1968: Foundation

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.

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…

Friend of Son of Beowulf Junior

Paper, pencils and dice were the only accessories used in the first roleplaying games I experienced many years ago, so it was a big deal when 25mm miniatures arrived to aid in visualizing game events. Scarcity and a wide range in quality made us loath to retire characters when called to do during play, and one friend dealt with the situation by renaming and reusing his favorite figure. His prize 25mm figure started out as “Beowulf” only to become “Beowulf Junior” after one particularly lethal gaming session only go be reincarnated as “Son of Beowulf Junior” and eventually “Friend of The Son of Beowulf Junior” shortly before I graduated and moved away from that area and gaming.

I’m in a similar situation as we start to ramp up for the second book. The existence of other books with titles that play off the Midnight Sun / Midnight Son pun prompts me to rule out a simple “Midnight Son 2” title for the second book in the series but for now that will be the working title for the second volume in the series which will cover high school from 1968 to 1971. I had originally planned the Kickstarter for that book to happen next month (May 2020) but the uncertainty brought on by the Covid 19/Corona Virus pandemic is requiring an extra measure of flexibility in planning, but I did want to give you all a heads-up, hence this post today.

While Midnight Son 2 covers a short time span it will actually be a longer book, reflecting the added complexity in life brought on as we approach adulthood. Some of that added length will also come about by the inclusion of section headings for each individual year, bringing into context the increased influence of current events in my life – especially during the turbulent times of the late 1960s/70s. What follows is the intro for the first section:


 I turned off the television and just sat for a couple of minutes, my mind still spinning from rapid-fire dialog and chaotic change in scenes. I had just witnessed a fifteen-year-old boy’s dream come true – 58 minutes of social and political satire interspersed with counter-culture graffiti and sexual innuendo. It was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and while I initially hated it for replacing the Man from UNCLE it was a perfect introduction to the 1960s, or rather that period from 1968 to 1972 which had all the social characteristics of “The Summer of Love” that comes to mind when most people think of the “The Sixties”. It seemed like we were all witnessing the birth of a new exciting world, but all the same it was an unnerving time to be a teenager.

  •  The TET offensive simultaneously terrified and angered an American public already unhappy with the lack of progress and increasing body count of the Vietnam war in general.
  • Every newscast had a segment on riots somewhere in the Lower 48. Whether sparked by unrest over the Vietnam War or the glacial progress of civil rights, riots seemed to be happening everywhere with collective turbulence culminating in the organized chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention.
  • Hints of a thaw between the East and the West disappeared when Warsaw Pact tanks rumbled over the Prague Spring movement in Czechoslovakia.
  • It seemed like everyone was getting shot. For a while I’d lived with the assumption that President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was enough to shock some collective sense into the nation but then Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down in April followed by Robert F. Kennedy two months later.

 On the other hand:

  •  Manned Apollo missions commenced with Apollo’s circumnavigation of the moon making a nice Christmas present.
  • …we were all very pleased but a little confused when the Beatles released the White Album at Christmas time.

 For me 1968 started out in much the same way as previous years – trying to stay warm while waiting six months for first-run movies to finally hit the local theaters. Our governor Wally Hickel was drafted by President Richard Nixon to serve as Secretary of the Interior and Ted Stevens was appointed to the Senate after Bob Bartlett died during heart surgery. The first mall in Anchorage opened up at the intersection of the Seward Highway and Northern Lights Boulevard, a third television station (KHAR channel 13) began broadcasting and a two inch column at the bottom of the front page of the Daily News casually announced that maybe – just maybe – there was oil to be tapped on the North Slope.

I’d spent most of the school year just surviving and the summer of 1968 looked to be a pleasant change of pace. I had grown an inch or two in height while losing an inch or two from my waistline and gaining some coordination in the process. One of the biggest changes involved what I listened to each day – during the summer I bought a very basic record player and while the sound quality was marginally better than a Kenner Close-N-Play it allowed me to explore music beyond the scope of the 2:45 standards coming over my AM clock-radio. From this point on songs became “time-stamped” to what was going on in life.

…and to reflect THAT very fundamental change in my life each chapter in this volume will be annotated with the song or album that was my favorite at the time, which will again bring some added insight to what was going on during that period.

