My Personal Board of Directors: Charles R. Marriott

One of the best moves I made on the 17th of October 1972 – the day I decided to start keeping a journal, and though I’d had several false starts during high school I’ve been able to keep writing ever since that day forty-seven years ago. I started out using a blank book, then switched to typewritten pages during my bicycle penance and eventually made the jump to digital media in 1986. At one time I would write at least weekly but since I started blogging I add to my journal maybe once a quarter. I’ve never begrudged the time and effort in all that writing, my only regret being that I didn’t start and continue when I first got the idea in the fall of 1969; had I done so I would have had more information with which to write about Charles Rodney Marriott.

Thought I only knew him for nine months, Marriott definitely holds a seat in my personal Board of Directors, and by that I mean that group of adult men who advised and coached me through the rough spots and junctures in life and in general made up for the lack of guidance from my own family. I shy away from the word “mentor” as the only Mentor I knew of was a member of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents – a Tower Comics character of minor interest, being one of the second string of heroes ignored in favor of everyone’s favorite Dynamo. I learned the meaning of the word when I reached college but the definition was confusing – the idea of someone actually taking time with me was utterly foreign. It was also a word used overmuch and without a lot of real thought by people that I should have been able to trust, so I’ve adopted the “board of directors” to use instead.

Charles Rodney Marriott was a former Marine hired as an English instructor at Kenai Central High School in the fall of 1969, having served for thirty years and retiring as a warrant officer after having served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. As a service brat I was happy to have him as an instructor but looking back it was an unusual choice on the part of the school district given the unrest over the war in Vietnam and changes in society in general.

It was a time for interesting changes in our own little academic world as well: that fall the English classes were radically re-organized for sophomores, juniors and seniors. Instead of taking one class from one teacher for the entire school year students were to enroll in a different module every nine weeks. There were some guidelines – you had to take a set number of classes in three categories (literature, composition and oral skills) but other than that, students were free to put together their own program. Marriott was my instructor for two classes: Newspapers & Magazines during the second nine week grading period and Motion Pictures for the fourth.

I wasn’t sure what to expect out of the Newspapers & Magazines class other than we each would be getting copies of Time magazine and the New York Times national edition each week. I assumed that we’d just be reading articles and making reports on what we read so I was surprised when he showed up for the first class pushing a film projector into the classroom. We then spent the next week watching movies about the production and dissemination of propaganda. The films were ‘50s era productions made by the Department of Defense to counter Communist propaganda but despite the hyperbole they were effective in teaching us about propaganda techniques such as “Glittering Generalities”, “Jumping on The Bandwagon” and “Poisoning the Well” that are found in propaganda from both sides of the political spectrum – but I was truly baffled when the films stopped as I had no idea what we’d be doing for the other eight weeks of the grading period.

That’s when we went back to those issues of Time and the New York Times; we took the propaganda techniques we learned about in the films and tried to find examples in the news stories…and were collectively horrified to find those tricks and techniques in all the stories. We expanded our search to other publications and found that the pattern continued, and Mr. Marriott would have us discuss what we found while managing to stay fairly objective about what we found.

It was at this point in my life that I stopped taking news reports at face value and started to analyze each message as best I could as a sixteen year old from Sterling, Alaska. Even now I mentally filter every new story I watch or read through those analytical tools, tools that eventually got me starting to seriously think about intelligence and security careers in the military.

(OK, OK so it really all started with Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuriyakin from The Man from UNCLE but Marriott’s class was a BIG plus!.)

As he was one of a team teaching the Motions Pictures class took from him later in the spring he didn’t have quite the same impact but he still would take time to talk to me personally about my life and my future plans involving military service – I think my status as a Navy service brat made it a little easier for him to be candid with me. Unfortunately a low grade classroom scandal about R-rated cartoons a student drew on a chalkboard prevented him from gaining tenure and he left KCHS rather precipitously after just one year, not even leaving a photo in the yearbook at his departure.

I saw him just one more time when he stopped by the locker room during two-a-day football practice the following August and for the next almost-50 years I had no idea what happened to him until I started research for this post. It turned out that he married Ruth Kilcher (pop star Jewel’s grandmother) and ended up living less than twenty miles from me when we lived in Knoxville until he passed away in 2005. Finding that out was a little tough to deal with, knowing that as I was teaching my teen-age sons about analyzing news stories for propaganda techniques the guy that taught me literally lived just over the river and through the woods. I would have loved introducing my sons to him.

…and I hope that as he read those local newspapers, magazines and watched local TV coverage he may have seen the stories that were written about our “family of artists”. I hope he was able to connect the dots and figure out who I was, and able to feel a measure of pride and credit for the contribution he made in my life.

     (Special Thanks to Glenn Tauriainen for assistance in research for this story)

1969: With a Little Luck

“Hey Dave – what did that new guy have to say about moving to the Peninsula?”

 “New guy? Hey Pat – I wasn’t talking to a guy – I was talking to Rhonda the girl who just moved up from somewhere in Texas.”

 “You need to clean the wax out of your ears – and maybe get some glasses too. The name is Ron and he’s most definitely a guy. I’m pretty sure because he’s in my gym class and unlike you I don’t need glasses”

 “What?”

 “Hey – it was probably his long hair that threw you off. Well, gotta run!”

 I stood at my locker long enough to jump when the tardy bell rang. Well this was a first – I had notoriously bad luck with girls, but never had I been desperate enough to mistake a slim long-haired guy for a chick.

 “I ought to have my head examined…”

…a sentiment that came up again when I walked into the pep rally later that afternoon to see Pat Malone sitting up at the top row of the bleachers, arm-in-arm with the new girl Rhonda whose tailored blouse firmly established her gender once she’d removed her parka.

He’d done it again. Not only was Patrick light years ahead of me in drawing skills, he was ahead of me in fox-hunting as well. It didn’t matter if I’d set my sights on Joan, Jeanne, Joni or Pam – Pat Malone was always one step ahead of me with one arm around the young lady in question. I couldn’t fault him for taste, but just once …

“Pretty slick, isn’t he?”

I jumped just a bit at the unexpected comment – I hadn’t noticed anyone behind me. Doing my best to channel all the class of Sean Connery I turned and replied

HUH?”

