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)

1970: A Non-combatant in The Sexual Revolution

I handed the magazine back to Wayne, then sat for a minute trying to gather my composure. I’d heard about Penthouse but hadn’t actually seen a copy until that morning on the bus. Playboy was one thing, but this new book was overwhelming; not only were the photos a bit more “European”1, a letters section titled “The Forum” described activities that I’d never heard of and probably transgressed criminal law as well as the law of gravity on occasion. To be honest I was feeling more queasy than turned-on and at that point tried to cleanse my visual palette with another recent literary discovery, National Lampoon.

A freshman sitting on the seat ahead of me clicked on a smuggled transistor radio which hissed out at low volume the 1968 party anthem “Bottle of Wine” by The Fireballs. Nothing could illustrate the change society was lumbering through than that song and the group that sang it. Five years earlier they had taken Billboard’s #1 spot with a very innocuous bouncy tune titled “Sugar Shack” which told the traditional boy-meets-girl/falls-in-love/marries-her story. In the midst of the sexual revolution seven years later things had changed. Really changed. Playboy was telling us that rather than holding out for marriage the girl next door wanted to be naughty.  Penthouse was telling us the girl next door wanted to be nasty.

… which other than providing eye-candy did me no good. Granted, from birth I had been a fifty-year-old man in a kid’s body, but I was subject to the same leaping libido that every other teenager had to deal with, and it didn’t help that in the midst of all these changes I lacked any kind of guidance. My parents gave the traditional “birds and the bees” talk a clean miss and the church wasn’t much better. Those lessons always got shoved to the back of the schedule and eventually forgotten. Leaders in the congregation were just as vague, limiting inquires to “Well, Dave, how are your morals?” Again, literal thinker that I was, I figured they were asking about my morale, so I’d respond, “Well, I’m feeling pretty positive about life, so I guess I’m OK”.

It was against this setting that I was faced with one of high school’s milestones – The Prom. I’d endured two and half years of lurid tales about activities during and more importantly after the prom, but for the moment the issue  was not “what to do” but “who to take”. For guys with on-going relationships, getting a prom date was a slam-dunk, but for unattached guys it was arduous task. This was supposed to be one of the major events of high school experience, a rite of passage to be shared with someone special, but at the time there was no one special in my life. Generally speaking my prospects weren’t bad – I wasn’t a nerd-boy outcast but I also wasn’t a sit-at-the-cool-table Big Man On Campus. I had plenty of friends who were girls, but none likely to make the flip from friend-is-a-girl to girlfriend – but as  fate would have it an answer fell into my lap – or rather, it bumped into me when I ran into Bachelorette 12 (hereafter referred to as B1) in the hallway one day. Conversation was not her strong suit and we hadn’t talked much since the Earth Science class we shared during our freshman year but somehow a game of verbal badminton started up as we lobbed the obligatory small-talk questions back and forth:

  • I asked her how school was going.
  • She asked me if I liked being a teacher’s aide in PE.
  • She said she liked my sideburns.
  • I weakly joked that I liked hers3 .

…then I heard a voice asking her if she wanted to go to the prom. I looked around wildly for the guy trying to cut in, then realized it had been my voice doing the asking. I was equally bewildered when she quietly said “yes”, and we suddenly became a semi-couple planning our big night at the prom.

It was also when I started getting a lot of “wink-wink-nudge-nudge-say-no-more” comments from friends, acquaintances, my charges in physical education, and even guys I normally never talked to. Did I mention that B1 was drop-dead gorgeous? She was like a scaled-up Barbie Doll with elfin features, cascading waist-long brown hair and a Coke bottle figure…and usually clad in skirts short enough to have been made in a belt factory. One buddy observed that she was so perfect “she should have “Mattel” stamped on her a** ” then laughed that I’d know if that was the case soon enough.

Sex. The topic that would just not die. I’d spent a lot of time in the boy’s locker room where a lot of talking had gone on. According to the other guys, KCHS was a hotbed of illicit sex, with most of the female students following the lead of the ladies gracing the magazine I’d been reading when the story opened, but there seemed to be little in the way of consequences. Birth control pills had only been in common use for about five years, and in those pre-AIDS days only truck drivers and sailors would admit to carrying condoms. Math was not my strongest subject but even when you factored in that one week out of the month that the young ladies were hors-de-combat it still seemed like KCHS should be awash in out-of-wedlock infants – to the point of requiring a day-care wing off of the cafeteria4.

All that receded into the background as preparations for the big night were being made: coordinating clothes, ordering a corsage, making dinner reservations and double-checking transportation. Finally Prom-day arrived and as was the case with all big events there were both good and not-so-good developments:

The good:

  • Instead of the rattletrap station wagon I would be using the good car.
  • Dad was going to fill the gas-tank for me.
  • My tax refund had arrived so money wouldn’t be a problem.
  • No zits!

The not-so-good:

  • I had a 12:00 midnight curfew.
  • Mom and Dad wanted to meet B1 and take pictures.
  • I’d finally figured out how far away B1 lived and how long I’d be driving that night.

At one fell swoop prom was transformed from a bacchanalian love fest to a road rally of grueling proportions. By the time I drove to pick her up, drove back home for pictures, drove to the Royal Redoubt in Kenai for dinner, drove to the school for the dance, drove her home, and then got back to my home (by curfew) I’d be putting over 150 miles on the odometer that night. I would be spending so much time behind the wheel that there’d be little time for any hanky panky…which had me thinking that my folks were not as clueless about the birds and the bees as they had seemed earlier.

The first leg of my trip went well enough as I drove to pick up flowers and then on to B1’s home. I was pleasantly surprised to see her clad head to toe in pink satin with her wavy brown hair held back in ringlets by a tiara. With her clothes, my fairly new suit, and flowers for both of us, we got some nice pictures after which we sped to the Royal Redoubt for dinner, then on to the school for the dance. As we walked in I was astounded how much a little crepe paper and colored lights could transform a cafeteria into a tropical island paradise, but then some evil person cued up “Crystal Blue Persuasion” on the sound system and my suppressed vomit reflex brought me back to reality.

Without further ado we went out on the floor and started to dance…while I may not have been much of an athlete at the time, my inner Celt definitely knew how to cut a rug. The cut of B1’s formal limited us to mostly slow songs and while I am not a “bear-hug” slow dancer I do snuggle up a bit, which in this case nearly caused an injury when her petite size put the spines of her tiara right at eye-level for me.