Nova Corps Uniforms

2019-07-01 Nova Corp Taylor

I first met Lance Nelson – albeit in passing  – at an LDS youth conference held in 1968 in Anchorage Alaska. Three years later we were classmates at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks);  six years  after that we were classmates at BYU with wives bearing similar names (Laura/Lori) and soon after children of very similar ages. Lance is one of the few people that can call me Dave with any authority and has proven to be a solid friend in every way.

…which means his kids are like niece/nephew to me.  Recently his son Taylor found a wife of his own and I drew this picture of the Marvel hero NOVA for them as a wedding present. I’m not completely up to speed on either current Marvel comics or the Marvel Cinematic Universe so I worked up a version of the Nova Corps uniform from a dozen years ago.

Technical notes: Designer’s markers, colored pencils and gouache on paper mounted on presentation board. The inset graphic design motif was cut from a piece of marbleized paper I made and attached with Series 77 spray adhesive.

Music: Wichita Lineman (Revisited)



There’s always “the one”, the friend that was either too hip or too nerdy, too edgy or too zealous to fit in with the rest of your friends and or family. You know the one:

  • Their name elicits snickers when mentioned.
  • They are allowed in the house only if an exit strategy is already in place with your folks.
  • Any positive traits seem to be known only to you.

If songs were people Wichita Lineman would be “that” friend.

Maybe it’s because it was too popular too many years ago and when it was popular our parents liked the song just as much as we did. We also have to consider the lobster-in-the-pot syndrome as well –  Americans tend to drag down a star just as quickly as a lobster escaping a pot of boiling water gets pulled back by his companions – and that song made a whole bundle of money.  Unfortunately what it boils down to for Wichita Lineman is that over the years the song has become the poster child for the comically un-hip; ironically touted as aural kitsch, which can be evidenced by its use as Uber-nerd Matthew’s rock anthem on NBC’s wickedly funny ‘90s sitcom NewsRadio.

It most definitely was not viewed so dismissively when it was released in late1968 as yet another hit song penned by Jimmy Webb. Wichita Lineman stayed on the top 100 for 15 weeks and as of Glen Campbell’s1 passing in 2017 it had sold over 350,000 downloads. Back in the day it was covered by a staggering number of A-list recording artists from a wide range of genres, and was praised by British music journalist Stuart Maconie as “the greatest pop song ever composed”.

…but that’s not why I love it.

For most of my youth I lived in areas where the wind blew.

All. The. Time.

With marginal tree cover there wasn’t much to keep the wind from coming off the Siskiyou Mountains and roaring past our home in Little Shasta Valley2. Likewise with Sterling Alaska: our ranch was situated right in the middle of the scrubs, snags and saplings trying to recover some of the 300,000+ acres leveled by the Skilak Lake Fire of 1947.

In both locales the wind blew past the homes, outbuildings, and through the winding lengths of power lines, phone line antennae, and guy wires that surrounded all those buildings, creating a haunting melody that changed as the wind altered its direction and speed. Despite the lack of a Walkman or even a transistor radio we never lacked for a haunting musical soundtrack to outdoor activities be it work or play.

By the use of high-pitched violins and strategically-placed changes in key, the instrumental background to Wichita Lineman comes closer to the sound and feeling of wind in the wire than any other piece of music I’ve ever heard. While the lyrics specifically refer to power company maintenance workers the message applies to anyone who has spent time around power or telephone lines running through a desolate windswept area; people who know that those lines aren’t just making noise – they’re voices talking – or better yet – singing to you.

It brings to mind Henry Farney’s masterpiece from 1904 Song of the Talking Wire.

Song of the Talking Wire

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve found myself standing in this gentleman’s moccasins. This image and Wichita Lineman come  the closest to capturing the essence of solitude on a windy winter night  – especially as I would walk in between hitched rides and listen to the wind and the wire sing. It gave me a sense of connection with something larger than myself – something cosmic.

….which makes this closing clip all that much more cool…in more ways than one.


It’s a very faint, very subtle sound and even with augmentation it’s hard to pick out, but what you are listening to is  a recording of the wind as recorded by the British seismometer package carried on Nasa’s InSight lander as it  detected the vibrations from Martian air rushing over the probe’s solar panels.

At least that’s what the BBC say it is.

To me it’s the sound of the wind in the wire as I’m walking from the highway to the ranch along Scout Lake Loop road.



