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

WilliamSmithActor

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.

Hmmmmm.

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:

SMOKE!

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”

PLOONK!

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.

1968: Mercantile Subversion

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 came to a screeching halt when my mom told me the janitor at the post office needed someone to cover his duties while he vacationed in Texas …and she had already put my name forward. I sulked a bit until I found out that I was going to be paid – which changed the whole deal. The sun came up, the birds started to sing – life just got much, much better as I merrily counted the proverbial chickens before they hatched.

I wasn’t quite so merry two weeks into the job when I found out that I wouldn’t get paid until Jerry (the janitor) returned from his trip. The concept of delayed gratification is a tough idea for a teenager and while having that big pay-day just in time to buy school clothes was a good idea I wanted some money in my pocket NOW. As my duties at the post office took just a couple hours each weekday morning I started looking around of additional employment opportunities.

As luck would have it a job opened up at the grocery store right next to the post office. Child labor laws weren’t quite so strict back then so I would be working eight hours a day Tuesday through Saturday. I started that second job brimming with confidence; secure in the knowledge that I only had to walk 100 feet from my first job to the second so I’d never have to worry about being late….but within a week those 100 feet seemed like 100 miles. Working ten hours a day was a lot harder than I had imagined and I was so exhausted that all I could do during my lunch break at the grocery store was sit in the back of the storage room and “sniffle” ( 15 year old boys do not “cry”)…and it wasn’t just fatigue that had me depressed.  Not only was I constantly tired, I was missing out on all the summer activities I had planned and had no opportunity to spend any of that extra money I was making.

….which wasn’t turning out to be as much as I had anticipated. I went into the work force that summer with no knowledge of FICA or withholding tax and was stunned to see the bite taken out of a paycheck for an unmarried person with zero dependents. I handled the disappointment as the responsible, mature teenager that I was: I sulked. My performance suffered accordingly and was immediately noticed so my hours were dropped to half-time for two weeks after which I would be “let go” just in time to start my sophomore year of high school.

You’d think I would be relieved to see the light at the end of the tunnel but in fact I was perturbed. That summer I’d had more money than I had ever before in my life and I liked it. I had hoped to turn my summer gig at the grocery store into an after-school job and felt pretty disgusted with myself for failing, but the next day I found out that it wasn’t my job performance that was causing the change; one of the adult workers in the store had a nephew that wanted the job so I was being eased out to make room for him.

Now it was personal.

Celtic blood figures prominently in my lineage and an oft-quoted saying shared by the Scots, Irish, Cornish and Welsh is “No one harms me and goes unpunished” Despite that genetic tendency I have tried to avoid vindictiveness in my life, but my internal blue-painted Pict won the moral battle that summer. I was going to wreak terrible vengeance on the way out of that job, albeit in a classical passive-aggressive manner.

I took great pains to show up for work well-groomed and early on the last day. My mom even paid a rare compliment on my appearance as I left for the grocery store, noting that I was even wearing my Sunday shoes – though she had no idea I chose them for the black marks they would be making on the store’s floor rather than their appearance.  I made sure I was ever so polite to each customer no matter how picky they were about the way their groceries were bagged. When traffic at the registers slowed down I was off to the aisles in a flash, opening cases, pricing cans and stocking shelves ; I was such a dynamo of mercantile efficiency that the owner started making weak jokes about keeping me on past closing time on this last day to get as much out of the “good Dave” as possible. Had he known what I was doing in between bagging groceries and stocking shelves he would have hustled me out the door at the first opportunity.

My first target was the cooler where eggs, milk and other dairy products were stocked. It would be the easiest of all my targets – all the cooler items were stocked from inside the refrigerated space itself and I would be out of sight while I was “at work”.  Cooler items were placed on racks behind double-pane glass doors that faced into the main store and as the rows just inside the doors were depleted we would restock items on the back of the racks inside of the cooler, carefully pushing them forward until the front rows were neatly aligned again…which also insured that older stock in front would be picked up before new arrivals.

