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.

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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.

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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

 

1970: A Different Kind of Wax Job

It’s kind of creepy the way I keep hearing my dad’s voice. It’s like an episode from The Night Gallery: I’ll be walking along minding my own business when I heard the spectral voice of my long-dead father:

“I can’t believe people will pay that much for a Hershey Bar!”

 Oh, did I mention that this always happens when I am standing in front of the candy rack in the check-out aisle at the grocery store – and that my dad’s comments are coming from my mouth? I am just as bewildered at a Hershey Bar selling for more than fifty cents as Dad was at one that sold for more than a nickel. Inflation is a constant part of life, with the only variable being the relative amounts we’re complaining about.

…but I do remember when $20.00 was enough money to keep a teen-aged boy in comics, records and the occasional date over a two week period – which was very convenient because that’s what I made with my part-time job in the fall of 1970. Every two weeks Donny (now just “Don”) and I would sweep, mop and wax the floors to the Big K supermarket for twenty bucks.

I’d worked at Big K as a bagboy/stocker two year earlier, but Don was currently employed there part time and I imagine that combined experience at the store gave the owner Kearlee confidence to let us work unsupervised every other Sunday evening. I’d show up at 6:00 PM (Don would already be there having just finished his regular shift) and we went to work just as soon as the regular crew locked up and left. I was surprised at that trust when I started the job and to be honest at first we both periodically checked the front door expecting to see Kearlee or his mother Madge peering through the glass to check on us.

…but again, they trusted us to do a good job – and we did our best to do so. We’d start by lifting all the separate bins, boxes and racks up on top of various counter-tops and platforms scattered around the store. Once the floor was cleared we’d sweep then mop the place after which we’d take a short break and have a snack while the floors dried. Part of the compensation package had been the consumption of one (1) candy bar and one (1) can of soda but as the weeks went by we began to interpret that particular term of our oral contract. I don’t think I would have ever tried YooHoo chocolate beverage or those tiny pickled ears of corn had I not grown tired of all that Seven-Up and Snickers I knocked down while waiting for those floors to dry

As it took between fifteen and twenty minutes for the floor to dry we each had to pick a suitable perch to spend that interval; Don would sit on the check-out counter listening to football scores on the radio, but my favorite spot was over by the periodicals where I would look through the comics and paperbacks. I would also take the opportunity to educate myself on current trends in men’s fashion, European automotive trends and sophisticated humor by “reading just the articles” in one particular large glossy magazine, the one with the cover we’d scan for

  • a hidden bunny logo
  • the number of stars in the “P”

Then it was time to wax – and if you’re ever looking for a good forearm workout I would suggest waxing a floor. It’s hard enough putting the wax down (a process more like scrubbing than mopping) but running a buffer entailed more wishing than actually controlling. I’ve had more luck getting another man’s dog to fetch for me than I have getting a power buffer to go where I want it to go. There’s a definite art to running a buffer; if you conscientiously tilt the handle up and down while varying speed you can use the circular motion of the brush to move the device either left or right with a minimum of effort.

…at least that’s what the book says, because I never mastered that particular art. Along the baseboards of each aisle you could find bump and scuff marks left as the buffer repeatedly outsmarted me and slammed left and right much harder than desired.  I always made sure I had an applicator bottle of liquid black shoe polish handy, so I could conceal the worst skids.

Waiting after the wax application took even longer than the post-mopping delay – in fact we spent more time on the job waiting than we did actually working. Unfortunately, the old proverb about “idle hands” and “mischief” proved to be all too true. I don’t know if it was fumes from the wax or just being awake too late at night – that second waiting period was when we were most likely to get into trouble.

Every week we’d try to think up of something new, but the post-wax follies usually fell into one of three categories:

  1. Midnight tag: turning all the lights out then trying to get the drop on each other while sneaking up and down the aisles
  2. Pranks calls: We’d dial the 262 Soldotna prefix then dial the second of four numbers at random. Even though jokes were pretty tame (do you have Prince Albert in a can?) it was still a safer activity back in those pre-caller ID times.
  3. Racing: Getting the shopping carts rolling down the aisles as fast as possible, sometimes while standing/leaning like a dog musher over the handrail but often sitting in the basket itself using a broom to push off.

Category 3 almost proved to be our undoing – by early October racing each other in the carts had gotten kind of stale, so in the spirit of all teen-age boys everywhere we went looking for something larger and faster, which in our case was the dolly used to move cases of canned goods  around the store, It was a thick platform mounted on heavy-duty solid rubber wheels with an upright fixed handle at one end. It measured about six feet long by three feet wide…and it was heavy. Between the weight of the dolly and the ball-bearing wheel mounts it moved very easily; if you pushed it with a running start and hopped on you could also get it going pretty fast.

It had been a particularly long night and by the time we were done it was after midnight when we decided to conduct time-trials with the dolly. Don made the first run and was miffed when I beat his time by several seconds, so we decided on a second heat. Again Don went first and made good time but evidently he was not going to leave anything to chance: I started my second run in good order and was looking to beat Don’s time again when he yelled “MADGE IS AT THE DOOR!” and without a second’s hesitation I rolled over the right side of the cart, knocking over a stack of canned goods while the cart careened to the left into a row of shopping carts, knocking them over.

A bit of explanation is in order: Madge was the owner’s mother and part-owner of the store. To say that she was stern and demanding was an understatement; she is the only person ever to boo Captain Bligh in the movie Mutiny on the Bounty, not for being the villain but for not being strict enough with the crew in the first place. She was an iron lady and kind of scary – which is what Don was counting on when he spuriously called out her name, knowing that whatever reaction I had would be strong enough to ruin my chances for beating his time with the dolly.

He hadn’t planned on quite as strong a reaction and now we had a mess on our hands – in addition to stacking the cans back up and pushing the carts back into line we had big black skids from the dolly’s wheels to remove and sticky syrup to clean up from a broken jar we hadn’t noticed at first. We did our best at cleaning the mess up, but it was extremely late, and we were both tuckered out. When we finished putting the cleaning equipment away and locked up we were both very uneasy…and wondering what jobs we could find when we inevitably got fired over this escapade.

Monday was Don’s regular day off so when I showed up at the store after football practice he was just as much in the dark as I was regarding Kearlee’s mood. We shuffled up to the checkout counter where he was working and mumbled something about the floors while doing our best to avoid eye-contact. Kearlee opened the register with a >DING<, handed us each a twenty-dollar bill and said, “Hang around a minute – I want to talk to you two about the floors.”