  1. It was only when Glen Campbell passed away in August of 2017 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s that the snarky comments began to slow down. It was then that Mr. Campbell, and by extension his work, started receiving the objective appraisal he so richly deserved. Consider for a moment the following list of achievements:
  • Twenty-nine Top 10 hit songs
  • Twelve gold albums
  • Four platinum albums
  • One double album
  • Multiple Grammy awards
  • A hit CBS TV series in the late ‘60s

Most noteworthy was his status as a charter member of the legendary group of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. The Monkees weren’t the only pop musicians that “didn’t play their own instruments”. Top 40 headliners from the Beach Boys on down would rely on the Wrecking Crew to provide instrumental back-up to their vocals when cutting a record.

2. located in the actively-volcanic high desert of northern-almost Oregon California.

1968: Mercantile Subversion

This week’s selection for “Re-Run Saturday”.

David R. Deitrick, Designer

broken eggs2

When you’re on the brink of adulthood a year can seem like a very long time. Given that puberty was a near-fatal condition for me it seemed like the 365 days between my 14th and 15th birthdays would never end – but blessedly they did, and to my surprise I was a much different young man in 1968 than I was in 1967. I had added an inch to my height and chest, my voice stopped cracking and I could run without looking like I was engaging in a series of stumbles. I had also acquired some basic social skills so at that point it was safe enough for the community for me to have a summer job.

At first I was unsure about the idea; I had had a miserable freshman year and had been looking forward to taking a month off to decompress, but that plan…

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1968: Voyage to the Bottom of the Lake

Google the term “marine research institute” and you’ll be (pardon the pun) flooded with responses from all over the globe. Invariably each list will contain the following:

  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
  • Scripps Institute of Oceanography
  • Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Sadly, you will not find a single mention of SLMR or more commonly the “Scout Lake Marine Research Institute.”  Perhaps that was because it was in existence for less than three years, never had more than three members on staff and the physical facilities consisted of a dock floating 50 feet from the west shore of Scout Lake in Sterling, Alaska.

While our collective interest in undersea technology  had been ignited by the ABC science fiction series Voyage of the Bottom of the Sea that ran from 1964 to 1968, my own personal interest had started during my family’s brief sojourn in San Diego in 1960.1 It was a little tougher pursuing subsea interests living in a subarctic environment but while the ice was in place I vicariously explored the depths  by throwing myself into science class, devouring anything National Geographic published  about Jacques Cousteau and spending every spare minute designing submarines.2

…but once the ice was gone?

The most accessible body of water was Scout Lake, located a couple of miles east of the homestead and just downhill from my friend Wayne’s house – in fact all of our marine studies centered around a dock anchored about fifty feet out into the lake. Built by Wayne’s dad as an anchoring point for his float plane during the summer, the dock provided an ideal base for our voyages to the bottom of the lake.

…which wasn’t too terribly deep. One of the basic principles of the Institute’s program was that the lake was 30 feet deep, a figure that had something to do with limits for decompression which had nothing to do with us as we had no tanks or breathing gear. Based on our average heights and the dock’s anchor cable we were probably sitting over a depth of 15 to 20 feet. That figure changed – and has continued to change over the years. Word was that Scout Lake had originally been fed by a spring that had somehow gotten blocked during the 1964 earthquake and one of our goals was to find and unblock that spring.

In retrospect I’m not sure there ever was a spring but it’s obvious that the water level had gone down. There is an abrupt shelf that you step down from to get to the beach at the state recreation area on the east end of the lake, but when we camped in that area as Boy Scouts in 1965 that step-down was the edge of the lake.

My family had been swimming in the lake every summer since moving to the Peninsula in 1964 but it wasn’t until the summer of 1968 that Wayne and I got serious about diving. By then we had access to better masks and were both stronger and more confident in our aquatic skills. I also I passed the lake every day when hitchhiking home from my janitor’s job in Soldotna so there were plenty of opportunities to “do research”.

…which meant repeated dives down to the bottom of the lake where we did make a discovery: a noticeable temperature layer/boundary of sorts located about four feet above the lake-bed. The water became markedly colder, cold enough to trigger a sort of gulp/shiver/choke that had me making my ascent much, much faster than usual. We also kept a lookout for plants and sea life, but the water was so murky that visibility was very limited. Besides, even though the lake had been periodically stocked since 1957 I had never even heard of anyone catching a fish.