(better make that George Lazenby)

Sitting next to the exit was the merriest pair of brown eyes ever. Attached to those brown eyes was Jeanne Lyddel, one of those near-miss-to-Pat-Malone young ladies that I had been just thinking about.  I had a weakness for brown-eyed blondes and had noticed her during registration the previous fall, but then Pat magically appeared next to her sitting in the bleachers that day as well, her hand in his while they compared class schedules.

“What is it about Malone and the bleachers in the gym? I thought “The guy can do magic in here. I cannot believe his luck! It’s like he drew a perpetual cow tag during moose season and dropped one in his back yard on opening day!”  Nevertheless, I had to admit he was good. I walked out of the gym murmuring “…since day one of our freshman year he’s never failed to shoot me out of the saddle…”

“Shoot you out of the saddle?” Jeanne had overheard my murmuring….

“It’s just an expression. When another guy manages to hustle-away a girl just before you get a chance to ask her out.”

She sat up and interrupted “You mean you -? Did you know that Pat and I…?”

>URK<

I looked away blushing, my face as scarlet as the KCHS Kardinal mascot and casually changed the subject “Hey – why do you th>INK< its spelled with a “K” instead of a “C?” my voice cracking with sheer terror mid-dodge.

“What?”

 “The ‘K’ in Kardinals. Kenai Kardinals.  Why isn’t it a C? Oops – gotta go now!”.

I narrowly avoided running over my friend Jim on the way out and he smirked in my general direction, launching a “I’ve-seen-you-do-better-Rave!” rocket at me as I shot past to a blush-free sanctuary outside the gymnasium door. My goal for the 1968-69 academic year had nothing to do with grade point averages; my goal was to be able to stand near a girl I liked and not become terminally twitter-pated. To be able to carry on an intelligent conversation with someone I was interested in, to somehow escape the nerd boy inside that could dissolve into “homina-homina-homina -duuuhhhh – drool. Me like pretty girl”. Judging from my trip-hammer pulse I wasn’t quite there yet – so it was no wonder it took an exit from the gymnasium at a dead run to achieve some semblance of cool.

I was semi-surprised the next day to see Jeanne sitting in the same set of bleachers during lunch, but the surprise became total when she looked over, made eye-contact and smiled. I walked over and sat down, and when I managed to not spontaneously burst into flames we were able to have a nice conversation. At that point we started to became friends, which slowly began to morph into a pattern of stealth-dating which was the only way for me to see  someone given my age and situation.1 Something like a “Boy’s Night Out” with Jim and Jesse would be the plan presented when getting permission to go to the show or a dance but in reality, once I was dropped off I’d link up with Jeanne who’d pursued much the same tactics in getting out of her own home for the evening.

The relationship was very low-key, but spring2 was in the air and I was quite taken with the novelty, the magic of a girl who ACTUALLY LIKED ME AT THE SAME TIME I LIKED HER!. Signs of serious twitter-pation began to appear:

  • Absently mindedly writing her name over and over on my notebook.
  • Saving pencils she’d chewed on.
  • My heart skipping a beat whenever I’d hear “I Can Hear Music” by the Beach Boys.

Most importantly I was learning to relax, enjoy her company and be myself.

It was all developing nicely until our abnormally spring weather turned chilly and the high school’s water pipes broke one early morning just before the busses started dropping off students. Citing health hazard brought about by the lack of water fountains, showers and toilets, the administration (eventually) decided to cancel classes for the day. Unfortunately, at that point every bus was either back in the garage or moving elementary school students, so we were all left to mill about for a couple of hours…or in my case cruise around Kenai with my friend Gary. Given the state of the Kenai Peninsula’s infrastructure in 1969 we quickly ran out of road for cruising and that’s when I got the bright idea to go find where Jeanne lived and pay a visit.

I knew that she lived somewhere in Woodland Subdivision, so we drove over, parked the truck and started walking up and down the streets looking for her home.  We been afoot for just five minutes when we noticed residents of the subdivision watching us carefully out of their windows, understandably concerned to see teenage boys wandering around during the middle of a school day. By the time I found Jeanne’s house, word of our presence had preceded us, and she was not happy to see me. For the first time those brown eyes were definitely not merry and when my every effort to draw out a laugh from her failed, I elbowed Gary and we left.  On the long drive home, I kept telling myself that everything would work out OK, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something major had happened that I just wasn’t getting.

Again, there was no “happy” in her eyes when we met up the next morning at school. She quietly told me that she was disappointed and felt I had been too forward in showing up at her house the day before. While she didn’t specifically hand me my walking papers I took the hint and from then on avoided our spot on the bleachers during lunchtime. We spoke only intermittently during the rest of the school year as I assumed any relationship that may have existed between us was rapidly fading away if not already gone.

There have been times in life when I have been lost to epic proportions, but whether we’re talking about flying to a stage field at FT Rucker, running an orienteering course at FT Lewis or searching for bogus referrals in Rhode Island, I have never been as lost as I was at that point. I was feeling some pretty complex emotions and could not figure out what was going on.

  • I could tell when someone disliked me.
  • I could tell when someone was angry with me.
  • I could tell when someone thought I was a total dork.

…but the idea of simple conflict resolution in a relationship was utterly foreign. I had no previous experience with the situation due to the dynamics of a bi-polar family, especially a bi-polar family of Celtic extraction, which did not foster belief in happy endings.  All I could tell was that there was a new kind of hurt going on. I didn’t feel like hitting anything, I didn’t feel like crying, but I did have a kind of sick, hollow feeling that had all the indications of sticking around the long haul.

That all-or-nothing mindset persisted, and I missed several shots at resolution:

  • My best friend Jim ran into Jeanne at the mall and later reported that the conversation was basically “please tell David to call me!”
  • During my own mall run-in her next-door neighbor said the same thing and pointedly told me several times in the conversation that Jeanne still liked me.
  • When her father was transferred to Kansas a third friend passed on Jeanne’s new address, urging me to write.

…all of which I failed to act on.

In retrospect the experience was a bit more than just six lost weeks during the spring of 1969. I really did learn some important lessons.

