1973: Main Flare

“How big are the bolts – and while we’re at it how many bolts are there? 12? 16?”

“I dunno Dave. I musta left my calibrated eyeball at home.”

I turned toward Lowell Dean; his red-head’s complexion and twenty + years in the New Mexico sun had transformed the regular features of the young man’s face into an unreadable map of creases and freckles but any scowl I may have glimpsed vanished in a flash. He growled on: “Don’t matter much what size they are – they still have to be changed out and I’d just as soon get ‘er done sooner than later!”

As for me, busting my knuckles with a set of wrenches was no sweat but working right underneath an actively roaring fire was…well, sweaty, and as usual it got me to thinking back at how I managed to end up in this situation.

…three months earlier

I had never anticipated the ending of a school year with as much relish as I did the Spring ’73 Semester at Ricks College. While I had performed well academically, my personal life had been a train wreck in slow motion as my engagement crumbled under intense pressure from my parents and family, and as I have written earlier the transition from the lax standards of a state school to an academic environment with strict dress, grooming and conduct expectations had been stressful enough to trigger hives at one point.

What had been just as difficult was the social stratification issuing from that part of the student population who’d grown up in upper- middle-class white-collar families. Overhearing comments like “It’s just the innate nature of some types of people – something they were born with that keeps them at that lower level” was difficult, but when proto-yuppies would twist scripture to justify social Darwinism (“the poor will always be with us”) my ability to suppress a vomit reflex was sorely tested. However, at this point, none of that mattered. I was home in Alaska and ready to lose myself in work for Chevron USA out at Swanson River.

“ I can’t hire you.”

It was one of maybe three times in my life I failed to have a witty rejoinder locked and loaded and I meekly drifted out of the oil-field office to the car and started the long trip home. I drove most of the way in silent shock: every summer since my fifteenth birthday I had worked through a truly amazing list of job titles starting with “janitor” and running through landscaping, grocery clerk, museum attendant, roofer and construction worker before hitting the jackpot by getting hired as a roustabout for Chevron at the Swanson River oil field the previous summer. Getting rehired was not an automatic thing but when I left the previous August there was no indication that I wouldn’t be asked back and I looked forward to at least four more summers slinging a 36-inch adjustable wrench.

The field foremanWayne had been vague about his reasons, and several times touched on federally mandated minority hiring quotas – and as the composition of the Swanson River workforce rivaled that of Ivory Soap1 I found it hard to fault him. Dad was much less forgiving and viewed the action as payback for his role in an unusually acrimonious contract negotiation earlier in the year. Personally I could care less about motivations – I needed money to go back to school so for the next eight weeks I bounced between rototilling gardens, mopping floors, clearing brush and stocking shelves until I was unexpectedly hired by a general labor outfit supplementing regular Chevron efforts out at the field (Translation: doing all the nasty jobs the regular roustabouts balked at doing.) The job drew a much more rough-around-the-edges kind of guy than usual, but I needed the money and showed up bright and early at the field the next morning ready to work with anyone.

I hadn’t been far off with my estimation: my foreman was a middle-aged Norwegian with limited fluency in English who pushed a crew consisting of an alcoholic ex-convict, a silent middle-aged man who never set down the same grimy June 19652 copy of Playboy, myself, and another young man named Lowell Dean. We rumbled around the field in an elderly winch-equipped crew-cab truck held together with wire and rust, while we periodically performing vital maintenance duties such as:

  • Collecting all the derelict barrels on the lease into one of three staging areas.
  • Digging post holes, then using cement to set welded pipe parking barriers in place.
  • Cleaning wellhead drainage sumps, which routinely contained dead animals.

I’d worked with Lowell Dean on a construction job two years earlier: he was from New Mexico and if not a literal cowboy was ‘cowboyish’ with that sunbaked look that comes from spending his life in a sunbaked locale. He was a couple of years older than me and took great delight in taunting me as a ‘college boy’ but we worked well together and were quickly made into a permanent sub-team trusted with more complex tasks …which is how we ended up at the main flare. The Swanson River operation pumps oil by gas-injection so there aren’t any ‘bobbing elephant’ pumps most people associate with oil fields. The oil is situated under an impermeable shale layer and is forced up by propane pumped down through holes drilled into the barrier, a process much like blowing bubbles through a straw in your milkshake. Oil from a dozen wells was then collected to a tank setting where it was measured, filtered, then pumped via another line to a terminal where it was sent on to the refinery at the coast twenty miles away. Each tank setting had a ‘flare system outlet’ flare pipe – a large diameter fifty-foot pipe that would occasionally belch fireballs of propane gas when system pressures had to be regulated.

….but the biggest and potentially most hazardous flare outlet was the main one located not far from the compressor plant that pumped the propane into the ground3. At some point in the past the bolts securing the bottom of the pipe had been changed out for a slightly smaller but very unsuitable size and had to be immediately replaced. The work order had gone to the senior production operator, who had passed it to his junior partner, who gave it in turn to the roustabout crew. Citing a heretofore forgotten trap-valve that suddenly needed replacing at the other end of the field, the Chevron crew drop-kicked the assignment to our company, where it made its way through the ranks, and finally came to a halt with the most junior crew, namely us.

