified that I’d cause damage to the pour or (even worse) injury to one of the others through my ignorance of the process, and I found myself wishing anew that I could be sitting in the bleachers watching the game, though to be honest I knew very little about football other than the fact that my stocky Welsh coal-miner’s build supposedly made me a good candidate for either tackle or guard. The game’s marginally controlled chaos was appealing to a fifteen-year-old – I liked the idea of running around bumping into people, using military-like organization and tactics. Unfortunately it was the first year Kenai Central High School would field a team, and while I was interested in the sport I didn’t quite have the confidence to hitchhike the twenty-five miles required for the preseason two-a-day practices3.
Suddenly a thunderous ‘BA-BA-BA-BA’ of jake-brakes4` assaulted our ears, andheads to see the cement truck slow for a turn into the lot. Al’s thorough briefing insured that we all snapped into action to work as the driver rotated the pouring chute over the frames, and the five of us wielded rake, shovel, and wooden scrap to spread and smooth the concrete …which contrary to my expectations did not flow like pancake batter.
That simple discovery triggered a bit more angst than you’d expect as I was midstream wading from kid-hood to functioning proto-adult. My first reaction was to whine and snivel about the extra work required to manipulate the heavier-than-expected cement, but then Dad idly made a comment about the day’s game that knocked me on my philosophical fourth-point-of-contact and triggered one of those TARDIS moments wherein time moved at a regular pace while slowing down all around me, and dramatically speeding up my thinking in the process:
- Despite the unexpected work I was having fun.
- If I’d gone out for football I’d be sweating/working far more than I was at that moment.3
- I’d physically changed that summer, adding an inch or two in height and losing an equal amount around my waistline. Maybe it was time to make a similar change in my thinking.
Then the TARDIS effect twinkled away and the sights and sounds of the job returned. While Greg and Earl bantered to the accompaniment of shovels scraping, Al used a short length of two-by-four to groom the surface of the pour after setting large bolts at regular intervals around the outside perimeter of the cement. The whole job went a lot faster that I had anticipated, and after a painless clean-up, Dad and I headed home, stopping briefly at Gladys’ Bake Shop where I set a new world speed-eating record wolfing down a hamburger with one of the dollars Al had surreptitiously slipped me just before we left.
The balance of the day was moderately pleasant with Dad and I spending the thirteen-mile drive back to Sterling trading jokes from the latest Boy’s Life. Contrary to my expectations, I was still able to go to the football game that afternoon, and in an uncharacteristic exception to the ‘just-one-activity-a-day’ rule, I got to go to a dance that evening as well, but that wasn’t the real pay-off.
That day was the birth, the foundation of my personal work ethic. I’d like to say that from that time forward I never again griped or sniveled about working, but anyone who’s raised a teenage son knows that I’m either memory-selective or lying. What I will say is that from the moment of my epiphany while working on Al’s cement pour I slowly started to change. It would still take a year or two before I was able to fully integrate my dad’s ‘make your job a game’ vocational credo, but there never again was a time when I didn’t pull my own weight on a job…or complain too much about it afterward.
1. Located close to where the east entrance to the Peninsula Center Mall parking lot currently connects to Sterling Highway.
2. The only reason I don’t include Al in my “Board of Directors” is the fact he was more family that friend – and that once I left home in 1971 we weren’t in contact all that often
3. Jake brakes: technically known as a compression release-engine brake. Secondary brake on a diesel truck that manipulates engine RPM to slow down as opposed to regular brakes mounted next to each wheel.
4. I played football later on in high school. I tell people that the only thing that kept me from going on and pursuing a career in the NFL was the fact that I wasn’t any good at the game.