  • I discovered that there was a depth and complexity to relationships that I hadn’t realized before. Love wasn’t just a matter of people liking each other.
  • I got a brief look at how truly functional families interacted – caring, responsible parents and responsible teenagers. The day I showed up at Jeanne’s house her mom had been present in the background doing some nondescript chore and while she didn’t actively participate in the conversation it was plain she was aware of what was going on. I was more accustomed to kids just being yelled at or totally ignored.

Because the whole thing covered such a brief time span and happened so long ago I hesitate to say I was in love with Jeanne Lyddel, but I do know that it was the first time that my attraction for a young lady had any measure of complexity… so the odds are she was in fact my first love.

… and my heart still skips a beat when I hear “I Can Hear Music” by the Beach Boys.

 

 


 

  1. See 1971: “…then Dave discovered girls…:
  2. More like the musty smell of Break-up

 

1969: “Party Hearty…hardly”

One of the first things you learn when starting a running program is this:  The best runners don’t compete with other people – they compete with themselves. Rather than trying to best another person, they try to beat their own time. It’s a good idea in general to set personal standards to measure success. I’ve applied the concept several times in my life, but the most useful personal benchmark has to do with “getting in trouble” and by that I don’t mean life-altering hardship, setbacks or personal challenges – “trouble” as in “Awwwmmmm – you’re in trouble. Mrs. Blinzler wants to see you after recess.”1

In early 1969 I helped organize a party that got me into so much trouble I’ve used it as a gauge for the rest of my life. How did it come about? The same way normally rational people get in unforeseen trouble: Life became too comfortable. Whether you’re reading academic records, scriptural accounts or even bardic oral tradition, one lesson humanity has had to learn over and over is that any time life gets too comfortable we get into mischief. Such self-inflicted shots in the foot can take many forms, but in my case my it wasn’t a golden calf, it my part in planning a beer bust at Jim Kluting’s house on the last night of February 1969.

As I have written elsewhere, my sophomore year in high school was much better than my freshman year and in some ways it was the most enjoyable of my entire high school experience. I was doing well in my studies, I was part of a tight circle of friends and involved in an after-hours judo program. There was a happy balance in my life – for example while it looked like Star Trek was going to be cancelled in the spring, the Beatles graced us with the White Album just after Christmas.

It was also just after the Christmas break2 we started planning a party. Looking around It seemed like everyone in the school was going out on weekends and getting tanked/smashed/blitzed/blotto/feeling no pain while we just shared Playboy party jokes at lunch time. Even I could see we were missing out on something, so we arranged our own “event” for the last Saturday in February – which took some careful coordination as our average age was fifteen and only a couple guys could drive. Through a bit of low-grade subterfuge and careful planning we ended up with three different sleepovers scheduled for the weekend; the sleepovers serving as marshalling areas for the party supplies which we would then amass at Jim Kluting’s house for the event.

My base of operations would be Spike’s house where  we made liberal use of his father’s liquor cabinet in our preparation, carefully stowing the bottles in my old seventh grade book bag. Our friend Louie had somehow convinced his dad to drive him (and his beer) to the party but the white-hot rumor of all rumors involved the Holland sisters who were reportedly coming with beer of their own as well.

The weekend finally arrived, and the various teams started their preparations. I was a little concerned – Spike and I had jumped the gun by knocking back a beer apiece, but most of mine ended up on my coat and the alcohol that did make it into my system was apparently having no effect. I was beginning to wonder if the party was going to be as “off the hook” as we had hoped.

I started into an emotional yo-yo:

  • YO-YO UP: We got out of Spike’s house with the alcohol undetected.
  • YO-YO DOWN: At the last-minute Louie’s dad backed out on giving him beer.
  • YO-YO UP: The Holland sisters showed up for the party.
  • YO-YO DOWN: They weren’t able sneak any of their dad’s beer out of the house.

Undeterred and primed for a raucous, wild night of hedonistic depravity we showed up at the appointed hour at Jim’s door, which I proceeded to pound on wildly with my fist.

Quiet.

“Did we get the date wrong?”

The door opened to a scene of sedate activity. Jim and a half-dozen early arrivals were sitting at card tables playing various games. Jim’s mom had some Jiffy-Pop on the stove and the tables were laden with such exotic and forbidden beverages as Shasta Orange Soda, Seven-up and for those with even more sophisticated taste there was Coca-Cola. Once again, my literal sense of perception had blinded me to the fact that most of the talk about the “off-the-hook” party had been just that: talk  and that only a few of us really did come prepared for a blow-out.

Spike and I were shortly joined by a few other true believers and our party-within-a-party retired out to the driveway to salvage the night. I ended up with one of the Holland sisters in Greg Matranga’s El Camino where nothing more noteworthy than a little snuggling went on. Oh, we did have a Mason jar full of a screwdriverish mix of Shasta Orange Cola and vodka but drinking it made my lip curl and I gave up when more of the hideous concoction ended up on my coat than down my gullet. I went back in the house, apologized to Jim and his mom, and then Spike and I caught a ride back to his house, a little embarrassed but glad everything had been tied up nicely by the end of the evening.

It was early the next week that I found out I was mistaken when I encountered one of the greatest dangers of the Last Frontier; something infinitely more dangerous than bears, wolves, moose, earthquakes, avalanches, ravenous clouds of mosquitos or plane crashes.

A threat to life and limb that made all of these perils fade next to nothing.

An angry mom with high standards for her kids.

Evidently the Holland sister I had been cuddled up had spilled a single drop of our pseudo-screwdriver on her polka-dot slacks – which was enough to wake her mom up from a sound sleep in the master bedroom on the other side of their home. After grilling her daughters most of the night for information, she started tracking down other party participants to their homes, met with parents and started a cascade of parental discipline that had a significant percentage of the sophomore class grounded within 48 hours of the party.

For some reason she didn’t get my name, but Spike’s mom did call my folks and warn them that a crazy lady from North Kenai had started a witch-hunt. As soon as the call was over Mom and Dad started grilling me about the weekend, but I managed to avoid any real punishment by deflecting my parent’s inquiries in a masterpiece of verbal legerdemain:3

  • “Mom, where would I get money to buy beer?”
  • “Who would buy it for me?”
  • “Do you really think I would do something like that?”