 The ball kept on rolling: citing language difficulties, a hangover, and the mysterious loss of that battered issue of Playboy, the other three members of the crew begged off, which is why Lowell Dean and I were slowly creeping up to the flange at bottom of the main flare outlet pipe on that cloudy August afternoon. There was a moderate flame at the top of the pipe – nothing to get worked up about, but the power had been going out several times that morning with a major flare following each power bump, and we were both silently (but frantically) calculating frequency and average duration for flares that day.

Stress and my limited experience would normally bring on a severe case of fumble-fingers, especially when working with anything threaded or opened /closed with a wheel4 but this time around I was using those wrenches like a surgeon wielding a scalpel. It was a Zen moment –one of those comfortable grey days typical of a late Alaskan summer, momentarily freeing me of my eternal squint. The rumble of the compressor plant was surprisingly soothing, and we worked smoothly with no dropped tools, hesitations or wasted motion, completing the task in an unusually short time.

Packing tools, cleaning up, and backing the truck down the access road was anticlimactic until the moment we got back to the main road and a siren blared, announcing a power bump. Like a petrochemical nova the main flare blossomed into a fireball much, much larger than I had ever seen before, and I had to wonder if perhaps we had been in more danger than we’d imagined…or been told. Had we been in mortal peril? I doubt it – we may have gotten a little crispy around the edges, but the task had been more hazardous in anticipation than in actual execution. Still, I was just as glad the assignment was completed.

My near crisping seemed the perfect event to mark my exit from the abbreviated summer at Swanson River and the crew I’d worked with during those three weeks. As we bounced along the road to the change-shed I felt a measure of relief at the idea of parting company with my crewmates. Though rough around the edges, they had been a competent group, but I didn’t see any of them achieving much in life beyond this job. Maybe it was their innate nature, something they were born with that kept them at that lower level. Maybe some people were meant to be lower than others…

…and “son-of-a-bitch I cannot believe what I am saying!”

Growing up as a blue-collar kid in Alaska had always set me apart to some extent and I’d always imagined that added experience made me a little more capable and mature. After all I had shot my first moose at age eleven (keeping meant on the table for most of the winter), at fifteen I’d replaced a universal joint on a friend’s car, at seventeen I’d remodeled my attic loft, but at twenty I desperately wanted it to be someone else sounding as judgmental as the “ungrateful yuppie larva”5 I was attending classes with at school.

..but it was me. I had been just as prideful and arrogant, so maybe this crapulent summer hadn’t been all bad. I had been proud – maybe too proud – of my summer job at Swanson River. There were married men with families clamoring to get hired there but I had been little more than a punk kid treating my good fortune as an entitlement. When I eventually went back to work for Chevron three summers later I went with a much better attitude, but for the time being I resolved to avoid being judgmental…even about other people being judgmental.


1.  99 and 44/100 % Caucasian

2. I couldn’t fault him as the featured Playmate for that issue had a passing resemblance to Diana Rigg AKA Emma Peel from the ’60s British spy series The Avengers who I had quite the crush on when I was thirteen.

 3. It was quite a bit taller too. Production operators would normally use a burning rag tied to a rock to keep pilot lights lit at the flare outlets at the tank settings. For the main flare they had to use a bow and burning arrow.

 4. I still stand back and mumble to myself “right-tighty/lefty-loosey”.

5.A line shamelessly stolen from Dan Ackroyd playing Ray Stantz in “Ghostbusters 2”

What I Looked Like Once Upon a Time

I wish I had a better copy of this photo. It was taken at Ricks College in the autumn of 1973 during the most successful semester of my collegiate career, but like most of my undergraduate semesters I was flat broke and couldn’t afford any of the photo print packages. This image was scanned out of a yearbook published back when color printing was a luxury rather than the rule.

This is the first time in forty-six years I’ve looked at this closely, and as I look it over two questions come to mind:

  1. Who wrote “Wow!” along the left-hand margin?
  2.  At what time  in those intervening forty-six years did I learn how to correctly fold down my collar?



Music: “Hello It’s Me”


(Dig back far enough in the archives and you’ll find a similar post to this one. Music was a favorite topic when I first started blogging, but those first posts were pretty skimpy, so from time to time I will be re-visiting songs rather than re-running them.)

Consider the following:

  • KFQD
  • KRSK
  • KCSY
  • WSKW

What do they have in common? All of them were moderate-to-low powered AM radio stations playing a mix of current and “recent oldie” pop music when I listened to them in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In addition they all staffed their non-prime-time hours with brand-new talent still learning the trade so on-air gaffes were not uncommon…but of the four it was KRSK (Rexburg ID) that had the worst problem with gaps of silence between songs.


The hiss, pop, and sometimes music on my old clock radio had been good company while I studied the afternoon away, but it was the clock that had my attention as I closed my art history book and sat up on my bed. It was 7:00 PM – time to get changed for a visiting artist lecture, but as I stood up there was an extended  moment of dead air on the radio,  then out of that silence came an unmistakable bass-backed-by-organ introduction followed up by the first crystal clear line of lyrics in Todd Rundgren’s mid-range tenor voice.

Hello, it’s me I’ve thought about us for a long, long time

Maybe I think too much but something’s wrong

There’s something here that doesn’t last too long

Maybe I shouldn’t think of you as mine

It was the first time I heard the song and I was captivated, standing in that exact spot until music was over. Unlike many songs where  I consider vocals to be little more than another instrument, lyrics had an almost physical impact on me  and I became very curious about the song. I subsequently found out that Rundgren had first recorded Hello It’s Me in 1972, but it didn’t start charting until the fall of 1973, a point in time that was also shaping up as one of the best and worst years of my life. During the previous spring I went  through what can described as a (take your pick) Road to Damascus/Alma the Younger conversion that put me on track for the best semester of my collegiate career, making the Dean’s list and achieving a number of important personal goals…to include the upcoming reunion in six weeks with My Best Friend when everything in my life would be perfect.