…then it all seemed to be over much too quickly, and it was time to go home. I stayed calm until we got into the car, at which point I started into my repertoire of obscure historical puns which meant I was extremely nervous. It was bad enough that delivering B1 to her house then getting home by curfew would require time travel, but I also had to contend with B1 herself sitting next to me and basically being stunning. The smell of her perfume, the rustle of satin and whissst as she adjusted her wrap – hell, even that damn tiara all conspired with her innate foxiness to turn my knees into rubber and made me oh-so- thankful I wasn’t driving a standard transmission that night.

Then as we pulled out on the highway and headed south she snuggled up against me kind of under my right arm. As we quietly talked about the dance she leaned her head on my shoulder (requiring yet another tiara dodge) and I could feel her breath on my neck all of which had my inner monologue cycling through, “What do I want? What does she want? WHAT DO I DO” ,when she abruptly  nodded to a road5 leading off the highway to the left and said “Hmm? I wonder where that goes to?”

BINGO!

By this time it was dark, and as I turned to B1 and strained to make out her expression in the dim light of the instrument panel I saw what seemed to be a beckoning smile, so I leaned in to kiss her…right on the bridge of her nose. I sat back, looked at the make-up smudge on my lapel then up at the wistful look in her face. She leaned in against my shoulder, reached up for my wide-as-a-glider lapel and simply said, “Oh Dave” in a way that made me know that for me those letters to Penthouse would continue to be fiction…and I was relieved. We talked for a while until a reference to the magazine slipped out, a slip that I feared would destroy the mood until B1 wrinkled her nose and said, “Tell me about it – my sisters are always shoving Cosmo6 in my face!”

We shared a quip or two on the subject as I pulled out of the subdivision and took her home, and I thought about it as I covered that last stretch to the ranch. By its very nature the whole boy/girl sex issue was perplexing, especially with all the social changes that had come about in the past five or six years but relying on the magazine’s “philosophy” would just confuse the issue even more.

Through it all I learned that:

  1. The development of any relationship can’t be rushed.
  2. Most stories are just that…stories.
  3. My best reality check ever is the thought of missing B1’s lips and kissing her nose.

 

__________________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

  1. Un-airbrushed photos taken “south of the equator” which at first glimpse destroyed my friend Mark’s dream of someday becoming a “lady’s (bleep) barber”.
  2. Bachelorette 1 introduced in 1971…and then Dave discovered girls.
  3. Wispy little locks of hair from roughly her temples to just short of her earrings. I loved them then and I still do now – check my sketch book and you’ll find them on every girl in the book.
  4. It was like the stories guys told about fighting – every guy that admitted to fighting also swore “he’d never started a fight but he’d never lost one.” Again, simple math meant (given our fairly small student body) if all these guys were winning all the time there must be one or two bandaged, scarred and toothless wretched young men who habitually lost to everyone else in the school.
  5. See 1969: Sisyphus and Light Tactical Vehicles. It was the road into the same subdivision Jim, and I pushed his jeep all over in.
  6. Cosmopolitan – a magazine wherein Helen Gurley Brown advocated an outlook for women that was basically a mirror-image to Hugh Hefner’s philosophy for men.

1970: …very early on!

1970sWarriors

I had no idea what I was getting into when I started my training as a “commercial artist”. Few schools offered any sort of specialized training, but I was lucky enough to snag  a spot in Richard Bird’s ground-breaking design program when it first started up at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) in the mid-1970s. Despite my good fortune I remained essentially clueless – while Richard was refining a traditional illustration and graphic design program I was aiming for more adventuresome forms of expression featured in comics and the covers of books and record albums.

…and when I say clueless I mean clueless. I’d struggle with an overwhelming sense of despair as I looked through my collection of cover illustrations knowing that I’d never be able to render such tiny yet perfect images like the ones rendered by Frank Frazetta…never realizing that those gems were the phot0graphically reduced copies of larger  and more manageable works.

While my first tentative efforts were heavily influenced by Frazetta and his contemporaries I made no conscious effort to emulate that work to the exclusion of other styles. I just thought it looked cool and I wanted to see more of the same, even if I had to make the stuff myself.  Sometimes there was some actual risk involved. The vivid colors you see in this drawing were made by Flo-masters inks…which I don’t think are legal to use anymore. The intensity of the colors stemmed from the use of several exotic solvents in the ink’s preparation.

…just to give you a hint of what I was working with: the pens had interchangeable nibs, and when I’d put a used nib back into it’s slot in the carrying case the ink would spot-weld that used nib in place. 

1970: Boy’s State

As a service brat one of the first lessons I learned was the transitory nature of my ‘stuff’. As much as I’d like to always keep a favorite possession, there was always a certain amount of attrition among my toys and books. The trend continued into my adult life and other than a couple of paperback books and the suit I was married in there’s not a lot of stuff around here that dates its existence further back than 1983 – with the exception of one small object I have held on to with a death grip for almost fifty years. It’s small, maybe an inch wide at its broadest point and is made of enameled brass, and even though the enamel is chipped it holds more value to me than just about any other tangible possession. It’s the pin given to me at the conclusion of Alaska Boy’s State in June of 1970.

Boy’s (and Girl’s) State is a summer citizenship training seminar held for high school juniors and has been conducted in each state of the Union by the American Legion starting in 1935. My selection to the program was a fluke – up until the year of my eligibility, Boy’s State delegates from KCHS were selected by the principal and faculty from our school’s upper crust: athletic team captains, student body officers, and National Honor Society members. The new principal assigned to our school in the fall of 1969 changed the selection process to one based on a competition in public speaking, which was my only asset other than a slim portfolio for my time as a teacher’s aide in Physical Education,

As expected, our Boy’s State would be held on a campus, but unlike Alaska Girl’s State and most of the other programs in the nation we would meeting not at a college campus but at a boarding school in Copper Center, located near Glenallen (AK) and absolutely nothing else. Getting there was an adventure in its own right as we flew via puddle-jumper commuter airline to Anchorage where (in a nice foreshadowing of my military service) we would bunk in the National Guard Armory along with delegations that had flown up from the Panhandle. The next day we were bussed to Copper Center.

CopperVallySchoolWinter

(School during Construction)

The school’s floor plan was based on an octagon with several wings radiating from the domed center structure each with a specific use such as:

  • Dormitories
  • Cafeteria
  • Classrooms
  • Offices
  • Gymnasium

CopperValleySchoolInterior

(center hub interior)

CopperValleySchoolFrontDoor

(The view that met us as we left the bus)

Our arrival was marginally less stressful than arriving at bootcamp; as soon as we grounded our luggage in the parking lot we were immediately lined up for assignments to a dorm room with each floor designated as a political subdivision or city. We were allowed to name our cities, a decision the staff debated when one group adopted Yakadang which they swore was the term for ‘rotten fish’ in some obscure native dialect. We were also assigned a political party (the Pioneer Party in my case) and assigned to one of four schools of instruction:

  • Government Executives
  • Judicial Law
  • Law Enforcement
  • Legislative

Half of each day was taken up with instruction in those schools while the balance was used for general assemblies, (including astronaut John Swigert in one of his earliest post-Apollo 13 appearances) athletics, and in my case, work on the newspaper and election material. Boy’s State kept us busy…and when the incredibly good chow was factored into the equation it was easy to see why didn’t have much of chance to get homesick.