There actually were other projects, most of which were unsuccessful:

  1. Lack of candlepower defeated my attempts to waterproof a flashlight. We knew we’d never even find that stopped-up spring much less repair it unless we could find our way through the murky water. It took me a couple of attempts to come up with a method for sealing a flashlight, but the process was an irreversible, one-time process and any light that I could afford to buy was not strong enough to pierce the watery gloom.
  2. Using a length of hose as extra-long snorkel worked as long as the snorkel-hose was extended across the surface of the lake. The pressure from diving even just three feet down was more than my lungs could inhale against.
  3. The submarine designs we’d come up with during seventh and eighth grade…well, we didn’t even try to make working versions. We were having trouble enough just coming up with money for decent masks and other gear.

We got fairly proficient in our skills and we managed to avoid mishap or trouble, except for the one time my other friend Donny ended up at the lake with me.  As another California transplant he was equally arrogant about his superior aquatic skills, even after I explained to him how cold the water was and how quickly it got deep as you swam out to the dock. Brushing my warning off as hysterical overreaction he smartly waded out as far as he could, pushed off…and immediately began to sink.

At first, I thought he was joking but as he would alternately sink then bob up choking I realized that for all his bravado Donny really couldn’t swim that well – and that he was in serious trouble. With Wayne gone for the day any life-saving was up to me but I couldn’t remember enough from my lessons at scout camp to make a text-book save. However, it didn’t seem to matter because Donny was choking and failing so hard that I couldn’t get in close enough to reach around his shoulders. Finally, in desperation I dove down to stand on the bottom, then I reached up, grabbed his tush like a shot-put and threw him as far shoreward as I could. After a brief surfacing to catch my breath I dove down to repeat the process. After three or four tries I got him back into water shallow enough for him to touch bottom and I let him wade in the rest of the way by himself.

Between school starting up again and dropping autumn temperatures our diving came to a halt, but this time there were no interim activities during the snowy months, and this time there wouldn’t be a return to the lake during the coming summer.  While my friendship with Wayne never came to a specific halt we started drifting into very divergent lifestyles during our sophomore year of high school – and summer employment left little time for extended diving sessions in Scout Lake anyway. The closest thing to another session happened during the summer after high school graduation when I took my little sisters down for a dip and found Wayne and his girlfriend already there at the dock. It was much less physically intense than the “institute” days but the afternoon nicely capped off a happy part of my life.

Guam: 1985

It was truly amazing – as we swam through the fish, fronds and coral in the water just off of Gab-Gab beach I was struck by the incredible variety and brilliant colors of my surroundings. I was also amazed at how LOUD the noise was; years of watching movies and TV had prepared me for the color but I had no idea there would be so many clicks, hums, booms and “whooshes” assaulting my ears. I was smiling so wide I thought I was going to lose my regulator mouthpiece, but I managed to keep breathing and survive my twenty-minute underwater diversion from my duties in the 1/19th SFG(A) battalion Forward Operating Base.

I sat back against my tanks on the sand, looked back at the water and thought “I wish Wayne could have seen this!” it was the same thing I said the first time I saw Star Wars, the same thing I said when I made my first solo flight in a TH-55 at FT Rucker – the same thing I said during the previous seven years whenever I’d encounter something amazing.

Wayne had been murdered in the spring of 1978 – not much was known other than he’d been living on a boat in Juneau and his killer was never found. I knew he had been living very much on the edge in the years leading up to his death, but I never pushed for more information. I preferred to remember him as the fifteen-year-old aquanaut that shared a lake with me, and hoped those “I wish Wayne could have seen this” experiences were somehow vicariously shared with him wherever he was now, and left it at that.


  1. see 1960: JFK and Quonset Huts
  2. see 1965: Submarine Races

1968: Confidence


There are many character actors in Hollywood who specialize in playing “heavies” but to me the most intimidating thespian in Hollywood is William Smith. Anthony Falconetti in the 1970s television mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man is his best known role but Mr. Smith’s career includes over 300 feature films and television productions, my favorites being the 1960s Texas Ranger drama Laredo and 1985 Disney Western Wildside where he was cast against type as good guy gunslinger/deputy Brodie Hollister.

He is an incredible man in both a mental and physical sense, holding several advanced degrees and speaking several fairly difficult languages…while at the same time being able to curl his own body weight. He is very scary looking; a big body-builder blessed/cursed with a dark piercing cold state you’d expect to find on a mafia hit man – TV.com describes him as the greatest bad-guy character actor of all time.