Seeing you Or seeing anything as much as I do you

I take for granted that you’re always there

I take for granted that you just don’t care

Sometimes I can’t help seeing all the way through

I was struck by how beautiful the melody was but  unsettled by the bittersweet tone of the lyrics in the same way that the beauty of a majestic anvil-topped thunderhead lit by a sunset could often hide a vicious storm… like the emotional thunderstorm that had swept through earlier that week.

The letter read: “I miss you so much, but I get afraid that all this waiting will come to nothing. It’s a big step to try and start over again when things are going so well here in Fairbanks. We’ve got a whole new group of Young Single Adults including a G.I. from Eielson who is really nice. He kind of reminds me of you.”

I was in the process of learning two  important facts about life:

1) Life changes. There are times when I’d love to settle in, break the cosmic channel selector and just keep Life the way is. I wouldn’t have complained one bit if my sophomore year of high school would have gone for eighteen months instead of nine. (That actually happens. It’s called “flunking”). At a later time, our little family of four house-sat for my parents in Sterling from 1987-89 and it was such a pleasant interlude that I wished we’d never left…but eventually you have to move on, sometimes to happier situations but just as often to sadder conditions.

2) Personal history and temporal landmarks don’t always mesh with the timetable the rest of society uses. An old friend and mentor called his own unique periods of time “boxes” and felt that the boxes could be dictated by age, events or experience – and that our boxes don’t always line up with other people’s boxes. For example the textbook teenage “box” for  a young man is assumed to run from 13 to 19  but all things considered, my teen-age years went from age fifteen to age twenty, and I didn’t know it but Hello It’s Me was marking the end of that  box for me, no matter how I kicked, clawed and dragged my figurative feet.

Rundgren hit a resonant chord, his melancholy resignation very similar to the way I had also been “seeing all the way through” for the entire semester starting in August when I boarded the 727 in Fairbanks and the thought flashed across my mind that she won’t be there at the other end. I’d briskly pushed that premonition aside, preferring life on a Cairo houseboat (living in de Nile), and continuing to brush off doubts brought on by letters with sentiments similar to the one quoted above.

At some level I knew that Rundgren’s haunting lyrics were preparing me for a big change in my life, and while I dreaded the prospect of a relation-ectomy without anesthesia, I  knew that if and when a break came I had to be able to walk away and leave my Best Friend with a clean slate.

It’s important to me
That you know you are free
‘Cause I never want to make you change for me


“ Hey everybody in the Tidewater area – this is Wally West  and that was Todd Rundgren and  Hello It’s Me from 1973 followed by England Dan & John Ford Coley singing another Rundgren tune Love is the Answer – and the time is (bing-bong) five minutes past the big hour of five o’clock!”

If the admin clerk had actually been on time with my orders I would have cleared post and been out of town before hearing that announcement  – and those songs, and even then the significance didn’t hit me until we were half-way across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. Todd Rundgren’s work had been the signpost directing me through that first transition from teenager to young adult, and now his creative voice (albeit second-hand) was guiding me through yet another transition from the student/cadet/young father phase to (GASP) adulthood.

I drove along the elevated causeway, the sunlight glinting on the wavetops at each side. Lori and Conrad were both asleep and I was alone with my thoughts. On one level the connection with the abrupt end to my first engagement made Rundgren’s “greatest hit” very  difficult to listen to, but at another level the song was very dear to me. When that early heartbreak happened I momentarily thought of flying back home and making a violent scene, but the simple lyrics had had a calming effect and I saved the price of airfare to Fairbanks as I walked away in my best grown-up fashion,  leaving my (former) Best Friend with a clean unencumbered slate to build a future on.

Think of me

You know that I’d be with you if I could

I’ll come around to see you once in a while

Or if I ever need a reason to smile

And spend the night if you think I should

…and as I glanced over at my Beautiful Saxon Princess and my infant son realized given the way things had worked out I’d ended up with more than just one “reason to smile” .

Amazon Review “The Protectors”

(I make no secret of the fact that I am a fan of Sir Gerry Anderson’s work, both live-action shows like UFO and the Supermarionation programs like Thunderbirds.  The following is a piece I wrote for Amazon reviewing one of his lesser-known productions)

We don’t go out to eat often but when we do there is always a lively discussion involving restaurants and menu selections. My Beautiful Saxon Princess is a gourmet, savors her meals and is quick to try new tastes. To me food is fuel and I’m not one to experiment –when I acquire a taste for something like a cheeseburger I’ll order it quite often and feel no need to change.

It’s a similar situation with The Protectors, a Gerry Anderson production that offered neither marionettes nor nubile young women wearing purple wigs and silver suits seemingly applied with spray paint – it’s definitely an acquired taste. Starring Robert Vaughn, Nyree Dawn Porter and Tony Anholt, The Protectors is one of that vanished breed of television programs that the British did so well: The half-hour action adventure series. It ran from 1971 to 1973 and  chronicled the activities of a loose network of agents that travelled across Europe fighting crime, defeating terrorism and generally being twentieth century Lone Rangers.