I was assigned to the House of Representative as part of the Legislative school and in yet another bit of foreshadowing I was designated as the house minutes clerk. During the day we’d conduct mock legislature, introducing and passing bills and making ersatz law in much the same manner as the ‘for real’ legislature did in Juneau. There was little spare time, but there were a few random holes open in the schedule when we could just hang out – and it was during those periods that I learned the most.

The first thing I learned was that there was a lot more divisiveness in the state than I had anticipated, beginning with the first session of the mock House of Representatives when a delegate from the Panhandle stood up and angrily urged all the delegates from outlying areas to band together against the Anchorage delegates as they “were all going to move the capital to Anchorage if it’s the last thing they do”. Guys from the larger metropolitan areas were much more politically minded in the Sixties sense of the word with much of their legislative efforts going towards condemning the war in Vietnam, condemning  anti-ballistic missile systems as destabilizing the Cold War standoff and instituting social measures like population control and decriminalization of ‘victimless’ vice offenses.

At the other end of the spectrum were the delegates from the outlying Bush areas who were primarily concerned with very basic issues like housing and infrastructure. Fishing regulation was their hot topic and one discussion over international relations dissolved into a near brawl over Russian proclivity towards cutting Native fishermen’s nets and floats. As a delegate from one of the ‘in-betweens’ like Kenai, Palmer and Haines, I was a little lost – not much in common with the smaller places but culturally lagging behind the urban group by about ten years and not really hip enough to mix with them.

There was also an interesting schism between the service brats and those from a purely civilian background. At the time there was a proportionally much larger military presence in the state with three major installations each for the Army, Navy and Air Force. My status as the dependent of a retired service member (and Pearl Harbor survivor) was the one arrow in my professional quiver and I made sure to network with every service brat I could identify.

There was the inevitable booze party planned, oddly enough by one of the local Glenallen delegates rather than one of the more sophisticated Anchorage guys. My one claim to Boy’s State fame came about because of that party: I’d been washing-up in the restroom during the party planning session but noticed a chaperone slip out after the discussion, having gone unnoticed while occupying one of the bathroom stalls. The heads-up I then gave the ringleaders earned me a bit of public ridicule, but each ringleader later thanked me for keeping them all out of trouble.

The week wound up with elections and selections: state officers from Governor on down were elected from the Boy’s State general population and the two delegates to Boy’s Nation in Washington DC were elected from a short list prepared by the program administrators. Out-processing and the backhaul home were a mirror image reversal of the trip to Glenallen eight days earlier and before I really knew it I was back sprawled on my bunk in my attic loft bedroom in Sterling listening to my stereo…but this time my biggest concern wasn’t whether the new Blood, Sweat and Tears album was as good as the previous one.

For the first time in my life I was seriously  concerned about my future.

My trip to Boy’s State had been based on wanting “something to do for summer vacation” and while I had a great time at Copper Center I was totally blown away by the manner in which my fellow delegates were preparing for their future, not just in terms of good grades but in real-life experience like internships and pursuit of appointments to West Point and Annapolis. They shared many of my values but were really doing something instead of just listening to music and drawing barbarians and superheroes.

That one real life-skill that got me into Boy’s State? I went into the experience thinking I was a pretty good speaker, but after listening to all the speeches given at Boy’s State I realized that I was in fact a shallow bulls**t artist that ran out of steam after three to five minutes – and while this might sound overly self-critical, thinking about it got me going in the right direction in life, though it was four more years before my change in course was complete.

Another benefit had to do with career choice: after wading through the complexities of the legislative process I became interested in the law and during my final year of high school and first year of college I was planning on a legal career. Obviously that wasn’t the path I took in life, but something must have taken root because both of my sons are practicing attorneys now.

Senior Picture 1970

(Senior portrait taken the following September)

Music: To Our Children’s Children’s Children

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL_c1_kaI1Zf8ZXffqfNq6ibQqhW78fEqn

(I love progressive rock. The music of the Alan Parsons Project, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the Moody Blues all strike a resonant chord in my heart and listening to their music brings peace and directs my thinking to grand and cosmic topics. Unfortunately some of those wonderful songs are “time-stamped” with less than grand events and listening them brings on memories of what was going on in my life  when I first heard them, cosmic or not)

It was the latter part of November 1970 and well into that part of the Alaskan year when our days seemed more like life on the Moon than life on Earth. Only five degrees latitude separated us from Eternal Night and with only six hours of true sunlight each day SAD (Seasonal Adjustive Disorder) was a very real battle for people like my dad or my older sister –  but not for me.

Why was I so blessed?

  • Maybe it was because I’d spent the last eight years growing up in photonic-starved environment.
  • Maybe it was because I spent most of my waking hours as a student indoors focused on reading books.
  • Maybe it was the distraction music and television provided.

Whatever the case, darkness was no curse for me. It also helped that I had mentally tacked the two hours of morning and evening twilight onto our officially allotted daylight; twilight that would paint everything with a magenta/orange glow as magical as anything found in fantasy or science-fiction. For that matter daily living in a sub-Arctic winter wasn’t that much different from what I saw on 2001: A Space Odyssey: We bundled up in parkas and warm clothing marginally less complicated than space suits and went about our business in harsh conditions under the stars. Alaskans would make great astronauts.

Perhaps that’s why a Moody Blues theme album based on space travel hit appealed so strongly to me. Released in late 1969,  To Our Children’s Children’s Children was written and produced as a reaction to the Apollo 11 moon landing – with  generous portions of childhood memories and psychedelia as additional ingredients. I’d purchased the record at the suggestion of my friend Bachelorette #21  and soon found that playing it on my stereo wasn’t just a matter of listening – it involved interpreting and deconstructing the music and sometimes just basking in the glory of resonating synthesizers and haunting vocals.

Blasting, billowing, bursting forth

With the power of ten billion butterfly sneezes

Man, with his flaming pyre

Has conquered the wayward breezes

Whispered class-room discussions about the album led to a Friday date with B2 and as I started out that evening the album was still resonating in my head. I was definitely working on an outer space vibe  –  snowflakes caught in the headlights’ glare could easily be mistaken for stars and planets zipping past as the Enterprise traveled at warp-speed.