We stepped over to the side, alone with our thoughts for what turned out to be a very brief moment when Kearlee stepped over as well and started to speak

“I noticed something different about the floors when I came in this morning”

(Communal inward groan).

“Yep – I don’t think I’ve ever seen you two fellers do a better job on these floors. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do a better job for that matter. Good job the two of you!”

It was at that moment that I learned it was actually possible to get a Charlie horse in your face. I had been so prepared for a verbal blast that think I pulled a cheek muscle changing expressions so quickly. We nodded thanks and quickly left the store, rolling our eyes and mouthing comments to each other, not daring to actually speak for fear of laughing hysterically.

The guardian angel that watched over us that night continued to do so until December when the store closed and moved to a newer and larger location a mile or two down the Spur highway. Unfortunately, my job didn’t move with the store; The change in layout and size required the use of a waxing machine and Kearlee decided to introduce one of his  sons to the business by taking care of the floors. I was OK with that – I would soon be working construction and making a lot more money, but I was always thankful the mopping & waxing job came about when it did. It  kept me in records and dates for most of my senior year – and provided one of the best laughs in my life.

 

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1970: Who’s Watching Who?

Kenai Central High School had a long tradition of supplying a pep bus for major athletic events when I was a student there years ago. The bus trips were rarely if ever overnight excursions – when I was a freshman stories were still floating around about the totally out-of-control sex and alcohol that had caused such extended trips to be banned. We were a much quieter bunch than our predecessors – a competition to amass the largest chewing gum wad was the limit to our debauchery but nevertheless all our jaunts to Anchorage were Cinderella affairs and we were always back home by midnight.

The stated mission of each pep bus was to supply supportive voices to cheer on our teams, but the fact that we also got to miss a day of school with the district’s blessing helped to build student participation as well.  I personally was glad any time I got to Anchorage, if nothing else but to see how the city had changed since we moved away in 1964. On this occasion our mission was to cheer for our wrestlers competing in the state tournament –  and while we hoped to provide as much moral support as possible I was much more interested in the young lady sitting next to me on the bus than I was cheering for someone in red leotards getting his face rubbed off out on the mat.

She was a freshman named Cindy, and besides being very pretty she stood two very shapely  inches taller than I did. To this day I still cannot remember how we first became friends, but I do remember that we laughed a lot, which helped to compensate a bit for the platonic flavor our relationship had taken on, and which I hoped would change on this bus trip. We sat snuggled up on the miniscule seat, sometimes with my arm around her, other times with her head on my shoulder as she slept – but always under the watchful eye of Mr. Lombard.

Mr. Lombard taught classes at both the high school and at church …and just happened to be good friends with my parents. He was one of the chaperones on this pep bus and took notice of my presence and proximity to Cindy from the moment the trip started.  That might not seem much of a problem, but you must remember the medieval rules for dating that my mom had imposed on all her children –  I had no doubt that any untoward activity with Cindy would have been promptly ratted out to my parents when we got home.

As it was there was very little observing going on once we got to Anchorage as all the adults left the area as soon as the bus was unloaded.  As the only former Anchorage resident in the group I became very popular with other students who wanted to visit malls, stores and landmarks that they’d only seen on the television, so I immediately left for a series of short trips to the Mall at Sears, J.C. Penny’s downtown on Fifth Avenue and the Bun Drive-in further east on Northern Lights Boulevard. It was fun – and kind of an ego-boost but after my third such side trip I was tuckered out and went back to the tournament for a rest, which turned out to be very brief. After cheering through exactly three matches Mr.  Lombard bellowed “Everyone back on board!” and  the chaperones started herding us back to the bus for the long trip home.

…which was a little different than the trip up. When Cindy and I continued our slightly snuggly but platonic arrangement during that return trip I noticed something different about Mr. Lombard – his stern disapproving glare was replaced by a dark, confused almost vulnerable expression and he would quickly break eye contact whenever I happened to glance back. That unexpected change in demeanor did wonders for scaling down my own anxiety level, so Cindy and I were able to curl up comfortably on the seat together and sleep away all but the last half-hour of the trip home. I was still trying to figure out how I was going to avoid any sort of parent/Lombard drama upon arrival back at the school, but fortunately I was dropped off on the highway, my home less than a quarter-mile down Scout Lake Loop. I put on my best disappointed-look for Cindy and grumbled about leaving early but getting dropped off  “on the way” guaranteed there would be no chance for interaction between Lombard and my folks.

Other than a few odd looks during church I got through the weekend in good shape, though given the high-strung nature of my family it took real effort to refrain from suspecting the worst.  No indiscretion was too petty to escape retribution and for  to be a week following the trip I’d jump every time my mom so much as cleared her throat… but as far as I know the real story of Snugglegate was never leaked to my parents.

It wasn’t until a rather dramatic revelation at church months later that I learned the real reason for Lombard’s furtive looks.  He had been carrying on an affair with the school’s choir director and the wrestling tournament pep bus had given them a perfect cover for some “afternoon delight”. The dark looks directed at me weren’t because of my behavior – he was worried that I would be ratting him out instead.

Postscript

The book closed on the Cindy-story a few weeks later as well. I had decided to ask her to the junior prom but was interrupted by my friend Larry who was facing a particularly nerve-wracking task.  He decided he needed me for moral support – what they now call a “wing-man” but  it was only when we got to his personal ground-zero that I realized fate had dealt me another loaded hand:

I was there to back him up as he asked Cindy to the prom.

 

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1970: Requiem for Harvey

I don’t think it has ever been easy for a young man to learn proper boundaries with authority figures. I’m sure that there was more than one 19-year-old Roman legionnaire making bunny ears every time his centurion turned his back, and plenty of lewd comments were made just out of earshot when Shaka Zulu paraded his retinue of wives in front of the unmarried warriors’ regiment…but I do think that learning proper boundaries was a little more complex for for those of us coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Challenging the establishment seemed to be a required subject in any course of study and a required component of every other comedy show on television. The mixed messages I got at home just complicated the issue – it seemed like every day I’d hear my dad talk about telling off someone at work and my mother seemed to be constantly calling other parents to task for the misdeeds of their children.

There was a good reason why Eisenhower chose the 29th infantry division to lead the assault on Omaha Beach. They were young, green and had no idea what they were getting into. I was the same way when it came to learning about talking tough.

