Artists: Jim Sharpe

TimeMay77Begin

Jim Sharpe was the first mainstream illustrator whose work I could identify by name. Oh, I’d known about Norman Rockwell, but he didn’t count – Rockwell was so well known that his name had become a generic term like Kleenex or Xerox. I knew  about Frank Frazetta, Neil Adams  and other various comic artists but none of those names could pass snob-muster in the Graphic Design and Illustration program I was enrolled in.

 Sharpe, I learned about when I returned to BYU after my bicycle penance –  this stunning portrait of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin was part of a travelling exhibit of Time Magazine cover illustrations that had taken roost in the university’s secured gallery for a month or so.  It was an exhibit that I almost missed as it overlapped with the preparations my Beautiful Saxon Princess and I were making to start our life together. Sharpe’s work is good, but it couldn’t compete with that gentle cascade of light brown hair, the water-color blue eyes with the slightly sad tilt, and the hint of a Southern accent.

 Somehow, I ended up in the gallery one day between classes and the minute I saw the crisp design and macho pencil work “up-close and personal” I was transfixed. I actually stood in front of the framed original taking notes and sketching details until the gallery attendant hustled me out the door just before closing for the day.

 For the balance of my undergraduate studies I kept a clipping of this TIME cover thumbtacked above my desk and went on to collect clippings of his work over the years. His drawing skill and refined sense of design are a major factor in the aesthetic vision that drove my work when I was first starting out.

 I was disappointed but not really surprised to find that he passed away in 2005, but while I was doing research for this post I found out something that brought a smile to my face.  Before Jim Sharpe was an award-winning illustrator had been a naval aviator flying the F3Hs Demon. In the late 1950s he deployed to the West Pacific, serving  with VF 193 on the USS Bonhomme Richard  (CVA 31);  I managed to find a copy of a  CVN 31 cruise book and was  delighted to find a picture of Sharpe in his flight suit and helmet…and to find out that he had been the squadron’s administration department for the cruise, a position that I held at FIRSTEURLANT 0867 during my five-year experiment with the Navy Reserve.

 He only served the one tour before continuing his education at Art Center School of Design in Pasadena and launching himself into the illustration world and stardom in the Sixties. Was the common interest in aviation a factor in my interest in his work? I honestly have no idea – I mean the guy surpassed me so far in both illustration and aviation that I can’t even begin to make a comparison, but I’d like to think that somewhere in that tight design and arrangement of “macho pencil lines” is something that I can identify with.

Music: Main Street

I had no idea I would miss her so badly

I’d left for FT Lewis with the assumption that I’d be channeling Mr. Spock for six weeks and remaining in complete control of my emotions.  As much as I loved Lori there was an element of reserve in my heart, an emotional bunker left-over from a devastating break-up years earlier but after the initial chaos of travel and check-in I noticed a slight hollow feeling akin to a hunger pang that wasn’t enough to slow me down… but was enough to get my attention during down-time.

The other shoe boot dropped the morning I moved my wedding ring to my dog-tag chain as a safety precaution for a physical fitness test. As I was moving, clipping snapping and such I paused for a moment, startled by the stark white of a band of skin usually covered from the sunlight – and at that moment a deep but amused voice rumbled from the next bunk:

“It’s still there isn’t it?”

It was Doug Zanders, a cadet from Nebraska and he was smiling as he also moved his wedding band to the chain around his neck.  He continued: “We can take the rings off, but they’re still there.”

As we polished boots that evening Doug and I picked the conversation back up. I talked about Lori and how we’d been married only a couple of months. He blessedly made no ribald comments but instead talked about his distress at Advanced Camp overlapping with the birth of his daughter. It was not the conversation you’d expect from two young warriors and those unlikely sentiments were still in mind as the lights went out and we listened to one last song on the radio before going to sleep:

“I remember standing on the corner at midnight

Trying to get my courage up

There was this long lovely dancer in a little club downtown

I loved to watch her do her stuff”

It was Main Street by Bob Seger and before that night I’d never realized how poignantly Seger captured the essence of something I’d assumed was no longer part of my life:  loneliness. There’d been so many times in younger years when I’d watch couples pair up for the last dance just to walk home alone. Marrying Lori was supposed to change all that and get rid of the loneliness, but it wasn’t until we were apart that I could see that as long as the inner bunker was intact I’d always be “walking home alone” at some level.