…but while totally stoked about both the album and the evening’s activities I was a little jittery – not because of the young lady in question but rather the location of her home just off the end of North Kenai road. I’d be putting 150 hard-to-explain miles on the odometer that night, so  it wasn’t the date but rather getting my cover story right that was launching intestinal Stukas. I took a deep breath and drove on, confident that I had planned for every contingency.

Our destination was a cinematic nerd-fest currently showing at the KAMBE theater, a double-feature including the Italian action flick Danger: Diabolik and a nondescript science fiction film entitled Project X. We were able to watch the entire first film, but Time was wearing Adidas that night and we had to leave half-way through Project X2. The snowfall had picked up a bit while we’d been watching the shows but the extra travel time brought on by the worsening weather allowed us to pick up our on-going medium-to-deep discussion about To Our Children’s Children’s Children,  and when we kissed on her doorstep I all but floated over the deepening snow out to the Maverick, elated on several levels but mostly relieved that the night was going to work out.

Oh you’d like it

Gliding around get your feet off the ground

Oh you’d like it

Do as you please with so much ease

CHA-THUNK!

The Hand of Fate abruptly pulled the cosmic tone-arm across the 33 1/3 record of my life as I ran the car into a snowbank while  backing out of the driveway. Twenty minutes of feverish digging and shoving got the Maverick out of the ditch and back on the road but in the process I lost the left brake lens cover and wasted another ten minutes searching for it before giving up and driving off.  As I turned onto North Kenai road I glanced at my wristwatch I could see that I had only forty-five minutes to curfew, but if I drove just a little faster I could get home on time. As I loosened my death-grip on the steering wheel and shook some of the tension out of my shoulders I mentally skipped to the next song.

Gazing past the planets

Looking for total view

I’ve been lying here for hours

You gotta make the journey

Out and in

Out and in

BA-WOO-WOO-WOO

All I could see in the rear-view mirrors were flashing red lights, so I immediately pulled over and started digging through parka and trousers for my wallet. An Alaska State Trooper materialized  at the side of the car and as I rolled the window down I wondered if Smoky the Bear trooper hats were designed to scare the hell out of people or if terror was just a fringe benefit.

“Going a little fast for conditions weren’t you son? Let me see your license please”

He looked at my license, bit his lower lip then said: ”Are you June Deitrick’s boy?”

“Yes sir”  I replied, silently adding “ …and if you’re friends with my folks I am so screwed”

He sighed: “You’re in trouble enough without a ticket. Get home as safe and soon as you can”.

A gypsy of a strange and distant time

Travelling in panic all direction blind

Aching for the warmth of a burning sun

Freezing in the emptiness of where he’d come from

Although I managed to get home without getting stopped by a second trooper unexpectedly cruising the highway close to home my internal dive-bombers had renewed their attack by the time I pulled into the driveway. Expecting the worst I was surprised when Mom didn’t go ballistic over the broken curfew. I explained in my half-truthful manner that I was late because I took a friend home, a friend “who I didn’t want to identify”.  Mom assumed the person in question was a football buddy too “— faced” to navigate but for some reason she only grounded me for the next week.

I never thought I’d get to be a million

I never thought I’d get to be the thing

That all his other children see

…Look at me.

By the time I climbed up to my loft and collapsed on my bunk the internal Stukas had all landed and I was able to relax. I cued up the album and let the music wash the stress away – as I’ve written before alcohol had little effect on me and I moved in the wrong social circles to get involved with weed so music was my drug by default, especially brand-new progressive rock albums.

Watching and waiting

For a friend to play with

Why have I been alone so long

Mole he is burrowing his way to the sunlight

He knows there’s some there so strong

…then with a start I remembered the missing brake light cover.

August 1971

Our legendary midnight summer sun had just edged under the horizon but there was still plenty of light in the sky as I dropped B2 off after our end-of-the-summer-headed-for-college date. As I backed the Maverick out of her driveway two thoughts came to mind:

  • Her home and surroundings looked totally different when not buried in three feet of snow.
  • The Maverick’s red plastic brake-light lens cover was sitting smartly on the side of the road as if it had been just dropped there…

__________________________________________________________________________

  1. See 1971: “…then Dave turned 16 and discovered girls”
  2. See Project X Amazon Review

1970: Steak and Eggs

It is said that the hardest part of being a parent is that the test always comes before the lesson. The same can be said for that last year or so before you leave home – you’ve been taught personal boundaries in home, church and school but the strength of those lessons is not apparent until after something has pushed against them…hard.

It was midsummer of 1970 and I wasn’t having any luck shoe-horning a job into the time remaining until football practice was to begin. I was feeling very sorry for myself and contemplating a very penurious autumn when I heard  my friend Greg was working for a roofer  in Seward and more hands were needed for the crew. Two phone calls later I was on the payroll working for a leading member of our congregation in what had to be the perfect set-up:

  • $8.00/hour
  • Regular hours
  • Room and board at the company’s expense
  • …and I was to start the very next day

My parents were much less enthusiastic with Mom gritting her teeth over the lack of control she’d wield 70 miles away and Dad skeptical that I’d be able to keep up with the work. In the bullet-proof manner only a seventeen-year-old can affect I blew off their concerns and motored off to my new job, passing the time on the trip by mentally spending all the money I’d be making. It seemed the greatest set-up a young man could fall into until I got to Seward and Greg whispered “You are in for the hardest work of your life” just before I got the orientation spiel along with two other new hires.

We’d be working for Eddie Maxwell removing and replacing the roof of the Seward High School. While Eddie had extensive experience working for others this was his first job as an independent roofing contractor and had substantially underbid on the job, and had to make  some changes. We’d be working with a short crew, I’d be paid a much lower wage than promised, and our room and board would consist of sleeping on the floor of the library and eating baloney sandwiches for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was another matter: Eddie made a big production about buying us anything we wanted for breakfast at a local diner as “the only way to get you bastards started in the morning” but he made an equally over-the-top announcement that the day anyone ordered steak-and-eggs would be their last day on the job.

Along with Greg and myself, the crew included two local men and Dan, a middle-aged cowboy who had come up to Alaska to work for the summer. One of the two locals was a competent laborer, but the second man didn’t last the first day. Dan was a bit of a mystery; he didn’t talk much but a broken nose hinted at a rough & tumble youth and when he did talk about  his younger days there were gaps in his narrative that had me wondering how those gaps lined up with train robberies made by the Hole-in-The-Wall gang. Misspent youth aside Dan was a definite asset to the crew with experience, an inclination to work hard and most important to me,  time to help me learn the trade and how to carry my part of the load.