Harvey Stroud was somewhat of a mystery to me. He looked like a battered Chicago precinct captain with a perpetual scowl that convinced me to avoid any sort of situation that required us to be in the same room. He was the principal of Kenai Central High School during my freshman year, but left the following summer for the same post at a much smaller school forty miles down the road. The next time I heard anything about him was the fall of 1970 when it was announced that he had died; several rumors as to cause of death circulated around the school but the only solid information dealt with the memorial service that was going to be held in our gymnasium. For some reason the news was never announced over the loudspeaker so it was a bit surprising when a school bus pulled up two hours earlier than usual one afternoon…and doubly surprising when students poured out of the bus and into the front door.

I was in Miss Mahoney’s short story class1 when the bus pulled up – that is, me and my ego. I was doing quite well in the class because it combined two of my strengths- literature and drawing.  Each short story report was to include an illustration and while the stuff I came up was nowhere near as good as the card, game and book illustrations I created years later, it was still dramatically better than the work of my 10th and 11th grade classmates. I was definitely the big fish in the little pond.

I had turned in my work and was kicking back as unobtrusively as possible in the back row alongside the windows when the bus pulled up. As the rest of the class rushed over to see what was going on I heard someone query Miss Mahoney about the bus, but before she could respond I piped up:

“Oh, it’s just a pep bus from Ninilchik for Stroud’s funeral”

The room went silent, then one by one my classmates started to snicker. My ego inflated just a bit more. The Smothers Brothers couldn’t have said it better. Robert Klein couldn’t have said it better…and neither my mom nor my dad in one of their ranting commentaries could have said it any better.

“Ha-ha-ha-ha!” It was Miss Mahoney. “That was really funny. Take a walk!”

“What?”

“I said take a walk. Get out of my classroom. Now!

>POP<

There went my ego.

Rumor had it that Nora Mahoney spent a tour of duty with the United States Marine Corps before teaching so I offered no excuses or smart talk. I slunk out of class, making some weak joke as I left but I was too caught up in basic survival to come up with a more memorable quip. While I hadn’t been a particularly good kid during high school I hadn’t been an overly bad one and getting kicked out of class was a rare experience for me. I had just hit on hiding in a restroom adjacent to the new cafeteria when the loudspeaker squawked something unintelligible about an upcoming football game.

Football practice! My salvation!

If you’d seen me play football you’d take issue with the game ever being my salvation. As I have written elsewhere I was a late-bloomer when it came to physical strength and coordination so I was not a star player…which would be an advantage in this situation. I could go to practice and blend in with all the other muddy jerseys, let whatever turmoil my comment made burn itself out and get back to real life the next morning.

It was late enough in the season for the rigid discipline of practice to relax a bit. After getting suited up we were to go out and run four easy laps around the field, go through some basic calisthenics, and then practice the repertoire of plays scheduled for the coming game. After slinking into the locker room I quickly got into my gear and trotted out to the field in the middle of four or five other players, and as we reached the track circling the field and started running I broke into a sly grin.

I’d made it!

“DEITRICK!”

There was no mistaking that voice. It was Coach. The head coach. Coach Gordon Prentice. Gordy P. The – I abruptly shut my internal monologue down. My smart mouth had already gotten me into trouble once and I didn’t need a repeat performance.

” GET OVER HERE! “

“NOW!”

The black hats at jump school couldn’t have locked my heels any tighter than he did. I stood perfectly rigidly still as he leaned over and continued at a much lower volume – always a bad sign.

“You know, you might think that because you’re not playing all the time no one notices what you do. Well, you’re wrong. I don’t know why it is but these younger guys watch you like a hawk, especially the guys in PE class. You need to think about them and the example you’re setting for them the next time you think about making a smart remark.”

As he went on with his corrections I made sure to look repentant and nod my head at the right moments. By this time most of the team had finished their four laps and were gathering for calisthenics so when Coach Prentice was done I started to trot over in that direction.

“Oh – and be sure to get all four laps in before we’re done with warming up,” at which point I veered back out to the track and started to pick up my pace at a dead run. After finishing my run, I wheezed my way through the balance of practice, then carefully avoided all “how was your day” inquiries on the ride home. I came close to aspirating a hamburger patty when dad went into one of his “so I told him” stories at the dinner table but after coughing my airway clear I beat a hasty retreat to my attic loft where I spent the rest of the evening listening to the Moody Blues and trying to mentally reorder reality to avoid any consequences the following day.

The next morning, I kept a low profile, carefully sidestepping any faculty members that knew my parents. I jumped a bit higher than normal at the first bell; there was no avoiding Coach as I was his aide in PE during the first period but all I got from him was an abbreviated repeat of his lecture on setting a good example as I left the locker room.  My outlook brightened a bit and by the time I got to my second class of the day I was actually smiling –  it looked like I was going to leave yesterday’s indiscretion behind.

“Sociology/Contemporary Issues/Modern Problems” – it was called one of those names, though for most of us my second period class was known simply as “The class you take to avoid Anderson’s Government class”. Tom Ackerly (AKA “The Ack”) was the instructor for the class as well as history, geography and assistant football coach. The Ack was a recent transplant from Florida and more than one foolhardy soul had taken his ursine build, calm demeanor, and soft southern accent as signs of weakness, only to find that when they engaged in a duel of wits with The Ack they were essentially unarmed men. He had a razor-sharp intellect, an even sharper wit, and I had finagled my way into at least one of his classes each year…

…. which meant exactly nothing when I caught his icy stare as I edged through scattered desks to my regular perch. I inwardly groaned as we started working in teams on a group project – “I am never going to live this down” – the despair only deepening when The Ack motioned me over to a seat next to his desk, where I braced myself for an encore of Coach Prentice’ admonition from the previous day.

“Pep bus for Stroud’s funeral eh?”

He cracked the faintest of smiles and said, “That’s a pretty good one” – and as my jaw dropped he went onMahoney told everyone in the teacher’s lounge last night. Everyone figured it was the best joke we’d heard since our last paycheck.”

By the end of the day it looked like I’d dodged the bullet. My comment was no longer front-page news as the entire student body was collectively frothing at the mouth over being assigned student numbers. The measure was meant to streamline attendance reporting and record-keeping but was taken as a dehumanizing establishment plot to enforce conformity and reduce individuality (2).

…at least that’s what I said to one foxy lady after another as I hand-lettered student numbers on their t-shirts “as a protest!”. Later in the year it was determined that the numbers ultimately served little purpose other than giving students something to get worked up about, which that day conveniently drew attention away from my snarky remark.

I walked away from the incident having learned three valuable lessons:

  1. Everyone – even my parents – must cope with stress in daily life. My mom and dad’s stories about telling people off and talking big were a way of blowing off steam and I need not take their comments too literally.
  2. Avoid snarky remarks in general unless you’re in trusted company.
  3. If there’s no way to stop the remark – make it funny.