“Through the long lonely nights, she filled my sleep

Her body softly swaying to that smoky beat

Down on Main street”

 I laid on my bunk looking up at the rafters and tried to sleep to the lullaby of sniffs, snores, coughs and farts of twenty-three of my closest friends, but with Ted What’s-his-name in the bottom bunk working on his OCD boot-shine sleep was going to remain a stranger.

“And sometimes even now, when I’m feeling lonely and beat

I drift back in time and I find my feet

Down on Main street

Down on Main street”

Seger’s raspy/bluesy vocals overflow with emotion it was Pete Carr’s haunting guitar work that really ripped my heart out. Some artists use a brush but Carr’s work with a guitar paints a vision of sadness and longing more accurate and detailed than an encyclopedia’s worth of exposition. It captured perfectly the gap I felt that night.

I missed Lori –  as in “capital-M” missed her.

Yes, I missed making love1, but I missed her solid reassuring presence just as much and maybe more so. Light-blue water-color eyes with the slight sad tilt that’d been so quick to sign emotional school loans – promising so much despite the possible cost. In the short time we’d been married I’d grown accustomed to the comfort of her arm around my shoulder and her cheek against my chest as we slept.

…and her smile when I first woke up.

The post-training discussions continued –  at the rate Doug and I polished boots over the next thirty-six evenings you’d think we owned stock in Kiwi, but spit-shined boots were secondary to words that were just as important as the daily training. We talked about our wives, wrote operations orders, talked about our younger years, planned artillery pre-plots, talked about our wives again – while  consuming our respective weights in Peanut M & M’s.

…and then before I realized it advanced camp was over, and we went back to our former lives.

My brain is such that a song automatically gets mental time-stamp and is forever connected with what was happening when I first heard the tune: Play ‘Windy” (by The Association) and I’m finishing 8th grade and kissing Kathy Knight at the graduation party. Play “One of These Nights” (by The Eagles) and I’m packing my bags for a reluctant transfer from Skowhegan to Penacook. Play “Main Street” (Bob Seger) and I’m back at FT Lewis gaining skills I’d need as a second lieutenant…and a husband.

 And sometimes even now, when I’m feeling lonely and beat

I drift back in time and I find my feet

Down on Main street

Down on Main street

____________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

1)…and I mean making love. Not banging, boinking, humping, hitting it, making the beast with two backs, getting a bit of crumpet or any of the countless other soulless euphemisms for physical intimacy that we are constantly flooded with in the new millennium.  At that time it was “making love” in every sense of the word.

 

1977: The Red Uglies

 

It was a compact living space that we enjoyed living in long before the current national obsession with Tiny Nation and smaller-than-usual living spaces. The entire apartment could fit inside the master bedroom suite in our current home, but the lack of square footage was not a matter of repurposed storage space or a mis-read blueprint.

It was married student housing

In 1977 finding married student housing in Provo, UT was a process akin to being trapped in a giant sliding-tile game where the player must slide one piece aside to move a second piece out of the way of a third piece you wanted to move in the first place. Every semester couples would pack up and move, shuffling around in a never-ending quest to find the biggest/nicest/cheapest/closest-to-campus place to live.

There definitely was a home-court advantage for locals or early arrivals in getting the best pick of the lot. We definitely did not fall into that category; after Lori and I got married the previous April we spent the following summer flying and driving all over the country as I toggled back and forth between working as an oilfield roustabout in Alaska and military training at FT Lewis (WA) while Lori worked in a salmon cannery. We should have been just plain out of luck as we rattled and rolled into town just a week before classes were to begin. We’d spent two weeks driving down the ALCAN in a battered old Ford pick-up truck with an equally battered plywood camper on the back that served as bedroom, dining room and kitchen as we did our best to economize. Fortunately, we followed an old roommate and his wife into a place that they left behind when they replaced another couple leaving a slightly-larger apartment upon graduation.

CLICK-CLICK-CLICK. The tiles kept moving around the grid.

The place was on the second floor of a three-level brick apartment building the tenants called “The Red Uglies”, a tag that seemed unique until I learned that there were at least three other “Red Uglies” within a mile radius. The floor plan was a basic rectangle with a hall offset to the left and running down the long axis; on the left was a full-length closet, inset cabinets and bathroom. On the right side of the hall was first the door into the bedroom, then the arched entry into the living room and finally a tiny kitchen capping the end of the hall. It was advertised as “furnished” but we found that to be more of a suggestion than a fact and were very happy to supplement the décor with the king-size water bed, door-desk, cinder-block book shelves and marginally functional B&W television set.