…and there was quite a load to be carried. It was punishing labor as rigorous as anything athletics or military would demand of me at other times. The existing tar & gravel covering had been removed with a wheeled power saw, then new paper tacked down and covered with hot tar spread with fiberglass mops. In support of that basic task, debris had to be moved to a dump truck, then periodically taken to the landfill, rolls of tar-paper had to be carried up 30’ ladders, and hot tar shuttled in five-gallon buckets from the feed pipe to the area of application.

The tar was pumped to the roof top by way of a pipe connected to a trailer-mounted heating pot which had to be monitored and routinely fed with large chunks of solid tar. That trailer was the single item of roofing-specific equipment we had – while equipped with tack hammers and crowbars in those pre-OSHA days we had none of the “ladder-vators” or specialized safety equipment that roofers now use.

The work was hard and conditions spartan but most of the stress I started to feel wasn’t directly related to the job. While Eddie was a member of our church, the seventy miles to the  meetinghouse seemed to be enough to liberate him from maintaining expected behavior and standards. I’ve never met a man more imaginatively coarse, and as the youngest member of the crew I became his  primary target. It truly was amazing how he was able to liken every aspect of my life and behavior to some sort of aberrant sexual practice to include the way I walked, talked,  worked, and wrote a succession of unanswered letters to my Youth Conference crush Eileen. It was bothersome enough to prompt thoughts of quitting, but every time I came close to leaving I’d remember all that money and go back to work.

The only break I got were periodic runs to the landfill located several miles up a side valley; the trip through the forest along a rushing river providing a welcome sixty-minute respite from the intense labor, the smell of tar, and the blue language. I was teamed with Dan for those trips and our conversations became as much a break as the trip itself. He didn’t say much but what he did say was worth listening to – and it soon  became obvious that he also was less than pleased about Eddie’s comments.

It all came to a head four days into the week when we were put straight to work without breakfast in order to make up for time when Eddie overslept. The late start came with the usual customary obscenities but as the day wore on his invective became even more harsh and unrelenting. I kept cool throughout the day but when Eddie’s comments branched into a new category of anatomically impossible acts something snapped.

I turned around with the mop full of hot tar and quietly told him “I’ve had enough”. Eddie laughed harshly and replied with an indistinct obscenity as he turned away to trim some tarpaper overhanging at the edge of the roof – and in the process his elevated attitude of jerk-osity tripped one of my mental circuit breakers. The rage boiled up inside me with the fervor only a seventeen-year-old can muster and  I grabbed one of the mops, dipped it in the hot tar and turned towards Eddy.

…but as I moved Dan caught my eye and quietly said “It’s not worth it”. Eddie was working at the edge of the roof with his back to me – given the poor safety standards there’d have been no suspicions had he gone over the side of the roof. For a moment I stood still with the mop up like a solider at port arms…It was deathly quiet, the only noise a kind of “ssst/ssst/ssst” as intermittent raindrops began to hit the fresh tar…then Dan spoke again – this time a little louder. “Eddie – we need to take another run to the landfill” and the two of us climbed down to a mostly empty truck and left.

This time the trip to the dump involved more than getting rid of old tarpaper. On the trip out Dan hinted at a similar incident in his own youth and I quietly wondered if some of those gaps in his background had involved incarceration of some sort. As I stood at the edge of the landfill I took an inventory.

  • While the money was less than expected I’d still make enough for my needs.
  • I’d proved I could “tough it out” with a difficult job.
  • I’d proved I didn’t need someone hovering over me to keep me on the straight and narrow.

…and I was also concerned about picking up some of Eddie’s “colorful metaphors” in my own internal dialog. I realized that Eddie was no different than any of the other bullies I’d encountered in life and wasn’t worth getting worked up over. It all felt liberating – I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d learned, but I knew I’d learned something and the rest of the day went surprising well. Eddie kept up his diatribe, but I just whistled and kept working – in fact I made a point of working harder than anyone else on the crew for the rest of that day. My indifference to his comments seemed to just make him madder and more obscene, and as afternoon eased into evening the obscenities were replaced with ominous comments about scaling back the crew to save money.

It didn’t bother me, and as hard as the library floor was I quickly went to sleep a smile on my face.

…and the next morning at the diner I ordered steak and eggs for breakfast.

 

 

 

1970: The Great Escape

1963

As much as I loved the sweeping epic motion pictures of the Fifties and Sixties I did not see “The Great Escape” when it first came out. Oh, I saw all the previews and was extremely interested in the subject matter but wasn’t able to actually see the movie because I was on the losing side of an ideological divide as vast as  Crown & Colonists or Union & Confederacy.

I was a Fourth Avenue theater kid and the “The Great Escape” was being shown at the Denali.

In those days before the Good Friday earthquake  there were just two movie theaters in Anchorage and they were located at the two ends of Fourth Avenue. Kids from the west side of town went to the Fourth Avenue theater while the kids from the east side went to the Denali….and never the twain did meet.

 1970

 “You’re welcome to finish out the year but I don’t see you accomplishing much other than developing good lab technique. Based on what you’ve done so far there’s no way you can get a passing grade.”

  I had to give Mrs. Denison credit; the executioner’s axe had cut quickly and cleanly, but as it swung three thoughts came to mind:

  • Shirley Denison and Mom were friends, so my folks probably knew about this already.
  • With the new English program1 I had a lot more options that I would have had the year before.
  • Given the axe-analogy I had to expand my leisure reading beyond John Carter of Mars and Conan the Barbarian.

The change to my class schedule was just as quick and clean; by the next day my newly-vacant third hour was filled with a brand-new journalism class to match my existing sixth hour debate class. I put up a token fuss about the move, but my protest was more of the “don’t throw me in that briar patch” variety. With a schedule made up of physical education (teacher’s aide!), history ( always a breeze!), geography (ditto), and two English classes I would have my first-ever “easy” semester.

…which would be finished off just as pleasantly by a sixth period motion picture class during the final nine week period.  Introduced as part of the new Literature & Communications curriculum, the Motion Pictures class had been the subject of some controversy until instructors demonstrated that the class entailed some academic rigor and was not just a “rocks for jocks” fluff course. We would start out with basic instruction on script-writing and cinematography, but the bulk of the class involved viewing/discussing two movies:

  • A Thousand Clowns: An Oscar-nominated MGM classic from 1965 starring Jason Robards as a nonconformist Madison Avenue drop-out forced to take conventional employment.
  • The Great Escape: The aforementioned United Artists epic concerning a mass POW escape in World War II Germany, also an Oscar nominee.