 


 

  1. The year before 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. Popular entertainment was full of stories of a dehumanizing dystopian future. On the radio we listened to “In The year 2525” by Zager&Evans and we were all reading the pessimistic novels that would end up as the motion pictures “Soylent Green” and “Logan’s Run” just a few year later.

 

StrikeAPose1969

 

1970: Kites

I loved being a Cub Scout. When I joined in the fall of 1962 membership in Cub Scouts was the studliest thing a nine year old boy could do, and while wearing the uniform added a certain savoir faire to my game, it was the activities in our weekly den meetings that were the real attraction. I liked learning field craft; I liked learning to whittle. I liked making things with papier mache and I liked making costumes and performing in skits. In short I liked – no, I loved the entire program

…except for kites.

I went through most of the Cub Scout rank and arrow-head requirements like a freight-train until I hit the requirement to make and fly a kite, at which point the aforementioned freight train became completely derailed. While the handbooks had nice diagrams of both traditional diamond and box kites accompanied by precise measurements and suggested materials, every attempt I made at kite construction failed. No matter how hard I tried, my kites looked nothing like the graceful soaring creations depicted on each page. No, my kits always ended up a tangle of sticks, paper and string that looked less like a graceful soaring eagle than something an eagle would upchuck after a week-old road kill feast. The kite failure was the only blot in my Cub Scout copy book and it drove me crazy. You know that closing scene of Mary Poppins were everyone is happy and singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”? My reaction brought about ejection from the Fourth Avenue Theater when I threw my Seven-up at the screen in frustration.

To be honest it wasn’t like I had any talent for creating effective instruments of flight to begin with. I was an instant bolo from the moment I first discovered flying toys and models at the age of six. No kid ever wanted to make something fly more than I did – and no kid was ever more luckless in the attempt – I loved airplanes and the idea of flight but I couldn’t keep anything in the air.  It was bad enough that I failed with store-bought kites just as badly as I did with my Cub Scout project kites, but unfortunately the Icarian curse didn’t involve just kites – every paper airplane I ever folded immediately augered into the ground and there wasn’t a balsa glider made that wouldn’t split into slivers during my ham-handed attempts at assembly. No, I had to be content with assembling scale model plastic kits and wistfully watching floatplanes fly over our house enroute to the Lake Hood seaplane base.

<Fast-forward to 1970>

I think of my junior year as being my “lost year” of high school. I lacked the large group of buddies that I had the year before and the academic schedule itself held no events major enough to be considered a milestone of any sort. Most of the year involved marking time while I slowly approached my senior year and those unavoidable decisions that definitely would shape the rest of my life. Even popular entertainment seemed to be a washout with little in the way of music or television shows holding any interest for me. My only escape from total boredom was Donny.

Donny and I had first become friends six years earlier when my family moved to the Peninsula, but the two year gap in our ages put us worlds apart once I hit puberty. By the time of this story we were both in high school which held enough in common (marathon “Risk” games and girls) to sustain a renewed friendship, and as time went by a very similar sense of humor and wicked parody provided additional fuel for our relationship as well – but it wasn’t until a third ingredient was added that our buddy-ship was clinched.

It was the last fifteen minutes of church one Sunday during break-up and I was looking out the window and scowling at the typical March weather of south-central Alaska: Wind and rain gusting off the mountains to the east. I was muttering about the wind eliminating any chance for doing something interesting later on when Donny whispered “great day for kites”.

I made a face and mumbled a snarky comeback but Donny cut me off: “no – I’m not talking about those crappy newspaper things in Cubs. There are these new kinds of kites that look like birds and don’t need tails. They launch straight up and fly great.”  Hmmm.  I figured nothing ventured – nothing gained so we cleared a sleep-over with our respective sets of parents as we usually did on just about every other Sunday, but this time a kite and string accompanied the Risk game in Donny’s baggage.

I wasn’t totally sold on the kite idea as we walked out to the north pasture after dinner,  but I figured that if nothing else it would be nice to get outside for at least a couple of hours of daylight, especially as  the rain had tapered off. . Donny was of a different mind completely – he was bouncing from foot to foot with excitement as he assembled his kite and connected it with the string on his reel. I was immediately taken with the design; it was a delta-shaped airfoil made of polyethylene that in early 1970 Alaska was very unique.  As it rustled and popped in the wind I started to get excited as well – and by the time I took my position about ten yards away I was bouncing on my toes as well. Ever the showman, Donny grew quiet then momentarily balanced the kite’s wooden keel on the tips of his fingers before suddenly snapping his arm up and sending the kite in the air.

As I tried to track the kite’s path skyward my head snapped up and back so hard that the momentum made me fall backwards into the slush. I had never seen anything shoot so far or so fast and I was so delighted that Donny’s typical mocking laughter bounced right off my emotional hide.  My whole world had just changed.

Donny and I spent the next dozen Sunday afternoons flying kites under the most perfect kite-flying weather ever. At the time we were only 13 years out of a massive forest fire that had burned away the heart of the Kenai Peninsula so the winds off the Chugach Mountains to the east had little to slow them down.  We were also blessed in that the surrounding trees were either burned-out snags or short(er) post-fire new growth which offered little obstruction to kites or the strings, but to stay on the safe side we started using the flat roof of one of the sheds for a launching area as it gave us an additional ten feet clearance over close-in obstructions.

That rooftop was the site of one of our crowning achievements a month later when we were able to get a thousand feet of string out on one of our kites. It had already been a memorable afternoon; that prevailing wind was still quite chilly as it blew off the mountains but we were finally getting enough sunlight each day to get you warmed up a bit if you were able to get out of the wind. The breeze changed several times between northwest and southwest and it seemed like every time the wind moved us towards the setting sun we’d let out more string to clear obstacles we couldn’t quite see. By this time my younger sisters had climbed up to cheer us on but after the fourth time we pivoted to follow the breeze they all stopped talking. Moments later one of them  quietly asked “Gussie, how much string are you using”?  I glanced over to see that she was holding four wrappers discarded during our frantic “string reloads.”

Handing the reel to Donny I took the wrappers and read the labels: each individual roll held 300 feet of string.  We’d started with a half-reel  ( 100 feet?) so with the four we’d added there had to be between 1000 and 1200 feet of string separating us from the kite. I looked up – there was no way that kite was a thousand feet up in the air, but when I started checking out chimneys, power poles and other landmarks to the left and right it was obvious that my rough calculations were correct, we had over a thousand feet out on that kite, though the distance was almost as much lateral as it was vertical.