Kind of like my friend Will Satathite

High school did not start out as a happy place for me. I was a late bloomer, gaining strength, speed and coordination equal to that of my classmates only as the academic year was coming to a close. Running was less locomotion that it was a series of barely controlled stumbles and my voice cracked so bad in choir that the teacher routinely sent me on errands to the school office while everyone else was “warming up”. It should be no surprise that within two weeks of school starting I was being regularly pummeled by bullies. Within four weeks my older sister left school to get rather precipitously married, leaving me to explain the situation to all of her friends and classmates. When the ensuing conflict between loyalty and literal honesty was combined with the stress of getting used for a human punching bag, my body was unable to cope and I came down with mononucleosis.

I didn’t make a full recovery until after Christmas and even then life wasn’t that much more pleasant. However, as I got back into the swing of things I made an interesting discovery: While the upscale kids could be extremely judgmental and socially conscious, the thugs would be friends with anyone, provided there weren’t any “personal issues” involved. While he was not necessarily a thug, Will was definitely a tough guy and I found that if I stayed in reasonable proximity to him I was safe from the aforementioned punching. The price of such safety was the occasional shove from Will himself but for the most part any aggression from him involved glaring looks rather than swinging fists.  I was willing to swallow my pride and cower a bit if it meant less punching.

As winter slowly turned into spring, my life became less precarious –and as the second half of the academic year played out, I was able to build a normal life. I could come to school in the morning and be sure that I could retrieve text books from my locker without getting stuffed inside it. I was reasonably sure that I would be able to eat my entire lunch without someone snatching it out of my hands or walking across it with work boots. Waving to a friend in the commons wasn’t an automatic invitation for a punch in my stomach the minute I raised my hand, and I could walk out to the bus at the end of the day without the icy sensation in the pit of my stomach that came with a bully waiting for me in front of the door.

Summer came and school let out. I was fortunate to get work over the summer – a lot of work. I subcontracted for the post office janitor while he took a month long vacation in Texas, I worked as a stocker/bag boy at a local supermarket for another month and at various times over the entire three month break I dug, pruned, filled, and tied back branches as a freelance landscaper and handyman.

I had never had so much money in my life, but what I didn’t realize was that I had gained much more in other areas. My height went up a couple of inches, my waist drew in a couple more and I finally caught up to the level of strength and co-ordination that my peers had all achieved much earlier, though I didn’t realize it right away.

…and before I knew it the summer was over and I would be >gulp< Going Back to School. For the first eight years of my academic career going back to school in the fall had been a wonderful experience but it seemed that during the first few days of my sophomore year there were too many ghosts in the hallways, too many terror-filled memories of the bullying and beat downs…but during those first couple of days I found out something interesting.

No one tried to punch me. No one tried to knock my books to the ground or steal my lunch. I knew that times had changed but I’d passed it off as the side-effect of having a larger circle of friends than I did the year before – but then one day while I was on the way out the back door the enroute to one of the portable classrooms I was startled by a reflection I in the glass. It was me…only a much larger “me” than the self-image I had stored in my mind. I quickly compared that reflection to other reflections in glass (getting to the portables was rarely a quick trip) and I was shocked to see that I was as large – usually larger – than the other kids around me.


That revelation came at just about the same time that I realized Will sat behind me in study hall. I half-consciously slid back into the side-kick role I’d played the year before, resigned to my fate. I would get very little done during any study hall shared with Will, the time instead being spent taking the occasional arm-slug and cowering in his shadow just enough to avoid being noticed by the punchers.

..but then something interesting happened.

It was about a week into the semester and I was trying to get my geometry homework finished but Will was making it difficult. I tried to reason with him, my voice blessedly staying a notch or two above the level of a whine when Will interrupted me with the following:

Deitrick – you’re a big guy. Be bad!”

It took a minute for the message to sink in. Sometimes it was easy to forget that behind the tough facade Will really was a nice guy and it was at this moment that he was demonstrating that friendship. The fact that I had gained size and strength over the summer had never really sunk in for me and Will was acting as what we’d call a life-coach in the decades to come, helping me establish myself socially. For the rest of the day and beyond I contemplated his words and the thought behind them, then slowly scaled back on cower-factor while turning up the machismo just a little bit.