The class was possible only because of another recent change at KCHS – after eight years of unanticipated growth, an addition had been made to the building that included a cafeteria, a suite of business classrooms, and a little theater. Normally  partitioned off into three separate classrooms, the theater could be opened up into one large space for the motion picture class – or classes to be precise. Overwhelming demand meant that there were three sections scheduled for the one Motion Pictures class, which meant that in addition to regular classroom challenges the instructors had to:

  • Maintain order among a mob of 50+ students sitting in a dark room for fifty minutes at the end of a school day.
  • Keep students on task during a spring break-up  warmer and sunnier than usual, which should have posed no problems in a darkened classroom but fire laws required the rear exit doors to be open to a breathtaking view of the aforementioned glorious spring.
  • Complying with licensing and technical limitations which restricted students to viewing the films for less than half of the class period, including scenes from the previous day’s viewing repeated to maintain continuity.

Not to be out-done I had my own personal list of bullet-points to contend with:

  • I was concerned about my current girlfriend2. Our schedules were such that we  saw each other at most twice a day, which didn’t include Motion Pictures class. It might not have been quite so worrisome if there had been any depth developing in the relationship3.
  • I was quickly getting bored with the class. I’d been a movie buff since fourth grade making me better prepared than my peers. Repeated reviewing of very basic principles quickly became boring.
  • I was developing junior-osis. While it’s common knowledge that accumulated fatigue, boredom, and arrogance can lull fourth year students into an end-of-the-year malaise called senioritis,  junior-osis is a similar ailment that strikes at end of the third year of school as well. Year three involves minimal pressure – no letters to write, plenty of time left to clean up your GPA, and the closest you get to any sort of crunch point is the pre-SAT, which is just a warm-up for college placement tests the following autumn. It’s another example of a valuable lesson I learned later in the army: “Morale is lowest when the duty is easiest”.

…all of which conspired to rob me of any sense of urgency or dedication for that sixth and last hour of the school day. Snoozing in class was quickly ruled out by the clackety-clack and warbling sound track coming from the projector, and in 1970 I could draw in a darkened room about as well as I can now (I can’t). The semester was shaping up to be just one step up from Chinese water torture when fate smiled on me in the form of Mike Cole.

Mike was a service brat living on Wildwood Air Force Station, and in addition to the motion pictures class he was also in that first hour PE class. Our common service brat heritage and similar sense of humor made for an instant buddyship, and as he was equally bored with the motion pictures class we’d entertain ourselves by quietly chatting during the movies. It was during one of those conversations that he literally dropped a bomb shell: my former chemistry class had covered the required material a little early so Mrs. Denison was filling the final two weeks with for-real “BWAH-HA-HA” Mad Scientist projects that involved mixing chemicals, heating test-tubes and extracting the results with filter paper, said results subsequently given nonsense names like “flaming yekk” and “booming yakk”. It was obvious that the yekk and yakk were in fact  weak versions of flash paper and contact explosive, and at first the idea of supplying teenagers with such materials had me wondering if Shirley had been huffing some of the chemicals herself …but when I discovered the process required an eight-hour drying time, it didn’t seem quite as worrisome.

That all seemed to have no bearing as the class limped along the final week of school  – but then the perfect storm hit. We were on the last reel of the The Great Escape and collectively chewing the armrests while nervously watching  Steve McQueen’s attempts to jump a motor cycle over barbed wire when the power went out, halting the movie and extinguishing the aisle lights. The room was pitch dark and totally silent for several seconds, then there was a creak-CLUNK and a waft of fresh air when one of the instructors opened the exit doors.

Have you ever been on a horse that smells water after a long ride? They are uncontrollable – you may think you’re going to the house, but the horse is heading for the barn and the water trough whether you want to or not. That’s what was happening in that darkened room: students surged en masse towards the sun-lit exits like a 1950’s movie monster but hesitated momentarily at a brief flash of light and a low pop from the center of the student-blob.

Mike quietly dropped the “F-bomb”.

It turned out end-of-the-year indifference hadn’t existed in just the motion pictures class. Chemistry students had been a bit casual with measurements for the latest batch of yekk and yakk which halved the expected cure time, which in turn meant that today’s output was fully weaponized four hours early. The first few explosions had been purely by accident, but as I looked around, students were gently touching fingertips to the chemical-laden filter paper giving them a magic finger tip that either flashed or popped when touching a surface of any kind.

As a mature young man of seventeen  I took the proper course of action and acted in a responsible manner –  I reached down to Mike’s chemistry book and loaded up both sets of fingers with yekk and yakk, then started finger-popping everyone around me.  After initially resisting the impulse Mike reacted in kind and we were having a great time until we noticed three instructors methodically moving toward us through the darkened student mass, checking for the yekk and yakk. We figured we had time for just one more round but as we both reached down to “reload” there was a blinding flash of light that left me temporarily daze /visually impaired and within grabbing range of at least two of the instructors.

I would still be serving detention KCHS to this day if the end-of-class bell hadn’t gone off at that moment, followed seconds later by the power coming back on. Between the blinding glare of restored classroom lighting and the collective surge toward the exits I was forgotten by the patrolling instructors and eventually made my way out to the bus. The trip home was uneventful other than slight bewilderment when I spied Mike wearing a polka-dot shirt as his bus pulled past mine and out to the highway.

The next day was Friday and the end of both the school week and the academic year, a half-day with time for little other than signing yearbooks and settling out financial obligations. In my case, that meant paying Mike ten bucks for my share of the damages inflicted during the motion picture melee:

  • The polka dot shirt Mike was wearing on the bus home was in fact the same light blue garment he’d worn during the day – what I had mistaken for dots were little burnt marks left from me tapping him with the yekk.
  • That last big flash? In our scuffling Mike ended up dropping his chemistry text book from about knee height, which wouldn’t have been a problem had he not stashed three additional sheets of yakk, inside the front cover, which together contained enough potential energy to blow the cover off the book as it hit the ground.

With my debts paid I blithely went on to a wonderful summer filled with Boy’s State, Youth Conference, a summer job in Seward and football,  and when I came back in the fall it was to a kinder, gentler chemistry class – a special section Mrs. Denison had formed for math-impaired students like me.

The lab component was different too. No more flaming yekk or booming yakk.


 

Notes:­­­­­­­­­­­

  1. In the fall of 1969 English classes were radically changed 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.
  2. Bachelorette #1 from: 1971: “…then Dave turned sixteen and discovered girls…”
  3. The unsettled nature of my relationship with Bachelorette #1 didn’t stay that way for long and I soon learned why she’d been evasive whenever I’d talked about dating over summer vacation. In a note delivered by her half-sister she explained that she’d be working on a set-net fishing site during most of the summer break and didn’t think she’d be able to get back up the bluff at the end of a day and get cleaned up in time for a date. There is definitely an air of finality when you get brushed off by someone  who has to “wash her hair”  for three months.