For the next two weeks Spike and I lived like escaped POWs trying to blend in with the general German population while Mrs. Holland kept up the witch-hunt for other party-goers. I was so spooked at the prospect of Serious Trouble my stomach was constantly upset but eventually life settled back down to normal and I no longer jumped whenever our phone unexpectedly rang in the evening.

I laid low and rode out the clock, spending two weeks holed up in my room entranced by the White Album, then losing six weeks when I fell in then out of love4.  By that time the academic year was coming to a close; final exams and starting a new job with the Neighborhood Youth Corps absorbed all my spare time and thought, but it was our big pointedly non-alcoholic group date/end of school party that painted over the February debacle for good.

In my best neurotic fashion, I over-analyzed the issue in my mind several times over the summer break and came up with the following conclusions:

  • Alcohol was definitely not my friend. The drunken pleasure or “buzz” that classmates were always talking about just didn’t happen for me.
  • Nothing in life was pleasant enough for me to deal with that much trouble again.

Two Years Later

Debbie and I were cuddled up on the bleachers at a wrestling match, the action on the mat taking second place to the simple pleasure of each other’s company. We were also having a good time with other friends sitting in the general area, one of them being the younger of the two Holland sisters who had been at Jim’s party. Pam was now a varsity cheerleader and we were laughing and responding to her routine, and in general having a good time.  During a break she came over to talk but as she ran back out she waved to a middle-aged woman sitting just to the side and said, “Love you Mom!”

URK!

I was sitting within slapping range of the Witch Hunter from 1969!  My distress must have shown because Debbie started asking if I was feeling OK and when my Dad unexpectedly showed up (he didn’t know about Debbie5) I didn’t blink an eye. That familiar yet unwelcome churning in my stomach started up again and I began mentally calculating how quickly I could get to the exit, but then there was another break in the action and Pam showed up at the side of the bleachers.

Again, my distress must have been very obvious because she leaned over and whispered, “Don’t worry, she forgot about the party a long time ago”. All the tension left my body and I settled back down on the bleachers in relief – and thankful that my resolution to stay out of trouble had also kept me out of Mrs. Holland’s radar long enough for the trouble to go away.

…. now I just had to figure out what to tell my Dad about Debbie.

___________________________________________________________________________

  1. Why do little kids all instinctly say “Ahhhmmm – you’re in trouble” Why that particular phoneme? Why don’t they say “Ah-oogah – you’re in trouble”?
  2. Most of the dumber stunts I’ve witnessed in myself and friends happened deep in the winter. I think the lack of sunlight has something to do with it. The lack of daylight is supposed to bring on SAD (Seasonal Adjustive Disorder) but I’ve also though it was more accurately expressed as Seasonal Adjustive Dumba**)
  3. It was only later that I realized I probably hadn’t been as clever as I figured. Dad was standing a step behind Mom as they were grilling me, and she couldn’t see him roll his eyes at that last response.
  4. See blog post 1969: With a Little Luck (to be published).
  5. See blog post 1971: …then Dave discovered girls.

1969: Blue Paint, Black Ice & Dry Pavement

69 Maverick

Parallel Parking?

I flunked my driving test over parallel parking?

Like most kids on the Kenai Peninsula my driver’s education program consisted of driving around pastures in an old pickup – and the last time I checked there were no sidewalks in our pastures to parallel-park next to. For that matter I don’t think there were any places on the peninsula that required parallel parking, so failing that part of the test should have been no surprise. Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been any worse, as failing the test meant I had no way to take Carey Matranga to the junior class play.

…. conveniently forgetting that there had been no chance whatsoever that Carey would have gone with me in the first place. However, practicality elbowed romance aside and I started preparing for my second attempt at the exam.  Using wooden stakes and string, I mocked up a parallel parking space next to the driveway and practiced the maneuver as best I could during the two weeks I had to wait before re-taking the exam.

I passed the test easily on my second go-around but contrary to my expectations I didn’t immediately start driving to school (or anywhere else) all that often.  When I did get access to wheels they were usually the ones holding up the old red station wagon rather than the Maverick, but I really couldn’t fault my parents for that restriction. Our powder blue 1969½ Ford Maverick was the first new car my folks had ever owned –  other than being driven up the ALCAN after purchase in California it led a very sheltered existence.

After a dent-free month of driving I was allowed short solo trips with the Maverick, running to and from the gas station, the post office and friends’ homes in the immediate Sterling area…which didn’t happen very often. As I’ve written elsewhere, my third year in high school was a bleak one – my close circle of friends from the previous school year had unraveled, most of the young ladies in my life had moved away and chemistry was seriously kicking my butt. As Thanksgiving neared, my discontent became evident even to my parents so to cheer me up they let me drive the Maverick to our congregation’s next Wednesday night youth meeting.

The young men and women were going to be meeting in a joint activity – usually an opportunity for low-intensity flirting fueled by cookies and Kool-Aid, but with so much on my mind that evening no amount of sugar (of any kind) could keep me focused on the activity.  I’d finally flunked out of chemistry and while I was able to patch up my schedule with extra English modules the failure forced me to take a hard look at the direction my life was headed.  The war-that-wasn’t-a-war in Viet-Nam was in full swing and the draft was harvesting more and more young men daily, so it was difficult to be chipper when helmets, flak jackets and M16 rifles figured so prominently in my future. Halfway through the meeting I hit my limit of wholesome social interaction and left the church to drive home by myself.

My younger sister Holly had ridden with me to the meeting and was loudly disappointed that I wouldn’t let her ride home with me as well, but I felt a sort of mental itch pushing me to arrange an alternate means of transportation home for her. A chinook1 had blown in and the wildly fluctuating temperatures and winds made for both hazardous driving and a dark, surly mood of my own – and while normally I didn’t mind little-sister chatter, this time I felt a very negative vibe about having her in the car with me. It wasn’t the first time I’d had that kind of intuitive prompting, but I always assumed I was dealing with the after-effects of one too many rounds of cookies and Kool-Aid.