With only 22 minutes to work with there wasn’t much time for character development, though we did know that Harry Rule (Robert Vaughn) still cared very much for his ex-wife, Nyree Dawn Porter’s Contessa enjoyed the privileged life of widowed nobility but also held a very subtle candle for Harry Rule, and Tony Anholt managed to show loyalty and likeability though the façade of Paul Bouchet’s Gallic pride. Despite their brevity the stories were engaging , with occasional innovations in plot and camera work that were pioneering for early Seventies. For example the  pilot episode involved sky-diving but there were some interesting shots made via car mirrors that focused your attention in a very effective albeit low-tech manner.

If I had a complaint it would be budget. Sir Gerry wasn’t given much to work with and money was cut even further with the second series, causing the loss of the strength and wit of the Contessa’s chauffer Chino (played by Anderson regular Anthony Chinn).  Directors were also careful with location shooting, limiting Continental segments to Copenhagen, Paris, Venice, Malta or coastal Spain. At  each of these locations the crew would film exterior footage for several episodes then they would fly back to London for interior filming and editing. To the producers’ credit they spaced the shows out avoiding back-to-back adventures in the same city, but on a rainy day you can zip through your DVDs and piece together what was shot when. I particularly enjoyed the location shots as they let me see the real Europe rather than an idealized version as portrayed in shows like The Avengers that were tailored to appeal to what Americans thought the UK was like rather than how it really was.

So now we’re down  to my regular closing question: Does The Protectors consist of the finest visual literature?


Is it fun?

That would be a resounding, echoing “YES” – but a qualified “yes”. The Protectors might not be everyone’s favorite, but if you have an appreciation for well-written short form video, a desire to see an honest glimpse of Europe forty years ago, or have a hankering to hear Robert Vaughn  deliver dialog in the way only he could, then The Protectors is the cheeseburger for you.

(Episodes of The Protectors are available from Amazon in both DVD and streaming format. YouTube clips are pretty sparse but I managed to find one episode – not my particular favorite of the lot but enough to give you an idea of what the series is like.)

Music: Doobie Brothers “South City Midnight Lady”


During the heyday of 33rpm records – the 1970’s-  there were a few albums that could be found in every collection you encountered. They weren’t always Grammy winners or even particularly good, but they showed up everywhere. Some examples are:

  • Other Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
  • Rumors by Fleetwood Mac
  • Saturday Night Fever soundtrack

The Captain and Me by the Doobie Brothers enjoyed that status for most of 1973. It contained a couple of well-played singles like “Long Train Running” and “China Grove” but the music worked best when it was played in sequence, though it wasn’t really a concept album like Pet Sounds or Rubber Soul. The hits were great, but my favorite was the second track on the B side: “South City Midnight Lady”  a mellow ballad and a marked contrast to “Without You” which preceded it. It was penned and performed by Patrick Simmons, the only member of the band in all its incarnations:

South city midnight lady I’m much obliged indeed You sure have saved this man whose soul was in need I thought there was no reason For all these things I do But the smile that I sent out returned with you

I love two separate passages in that song: The break, which features a beautiful guitar solo backed with strings, and the last couple of measures that lead into the fade-out, which again features beautiful guitar work, but laid over the backing track of an ARP synthesizer.

When I returned home in the early summer of 1973 I found that my job at Swanson River had fallen through…and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find work until three weeks before going back to school. I spent most of my summer working on plastic models1, watching television2 and binge-listening to The Captain and Me. I spent so much time listening to it on the stereo that it began to run through my brain all the time – like a Walkman without the earbuds.

There was one other thing that occupied my time: making a long-distance reconciliation with my Best Friend after our break-up the previous spring. She was back up in Fairbanks and while we’d been regularly writing and calling the discussions had hit a plateau. As was the case when I totaled the Maverick 3, it was at this point when I was in trouble that my Dad made a connection with me and showed himself to be an incredibly caring and sensitive man.

We were on vacation camping on the banks of the Little Susitna river in the same place we’d camped in 1970. There was one big difference this time?  The Parks Highway had been completed and it was possible to drive all the way to Fairbanks. Dad must have noticed the times I’d wistfully look north because after we’d packed up and got in the Microbus, Dad turned around and said “You know, we haven’t been to Fairbanks since 1967. Let’s drive on up!”

I would have never thought he’d piece together the reality of my broken heart and without saying a word administered the best medicine. Later, that day we reached Fairbanks and 30 minutes later I had found and made up with my Best Friend and for a short season everything was OK.

Because that mental stereo had been playing The Captain and Me I will forever connect it with that trip. I have one special mental snapshot of us driving along the highway next to Denali (then Mount McKinley) with the closing instrumental to “South City Midnight Lady” playing in my head. I can close my eyes; my family is put-put-putting along under the mid-summer Alaskan night sky painted with magenta and orange. Patrick Simmons plays a slow crescendo on the synthesizer and it’s all good.



  1. A 1/25 scale kit of a German Tiger Tank by Tamiya. It has a complete interior and the tracks were made of individual polyethylene segments that had to be snapped together.

It took almost an entire month.

  1. Mostly Watergate hearings and on-going discussion of the passage of Roe vs. Wade the previous winter.


  1. See 1969: Blue Paint and Dry Pavement

1973: Rusty Old Tin Cans

It was a message that few people younger than 60 would understand – a T-shirt with a map of Viet-Nam printed on the back with an inscription on the front that said, “Southeast Asia War Games: Second Place”. I couldn’t help but marvel at the change in society’s attitude towards the military over the last fifty years. While the vote on who-beat-who will be out for years to come, at the time there was no question about a young man’s choice to participate.  If you were called up in the draft it was your duty to go, unless you obtained a deferment, failed the physical or took an extended vacation in Canada1.