Rent included the use of a detached garage behind and to the right of the building which we used mostly to store household goods we were securing for friends from back home who had to take a semester-break. We also were also assigned one of a dozen parking spaces set at an angle just off the street in front of the building, a space that ended up a semi-permanent home for our pick-up when an acquaintance over-drove it into inoperability during a marathon moving session three weeks into the fall semester1.

Our fellow occupants held mixed attitudes towards the building but in general people were dissatisfied with the place.  With a nickname like ‘the Red Uglies” it would be safe to assume the building wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing edifice in town, but I loved the place. It was well-built, solid and managed to stay cool during the hot days and warm during the cold ones.  I personally took to the place because it looked and felt amazingly like buildings I’d been in and around during my two-year bicycle penance in New England…and with our ongoing transportation problems we were blessed with a location within easy walking/biking distance from campus, shopping, church and the frame shop where Lori worked.

Mostly I liked it because it was the location of our first attempt at setting up a home and housekeeping as a married couple. Up until then life together had been an extended date where we slept together afterward, but when we moved into the red-Uglies we suddenly felt grown up with a grown-up routine:  Each weekday I’d go to school/work while Lori went to work at the frame shop. Thursday nights we’d watch “Lou Grant” and for every Sunday dinner we’d have a small roast cooked in the crock pot along with a salad and fruit cocktail mixed in with Jell-O for desert.

We were both very happy with the apartment until early in the spring of 1978 when one of Lori’s relatives came to stay for a week. It’s always a nice thing to be reunited with family but as Benjamin Franklin wisely observed: “Houseguests are like fish – after three days they both begin to smell.”  Boredom set in with our guest and soon she started filling the day with observations on various shortcomings in our little home. I am sure she thought she was helping with her corrective suggestions but the negativity began take a toll  and after seven days of “this room seems awfully  small”, “don’t you think you have  too many books for someone as young as you are” and “are you sure you want this picture hung at this particular place  on the wall?” ” we were glad to wave goodbye as our visitor left for home.

Unfortunately, her the attitude decided to stay a little longer and after enduring the negative comments for a week Lori’s perspective on the apartment had changed. What had once been a snug little home was now a cramped and unattractive hovel and she started to echo some of the negative comments our guest had so freely shared with us the week before. On the other hand, I was still happy with the place – after some of the (literal) holes I’d lived in during my life I would have been happy living in a tent, a Quonset hut or plywood shell with the insulation still uncovered.

It wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last time that our divergent backgrounds complicated our relationship, but this was something that went way past cultural differences between growing up in Alaska and growing up in Alabama2. I knew the  future we were facing as  creative types would involve a lot of uncertainty and that any trend towards house-envy had to be quickly weeded out, so I spent a sleepless night  trying to come up with a solution It was only when I woke up, sat on the bed and looked out the window at our old truck with the battered camper – the one that had been our home the previous August –  that I came up with a solution.

It wasn’t long before I was able to apply it – in fact it was later than same day. There had been some conflict at the frame shop and Lori came home in a bad mood. As she flopped down on the couch she looked around the room, then started to complain about the small size of our apartment, tears welling up in her eyes as the frustration took over. “It’s so embarrassing to live in this tiny apartment. I hate to have anyone over to visit – we hardly have any room!”

I said: “What are you talking about? We have a huge home!”

 Lori looked at me blankly

I went on: “We have a living room”

Lori sniffed, wiped away her tears and nodded

“We have a studio” pointing to the door/drawing table in one corner

A curious look came over her face

I stepped over to the bookshelf: “We have a library”

Hint of a smile

“We have a home theater” (pointing to the television set)

Big smile

I continued: “We have a music room” patting the dust cover on our stereo turntable

>Giggle<

“We have a-

She broke in, pointed to our hide-a-bed couch and announced: “A GUEST BEDROOM!”Just a slight change of perspective changed our cramped little red-ugly apartment into a mansion for the remaining six weeks of the semester – and to be honest we would have lived there the next year had we not needed something large enough for the two of us AND the baby boy soon to join our family. We went on after that first year to live in a dozen other homes in various parts of the country, all of them much larger than that first small apartment. We loved some of those homes – and some we hated, but none of them ever seems quite as precious to us as that little apartment that was our first home.