 

Music: Fire And Rain

Fire and Rain is a song written by James Taylor1 that tells the story of both his reaction to a close friend’s suicide and his own struggles with fame and addiction. It’s a beautiful song in both form and message, so it should be no surprise it’s been covered quite often by performers like Andy Williams, John Denver, Roger Whittaker and Cher. What might be surprising is that one of the earliest versions was recorded by the jazz/rock fusion band Blood, Sweat and Tears.

In the summer of 1970 BS&T was at the height of fame, but their album Blood, Sweat & Tears 3 took a terrible beating by critics for what turned out to be political reasons.2 I didn’t give a rip – I bought the record as soon as I could, which happened to be the same weekend I’d finally got a decent stereo record player – paid for with money I’d earned risking life and limb on pre-OSHA roofing job 75 miles away in Seward. I was so stoked that it took me at most fifteen minutes to get the stereo set up in my attic loft .

Blood. Sweat and Tears 3 was going to be the first record played on it.

I had loved the previous album and the anticipation had me so fumble-fingered that it took me three attempts to get the disc on the spindle. When I finally got the record cued up I sat back with my eyes closed anticipating musical genius, but forty-five seconds into Hi-Dee-Ho I sat back up with a “What the hell?. I kept listening, mollified by the second track which was an excellent (as expected) Steve Katz tune called The Battle but after enduring Lucretia MacEvil and Lucretia’s Reprise I was seconds away from using the disc for skeet shooting.

In my agitation I almost missed the opening notes to Fire & Rain ( instead of a distinct stop/start, Lucretia’s Reprise slowly morphed into the following track) but as I heard David Clayton-Thomas’s uncharacterically soft opening vocals I became intrigued and started putting the shot-shells back in the box.

Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone.

Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.

I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song,

I just can’t remember who to send it to.

Rather than his usual brash, bluesy sound Clayton-Thomas’ voice is calm and thoughtful through the first verse. The accompanying piano is also subdued, as you’d expect when dealing with the shock of losing someone close, especially a young person who took a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus, you’ve got to help me make a stand.

You’ve just got to see me through another day.

My body’s aching and my time is at hand and I won’t make it any other way.

At the beginning of the second verse the soft piano and languid guitar is replaced by a brass fanfare. It’s confusing; while the lyrics resemble a prayer, the combined effect of lyrics, vocal inflection and instruments do not come across as supplication.  I have often been taken to task over my non-traditional mode of prayer, so I can understand that rather insistent tone to the message, but there is also a humanistic hint of the individual steps in the grief cycle: denial, anger, bargaining and so on.

Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun.

Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around.

Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come.

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

Here my thinking becomes less verbal and much more emotional and I find it difficult to separate myself from the vocalist. Coping with death is never easy and with so many recent deaths among my circle the question of mortality becomes overwhelming. The mental images of the sun and the wind conjure up a personal Jungian archetype that allows me to escape:

… the eighteen-year old David hitchhiking.

It’s a familiar and comfortable vision:

  • The welcome ache in my legs from walking
  • The wind in my too-long-for-Dad’s-taste hair.
  • The warm sunlight taking the edge off the cold wind
  • The excitement from the uncertainty – the hint of danger.
  • The freedom & endless possibilities – I could end up in Seattle! New York! Ninilchik!

In those pre-Walkman days long walks gave me plenty of opportunity to think and at that pivotal time in my life I would contemplate life just as much as I’d contemplate how I liked Debbie’s brown satin vest & miniskirt outfit. That’s why I still love this song now – not because of the outfit, but because it prompts contemplation.

As the song begins to fade the music changes:

Thought I’d see you one more time again.

There’s just a few things coming my way this time around, now.

Thought I’d see you, thought I’d see you, fire and rain, now.

The brass section repeats the fanfare while the guitar work becomes more improvisational as maracas softly keep time to the music. The combined sounds invoke a bittersweet/wistful mood. Touches like this are what make me prefer this version of the song – the arrangement is flawless, and the music contributes as much to the narrative as the lyrics.

….and those maracas? If you really listen they sound like the tread of a young man’s boots as he walks along the highway.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

  1. It was a double-barreled hit for Mr. Taylor, released in early 1970 as both a Top 40 single and as a track on his Sweet Baby James album…though I didn’t find any of this out until I was in college a year-and-a-half later

 

  1. Canadian David Clayton-Thomas was having difficulty obtaining a visa to stay in the country and continue recording/performing with the band. His application was “expedited” on the condition that the band would participate in a state-sponsored goodwill tour behind the Iron Curtain.

Music: Suitable for Framing

“How can people be so heartless

How can people be so cruel

Easy to be hard

Easy to be cold”

As I sat listening to Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night sing all I could think was that the lyrics hit the nail on the head. People could be so cold to each other that I was feeling particularly chilled at the moment. Football was over and while I had an occasional part-time job and responsibilities as a teacher’s aide in a P.E. class I was bored. It was the first time I encountered one of the most basic troop leading principles: Morale is the lowest when duty is the lightest.

Side B kept playing:

“I know the guys cook hold all the lift

In my harp hoe dad

If I cool Paul cross my knee

I know do my cough it up”1

Cory Wells was admittedly the coolest of the three vocalists in the group but he was also the most inarticulate. A loaded pistol held to my head could not have motivated me to decipher the lyrics to “Ain’t That a Lotta Love” but it was still a catchy tune. The remaining  B side songs were equally good, especially the percussion-heavy King Solomon’s Mines which would earn me the broomstick-thumping-the-ceiling routine from Mom in the kitchen below when I’d thump and jump along with the beat.

I picked up Suitable for Framing a year after its release, and even then, it was an example of retail therapy rather than interest. I was pleasantly surprised and put the album on heavy rotation on my record player where it became the soundtrack for October 1970, which was basically a four-week ramp-up to Halloween- which in Alaska is the schizophrenia of holidays. You’re well on the way toward the winter solstice so it gets real dark but there isn’t a lot of snow which means very little moon or starlight is reflected to create the north country “white nights”. It got even darker during cloudy weather and in 1970 Halloween would have a new moon. Driving that night would be like driving around in a cow’s stomach.

 “Lady Samantha flies like a lakka”

over the still and anna no lawn lakka

The rest of Side A wasn’t much better, and I had been expecting better out of Chuck Negron. At least I got a good snicker at “Eli’s Coming” – hide your (expletive deleted) girl!”