Evading service never occurred to me. While it was true that our family had a long tradition of military service I also had a healthy dose of transpersonal commitment and a desire to serve my country. Experience as a military dependent convinced me that becoming an officer was the best route to take and while he never let on, my father was pleased to see me pursue a commission. He even attempted to stack the deck for me and through his connections  arranged a way for me to obtain an appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland…and he never got the credit he deserved for not throttling me when I turned the opportunity down because I didn’t want to cut my hair.

Truth be told it wasn’t the length of my hair that sunk my prospects of a naval career. I had thoroughly enjoyed spending Armed Forces Day of 1963 & 1964 at FT Richardson riding on tanks, firing blanks from M60 machine guns and making practice jump exits from the C-130 mock-up.  There was also my marathon viewing of The Longest Day at the Fourth Avenue theater; three consecutive showings of that star-studded epic film about D-Day and the Normandy Invasion insured that my choice of the army over the navy was a slam-dunk affair.

As I was only going to be attending the University of Alaska for two semesters I didn’t sign up as a cadet, but I did occasionally talk to the recruiters downtown and the ROTC cadre on campus. During my application for transfer to Ricks College I noticed that the Army was starting a brand-new cadet program there, so I made sure to include Military Science 101 when registering for my fall classes.

I was totally blindsided by the anti-military attitude prevalent at the school and the surrounding area. Putting on a uniform was an invitation to harassment and we were:

  • Mocked by room-mates.
  • Viewed with suspicion by town merchants.
  • Ridiculed in class by instructors.
  • Intentionally splashed with mud by passing cars.

Even my Best Friend made alarmingly sarcastic comments about my involvement in the “Rusty Old Tin Cans”2 and I soon found that I was not alone. Unfortunately, the harassment got to some of the other cadets who ended up dropping out –  or seriously considering that option but just as prospects for an ROTC program seemed most dire we were assigned a new Regular Army instructor who turned the entire situation around.

Gary Tomlinson was a military police major and to everyone’s delight a “southeast Idaho boy” having grown up near Pocatello. He was taciturn but warm, professional, practical and wasted no time in quietly making friends and forging a good working relationship with the school. This soft-spoken diplomacy helped him to develop a solid professional program with the use of very limited resources.3

At the same time, he worked at developing a relationship with the Idaho National Guard and was successful in getting their support for the extracurricular activities that had proved to be the best way to recruit and retain cadets. He put together a regular schedule of alternating recreational and military activities:  One time we’d go rappelling, the next time we’d practice patrol fundamentals, and the third-time orienteering – and so on throughout the year.

One of the first adventures happened on a Saturday early in September and consisted of a float trip down the Snake River starting at the bridge at Swan Valley and ending near our favorite rappelling spot at Heise Hot springs. While we’d be using army issue rafts and life preservers, it wasn’t a tactical exercise but rather just adventure training, a trip casual enough for Major Tomlinson to bring along his elderly father. We were teamed two to a raft and I would be making the trip with Randy Hamblen, a friend of mine from church and one of the very few married students I knew at Ricks College.

It was a warm day when we started out and the moderate current made for a trip that was not over-tiring – the biggest challenge we had was avoiding the deadfall willows that projected into the water along the bank. However, as we got close to noon the sky began to cloud up and a cold wind kicked in  – and as we rounded a bend it became a headwind for us and we stopped making good time. As we beached the rafts to rest at noon a check of the map revealed that we were less than halfway to our pick-up point. Most of the participants had anticipated a quick morning trip and didn’t bring any food or water but in my never-ending state of paranoia I had brought along a  small field pack, which in addition to spare socks,  held several packages of Lipton’s Instant Soup and some Trioxane solid-fuel tablets which I used to warm up as many of my fellow cadets as possible.

Grey skies got darker and began to spit intermittent raindrops at just about the same time the current picked up and we encountered modest rapids. Most of the cadets were not experienced rafters and the rough water separated/spread out the rafts until the bends in the river limited our sight to just a couple of rafts at a time – and vocal communication was dicey as well.


…. or at least that’s what the distant half-muffled voice seemed to be saying. Randy and I looked at each other and without a word started turning around, a task much easier in the talking than in the doing. Despite our most vigorous paddling we didn’t seem to move backward very quickly, and we decided that it might be best to beach the raft and cross the distance to the overturned raft overland. After looking in vain for a break in the downed willows lining the bank we tried moving close and grabbing at the branches, but then through a combination of such factors as:

  • Wind
  • Current
  • Direction of travel
  • Orientation of the raft
  • Height of the branches above the water

…. Randy and I were swept off the raft and into the river as cleanly as a spatula scrapes off leftover hash browns off a greasy spoon’s grill.

My thinking immediately shifted into Tardis-time where thought happens much faster than exterior events.  My first thought was that partially deflating my life preserver for a more comfortable fit had not been a good idea. Then as I bounced along the bottom of the river my second, third and fourth thoughts came to mind:

  • What I would tell Randy’s wife Maxine if I brought back a drowned husband for her?
  • There were an awful lot of empty beer cans along the bottom of the Snake River, more than I had ever seen in any river back home in Alaska.
  • I really didn’t want to drown and miss the New Seekers concert that evening.