At that point I found that the guys around me began to be a bit more respectful…

The next week

The day wasn’t starting out well. I had to change a flat on the way to school, I left my geometry book at home and someone horked my lunch which included the ever-so-rare roast beef sandwich. By the time I got to my seat in study hall I was in a foul mood; just how foul became apparent when Will started messing with me by moving my seat around while I was trying to sit down.

“What’s the matter Deitrick? Having a bad day? Are you going to start crying?”

My response was out before I even had time to think about it.

“>Bleep< you Satathite! This is turning into a real >bleep< day! I don’t need any of your >bleeping< >bleep< right now so just go >bleep< yourself!”

I froze. In vain I tried to snatch the words back but Will had already heard them. He transfixed me with that cold stare, leaned forward in his desk and growled.

Had I burned one of the few bridges in my life? The answer was not long in coming.

“Pretty good, Deitrick!”

“You’re coming along nicely!”

1968: “…smoked!”

I’ve heard it said that behind every stereotype lies a grain of truth and the term “absent-minded professor” goes a long way towards proving that concept.  The smartest people I’ve met in life are usually the most spaced-out, and I’m not talking about just Star Trek fandom or Jedi Knight wanna-bes.  Somehow pure- intellect brain cells cannot co-exist with practicality-neurons in any large number, and because of that tendency I spent a day of my sophomore year of high school doing a great impression of a slab of bacon.

It’s not that I hadn’t had prior training in brainiac-distraction identification. One of my sixth grade classmates never lost a chance to read – to the point that we’d wonder aloud about just exactly when he’d get so engrossed in the story line that he’d take a bite out of his book while trying to read his PB&J. Weak sixth grade humor? Yes – but proven to be all too true when he returned my copy of “Tarzan and the Forbidden City” with the edges of a missing corner of the back cover sporting a suspicious dentelated pattern.

…so I should have recognized the signs when I met Paul, son of the plant foreman at Swanson River Oil Field where most of our fathers worked at one time or another. Like my other friend, Paul had a voracious appetite for the written word, but unfortunately his family lived out on the field itself -n 20 miles from any other kids and 30 miles from the local library or any stores that sold books. It would have been a very frustrating situation for him had not his parents wisely planned each week to have him  get off the bus in town on Wednesdays, go to the library to load up on books then meet his mom at the post office to catch a ride home after she’d gone shopping. It was a great system and kept Paul happy, until one very, very cold day in November 1968 when he got off the bus a day early and was left stranded in town.

Paul was in a fix; it was bitterly cold but he had no place to go. The post office was closing, as were most of the other businesses and it would be at least an hour before someone could get back into town to retrieve him. My mom was working at the post office that  day Tuesday and couldn’t help but notice Paul’s situation, so rather than have him shiver in the sub-zero dark while his mom burned up a tank of gas coming after him Mom brought him home to stay with us for the night. It was OK with me – while we weren’t exactly bosom buddies we were on friendly terms . Besides Tuesday night meant Star Trek and it would be a lot better watching the hokey third season episodes with a buddy.

We had such a good time that ten o’clock rolled around before we knew it and it was time to turn in, which involved more than just brushing  teeth and saying prayers. I had to prep my attic bedroom, which was more like a compartment on a submarine than a regular room, even down to  entry  via a ladder in the hall closet. My dad and I had built it two years earlier and it was a bit more “severe” than the rest of the rooms in the house. We had no central heating or ductwork so in order to keep the temperature in rest of the house regulated I had to close both the closet door and a plywood “hatch” in my floor and rely on an electric heater to keep my room habitable. While I had plenty of blankets Paul had to make do with sleeping on the floor, though we did have a down-filled sleeping bag that kept him reasonably warm.

Nothing puts you to sleep faster than a warm bed in a cold room and I was asleep before we finished our discussion on that night’s Star Trek episode. Normally I would have spent a full eight hours in  that  dead-to-the-world slumber only a teen-ager achieves but to my dismay I woke up in the middle of the night with a sore throat to beat all sore throats.