NOTES

1)    City ordinances forbade leaving a vehicle in the same spot for more than thirty days. We wouldn’t have enough money to repair our truck until our tax refund arrived in the spring so every 29th evening we’d push the truck into a different parking spot.

2)    The burning regional question was whether the last phrase in the ABC song was “tell me what you think of me” or “Won’t you come and play with me”!

Red Ugly Portrait

1977: D.C. Bound…

united 727

Time moved at glacial velocity when I was a kid but at some point between age 20 and 22 I was ambushed by a chronological fruit-basket turnover. That endless wait from Christmas to Christmas suddenly shrunk – glance down to read the newspaper while the Super Bowl is on TV /   look up and the puppets from “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” are dancing across the screen. When Lori and I first discussed marriage it seemed like we had all the time in the world but the third week of April 1977 unexpectedly nudged its way into my life while I was otherwise occupied with final exams and portfolio reviews.

My last review was scheduled just a few hours before my flight to Washington DC to get married and in an ironic twist of fate the session went overtime when heretofore disinterested faculty members started asking complex questions about my work. Unfortunately as much as I appreciated the attention the session was cutting into an already late start to a drive up to Salt Lake City and the airport so I finally grabbed my portfolio and just left.

Transit from the conference room to my apartment was made at a dead sprint and I wasted no time as I scooped my clothes into my carryall. Throughout the apartment room-mates were busily scrubbing walls and cleaning carpets in the vain hope of recovering their deposits and as I folded, stuffed and packed I was assailed by a chorus of dissatisfaction at my janitorial neglect. Glancing at the pitiless clock I ran out the door, throwing a couple of fives on the table and shouting over my shoulder to “take my share out of this “as I slammed the door shut.

The trip to Salt Lake City went remarkably fast, considering my steed was a rusty, backfiring 1960 Ford F150 pick-up. The plan was for me to pick up my buddy Kent Broadhead, have him drop me off at the airport after which he’d keep the truck at his house until Lori and I flew back to retrieve the vehicle and start our trip up the ALCAN Highway.  It looked like the plan was all on track until he pulled out and made a right-hand turn into the Gridlock Express.

Rush hour traffic in 1977  Salt Lake City usually wasn’t the nightmare found in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles or New York City but there had been a major pile-up on I-15 which was diverting traffic to Redwood Road where we were driving. The street began taking on the appearance of a moving parking lot, which I took as a blessing in disguise when I realized that I hadn’t changed into my traveling clothes. We were moving so slow that Kent just let the truck idle along with the creeping traffic while I cracked open my door, half-climbed/half reached around the cab and pulled my denim suit out of my carryall. Then I proceeded to bend, twist and fold myself into my pants, vest and jacket, doing my best to ignore the curious stares from the cars around us.

The tension continued to build and I found myself compulsively checking the time as traffic continued to crawl along oblivious to my plight, and when we finally reached the terminal I didn’t walk from the truck to the terminal – I shot like a bullet. I dashed to the counter and breathlessly announced my flight number and destination, only to have the counter attendant give me her best disapproving school-marm expression, and tell me that the flight had already departed the gate.

I rocked back like I’d been punched, then I quietly asked if she could pass a message on for me. She started to motion to the nearest pay phone, but when she heard those magic words “fiancée” and “D.C. temple” she sucked her breath in, grabbed her phone with one hand and started tapping at her computer with the other.. Two phone calls and twenty frantic keystrokes later she looked up at me and said: “Brother Deitrick – they’re holding the plane for you. Get down to the gate as fast as you can and go to the side door.  Someone will meet you there and take you to the plane.  Go quickly – and don’t just walk!”

Long before “the glove didn’t fit” O.J. Simpson was the star of the Hertz Rent-a-Car commercial that had him running through an airline terminal between his flight and a rental car. I would have left him in the dust that day as I dashed to the departure gate where I was met at the side door by another airline person who dragged/led me down a flight of stairs and out a door to the pavement. Blinking the setting sun out of my eyes I beheld my plane sitting just short of the active taxiway with an old disused mobile stairway leading up to an open door in the fuselage.