It was a glorious achievement nonetheless and was a record we never surpassed. It never bothered me though because records and markers weren’t the reason I had grown to love my kites. Kites entranced me for the same reason that I preferred cross-country skiing to driving snow machines, or why motorcycles never held the same appeal to me that bicycles did. It was that Zen quality of the moment when everything came down to me, the kite and the wind. No break-neck bouncing and whirling. No sputtering four-stroke internal combustion engines – just the thrum of the kite string and slow dance that comes from manipulating the string to gain altitude or change direction.

It’s not a hobby that everyone enjoys – a lot of people love recreation that consists mostly of the elements I seek to avoid. I’ve never been able to explain the appeal or describe how it feels when I’m flying a kite. At best it is kind of close to what I thought flying an airplane would be – before I found out how structured civil aviation is and how much hard work controlling an aircraft really entailed.  The best insight I can give is tell you to listen to “Sailin’ the Wind” a song on the “Full Sail” album released in 1973 by folk/rock duo Loggins and Messina – that song comes closest to describing the whole  kite experience.

As the years have gone my involvement with “sailing the wind”  has waxed and waned like those winds off the mountains, reaching a peak in the late 1980’s when my young family and I went back to Sterling to house-sit for my parents while they served as missionaries on Prince Edward Island. That time I was equipped much better than I had been in 1970; top of the line nylon kites, high test line and a special reel that made it much easier to take up line quickly when the wind dropped. I even got a small parafoil kite that I kept tucked away in whatever shoulder bag or tote that happened to be using at the time so that whenever I would encounter a decent breeze and an open area I could have a kite launched and soaring at altitude within minutes.

…but it wasn’t the same. For one thing the intervening seventeen winters had been fairly mellow which meant the trees on the homestead could quickly grow much taller and closer together than they had before.  I was also flying alone – though Donny and I  spent the early part of every summer from 1970 to 1974 “launching fabric “, by 1987 he was no longer Donny – he was Donald, a  high-powered attorney with much more important things to do with his time than fly kites.

I was different as well. While I freely maintain that no amount of money in the world could ever coax me into reliving my teen-age years, there was a mental freedom that I had at the time that I really miss. At seventeen I could lose myself completely in whatever I was doing at the time; whether I was drawing, assembling a model, working in wood or tossing around a ball, I was totally focused on the matter at hand and could forget that the rest of the world existed.

It’s just the opposite now. At any given moment I have numberless major concerns that fight for my attention, including:

  • How can I make our household budget balance out?
  •  What’s going to happen at my doctor’s appointment on Monday?
  •  How long can I hold off getting that cracked molar fixed?
  • How long can I keep putting off getting the brakes relined on my VW?
  • Are my students fully grasping the point of my lectures?
  • Will I be able to walk when I wake up tomorrow morning?
  • Will mean Mr. Asthma finally get that choke-hold on me before I can even try to walk?

No, I’d never want to be a teenager again, but I would give you everything I own to ditch that list above and spend an hour with nothing weightier on my mind than getting another hundred feet out on a kite string.

 

1970: The name is Deitrick. David Deitrick

Gospel scholars teach that the Savior conducted his ministry while he was in his thirties. Based on Matthew 13: 55-57 I think he was seventeen. The scripture refers to an incident when Jesus was preaching to the people in his hometown, and their less-than-warm reception was: “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary …Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, a prophet is not without honor, save in this own country and in his own house” ….which is precisely the reaction that I got as young man when returning to my hometown when I accomplished anything!

“Who does this kid think he is?”

As I aged it didn’t get much better; I went directly from being June’s Boy to Holly’s Brother to Lynne’s Boyfriend to Lori’s Husband, rarely having an identity of my own. Respite from this labeling came only during events that kept me away from home for an extended period of time. Only then did I have a chance to reinvent myself and escape from my own inherent tackiness.

The summer of 1970 gave me ample opportunity.

It helped that I had gained a bit of confidence during the preceding spring. I had lucked into taking a beautiful young lady to junior prom and while any hope of post-dance relationship wilted as quickly as my boutonniere the experience of having a Katherine Ross wannabe on my arm for an evening gave a boost to my confidence and relative eligibility with other girls at school.

What’s more my height gained a couple of inches and my waist lost some, I cultivated both a totally bitchin’ set of sideburns and a nice carpet of chest hair but there were issues concerning my teeth. Two front teeth had been damaged when I was eight and were still discolored to a degree. I felt very self-conscious so I had devised various coping mechanisms:

  • I told people I was a vampire.
  • I stopped smiling for school pictures.
  • I borrowed stand-up routines from comedians like Robert Klein and Dave Steinberg, hoping that the jokes would draw attention away from my mouth.

None of which seemed to be effective going into the summer of 1970, which was otherwise stacking up to look like three great months living outside of the aforementioned stereotype. First I was to attend Boy’s State which was followed shortly after by a church-sponsored Youth Conference in Anchorage. When that was over I had an extended gig in Seward working for a contractor replacing the roof on the high school and when that was over – football season!  It was an incredible line-up , but it wasn’t what I had on my mind the most.

You see,  I wanted to be James Bond.

It was just past the crest of Bond-o-mania during the dark times when all the movies could offer was George Lazenby looking like a kid in his dad’s suit but fortunately I had discovered  Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. While Sean Connery definitely had style Fleming’s written descriptions left me with just as much of an impression and as I was trying to solve my dental aesthetics issue Fleming’s use of term “cruel mouth” piqued my curiosity.

As first I thought that maybe it had something to do with kissing too hard but eventually I determined that it referred to something like the pouting lower lip on the face of Robert Lansing, star of ABC series of Twelve O’clock High). I gave it a try, though I can’t remember how sticking my lower lip out was supposed to hide two teeth directly under my nose. I decided to lose the lip after Mom kept asking me if I’d caught one in the face while playing dodge ball.

Setting up a mock state government in the all-male environment of Boy’s State gave me little time or incentive to worry about my appearance. It wasn’t until I left for the summer’s second event – Youth Conference – that my teeth became something to worry about again.

Youth conference was an annual event when Church kids ages 14-18 gathered together from Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula and the Matanuska/Susitna valley for three or four days of workshops and activities. The stated goal of the conference was spiritual growth1 but to be totally honest my own goal was getting acquainted with young ladies and for once I was successful. Early on in the conference I became reacquainted with Ellen, a girl from Fairbanks that I had met at a previous youth conference. With the iconic 007 theme running through my mind I coolly reached for her hand and we paired up, spending the balance of the time being a bit more exclusive than the chaperones may have liked.