I realized the minute I pulled out of the church parking lot that it was going to be a wild ride.  B.J. Thomas may have been crooning “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” on the radio as I started for home, but the non-radio rain wasn’t nearly so happy as it rapidly changed directions as the gusts from the chinook started to buffet the car. For a moment the wind slowed and when I realized the Maverick was holding the road I carefully inched the speed up to 55 mph. I was relieved that the car was handling well under such conditions, but without my attention being totally absorbed by fighting the elements my mood soon became as capricious as the winds. By the time I was halfway home I was worked up and ranting to God, myself and the universe in general about my lack of prospects and the injustice of life in general.

Then the anger instantly turned into fear.

I’d reached a straightaway near Longmere Lake that was not clear of ice – what looked to be rain-soaked wet pavement was in fact black ice2 and within seconds the car started swerving; in my typical teenage male bullet-proof mindset I was sure I could handle the situation until I swerved into a stretch of pavement dotted with dry patches. For one last moment it seemed like I could keep the car on the road by carefully applying the brakes but unfortunately the weight-saving measures in Lee Iacocca’s masterpiece of sporty-yet-affordable automobile design had been taken a bit too far. As the speedometer eased into 40 mph I slid at an angle into one of those dry patches, the momentum instantly snap-rolling the Maverick into the snow where it slid to a stop.

I was crushed by the sudden silence, then mystified by faint individual sounds

  • The hiss of snow melting against hot metal.
  • That same hot metal clicking and popping as it rapidly cooled.
  • Billy Joe Royal faintly singing praises of Mary Hill plying her trade at Cherry Hill Park.

It was oddly muffled, as if cotton was stuffed in my ears. I was also baffled by the light blinding me as I hung upside down from my seat and shoulder belts; it was much too bright for a stormy winter night. Even after an older couple helped me out of the wreck and drove me home I struggled – the blurry vision and stuffed feeling in my ears conspired to throw me off balance and keep me slipping and sliding as I made the unsteady walk from the car into the house

To my surprise Dad was waiting out by the driveway as we pulled up. As he helped me out of the car and heard the story from my benefactors he showed no surprise – earlier that night he’d had his own mental itch that I was going to run into trouble on the way home, so he figured he’d better be standing by.  On the other hand, Mom was furious that I’d wrecked the first brand new car they’d ever owned but Dad stayed uncharacteristically gentle as he quietly talked her aside while moving me through the kitchen to the ladder, then up to my loft where I collapsed, asleep before my head hit the pillow.

I snapped awake fully alert the next morning, drenched in an icy sweat.  The butterflies in my stomach were acting more like dive-bombers, not because of the wreck but rather fear of what was to follow. This was worst trouble I had ever gotten into…. ever.

My heart was beating like a drum and my mouth was dry – what would my parents do? How bad would I get smacked around? Would they send me away to boarding school or would they just kick me out on the street? My heart raced even faster as I started through a mental checklist of dire possibilities but skipped a beat when I realized someone was climbing up the ladder to my loft.

Dad.

I flinched, pulling my head down between my shoulders, my eyes clinched shut waiting for the inevitable smack alongside my head…but when it never happened I opened my eyes to see dad sitting on the edge of my bunk, a faint smile on his face.  He said “Gus – let’s go for a drive” to which I immediately murmured something about not wanting to be around cars right then, but he gently interrupted If you don’t go out now you’ll never drive again” with such finality that I promptly slid off the bunk and into my boots, then followed him down the ladder and out to the red station wagon, ignoring the fusillade of retinal daggers that mom launched at me on the way.

My stomach went into free-fall again as I struggled to manipulate the “three on the tree” manual transmission into reverse with more difficulty than usual but as I white-knuckled the car out of the driveway and up to the highway my stomach slowly backed away from the brink of a rather epic hurl. It wasn’t much of a trip – we drove past the wrecked Maverick into town, bought some gum at Big K then drove back home, the atmosphere steadily warming until we were trading weak jokes from the latest Boy’s Life as I pulled up and parked at our front door.

The whole incident left me with more questions than answers. For example, other than overhearing dad making phone calls the following week to arrange for recovery and repairs I heard nothing further about the wreck – we just all got back into the pre-accident holiday preparation drill as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I did pick some new insights into Dad’s nature through the experience.  I’ve said before that Dad and I were on the same planet but lived in different worlds and a good part of that separation came from the mixed signals he gave me – in any kind of family council it was made very clear that I was expected to be the Good One in the family, the moral compass and stalwart church member. However, when was just the two of us together I got the feeling that dad was disappointed that I didn’t raise more hell.  “You’re a prude just like your mom” he would say, then launch into some story of his own rather “active” youth and early years in the navy. Did this uncharacteristic kindness come about because he could relate better to me when I was in trouble because it put me in a situation he was well acquainted with?

…and the mental itches that both Dad and I had to contend with earlier that evening? It was a little eerie in those pre-Internet/pre-smartphone times to find out that Dad had known I was in trouble at least fifteen minutes before I got home…

It was even more spooky when I thought about that mental itch of my own.

I had been prompted to find alternate transportation for my little sister that night and it was a good thing that I followed that prompting. The last thing I remember as I crawled out of the wreck was the sight of the front passenger side seat. I don’t know if it was because of the direction of travel during the crash or a quirk of the Maverick’s unibody construction –the car roof had folded sharply down into a wedge pressed firmly into the surface of the front passenger seat. Holly would have been killed if she’d been riding with me.

It was the last time I equated a flash of inspiration with indigestion.

 



1: Chinook: Native American term for windstorm of very turbulent warm, moist air that blows in from the sea. Most noticeable during the winter because of the extreme contrast to usual weather conditions.

2:Black Ice: Clear ice that reforms on a road after a rapid thaw. Much more slippery than usual because of the thin covering of liquid water that invariably forms on its surface.

 

1969: Amber Skies

Every autumn the air over Clarksville is permeated by a slight aromatic amber haze; a seasonal smoke that is a holdover from the days when Big Tobacco was a lot bigger than it is now. The smoke comes from tobacco leaves being processed by local farmers ; even though in these more health-conscious times there aren’t as many plants to handle, the burn-off is still there and you can’t help but notice it when you first go out in the morning. However, that tinge of smoke and the amber cast to the sky means something very different to me – it takes me back to the Kenai Peninsula and the summer of 1969 when it seemed like forest fires were blazing everywhere. Fires were nothing new for us on the Last Frontier – our homestead was in the middle of a barren stretch of land from a major fire in 1947 – but that summer it seemed like there were more fires burning for longer periods of time and threatening a larger number of people.