It was all sarcasm, snarls and swearing from the other passengers as I stumbled down the aisle to my seat but all that changed as the flight attendant started into her preflight briefing. As she wound up her usual spiel about seat-belts, smoking and exits she added “As usual we wish you a happy flight – especially to our late boarder who is on his way to get married in Washington DC” at which point the colorful metaphors turned into cheers.  It was also the point at which I felt like I could relax so I curled up in the seat as best I could and tried to sleep.

Negotiating Chicago O’Hare Airport was almost but not quite as hectic as getting through the terminal in Salt Lake City. Again it was a matter of moving along smartly but this time that meant just walking quickly and using the Jetway like everyone else…but I still just made it, boarding the plane minutes before the door was sealed shut. Again I curled up in my seat to sleep but as the airliner leveled off at cruising altitude I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast early that morning. Unfortunately the flight was short enough and late enough in the day to warrant a meal of little more than Pepsi and peanuts so I curled up even tighter in my seat and tried to ignore my stomach’s complaints as I dozed off.

I was just waking up as the plane was turning, banking and descending towards our final destination. As I sat there, my stomach churning with a combination of hunger and mild nausea from the approach aerobatics I overheard something that sounded like “space needle” coming from a seat behind me. I went into full-blown panic and figured that in my haste I had somehow gotten on board a flight going to Washington State instead of Washington DC.

As I stared out of my window into the night I was ready to give up – on the flight, on the marriage and on life, but as the plane landed and taxied to the terminal I heard the sweetest words ever spoken: “Welcome to Dulles International Airport. We hope you enjoy your visit to the nation’s capital: Washington D.C.!”

 I’d made it.

After that it was kind of a blur – I was tired and very hungry but the first thing I did was move out into the hallway to look for Lori…who was walking quickly toward my gate with her parents in tow. I’d met her father three weeks earlier so greeting him was a quick handshake. Her mother was another matter; I don’t think she was very happy meeting me a scant twelve hours before the marriage and as we walked to the baggage claim she presented a long list of shortfalls she could already detect in my speech, grooming, clothing and deportment.

I didn’t really care. Once I saw the gentle cascade of light brown hair and the water-color blue eyes with the slightly sad tilt I really didn’t notice anything else. I had my beautiful Saxon Princess with me and everything was going to be OK.

24 hours later

The conviction was still there – that everything was going to be OK. As we laid there in that snake-hug tangle that only newlyweds can achieve I thought about the future. In the short term we had an ambitious schedule ahead of us – a twelve hour road trip to Huntsville Alabama and the wedding reception, then four days later a flight back to Utah followed by much longer road trip up the ALCAN to my home and job in Alaska.

Still asleep,  Lori shifted slightly and tucked her head under my chin, her breath warming my chest and neck…and my heart.  I kept thinking – it wasn’t just the next couple of weeks that were going to be challenging –  I had the feeling that life for us was going to be much like my convoluted journey from Provo to Washington DC – a roller-coaster ride kind of life with many challenges to overcome but well worth it in the end.

…and as long as I was with my beautiful Saxon Princess, my smokin’ hot child bride…my Lori  who’d pushed the pain out of my heart, life would continue to be OK.

Reception77

1977: Commitment and Cool-osity

Making a commitment is rarely a comfortable thing to do.

I’ve got the kind of physique known as the “Cornish Coal Miner’s Build”, which means I have a long torso and relatively short legs.  With my short legs one of the hardest events on an obstacle course was the vertical wall – I could handle everything else but that wall was really hard for me to get over. There were many times when I’d just look both ways, then run around the wall if the coast was clear.

But when the coast wasn’t clear? Such was the case during a hot summer day at FT Lewis many years ago. A member of the training cadre was standing right next to the wall so I had no choice but to go over it in the proper manner. I stood there for a minute trying to think while the sergeant was “counseling” me – I can still vividly remember his neck muscles all bunched up and little specks of spit flying while he was tactfully delivering a critique of my performance. A sudden thought came to me – more of an impulse actually – and I took out my wallet and threw over the wall. There was no way I could by-pass that sergeant – and inside my wallet were pictures of my sweet heart – along with my identification card, weapons card, meal ticket  and the pathetically small amount of money I had at the time.