The fifth thought that came to mind was that the cold water was making me fuzzy-headed and I needed to get out of the river as soon as possible.  I managed to kick back up to the surface, take a lungful of air and splash over to the side of the river where I found a just-as-wet-as-me Randy hanging on to the lead rope from our raft.

As we dumped the water out of the raft and tried to shake ourselves dry we could see that we weren’t the only rafters to end up in the water. Three other teams were also up on the banks battling wet clothes and gear, a sight that turned from grim to farcical when the Major and his father finally drifted slowly past us, dry as the moment they got in the raft. It turned out that it had only been the major’s thermos that fell in the river, but the background noise of the river and dispersion of the rafts had distorted the shouted message.

It also turned out that during all the drama we had ended up a lot closer to Heise Hot Springs than we previously thought and it wasn’t long until all the cadets had arrived, the rafts were all deflated and packed and we started our bus-ride back to Rexburg; some of use shivering even  though the heaters were running full blast.

Later that evening

“Ils ont change ma chanson, ma / Look what they done to my song, ma”

No wonder it never made sense. The fifth verse in “Look What They Done to My Song” was sung in French –  and I’d have never figured out the reason for my three-year long befuddlement had I missed the New Seekers concert that evening. Not that getting to the show had been easy – my hour-long shower had warmed my body but my toes still felt as icy as they did when we got out of the river …which made the simple act of walking a challenge.

Maxine’s glare had been equally icy when I brought Randy home looking more like a wet rat than the husband she’d sent off that morning.  She vainly attempted a disapproving glare, but she was glad to have us both back safely – and that we’d had a good time.

…but for now, the New Seekers were starting up with a set of slower songs and I started to nod off a bit. “I’d like to teach the world to sing…”  Who cares it started out as a jingle for Coca-Cola – it was a nice song just like today had been a good day. Not exactly what I’d expected but any day you beat the Reaper was a day to put in the win column.




  1. There were even fewer options when the regular draft was replaced by the draft lottery. There were no deferments with the lottery – you finished the current semester then went in the army – and if you didn’t show up they sent people to retrieve you. I had a company commander on active duty whose career started with being “escorted to the entry station.
  2. Probably the least derogatory explanation for the initials R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officer Training Corps)
  3. Another one of my “board of directors” (see blog post Board of Directors Part One: Richard Bird)

1973: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is like the hot cheerleader’s younger sister –the one that everybody chats up just to get a chance to meet her much lovelier sibling. Stores start putting up Christmas displays right after Halloween and when people discuss a day of that long weekend in November they’re more apt to be talking about the day after Thanksgiving – scoring bargains on Black Friday. That wasn’t always the case and in 1973 my Thanksgiving was infinitely better than my Christmas despite the lack of deep discounts on home electronics.

I was winding up my third and last semester at Ricks College and I was on a roll. I was working hard and doing very well in my classes, I had lost thirty pounds and was in great shape…and in a month, I would be reunited with my Best Friend. The Thanksgiving holiday was almost more a hinderance than a respite and when I told Conrad1 I was staying put and working on a project instead of going to Provo with him he was not very happy. After a few rounds of our usual bickering we compromised on an abbreviated visit with his sister Chris at BYU, after which we’d speed home, so I could finish the project.

The trip started out nicely enough as we sped south on I-15 with two other room-mates who would be riding just as far as Malad ID crammed in the back of Conrad’s Mustang. We laughed, joked and talked about girls until someone pointed to the sky to the southwest at an ominous storm front blowing in. Someone joked about singing hymns to somehow divert the storm but as we passed Pocatello we started to run into real trouble. The Mustang began running rough and within minutes we were stalled.

At this point our two backseat passengers decided to bail, leaving us with a non-personalized check for their share of the gas money. In a string of minor miracles, we waved down a car, rode in wrecker and put the Mustang’s 8-track tape-deck in hock to pay for the services and finally got the Mustang running again. By then it was obvious the Provo trip was a bust, but we were still a long way from home and it was late at night. Luckily our ROTC instructor MAJ Gary Tomlinson lived with his family in Pocatello and kindly put us up for the night.

We woke up to a cold cloudy morning and drove back to our apartment in Rexburg, stopping at a Circle K to buy our Thanksgiving feast: a freezer pizza and an apple pie. We were both thankful we’d gotten out of the predicament losing only the tape deck and not our lives, but with our four other room-mates gone (along with most of the college student body) it was going to be a rather bleak holiday.

It was at that point that an idea came to mind which shortly had me resorting to one of the most bald-faced shameless acts of manipulation in my life. I went upstairs to talk to our landlords the Hansen’s, who were surprised to see us. I responded: “Oh, we had car trouble and had to come back, but we’re OK. We’ve got a freezer pizza and an apple pie between us – and we’re buddies from way back, so it will be just like being home… almost” trailing off into a barely audible sigh as I went back down to our apartment.

Stephen Hansen was a good-hearted man and I could predict almost to the second what he would do after our conversation. I started counting down “Five – four – three – “

Conrad was lost “What’s going on?”

“Shh -two – one! “


It was Brother Hansen “Now boys, we want you to come upstairs and have Thanksgiving dinner with us” to which both Conrad and I made the requisite protests, which we ceased when he got to “I won’t take no for answer”. We trooped upstairs for a grand feast – and in the process got to know them as individuals with personality and depth and not just one-dimensional characters hammering on their floor when we got too rowdy in the downstairs apartment.