One large fire took a big chunk out of the middle of the Kenai Peninsula Moose Range, stretching from the Swanson River oilfield all the way across the middle of the Peninsula to the city of Kenai1. The fire eventually reached a point about four miles from our home and when the winds came from the west it would sometimes carry flaming embers to our homestead. Since only the smallest embers were light enough to be carried that far, they weren’t really much of a threat, but we’d had a dryer-than-usual spring with little precipitation that transformed trees and other vegetation into amazingly dry tinder, so we weren’t taking any chances. Under those conditions my primary family chore was to keep the garden hose handy and soak anything that looked “hot”, even to the point of climbing up on top of the house and hosing down the roof daily as a precaution.

It was a scary summer. The sky was always tinted amber and there was a constant whiff of smoke in every breath you’d take. I’d get that good whiff as I’d leave in morning for the Neighborhood Youth Corps2 job that had me working at a little museum just off of what is now the intersection of College Lane and Kalifornsky Road3, and while I certainly liked having a job, leaving the homestead to go to work each day was a little nerve-wracking. At every break I’d check radio reports for any fire news and while I was actually working I’d keep an eye on the sky in the direction of my home just to be sure. The end of the work day brought little respite; as I hitchhiked home every driver I’d meet seemed unable to talk about anything but the fires and how they seemed to be getting worse.

Stress for me didn’t peak until the end of summer when funding for my NYC job ran out and I had little to do other than hang around the homestead waiting for school to start. Rumors of evacuation were thicker than the summer mosquitoes and were often accompanied by unofficial reports of looters stealing from houses left unattended by people giving the evacuation order a head start. I was less than thrilled when Mom decided to leave me to guard the homestead against looters real or imagined when she took my little sisters to Anchorage to shop for school clothes. Looking back, there wasn’t much else she could do – they needed to make the trip but Dad was gone, having hired on with a local guide to cook for a hunting expedition in a mountain range up in the Interior…and for some unknown reason he was staying to finish the trip rather than come home to deal with the fire threat so it fell to me to take care of the place in Mom’s absence.4

 I was restless the first two nights alone  as I curled up on the front-room hide-a-bed with Dad’s 12 gauge shotgun and .38 revolver close at hand.  When it became clear that I wouldn’t be fighting off hordes of looting zombies I felt comfortable enough to divert my attention to spending more of my time reading while listening to the epic Blood, Sweat and Tears album and thinking thoughts more serious than usual.

I figured that if the fire got any worse there was at least a 50/50 chance we would be moving. I was going into my third year of high school putting me perilously close to adulthood and starting my life’s work. The draft was on and the war in Viet-Nam was in full swing so it looked like I was being herded into a decision, the first big decision in my life that I couldn’t weasel my way around or “out of”. The thought of moving was so unnerving that I closed up the hide-a-bed and retreated back to sleeping in the comfortable surroundings of my little attic bedroom where I’d drift off to slumber while my stereo was still playing…

…Blood, Sweat and Tears.

 It was my first “album-crush” My initial reaction to it was indifference, but through a combination of physical distance from the record player and sheer laziness I sat through it a couple of times and found that I really, really liked it. It was one of the first serious records in my collection, serious as in it wasn’t  just a collection of greatest hits, and I found myself listening analytically, savoring each note and pause. Rather than simply conjuring up memories connected to each song, the music prompted new thinking.5

….then before I knew it Mom and my little sisters were back from Anchorage, followed closely by Dad returning from his hunting trip, so I was free to go to Youth Conference. Normally one of my favorite events, Youth Conference that year was kind of a miss; mostly because I had to join in mid-stream after the activities had started. It felt a little “hollow” to me as well – none of my past Youth Conference friends were in attendance…and it was also difficult to feel much concern about what workshop to take or which girl to dance with when a week earlier I had been going to bed wondering if I’d still have a home to live in the next morning.

2017

There was a happy ending to this story: The fires were contained and never came too terribly close to our home on Scout Lake Loop Road. The forest has grown up to be very lush and full around the house, giving it quite a different look from the flat, open space that existed there when I was young. The move away from the Peninsula never happened, in fact nearly fifty years later there are still Deitricks living on the homestead now, my sister Heather and her son Jesse having moved in when they came to care for my mom in the last year of her life.

As I write this it is the wrong time of year for Clarksville’s version of amber skies – it’s spring rather than autumn, but I find that I am feeling the same unsettled feeling that I had all those years ago. In two weeks I will turn sixty-four which places me right in the middle of the 55-to-dead demographic and if that wasn’t unsettling enough I’ve lost many dear ones, including my mother and my dog in the last nine months. I find it difficult to shake off a mood of finality similar to what I felt when the threat of losing our home loomed and I have to wonder how long do I have before that other, more profound unavoidable issue of “moving” will confront me.

I won’t have much latitude in that decision either.

——————————————————————————————————————————-

1: Not everyone ended up as lucky as we were. Several of my friends from school got burned out – including Glenda, a most foxy freshman girl sitting in front of me in typing class. Our first assignment was to type our name and address, but as we all start hunting and pecking away she started to sniffle, and then explained that she didn’t have an address any more.

2: NYC – Neighborhood Youth Corps: A federal jobs program for teenagers put into place by President Nixon. Similar in aim and operation to Depression era programs like the WPA or CCC, the NYC provided work to a lot of kids during the late 60s/early 70s. The jobs paid $1.75 an hour for 30 hours a week and ran for 90 days in the summer and usually involved maintenance of government and community projects.

3: Back then it was spelled “Kalifonsky”. Sometime in the early 1980’s borough planners restored an “R” that had been somehow deleted when the road signs were made in the pre-borough, pre-pavement days 25 years earlier.

4: Had Dad known the situation he would have returned immediately, but the guide he was working for didn’t want to lose a prime cook, so he “censored” any fire reports out of the news from home.  It was the last time Dad cooked for him.