There was a 2”-3” gap between the front end of the shelf and the inside of the glass doors. Figuring that proper timing was essential to a good alibi I selected a few low-demand items and pushed them all the way forward so they would fall out of the case and onto the floor when the door was opened. Other than suffering near-cardiac arrest when a customer made a first-in-the-history-of-the-store request for prune yogurt my “time bomb” was set up without a hitch. It was so easy in execution that I put a block of cheese on top of the cool-room compressor for good measure, figuring it would be a good week before the smell became over-powering and another week before they finally found out the source of the odor.

The next target:  soft drinks. At the time soft drink cans used pull-tab openers that were secured to the top of the can with a latex seal and removed by pulling on a ring attached at one end. These small strips of metal were already prone to being broken which would result in sealed cans with no means for opening (the old “church key” openers were almost impossible to use on the semi-domed can tops). Every time I would pass a pallet of soft drinks I would randomly bend tabs to just short of breakage, varying the degree of bending to again insure a comfortable margin of time between my exit and the mishap.

I was so caught up in my pranks that I lost track of time ; suddenly it was quitting time and I was ready to go  but my boss must have wanted to get the last minute’s worth of work out of me.  While the rest of the crew turned in smocks and signed time-cards I was sent to mop a spill on the condiments aisle. At that very same moment they started turning off lights making the job doubly difficult but while I was swabbing the floor tile free of broken jars of mayonnaise, relish and mustard the inspiration for my last bit of revenge hit.  As functional and efficient package design was at least a decade in the future most grocery items were packaged in glass jars that were not designed with stack-ability in mind. It took only moments to position a few jars slightly off-balance, so that merely picking one up would topple several others to the floor where they would invariably smash open in a nasty, marginally mop-able mess.

Not many people were picking up hitchhikers that night so I ended up walking six of the eleven miles home – and when I finally arrived I did little more than wolf down a sandwich before going to bed. The next day we drove to Anchorage where we spent several days buying school clothes and visiting friends. By the time we got back home it was payday at the store, but as a precaution I waited an extra day before going in to get my last paycheck. I wanted to keep a low profile and avoid any possible connection with my acts of mercantile mayhem – and nothing got the owners attention quicker that an employee that was too eager to get his check.

I was in luck – when I showed up early that evening the store staff consisted of one cashier, the butcher and the other bag-boy. “Man, you got out of here just in time” he said as I was signing the check roster. “Just about everything that could go wrong went wrong last week. We had stuff spilling all over the place and I must have spent the whole time mopping.” At that point I made a quick exit (with my check) and made a mental note to by my comics at the drug store for the next couple of weeks.

You know, I’ve told that story many times over the years and it always gets a good laugh – goofy teenager exacting his revenge against oppressive adults ( it would have made a great John Hughes movie if it had happened in Aurora, Illinois). It also typified the mind-set of the counter-culture Sixties, with the stereotypically “oppressed” young guy getting back at “the ‘Man’ who’s bringing him down”… but it wasn’t until I started writing this blog post out that I recognized the situation for what it truly was: an infantile temper tantrum.

I was a total jerk and there really isn’t much I can say in my defense.

Looking back over subsequent years I think I’ve subconsciously known that all along, because the incident produced something more than broken eggs and shattered jars. A few years after the aforementioned acts of sabotage the owners hired me again, once for a six month stretch as the weekend janitor and again during college when I worked for them as a stocker when my regular oil-field job fell through one summer.  During both of those times I worked my tail off, performing my assigned duties to my best ability and then going out of my way to find other chores that had been overlooked. Those that know me well often comment on my diligent work ethic and I have to confess that it was at this time in my life that I became a “working machine”. Were those two later periods of employment at the grocery store simply the natural evolution of my employee philosophy?

… or was I trying to make up for the $37.83 worth of dairy products, condiments and sodas that were wasted so many summers ago.