My first thought was “Dang it. I’m going to have to miss school” (Did I say I was having a very good time as a sophomore) but as I became more awake and aware I thought “what’s that smell?” I reached over and pressed the button to the lamp on my clock radio to be met with minimal, hazy light. I clicked it on and off several times, getting that same soft glow when suddenly it came to me:


I got up and turned on the main ceiling light to the sight of a very hazy room with Paul in the sleeping bag on the floor and rolled over against the grille of the little electric heater. What I had thought was a sore throat was the smoke from the charred sleeping bag shell as well as a smoldering section of Paul’s shirt that had somehow gotten pushed against the heater.  I stepped over to my window to vent out the smoke but found it frozen shut! I then went to the opposite end of the room and kicked down the attic access door, at which point the air immediately began to clear, the attic being vented to the outside at the far end of the house. Gulping a breath or two of air I went back in and shook Paul awake, then set up my summer-time fan in the doorway to hasten the circulation of air.

At this point I could hear my mom at the bottom of the ladder and I told her was going on. We got Paul downstairs and as Mom started to treat some small burns on his side I started for the bathroom with a remark about how I didn’t want to go to school smelling like a camp-fire

“Honey – the water’s frozen.”

Have you ever washed with snow? In all our activity the balance of the night had passed by and it was getting close to time to catch the bus. I tried getting cleaned up as best I could, rubbing as much smell off my skin with wash-rags wrapped around snow while more of it sat in a pot on the stove melting into water to rinse my hair. I’d be able to get even more cleaned up at school during physical education class but I had to do something to make myself presentable for the three classes I had before PE.

It was right after I loaned a shirt to Paul to replace his burnt one that I realized I had nothing else to wear, all my other shirts smelling either totally smoky from the fire or totally funky from sitting at the bottom of the dirty clothes hamper.  The closest thing to a clean shirt was a light-blue turtle-necked top from a pair of pajamas that had never been out of the package.  It seemed shirt-like enough when worn under a blue vest; wearing that and as much Old Spice Lime aftershave as I could wear without passing out would get me to fourth hour and a blessed hot shower.

Of course as I got on the bus I was met with “Geez Deitrick you smell like a French whore” or “Have ever tried eating the bacon instead of wearing it?” Then it turned out that the previous Christmas the guy sitting next to me in World History had gotten the same set of pajamas as I was wearing but even so it was O.K.

As great as my sophomore year was going l was still not too terribly over-loaded with confidence, but on that thirty minute drive to school that day I felt a measure of pride. With the massive amount of heating required to keep Alaskan homes warm in the winter, and the nature of homestead electrical wiring, fires are not a rare thing – just two years earlier a home  down the road had burned to the ground from a fire that came about just like ours did – something had been pushed up against an electric space heater. Our house could have gone up in smoke the same way but I had been alert enough to realize what was going on and steady enough to apply the proper corrective measures in a timely manner.

Maybe I wasn’t as hopeless as I thought.

lethal heater

1968: Shear Pins and Pinky Rings

For all his years as a sailor in the Orient my father picked up very little foreign language. He occasionally answered the phone with a “mushi-mushi” or tacked the Japanese “-san” honorific to the ends of our names, but the only Asian word he used much was “cumshaw”. It’s a Chinese word that originally meant “grateful thanks” but use by American sailors over the years gradually changed its meaning to “anything obtained by other than official channels”. Think of the character “Crapgame” from Kelly’s Heroes or Milo Minderbinder from Catch 22 – but with the criminal aspect dialed quite a bit and you’ve got a good idea of the meaning.  For example, a tool set issued to replace one lost during an air raid comes with an extra undocumented hammer which gets traded to the cook for a steak peeled off the allotment for from the officer’s mess so the cook can fix the roof of his hootch.

With Dad, cumshaw wasn’t just an idiosyncrasy of a supply system; it was a way of life. He was wheeling and dealing his entire life, most of the time under totally legitimate conditions. For example, all the sheds we built around the homestead were made from lumber salvaged (with the field foreman’s blessing) from crating and dunnage used for shipping large flanges and valves shipped to the Swanson River Oil Field. Perfectly OK and a good example of recycling I might add. On the other hand our driveway was kept passable during break-up by the addition of gravel from 5 gallon buckets that sat in the bed of Dad’s pick-up “for added traction in the snow”; buckets that would magically fill with gravel whenever Dad was on the night shift out at the plant.

…all of which explains how I happened to be sitting in a four man life raft in the middle of Lower Omer Lake in June of 1968. It had originally part of the survival gear for the crew of a P2V Neptune patrol bomber flying out of Kodiak Naval Air Station in the early 1950s, said crew including one YNC David Soren Deitrick.