5: Well, there was one song that definitely brought happy thoughts of times gone by. I had spent two years too nervous to test any link to Sonya Alexander past the “just friends” point, and during the last week of school I had asked her out – and she accepted! You’ve Made Me So Very Happy had been released as a single off the album and was getting heavy air-play at the time we went on that date, and I found that listening to that song brought back some nice memories.

1969: Sisyphus and Light-weight Tactical Vehicles

jeep

I wasn’t too terribly surprised.  “Sisyphus” came up during a discussion on Classical Greek Art and no one knew who he was. When I said that he was a character in Greek mythology (with the eternity of pushing a boulder, the steep hill, the rolling back down and getting hit) most of the students swore I was describing a plot from either a Roadrunner or Scooby-Doo cartoon. I was on the edge of one of my typical snarky remarks when it came to me that as a college freshman I wouldn’t have automatically made the connection myself because the idea of forever pushing something uphill would bring to mind something much different than eternal flames and guys dressed in over-sized towels, something that happened fairly recently, as in my third year of high school.

…which was definitely not working out the way I had planned. My sophomore year had been GREAT; there’d been this great circle of friends to hang out with, some qualified success with young ladies, I’d earned fairly good grades, and participation in an afterschool judo program. Then fall of 1969 rolled around everything changed:

  • My circle of friends unraveled
  • My romantic prospects had moved to the Lower 48,
  • A series of major forest fires was threatening to burn us out
  • Chemistry was seriously kicking my butt.

Then out of nowhere (or to be more precise New Mexico) came a 5’7” reprieve in the form of Jim.

Jim had been an important arc in the circle of buddies that had “unraveled” the summer before; in his case a family tragedy triggered a family relocation to the Lower 48. His subsequent return was as therapeutic as his departure had been devastating. In a sea of nodding acquaintances Jim was a true friend – a “foxhole buddy” as we’d say years later in the army. The emotional roller coaster that is adolescence is miserable if you face it alone, but with Jim I had someone who would watch my back, share ideas and smuggle Playboy in and out of each other’s houses.

…and then there was the drawing….

People ask me if I always drew as a kid and the answer is  “Yes”  I drew a lot but not to the professional standards that guys like Jim did, Whenever I saw him with a pencil I would stop and watch, frantically  mentally recording each stroke that seemed to effortlessly flow from his pencil. It was time well spent, because what I learned from him was enough to get me into a college art program which in turn lead to a successful illustration career.

…But I digress.

Jim was back on town, but things were a bit different. His extended family was now living together on a large lot at the back of a subdivision located along the highway between Soldotna and Kenai, Alaska. It was more of a compound than a house and was comprised of a large mobile home surrounded by a couple of outbuildings, three cars, two pick-up trucks and a jeep all clumped together – in other words a typical rural Alaskan domicile in the 1960s.  I would also like to add that I use the term “subdivision” rather generously; the area had been surveyed and roads marked out but very little of anything had been developed and no one was actually living in the area other than at Jim’s place. That meant that there wasn’t really anything to do or anywhere to go when I dropped by for my first visit since Jim’s return and when baleful grown-up stares propelled us out into the grey and dripping Alaskan October, there wasn’t much to do other than mill around the vehicles haphazardly parked around the place

It was cold; my feet were soon wet and once we ran out of Raquel Welch jokes there was nothing for entertainment other than the steady quiet patter of the rain falling around us. It was quickly getting tiresome and while the plan had been for my folks to pick me up late that afternoon I couldn’t see letting my socks get that soaked. I mumbled some lame excuses for leaving early, but just turned to head for the highway and hitchhike home the door to the trailer flew open and the adults walked out to the car and drove off to destinations unknown.

  • “ALL RIGHT!”
  • “The kill-joys are gone”
  • “WOO-HOO!”
  • “We can really raise hell now!”

 The steady quiet patter of the rain resumed; when it came to actual items for a hell-raising agenda we were both stumped, but just as the hitchhiking option began to surface again we both happened to glance in the same direction.

A jeep.

I don’t remember who actually owned the jeep, whether it was registered, had license plates or if it even ran. After the end of World War II the United States Army had swept over the Last Frontier like an olive-drab clad Santa Claus distributing countless small to medium sized items of equipment for which transportation back to the Lower 48 exceeded the item’s cash value. Scattered all over the Kenai Peninsula were several Quonset huts, jeeps and small tractors whose titles and documents would not have borne serious inspection;  with so much of this kind of equipment readily accessible we were all fairly mechanically inclined and getting that jeep running proved to be an easy task.

Ten minutes later we were racing down the road to the highway, intent on doing some serious four wheeling in the proto-subdivision on the other side of the highway. We figured that getting that far away from the house would lessen our chances of discovery…and it also had a series of totally bitching interconnected gravel pits that would add to the adventure – for while chronologically we were too-cool-for-school high school juniors, in our hearts we were bouncing up and bouncing the sand dunes and cliffs of North Africa while reenacting favorite episodes of the 1966 ABC TV series The Rat Patrol!

…and before you get started:

  • Yes, a cool rainy Alaskan autumn feels nothing like a North African summer
  • Yes, the TV show blatantly tweaked a British success into something more palatable to Americans
  • Yes, with my surname I should have been the bad guy

To a physicist time is constant and immutable; to teen-age old boys time is totally elastic. It felt like we drove all over the place for hours but given the small amount of fuel and the slow speed of the jeep we couldn’t have spent more than an hour. Unfortunately when the jeep stalled and refused to start again time was no longer our friend in any of its forms. While it was true we knew enough about jeeps to get one going we didn’t know much about batteries – and the battery in this jeep was as dead as dial-up. As long as we’d kept the engine running we were OK but once it died nothing short of another car and a good set of jumper cables would ever get that jeep going again

…and was at this point we began to wonder just exactly where Jim’s folks had gone and when they’d get back.

We started pushing. Not only did we have to push the jeep up out of the gravel pit, we had to keep on pushing with a lot more effort than we’d expected. It was then that we realized that as part of the lower Kenai River drainage area the whole area had a slight downward slant to the west.

We were headed east.