They would have been even less happy had they noticed us slipping out the door during workshops on the next-to-the-last night of the conference. Again channeling Sean Connery as best as I could, I suggested that we walk home instead of waiting for rides; earlier in the evening Ellen had not-so-subtly let slip that her host family lived not far from the stake center and as I knew Anchorage fairly well I figured the walk to be a good opportunity to “get better acquainted” and still get her home in a timely manner.

She knew the address was north of our location (“…maybe on West 16th Avenue…) so we set out in the almost-midnight-sun that is a June evening in Alaska. We’d walk a little. We’d talk a little. Tease a little but never getting into any real trouble.  but when I happened to look at my watch I was alarmed to see that it was 10:00 PM! I began to doubt Ellen ’s sense of direction but she stuck to West 16th avenue as a destination until it finally started to get dark, which in summertime Alaska means it is about to rain or really, really late.

At this point we were in a part of town that I didn’t know as well and I started getting edgy, mostly because I didn’t want Ellen to get in trouble. I finally admitted defeat and did something that no one in their right mind will do in Anchorage of 2017…

I knocked on a door and asked to use their phone.

To this day I have no idea why that lady let me in. Maybe it was the fact that I was with Ellen and we were both dressed semi-nice. Maybe it was the subtle perfume Ellen was wearing. Maybe she was just being charitable. Mostly I think it was the fact that no matter how hard I tried to channel James Bond and have a “cruel mouth” I’m just a nice guy and it shows. Whatever the reason she let us stand in her entryway while I dialed my friends to come get us – and then let us stay there until we were picked up.

The teasing was merciless on the ride back home and doubled in intensity when we dropped off Ellen and found that she was staying at a place not more than a block away. She’d transposed “east” and “west” and didn’t know Anchorage well enough to orient herself correctly.

It was all coolness and sly looks the next day as we finished the conference and went our separate ways. Shortly afterwards I started the roofing job in Seward which turned out to be one of the hardest things I had ever done in my (then) short life. It was extremely hard and dangerous2 work; between the dislocation and fatigue I was feeling pretty emotional and made an idiot of myself writing letter after letter to Ellen , all of which went unanswered. I called her a month later and while she maintained that she’d written at least one reply it was obvious that I had been a “summer thing”. I folded my ego up and moved on, permanently retiring the “cruel mouth” look in the process.

1972: I was back to Fairbanks to spend the Fourth of July weekend with my Best Friend.  While we were at a formal dance I was left unattended during a “nose powdering break” when a sudden wisp of a perfume I hadn’t smelled in two years prompted me to turn… to find Ellen coolly standing next to me. We had no more exchanged brief greetings when my Best Friend returned from her break; she smiled at Ellen then led me out to the dance floor for a waltz3. I was surprised at her calm demeanor until she hissed through a smile “if she makes one move for you I’ll scratch her eyes out”.

1976: I ran into Ellen while changing classes at BYU. It was a pleasant surprise but seemed like something out of a Harry Chapin song (“…whatever we had once was gone…”)

2017:  We tend to view the past through rose-colored glasses and while I’d like to think that with my razor/laser memory I am a bit more objective than most but in one instance of looking back there is no nostalgic tint to vision at all. It was better back in 1970. I get newspaper headlines from the Anchorage Dispatch (formerly the Anchorage Daily News) via email and I have been distressed in that the hottest stories of this past year has been the unusually high murder rate.

Of particular concern is a playground area called Craters of the Moon where at least six people were killed there during an alarmingly short period of time in 2016. Why am I mentioning this? Craters of the Moon is just south and down a slope from the house where I made that call from in 1970. Had I knocked on that door this last summer I would have at best gotten a face full of pepper spray and at worst .45 reasons why I shouldn’t have knocked on the door.

——————————————————————————————————————–

1I put an honest amount of effort into the workshops. It was during a scripture chase there that I first encountered the scripture from Matthew about prophets and home towns that I used in the introduction

2This was before OSHA and child-labor laws put limits on the hours and types of work for kids

3 We were really good at waltzing, having been on a dance demonstration team the previous year.

 

This was the soundtrack of those times…..

1970 Natural Gas

Warning: I spent a good part of my young adulthood working at the Swanson River oil field, so it should be no surprise that I am writing about natural gas. However, please note that even though propane figured prominently in my work as a roustabout, I will be writing about another variety of natural gas: methane, and not the type of methane that cows produce from digesting hay. I’m going to be writing about flatulence, a normal body function that many people feel uncomfortable discussing so I am giving fair warning: If you don’t think fart jokes can be funny then you may want to give this post a pass.

I was seventeen before I started to date on a regular basis. It wasn’t that I was shy or didn’t like girls – on the contrary I found it easy to fall in love daily with a different young lady but it was hard maintaining an active social life with all the  rules I had to follow. Mom saddled us with a complex set of  restrictions on dating that would have taken a Talmudic council years to decipher. For example, every solo date had to be followed by at least three double dates, we weren’t supposed to date any one person more than two times in a row and we were supposed to bring our dates to our house and introduce them before the event.

…which all worked about as well as you think it would when all five siblings devised ways to get around the restrictions. My favorite tactic was not passing on all the information regarding an evening’s activities; for example I’d tell my folks that I was going to a wrestling match but would conveniently forget to tell them that I was also taking my girlfriend Debbie with me. I discovered early on in life that I was a most inept liar and didn’t get as nervous if what I was telling Mom was technically true.

This lack of social experience meant that as a senior in high school a date could still generate a fair level of anxiety, especially if my date was someone I didn’t know very well or conversely someone I really, really liked. Fortunately despite that inner turmoil I was always able to somehow project a calm exterior even as my stomach was constantly churning, the proverbial butterflies acting more like dive bombers – what PeptoBismol TV commercials would innocently refer to as “Distress in the lower tract”.

This “distress” had me rivaling the local production fields in terms of the volume of natural gas I would be create – and while it was socially acceptable1 to vent in the company of your buddies any sort of sound was a sure ticket to Singlesville when out on the town with a young lady, so I would try to just hold it all in as best I could, a challenging task depending on what I ate for supper. On days that my dad made his signature Navy bean soup I would end up feeling like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon in danger of over inflation. I would often wonder what would happen if I fell asleep at the movies while my insides were churning thusly – would they find me floating just below the theater ceiling, gently bobbing and bouncing along in the warm air stream from the heating system?