Dad had modified the raft with the following items:

  • a wooden deck frame and two oars whittled from wood salvaged from old shipping crates
  • an anchor cobbled together from a length of nylon 550 cord and a large angular rock
  • a small trolling motor with a two-stroke engine

Not exactly top of the line watercraft but useful enough for getting far enough out in the lake to cast a line where the fish were more likely to be biting, though to be honest I don’t think there were any fish to be biting in Lower Omar Lake anywhere. In all the years that we camped there not once did I see someone catch a fish in that lake. I suspect that lack of fish was actually why we camped there; it was never very crowded and we little to do during our campouts but take it easy. That may have appealed to dad but I quickly became bored. Convinced that I could find fish in another part of the lake I got into the raft, started up the engine and putt-putted my way out into the lake.

I had heard fish would linger around shallower areas so I kept close to the shore, though locating fish wasn’t the only reason I hugged the lake’s perimeter. The trolling motor was not the most robust means of propulsion and anything more than a  light breeze would slow the raft almost to the point of stopping and while I had the two small oars for back-up I had no desire to spend the afternoon rowing back to shore. I resigned myself to staying fairly close to dry land until I found small bay with a dead tree fallen over into the water – which I also heard was a place fish would congregate.

Just as I reached that little bay I heard a loud “THOCK!”

Immediately the trolling motor started to race as the raft started to slow down which meant that I had hit something underwater and had snapped the shear pin, which was designed to break under just those circumstances to prevent damage to the drive shaft or motor. I quickly switched the motor off and started to tilt the propeller out of the water, but stopped midway to take off my pinky ring to avoid snagging it on something and ripping my finger off.

(Note: The ring was recent gift from my Uncle Roy and Aunt Doris who I dearly loved but unfortunately bought presents for me the size I wore when we moved away from California six years earlier. It was a gold colored band with silver colored monogram “D” mounted in the middle of a piece of polished hematite and despite being too small for normal wear I persisted in wearing  in hope that it A) would endow me with some measure of “coolness”;” B) irritate my dad.)

As I juggled the trolling motor while trying to put the ring in my pocket I had my first lesson in how multi-tasking doesn’t really work. I dropped the ring which bounced from knee to oar to raft and then right over into the lake. I scrambled to catch it in the spastic manner only a high-school freshman can manage but succeeded only in kicking one of the small wooden oars too far enough away from the raft to be readily reachable. Undeterred I reached for the second one and started rowing towards its lost mate but got no more than three strokes in before it broke in two right where the blade connected to the handle.

I took stock of the situation. I was stuck out in the lake with no means of locomotion. As the water looked to be about ten feet deep at that point I couldn’t wade in. Swimming back to shore was right out – I didn’t fancy getting my clothes wet, I wasn’t about to strip down in full view of the entire campground and I wasn’t sure I could get the raft back with to shore with me as well.

That’s when I remembered the anchor. Using my foot as a ruler I figured the 550 cord tied to the rock to be close to twenty feet long (no pun intended). I threw the large rock-anchor as far as I could towards the shore, then pulled the raft and myself along until we were directly over it, repeated the process. I was ecstatic and thought “What a story I’ll have to tell about cleverly overcoming multiple mishaps. There’ll be no more snarky pinky ring stories now”


It was at that exact moment in time that the rock made its exit out of the harness of 550 cord that kept it connected to the anchor line, disappearing into the lake along with any hope I had of getting out of this dilemma with any vestige of pride. Resigned to my fate I stepped over the side of the raft into what was now thigh-deep water and waded in the rest of the way to shore, towing the raft with me.

In the yin/yang pattern that randomly appears in my mishaps no one was watching when I made it back to camp so I survived the incident with a small measure of pride. I had been the only one using the raft so I deflated it and packed it away, intent on solving the shear pin, oar and anchor issues at a later date. For now my only problem was how to pass the time until we broke camp and went home later that evening.

I decided to try fishing from the shore like my dad had suggested earlier. I found a nice sunny spot and cast my line out into the lake, then slumped down onto the mossy ground with my back to a tree stump. To my amazement I had a great time, dozing in the sun, looking at the patterns in the clouds above and occasionally casting my line into the water. I thought to myself “Dad has something here. This is great!” It was one of the most peaceful days of my life.

I wonder what it would have been like had I used a hook.