I made it over the wall. Some part of my reptilian fore-brain recognized that I needed to make a commitment much stronger than usual to get over that wall and the sight of my wallet sailing over the  wall was strong enough to get me over that insurmountable top edge.

In medieval times the weather had a tremendous effect on the way battles were fought. The mud would slow down armored men on both foot and horseback. Damp weather conditions would also take the spring out of bows and catapults so most military campaigns were conducted during the summer when the weather was warm and dry. When the cold weather would return many men would slip away home while the more stalwart fellows would stay and prepare for the next summer’s campaign, gathering provisions and preparing weapons. The ones that left were called “summer soldiers” and the term became a curse-word – it was someone who didn’t fulfill his commitments and failed in supporting their comrades.

It’s easy to be a summer soldier in the world today. Maybe I read too many comics but commitment and honor were the types of values that I grew up hoping to have as an adult. Unfortunately “being cool” too often trumps those values and just as unfortunately “being cool” means being self-absorbed – not investing any action or situation with anything other than a minimum of commitment.

It’s sad – not only am I much more comfortable around people who keep commitments and can be trusted, there are countless times in a day when I wonder how “cool” people were trying to be during the course of their jobs.  Was the lab tech processing my blood work at the doctor’s office doing a good job or worrying about “being cool”. Was the mechanic working on my car committed to doing a good job or was he more worried about “being cool”.

I’m not suggest that he throw his wallet into my transmission like I threw mine over the wall at FT Lewis, but I do hope he has a measure of commitment in what he does do.

1977: Three Rounds With the Reaper

1977 was an interesting year. Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president, disco swept through the pop music industry like a vampire in a blood bank and Star Wars permanently warped reality for an entire generation of junior-high boys.  It was also the year I got married…and the year that I narrowly avoided getting killed several times. I don’t know if it was bad luck or the “bullet-proof” mentality that plagues young men in their mid-twenties but marriage and widowhood came close to synchronicity with Lori that year.

It wasn’t the first brush with eternity though –I’m an Alaskan boy and life is quick on the last frontier. Within ten years of graduation there were a half-dozen deaths out of my high school class of 150, which is not a big surprise considering how extensively Alaskans are involved with boats and airplanes.  Three of my own near-death episodes stand out because they happened in rapid succession right as we were making the trip up the Alcan right after we got married in April. That’s right – within three weeks of leaving single life I came close to leaving life in general.

Lori and I had been on the road less than a week when the first incident happened. We’d started our journey out by driving west to the Oregon coast to visit my sister Robin and her family.  Engine trouble  stretched our planned three day interlude to a week;  while repairs were being made  Lori helped with Robin’s new baby Gordon but in true Alaskan fashion I passed the time helping my brother-in-law Bob prepare the equipment and boats he would use in the coming summer as a commercial fisherman.  Regulations in those waters required catching the fish with hook and line rather than the nets I was used to seeing back home in Alaska. That meant the boats were a bit different than Alaskan boats, but Bob’s boat was even more unique – it was made out of cement.

The correct term is “ferroconcrete hull technology” but it’s the same cement used to made sidewalks and floors. A form in the general shape of the hull is made out of plywood, steel mesh is strategically placed and wired to rebar, then cement is poured in and allowed to set. When the cement has completely cured the construction is extremely strong and as buoyant as any other form of vessel, the only drawback being a markedly heavier weight.

The weather turned sunny and it seemed like a perfect time to work on the boat. The only problem was getting to it; the boat was shoe-horned into their garage and their garage was located in the basement. Fortunately this basement-garage had a door and recessed ramp at one end so getting the boat out wasn’t so much a lost cause as a difficult one. Bobby’s truck had a winch that we’d use to pull the boat up and out of the garage and if there were any problems I could reach down from the side of the ramp and add a little brawn to the equation.

Bobby started winding the winch and everything was going great, with the pawl click-click-clicking as it fell and locked into each successive notch on the gear. Suddenly I heard a click-PING! and the boat started rolling back down the ramp. Without thinking I hopped down into the recessed area so I could get a better grip on the side of the boat.

Yes, you read that correctly. I tried to catch and hold a twenty foot ferroconcrete fishing boat weighing several tons. I grabbed the side of the trailer and tried to stop it, realizing the foolishness of my bullet-proof mindset only when the space I was standing in got smaller and smaller as the boat ran back down into the basement garage. When it finally rolled to a stop I had at most an inch worth of clearance between the sides of the boat and the cement block wall at the side of the ramp. I avoided peeing myself only because my wife of two weeks was watching me, cheering me on, totally oblivious to the brush with death I had just experienced.