There weren’t many alternatives so we kept pushing. It was slow work made even slower by the frequent side trips down driveways and roads made whenever we heard the sound of tires on gravel.  We alternated in threats to quit and took turns narrowly avoided getting run over when gravity won and the jeep started rolling back down the slope to the highway. However, this one time Lady Luck smiled on us and we got the jeep back and parked into approximately the same position minus most of the mud and we passed the hour waiting for his folks to get  home planning on our next excursion into the gravel pits and unfinished roads across the highway.

Sadly, that second trip never happened.  By end of the following summer Jim was gone again, when his family moved to Fairbanks for better employment. By the end of the summer after that I was in Fairbanks as well, but while I was attending college, Jim was a Marine stationed in some foreign locale and eventually we fell out of touch.  In what has become a common occurrence in the Internet Age Jim and I managed to link again some twenty years later and since that time we have kept in continual contact …though no jeeps have been involved.

I have no idea what happened to the jeep. The subdivision that Jim’s place was located has been moderately developed but the one on other side of the road – where the gravel pits were located? It has disappeared – at least in its 1969 configuration. I first found out about the missing streets in the 1980s but wasn’t until I returned home for my father’s funeral in 2003 that I finally figured out what happened when in a quirk of serendipity the funeral home was located at the very spot where Jim and I had pushed the jeep across the highway.

I had arrived early for the viewing and in an effort to both quell the jitters of my dad’s passing and satisfy my curiosity I drove around and checked things out. It was light enough for me to get  a good look at the lay of the land and the way it was bisected by the roads and creeks and after checking the map and what landmarks were left I discovered that the subdivision had been moved.  Well, not literally physically moved, but at some point the subdivision plan that we had driven over in 1969 had been changed, with roads being realigned and areas backfilled or dug away. The area was now a very pleasant family-friendly location but bore little resemblance to the rugged terrain over which we had re-fought the North African campaign some thirty-five years earlier.

You might wonder why that happened; what with that subdivision having been one of the first to be developed in the area.  You’d assume that those first planned areas would persist in some form or another but what most people don’t realize is just how tentative those first plans are even when stakes have been set, earth has been moved and gravel dumped. Those first surveyors’ stakes can be just as temporary as the pencil marks that mark their location on a plat.

Progress makes its mark everywhere, but it can thoroughly obliterate a new developed frontier’s first tentative attempts to tame a wilderness. On the day of our wild ride that area was still pretty wilderness-y with the paved highway having been in existence not much more than a decade  – but now as I sat in the rental car I was hemmed in by a built up retail area with a convenience store, print shop and the aforementioned funeral parlor.

Dealing with the death of my father was hard and confronting the passing of a frontier wasn’t much easier.  Thomas Wolfe wrote “you can’t go back home again”,  a sentiment debated  in the 1971 Moody Blues song “You Can Never Go Home” and the 2015 Bon Jovi tune “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?”,  but on that evening in 2003 it wasn’t so much “you can’t go home” as it was “home really doesn’t exist anymore”.

1969: Bah….humbug?

Have I already mentioned that I hate Christmas?

My enmity to this time of year has little to do with the actual day but rather the personal history that surrounds it. Name a personal disaster or heartbreak in my life and odds are the event happened either in December or within 2 weeks north or south of that month. I’m not going to produce an itemized list but if you really want to know why I dread the twelfth month of the year, and why I am miserable to live with during that time send a private message. If I get enough a large enough response I’ll elaborate a bit and then you’ll know why my dear sweetheart deserves a six-figure cash bonus, the Victoria Cross and immediate translation for simply enduring my presence during the holidays, much less talk or interact with me in any way.

Christmas wasn’t always miserable for me. There have also been some very happy times associated with the holidays, but they are totally overwhelmed by the number and intensity of the negative stuff. That contrast is no doubt fuel for the fire as well; I’m like the hungry homeless man with his nose pressed against the window of a four-star restaurant tormented by the sights and smells of food he can only imagine.

Even when thinking back as objectively as possible I cannot understand how I survived some of those times.  However those Yule seasons that seemed to be even more Yuseless than usual also happened to be times when I was blessed with an “adjunct angel” an individual whose words and deeds were vitally important to my continued mental health ( at one time to my life)– yet probably had no clue of the service they rendered.

There have been many such individuals ranging from a college instructor whose timely letter of praise and understanding drew the venom out of a heartless betrayal in a rebound relationship following the most crushing break-up of my life to a flight school buddy that refused to shun me when my medical disqualification made me invisible to the rest of my classmates (maybe they though vision problems were contagious). However, one of the most heart-warming may have not been a person at work – but rather circumstances; what we call “tender mercies”

.  It was Christmas Eve 1969; my sister Holly and I were up in my attic bedroom listening to some distinctly un-holiday rock music on my stereo and commiserating about how there was no “joyeux” in the “noel” when you weren’t a little kid. There was a lull in the music as the changer dropped another LP onto the turntable – and that’s when we heard the footsteps. Yes, footsteps on the roof just 10 inches on the other side of the ceiling of my attic bedroom.

We couldn’t tell exactly what kind of footsteps they were – there was a chinook (mid-winter warm front passage) going on which always brought on a chorus of humming, whining and moaning as the wind ran past the T.V. aerials, their supporting masts and guy-wires. It didn’t matter though – we looked at each other in wide-eyed shock, then Holly shot down the ladder to her bedroom while I shut off the light and dove under my covers.

There were no hoof-sprints or skid marks on the roof the next morning – but there was also very little snow after the warm winds of a Chinook.

Had our cats running around the attic?

Had my dad on the roof adjusting the living room TV antenna?

Did a sleigh park on our roof that night?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, just like I don’t know why selected friends over the years have chosen this time of year to perform life-changing acts of kindness for me.  While footsteps-on-the-rooftop didn’t have the heavy emotional weight of some of the other incidents I’ve shared, the event did have a life-changing, softening effect on my personality at a time when as a sixteen year old I was making important choices about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with my life. The timing was perfect.

…and as I was thinking about this post it came to me that timing has also been very effective with this whole holiday curse mindset. It’s cleverly turned my expectations about what should be a happy time into a subtle but non-stop attack on my faith.  I’m just very fortunate that at the same time those little attendant holiday miracles have been just as clever and even more effective in bolstering my faith.

Merry Christmas!