The storm that had stranded us left a thick blanket of snow which made our street look like a Christmas card and the bulk of the holiday was quiet and I spent most of the time finishing up projects and studying for tests. We did manage to get out of the apartment a couple of times; stocking up on some groceries, attending a consolidated church meeting and viewing “Willi Wonka and The Chocolate Factory” at the Manwaring Center Cinema more times that I ever cared to. I was surprised at how quiet Rexburg was, but then I’d never been in town when school was not in session.  As I said: the days were quiet, but the evenings turned out a little differently.

Even though I had never seen it in use, our living room was equipped a fireplace complete with a small supply of wood. Midway through the holiday we decided a fire was in order and as we were preparing I noticed  several short lengths of 1”X12” wood in the wood-box, leftovers from a remodeling project. During my brief marital arts training I’d learned if you properly positioned a plank between supports and swung your hand “through the board” with the grain you could break it without hurting yourself.

After demonstrating the process to Conrad by splitting a few boards I coached/coaxed him into giving it a try. I helped him position the plank and stood by while he took several deep breathes, wound up and swung his hand with a deafening cry.



“HI-YAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”  It was like watching the Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon. Conrad jumped up –  board intact – and continued  jumping up and down around the room, grabbing his hand and screaming that he’d broken it. Upon inspection we found that a bad bruise was the extent of the damage and when he calmed down we went back to building the fire.

I laid the kindling and wood in a neat log cabin formation, and when we put match to paper it all started to crackle and flare in a most warm and satisfactory manner. We were most pleased…. until we realized that the smoke was not going up the chimney but in fact was pouring into the apartment.  I quickly doused the fire but not before the smoke had collected along the ceiling which had the apartment looking like a New York City summer afternoon.

…and the smoke didn’t look like it was going anywhere soon, no matter how hard we tried to fan it out the door. We also found out why the smoke had poured out – the fireplace damper had been firmly closed – but we had to clear the smoke and smell out of the apartment before our roommates returned and/or the Hansen’s found out…which is why we both slept fully clothed that night, wearing our winter coats and hats while all the windows in the apartment were left slightly open.

We were lucky – when the other guys started drifting in the next day the smoke was all gone, and the slight woodsy smell was easily explained away as dinner getting burned the night before. Conrad and I listened to everyone’s holiday stories and we all happily went into our usual “night before” drill, cleaning up, setting out clothes and planning the next day’s activities when the final Thanksgiving adventure happened.

“EEEWWWWWWWWWW” It was Syd, pointing at one of our bedroom windows and looking like he’d just lost his lunch. He stammered “It was horrible – I looked out the window and saw the ugliest guy in the world looking in. His face looked like it had been burned or doused with acid and was sloughing off like an old scab AND THERE HE IS AGAIN!” pointing out our window.

I looked over to see the lower torso of a man’s body standing in the snow then turning and bolting away from the window.  I ran for the door and when I reached the sidewalk in front of the house I could see footprints leading from the side of the house out to the street and up the hill. Glancing up I saw a ragged figure briefly illuminated by a street lamp, but the deepening snow ruled out any sort of pursuit…. for which I was grateful. Between Syd’s description and what little I saw of the prowler I was not sure I wanted to confront the guy. . I also kind of wanted to stick close to the neighborhood; channeling as ever for Batman I wanted to keep a watchful eye out after a cursory check revealed that our prowler had been loitering around the windows of two girls’ apartments located nearby.

It was almost midnight by the time I got into bed, but I was too jazzed from the chase to fall asleep. Lying in my bunk, I couldn’t help but think back over the long weekend:  every Thanksgiving before this one had been very predictable and comfortable, either spent with my family or my Best Friend’s relatives, but I felt more thankful than I had ever before. It had been more of a slapstick comedy than a holiday, with one disaster after another, but each disaster had been resolved without serious harm.

It was the best Thanksgiving of my entire life.



  1. Donald/Don/Donny Thomas: somehow Don acquired “Conrad” as a nickname just before we left for school in the late summer of 1973 and he was known by that name to all our other roommates.  My oldest son Conrad is named after Donny in this manner

1973: Taking One for the Team

Goat picture

As I grew up my father’s changing employment situation had us moving around a lot and by the time I earned my high school diploma I had attended seven public schools. I went on to earn an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s degree and a Master of Fine Arts degree while attending three different universities and one junior college – and when you add those academic institutions to places where I have taught the total comes to sixteen schools with which I have had extensive experience. Of all those bastions of academia Ricks College (now known as BYU-Idaho) was the best, with the fall of 1973 being my best term of my entire collegiate career. I made the honor roll with a 3.8 GPA while carrying 19 credit hours, I was actively involved in the establishment of the first ROTC detachment set up at the school, held multiple responsibilities in my church congregation and earned a small scholarship as the cartoonist for the student newspaper.

As I have learned several other times in my life being actively engaged in so many worthwhile things did wonders for my morale, but that doesn’t mean that semester started out as a happy situation.  I felt out-of-place, having transferred to Ricks the year from the University of Alaska, not because I wanted to go there, but because my Best Friend wanted to go there.  The change from a state school to a private faith-based institution was so abrupt that at times I would break  into hives from the stress. How that rocky start evolved into lofty academic achievement is told elsewhere; suffice it to say that at the time of this story I was starting my third (and final) semester in Rexburg 4000 miles from the most important person in my life while living in an apartment with five strangers who were not particularly friendly.