The second close encounter with the Reaper came about a week later. We finally got the truck running again and then drove to Seattle to spend three days visiting with friends of Lori’s family before entering Canada. Traveling under rustic conditions was a little more taxing than Lori had anticipated and sleep became very difficult for her once we hit the gravel past Ft. Saint John. The highway had been built under military specifications during World War II to provide a land link to forces stationed in Alaska. At the time there was a valid fear of Japanese air attack on the road so in order to keep convoys broken up and scattered the highway curved and looped even when a straight stretch would have been more convenient. Population growth in Northern Canada and Alaska combined with construction of the pipeline had triggered efforts to straighten and improve the road but there were still lots of road sections comprised of loop after loop after loop, with huge lake-puddles that were slow in draining because the engineers didn’t bank the countless curves in order to save time. Unbanked curves are never fun to drive and the hordes of semis we had to share the highway with made them even more “white knuckle” to negotiate.

We were a day into the gravel and not far from Watson Lake when Near-death Incident #2 happened.  A rainstorm had been following us for two days and I was driving faster than was prudent hoping to find a motel room that would give us better rest than we’d gotten sleeping in a damp tent up to that point.  As I crested a ridge I could see the lights of Watson Lake in the distance but as our trunk roared to the bottom of the ridge there was a giant SPLASH and all the lights went out.

….and I mean everything. No lights in the distance, no stars, no headlights or dash lights. I had hit one of the aforementioned giant lake/puddles and the muddy water splashing up had covered the entire truck while stalling the engine and killing all the lights in the process.

At that moment a Prudhoe Bay Special crested the opposite ridge and came barreling down towards us, cutting through the arc of probably what appeared to the driver to be just another empty lake/puddle in another unbanked curve. I reached down and worked the latch, opening the door a couple of inches and illuminating the dome light, which made us just visible enough for the oncoming driver to notice us and swerve to one side, horns blasting.  Our truck coughed to a start again and I drove to a small inn just short of Watson Lake where I half-carried my sleepy sweetheart into a room and tucked her in. As my heart was still beating like a hummingbird’s, sleep didn’t arrive for some time, so I spent the interim saying prayers and hoping the balance of the trip would be not quite so enervating.

The third brush with eternity wasn’t quite as close or literal as the first two but it taught me a valuable lesson nonetheless. When Lori and I first started talking marriage we both made a lot of assumptions. As we shared a faith and set of values, had similar interests and came from roughly equivalent income level and family sizes I assumed that work habits and humor would fall right into place as well. My third “brush with death” taught me how mistaken I was.

I was already discovering vast differences in the way Alabama girls and Alaskan girls defined “roughing it”.  As we neared the end of our trip it became evident that there was no way my Saxon Princess would meet my family without a chance to change clothes and freshen up. We were coming down out of the mountains between Gunsight Lodge and Sutton when I suggested that we stop and have lunch at Renaldo’s in Anchorage where we could eat a nice meal and then clean up and change clothes.

We spent the next couple of hours chugging along, Lori “oohing” and “aahing” at each new beautiful Alaskan vista and wondering what fine cuisine she would order when we got to Renaldo’s in Anchorage….and at that point I began to get a little nervous.  My nervousness broke into sheer panic when we pulled up to the McDonalds on Dimond Boulevard in South Anchorage. Lori looked at the sign, looked at me with a totally bewildered expression, then gazed back at the sign. I garbled some sort of weak joke about “Ronald McDonald….Ronald = Renaldo’s… family joke” but it was to no avail.

It was a fitting end to a journey stocked with near-fatal incidents. The temperature in the cab of that truck dropped at least 50 degrees and hovered just above freezing level for the remaining 140 miles of the trip.  I have faced north winds buffeting down an airstrip in the middle of nowhere Alaska that had more warmth than that look had, but lucky for me any grudge my sweetheart may develop has the life-span of a snowball in direct tropical sunlight so she was talking to me again upon arrival in Sterling – and it was at that point that I made two important vows:

  1. I had to be more careful now that I was responsible for a wife as well as myself.
  2. I would never, ever again make a joke regarding fine dining with my wife.

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