Consequently I got very clever at finding times to “balance my production system”. For instance, in those days it was common for girls to get in the car on the driver’s side, and then scoot across to the passenger side, the scooting distance being proportional to how much they liked the driver.  I would thrill my dates with what they took as old-fashioned manners by opening, holding, and closing their door, then walking around the back of the car to my own seat. What I was really doing was using that time to adjust pressure…a tactic which could backfire (in more than one way) if for some reason the car windows were rolled down.

Dances were no problem; music was provided by live bands of differing expertise but they’d all play as loud as possible so you could stay safely vented during  something loud and raucous like “Whole Lotta Love”  or “Born to be Wild” as long as you took care to keep moving in large enough circles. Theaters were a bit trickier but could be managed if I wore enough Brut and waited for on-screen explosions or gunfights. It was only when activities were quiet and the setting intimate that the aforementioned “distress in the lower tract” became distress in general.

…which was exactly what happened to me in early December of 1970 while on a double date with my football buddy Walt. The original plan was to catch a double feature at the Kambe theater then get a burger and fries at the local kid hang-out2 While Walt was driving all over the peninsula picking up me, my date and his date a chinook3 blew in leaving the roads covered with puddles of warm water standing on alternating patches of pavement and ice. Legitimate safety concerns forced a change in plans from going to the show to hanging around at Walt’s date’s house while “listening to records”.

…which was much less passionate than the football team had wished for but kind of nice nonetheless.  I hadn’t had many opportunities to  kiss a young lady more than two  times in a row and the evening’s activities had me feeling quite smug ….until I started to feel the first tell-tale bubbles of that dreaded “distress in the lower track” at which point date-terror took hold me of me. I was trapped: There were just the four of us in a 20”X 40” rec room and there was no dog to blame.  The loudest background noise was the record player which unfortunately was playing the Crosby, Stills and Young, music made up of soft tunes driven by vocal harmony possessing absolutely no ability to mask unfortunate noises. It wasn’t going to be an easy night and I couldn’t help but look at Walt with envy as he sat across the room with his young lady, all cuddled up and looking the very picture of cool-osity. He was a year younger than I was but much more successful as a lady’s man. Nothing seemed to faze that guy.

I bought some time by feigning an upset stomach from wolfing down a bad hotdog earlier in the day but that dodge had limited range at best. I had to limit myself to just two faux bathroom breaks lest my date become overcome with maternal instinct and trade-out kissing for tending to my ills. It also didn’t help that my first visit to that basement comfort station induced more fear than relief when I bumped my head walking in. I thought that my floating methane balloon nightmare had finally come true when in fact the bathroom door had been trimmed shorter than usual in order to fit the space under the staircase.

After my second bathroom visit I found that if I just flexed all the muscles between my navel and my knees the pressure would kind of “poof’ back up into my stomach – but then that would  bring on sharp gas pains that brought on tears which my date could not help but notice. With the luck of a falling cat landing on its paws, I gained points with my date when I explained away the tears as an emotional reaction to Stephen Stills’ inspired lead vocal on “You Don’t Have To Cry”.

The night finally came to an end – well, actually it was the father of the house that brought it to an end when he  stomped down the stairs and told us that A) the roads were now in much better shape and B) our parents would be worried so we needed to get home, though as we subsequently slipped and slid all over the highway  I was pretty sure that there had been another choice: C) “I want you two to get the hell out of my house!”. The remaining three of us were all quiet on the drive home and not a word was said until we dropped off my date. At that point Walt turned to me and said “What were you doing in there? I damn near blasted my britches that last time you were in the bathroom! “

The shock startled a garbled “Wha-?” out of me as he continued “Yeah – the nervous farts. I get them every time I take anyone out. Anyone. They start while I’m driving to pick ’em  up and don’t let up until I’m on the way home”,  punctuating his statement with a long drawn-out bbrrrraaappppp that should have ripped his undershorts. As we drove the rest of the way home he shared several other examples of date-terror that were all too familiar to me.

Summer 1976

I was back in town for the summer working out at Swanson River, trying to save money to go back to school after a two year break for my bicycle penance. It was a Friday night and I was participating in a progressive dinner organized by our YSA (Young Single Adult) organization. Progressive dinners are such that appetizer’s are served at one home, salads at another, the entrée at a third place and desert at a fourth. It was a nice way to end a work week but I had put in a lot of overtime and was very tired. By the time we got to the third home and the main dish I was not too sure where we were.

As the hosts led us to the dinner table set up in their rec room I started thinking about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and all the balloons for some reason – and then I stopped and took a closer look all around. While he room had been painted and had different furniture,  it was the same infamous basement rec room from December of 1970.  The house had changed owners a couple of years after that event – hence the redecoration –  and for a split-second I thought about sharing (part) of my story with the new owners , but thought better of it and tucked into my dinner.

…but on the way out I did take a couple of minutes to look at that shorter-than-normal basement bathroom door.

___________________________________________________________________________

1Not only was it OK to let one rip around the guys, the situation often gave way to a competitive situation where each guy tried to best the others when letting one rip….and don’t even get me started on the topic of matches….

2Bookeys

3Native term for a sudden thaw/subsequent ice storm

1970: Bob, Brandy and the Bus

” Road Warriors”

One of the more common topics in business publications –  urban-based workers facing a long commute each morning and afternoon. I have some compassion for them, but not much.  I spent four years of my life making a daily round trip that would make a Los Angeles commute seem like a stroll in the park. This arduous daily trek? Getting to and from high school.

Before your eyes start to roll and the coffee spurts out your nostrils let me qualify this a bit. High school for me meant Kenai Central High School located in ( where else) Kenai, Alaska. At the time KCHS served the central part of the Kenai Peninsula with a student body numbering not quite a thousand kids drawn from an area fifty miles in diameter. I lived about half that distance out, but that still left me with at least an hour trip in the morning and evening – and sometimes the trip clocked in longer than that.

Because periods of light and darkness vary so much during the year we often left for school and returned home in darkness which ruled out doing any sort of reading or homework during the trip. The school district was too poor to equip each bus with an AM radio and as it was ten years before any sort of Walkman-type personal music systems and forty years before smart phones the only entertainment available consisted of reciting to each other as much of the latest episode of The Smothers Brother’s Show as we could remember.

…and at this point I can imagine the winks, smarmy grins and knowing looks starting to spread over all your faces, accompanied by one or more of the following comments:

  • “Well, we can just imagine how they spent their time.”
  • ‘What did that last issue of National Geographic say about gonorrhea in frontier areas ?
  • “How high is the teen-age pregnancy rate in Alaska?”