The retail therapy session had been spawned by a disastrous date to homecoming which brought an end to a romance with the life span of a fruit fly.  There had been a just-as-brief rebound relationship, so my Halloween plans were definitely of the stag variety. It was just as well – my trusty steed for the night would be my family’s “other car” – a red 1963 Chevy Bel-air station wagon which was definitely not going to make me a babe-magnet. In response to the countless stories of pranks played in Halloweens past .2 I went prepared with firecrackers and eggs. Unfortunately, I was travelling light:  One small packet of Black Cats and four eggs .3

I stopped at the KAMBE theater and ran into Miss Rebound in the lobby, patently bored as well, and more than willing to ride along with me to engage in some Halloween mischief over in the mall parking lot. Unfortunately, reality rapidly elbowed its way into the equation when the following happened in quick succession:

  • As the mall parking lot was really icy I had to pay more attention to my driving and not so much on the pranks.
  • I’d forgotten to bring matches to light the Black Cats and discovered that using a car’s cigarette lighter was problematic at best.
  • I was driving with my window open and an egg ready in my right hand when a car pulled out and I had to downshift4 . Without even thinking I reached up and grabbed the lever in my right hand, the one holding the egg.

 

“Just the thought of losing you is more than I can take

Circle for a landing before it’s too late

Circle for a landing, get your feet back on the ground

Circle for a landing, it’s time to come on down”

I immediately pulled over by the side entrance to the parking lot where

  • I learned how hard it was to clean raw egg out of a car interior with clumps of snow.
  • Miss Rebound decided to part company for greener pastures and unbroken eggs.
  • the Lombard family (friends of my parents) slowly drove by as I was cleaning up.

 

I shook it off –  there were several red Bel-Air station wagons in the Central Peninsula area, so I hadn’t necessarily been busted. It wasn’t till I got out of the car at home that I remembered that Dad had recently swapped out a crumpled front driver’s side fender with a bluish green replacement from the junkyard…  For once Lady Luck smiled on me – the Lombard’s had been bickering about something and completely missed me and my instantly identifiable ride.

The next day was ironically All Saints Day, and the afternoon following church was one long sigh of relief as I played Suitable for Framing one more time. I smiled when the record ended with “Celebrate” on the B side – I loved my nephew Erik’s personal interpretation of the lyrics (“Seven-eight! Seven-eight! Ants doody music!”) but I was also pretty pleased that I suffered no more than an egg-splattered parka for my efforts the previous night.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­___________________________________________________________________ _

1. Actual lyrics:    I know the desert can’t hold all the love   

                                    That I feel in my heart for ya    

                                    If I could spell it out across the sea,               

                                    I know my love would cover it up

2. The very best story revolved around the Kenai Drug Store building. The owner’s son and his buddies climbed on top of the roof and hid behind a large sign. They’d come out, throw some eggs then scoot back behind it to hide when angry drivers came looking for them.

3. Mom was amateur nutritionist and kept careful track of all the food in the house. I think she actually put serial numbers on all the eggs…

4. They’re rarely seen anymore, but a 1963 Chevy Bel-Aire was equipped with a three-speed transmission with the gear selector mounted on the steering column behind the wheel, with the selector lever on the right-hand side: Often referred to as a “three on the tree”.

Music: Spill the Wine

I love music. I surround myself with music all the time – unless I am in an obvious non-musical situation like teaching a class or sitting in a funeral service I have my earbuds in and my Walkman jamming. You’d think that with all that love and interest I would be a competent guitarist or pianist but that unfortunately is not the case. As progressive as my parents were they still have some very firm conviction regarding gender roles, and music was definitely not something for boys. I could sing in church and be part of the high school chorus but there was no money in the budget for lessons or instruments for yours truly.

I bear no grudge over that issue. Both my parents were dealt a tough hand of cards in the game of life and they played them very well. I am a competent vocalist and was a passable journeyman bagpiper until my asthma put a stop to that. Now I play with the pennywhistle but as Lori says the instrument I play best is the stereo.1 I’m good at selecting and organizing music and can set a perfect mood for a particular time, situation or occasion. Granted I do have specific tastes in music, so I’d never make a good DJ, but I can pick the right song for the right time.

My freakishly sharp memory also means that I remember when a particular song was popular and what was going on my life and the world at that time…though there is one condition I have to apply to that claim. Back in the day before digital formats and downloads music moved at the pace of the mail. Record companies would send songs out on 45 rpm demo records, usually at the slower but more economical 4th class rate.2 . That meant  music got to different areas of the country at different times so Alaskans got new releases anywhere from a month to six weeks after most of the lower 48 . For example, KENI 550AM started playing “Cherish” by the Association in late September of 1966 but an erstwhile suitor in California sent a copy to my older sister Robin in late August.

…all of which means that sometimes the memory I have of times connected with the debut of a specific song may vary a bit from the official Billboard date.

“Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon & WAR will always be the archetypical midsummer 1970 song, first heard during a camping trip on the banks of the Little Susitna River before the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks was completed. I had been following Mr. Burdon’s vocals since he arrived with the Animals in the second wave of the British Invasion five years earlier – I liked “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life” but it wasn’t until the band became Eric Burdon & The Animals that I found some real favorites. “Help Me Girl” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” are particular favorites but to most listeners “San Francisco Nights” and ‘When I Was Young” are the real gems of that period.

During an early interview Burdon was asked if the Animals played an English version of soul music to which he replied that they played an “Animals type of soul”. Between that comment and his deep, powerful bluesy voice it was obvious that R&B was the direction he was headed and when he ended up fronting the funk rock band WAR it seemed to be a good fit.

“Spill the Wine” was their first single and was inspired by someone actually spilling wine on a studio mixing board. It was long (4:51) for a Top 40 release and a bit surreal with a woman speaking Spanish in the background and a syncopated flute solo floating over the top of a rhythmic funk. Until the advent of the Internet I was totally baffled by the lyrics, which seemed as if someone mashed together summer landscapes, Hollywood productions, Scandinavian mythology, cheap muscatel and lots of girls. Lots and lots of girls. At seventeen it hurt my brain to think too deeply about symbolism so I focused mostly the parts about sunshine and lots of girls.

It was a nice laid-back song for dancing but that didn’t happen very often. Most of the dances I went to at that time featured live bands and none of them had the depth and variety of instruments to do “Spill the Wine” with justice. It did pop up at sock-hops with record players and was usually a hit – I have many pleasant memories of dreamily dancing to its low-key but definitely funk-driven beat. While it wasn’t a mega-favorite for me like songs in the  progressive rock (Moody Blues) or guitar/vocal harmony (CSN&Y)3  categories it is a bedrock selection of every 1970 playlist I’ve ever compiled and still brings on a very relaxed and happy state of mind.

 


 

  1. Or given our changing times: CD Player, MP3 player or streaming music files
  2. Now called media mail.
  3. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young