Initially I handled the situation as any other thoughtful mature young man would – by retreating to my bedroom and throwing a low-grade tantrum. Half my spare time was spent writing letters to my Best Friend, listening to Neil Young on the record player,  and mentally living a year or two in the past. The other half was spent writing more letters, listening to the Moody Blues on my record player, and mentally living a year or two in the future. I had little interest in anything other than marking days off the calendar as I waited for our happy reunion and a new life.

Given this behavior you may ask why we were separated to begin with. The story behind the split is very messy, involving unreasonable pressure from  my family  against the relationship developing any further* but we had patched our couple-hood  together during the summer after I went through a  Saul’s-conversion-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience which left me vowing “never crash and burn again”. Unfortunately my lofty intentions didn’t change the fact that my financial and academic situation required us to spend one last semester separated.

Then wonder upon wonder, things started getting better.  I got off to a good start with my classes, our new ROTC instructor got us out on weekends to go rappelling or rafting… and most important I found out that long distance phone calls weren’t as prohibitively expensive as I’d assumed. It was amazing what an occasional call back to Fairbanks would do to raise my spirits.

…then one of my room-mates mentioned the word “football” and my stress level skyrocketed again.


When people ask me about my football career I reply  that but for one problem  I could have played  professional football – that problem being that I was just not very good at the game. I was a late bloomer, gaining strength, coordination and general physical ability a couple years later than my team-mates. That didn’t keep me from loving the game, and I made up for lack of ability with enthusiasm. Fans weren’t quite so over the top as they are now – no face-painting or giant foam headgear for us – but I did closely follow my favorite teams during the season, and linebackers were just as apt to show up in my sketchbooks as sword-wielding barbarians or caped superheroes.

It was when I got involved with actually playing or talking about playing that my love for the game that I began to feel  stress. My basic insecurity and paranoia would gnaw at my confidence, so when one of my new room-mates suggested we try to get a pick-up game going with guys from the dorms I was torn between being excited about playing, and fear of demonstrating my ineptitude. Playing with this new set of room-mates brought on its own peculiar challenges as well – I was the only returning tenant that fall and it seemed like the new guys brought with them an undercurrent of criticism and negativity that kept us from bonding in quite the same way we had the previous year. I got the feeling that if I played with them and didn’t do well I’d be the goat for the entire semester.

(Don’t ask me what “being the goat” entailed – I picked up the term while reading an advertisement for a Jonny Unitas plastic model kit)

…but I really, REALLY wanted to play football so shortly thereafter we were lined up against a half-dozen dormitory denizens. We started out with a casual game of touch football but as coeds began to gather to watch, the testosterone level started to rise and before you could say “Vince Lombardi” the captain of the dormitory team challenged us to play tackle ball.

To my surprise and delight I played quite well, operating as a combination guard/tackle on offense and a linebacker on defense. Scoring had started out a bit casual, with the two teams either tied or within one touchdown of each other for most of the game, but got serious about the same time we switched from touch to tackle rule, when the girls started watching.

Despite playing well I was still edgy.  Out of both teams I was the one person who had actually played high school football; most of the others being wrestlers or gymnasts.  For some reason being the only one who’d ever had “scabs on the bridge of my nose” caused animosity and the comments got a more caustic as the contact got harder and more abrupt….and that was from my own team. It got to the point that I considered departing the field for my record player and Mr. Young’s nasal balladering when I heard a yell “Deitrick – watch, he’s coming around your side!”

A member of the other team was running the ball around my side of the line with just a couple of yards between him and the goal-line. We seemed to be a match in terms of speed but I wasn’t sure I could anticipate his intentions and stop him in time – and at that point I went into Tardis-time where my internal clock was running much faster than time was passing in the outside world.

My internal monologue kicked in: “Why am I bothering with this. These guys don’t know the kind of injuries you can get playing tackle ball. I do. I have no wish to spend the semester in a cast after killing myself for people that I have absolutely nothing invested in. All I am doing is killing time until my Best Friend and I are back together again. Who cares if they like me – I can just listen to music and live in my head.”

Just then I glanced at the room-mate closest to me and saw an expression that I  couldn’t identity. It was an open expression I had yet to see on anyone’s face in the apartment: hope, pride, friendship?  – certainly not the contempt I was expecting. There was a flash – I don’t know if it was adrenaline or the fear of sustaining a skull fracture but in that moment I had an epiphany –   the disconnection was as much my fault as the new guys; that no matter how badly I missed my Best Friend I had to stop marking the days off my calendar and start living outside my head.  I turned back toward the ball-carrier, bulled my head down and made a text-book perfect tackle.  The runner collapsed like a sack of potatoes and fumbled the ball, setting us up for the winning touchdown a couple of plays later.

It was dizzying. There had been so few times in my life that I had been the hero but in the back of my mind I knew that there was more going on than just grid-iron glory.The walk back to our apartment was not much different than walking to the field had been two hours earlier, but I felt different.  On the surface the dialog continued to be that of brain-dead 18-20 year old young men but the comments were not quite as caustic or clipped.

It was a very small difference – it was a definite improvement and a foreshadowing of the overall change that was just over the horizon for me.

(* I still can’t watch the fifth Season of “That ‘70s Show”)