 

Well – forget it. No matter what you think or what statistics may infer, our school bus was not a rolling version of the Playboy mansion. Our school year included five months of icy weather which wasn’t just cold – it FREEZING cold, often including endless weeks of well-below-zero weather. Nothing dampens a teenager’s ardor quicker than trying to navigate through two layers of underwear, street clothes and a parka, scarf, sweater and gloves – and even if you could manage the task there was no place to snuggle. The seats were designed to accommodate the average student, i.e. third graders, so any bus-born amorous adventures were exclusively imaginary in nature.

You learned early on to deal with it.  The lucky kids were those with their own cars, followed by those able to hitch rides with friends or parents with jobs close to the school. Hitch-hiking was always an option but entailed an element of risk – and not just the kind of risk you saw on The  After-school Special. There was always a chance that you might not catch a ride at all, which was the case once when Todd Moore and I tried to hitch home from football practice and ended up walking 12 miles from Soldotna to Sterling without a single car even just slowing down.

For most students it was a matter of enduring 60 minutes or longer in the bus – but for a selected few the ride was longer and even more demeaning. Those of us living on Scout Lake Loop road had to complete the last leg of the trip on the Sterling Elementary School bus. School district bean-counters had determined that a transfer where the routes intersected would save the school district a fortune. Well, maybe fifty or sixty bucks, but considering how close the school budget came to not being approved the previous summer they were out to save any amount possible.

Switching buses was like switching worlds – even though the seats in our regular bus were cramped, the temperature was comfortable, but the iced-over windows of the Sterling bus put you in mind of a scene out of “One Day in the Life of Evan Denysovitch” or some other gulag documentary.  The temperature inside the Sterling vehicle was at least twenty degrees cooler than the high school bus and while it was reasonable to assume that the warmth of the insulated coveralls Bob ( the bus driver) wore while prepping the bus caused him to err in properly setting the thermostat, I suspect that he deliberately kept the bus interior cold to numb the kids into submission.

We were not thrilled about making the switch but managed to cope. As my friend Sherry and I usually sat together on the regular bus the transfer was little more than a simple change of scenery as we talked about music, school, clothes and our respective non-existent love lives. Such diverting conversation should have taken our minds off the rolling refrigerator we were riding in but unfortunately we also contend with the elementary school kids. They were animals. In a larger community kids their age would have given high school students wide berth but in a small place like Sterling we were all like family so the fear was not there…which meant riding for twenty minutes in a bus full of little-brother clones at their worst behavior . Bob  was well aware of the problem and had devised a system of assigned seats to separate the worst offenders, but for Sherry and I it meant we had to sit in front of the Renton brats on every trip.

I say boys plural because even though only one of them spoke coherently so I never knew how many of them there were – they’d recently moved into the state so I had yet to put names to faces; compounding that uncertainty was the fact that the three of them never stopped moving AND moved as a pack to boot. They weren’t triplets but each one had that identical Cub Scout age look: two missing teeth, a facial dirt smudge that stayed for weeks, hair so unkempt it would scare a comb to death and nostrils that rarely lacked for the company of a digit or two. They didn’t talk so much as snarl, and watching them in action brought to mind the Tasmanian Devil of Warner Brothers cartoon fame.

They would start the minute we got on the bus, leaning over the seat, yelling in our ears and making a general nuisance of themselves. They were astute enough to keep their hands to themselves knowing that Bob would have made quick work of them had they actually hit someone …but on this particular late March afternoon something was different. Maybe there had been a full moon or some trace radiation in the water but they were much more brazen than usual, swinging closer and closer until one of them grabbed a lock of Sherry’s long brown hair and gave it a sharp tug.

I twisted around to face the assailant; it was the oldest brother Brandy and he was sitting there speechless with a slightly dazed grin as if he didn’t know what had just done . I  grabbed the front of his sweatshirt and kind of bounced/shook him back and forth against my fist, repeatedly thumping his chest. With my hand wrapped up in the cloth it wasn’t really so much a punch as shaking – like a terrier with a rat but still with enough force enough to calm all three of them down for the balance of the trip.

There was a specific reason for that tactic: I knew it would get his attention without hurting him and the low level of force applied combined with the location of our seat should have kept everything out of sight of Bob. It wasn’t until I glanced up at Bob’s eyes in the rear view mirror minutes later that I realized that I was mistaken. Bob  was looking right at me , his pale blue laser gaze letting me know that I was definitely busted. I began to sweat; Bob was an institution in Sterling , the custodian/bus driver since the doors opened in the late 1950s. He was this big, taciturn mountain of a guy and even at sixteen I was respectful.

It wasn’t just Bob’s opinion that had me worried though. While it is true that in those times school systems weren’t as jittery about conflict and fighting like they are now, if Bob were to report me I could have gotten into real trouble and possibly lost my bus privileges .  For a minute I considered trying to sneak off the bus before Bob could talk to me but the bus was all but empty before that thought occurred to me.

“David” Bob’s deep voice rumbled more than spoke ” I want you to come up here where I can talk to you before we get to your house.”

( Oh no. Dead meat. Could I get kicked out of school too?)

” I saw what happened back there with you and Brandy – the way you shook him up.”

He paused.

” He needs that to happen to him more often.”

WHAT?

“All three of them all need it. They can’t keep their hands to themselves and I can’t personally take care of them every time they act up. I’m not telling you it’s OK to beat him all the time, but you helped me out a lot  by shaking him up. Made life a lot easier for Sherry and the other girls on the bus as well.”

…and at that point we pulled up at our driveway and I hopped off the bus and went straight to my loft bedroom. During supper that evening my mom kept asking me why I was smiling so much. Was there a new girl at school? Was NBC bringing back Star Trek? Did I have gas? I countered each comment with some vague joke as I finished my meal.

Life on the frontier did not come with a lot of entertainment. Movies were six months in getting to our theaters, songs took six weeks to get to our radio stations, television shows were delayed two weeks …and when they did get there the reception was terrible. The closest bookstores were three hours away in Anchorage so we had to depend on grocery and drug store news stands for a thin supply of comics, magazines and paperback books. The town of Soldotna was referred to as “Slow-dotna” – and not in jest. Into this monotony I had been handed a golden ticket. As I ate dinner I kept thinking of the entertainment value in Bob’s directive to me. I never again laid a hand on any kid on the elementary school bus but one hard glance was enough to send them all scrambling, the sight of which was better than anything I’d ever see in a two week old TV show or 6 month old movie.

Sherry Prinzing

 

My friend Sherry….several years after this story