1981: Alaska Cable Television Association Brochure Cover

ACTVBrochure 1982

In late 1974 vocalist Mac Davis did a cover of the Kevin Johnson tune “Rock and Roll I Gave You All the Best Years of My Life” . It was a catchy but bittersweet tune about unrequited love, not for a person but for a music genre and career field. I’ve always felt the message to be valid in my own creative career  as I was drawn to fannish subjects and clients but rarely got the recognition or success I could get in other fields.

This brochure cover is a case in point: I produced it at about the same time as I was painting a cover for a role-playing game company, but while this piece earned me a sizeable chunk of cash and a BONNIE (Best of the North//ADDY award) the cover paid a much smaller chunk and was barely acknowledged.

1981: Tie A Yellow Ribbon

BrimFrost

I am slow at picking up slang. For example, it was in early 1985 that I first heard someone use the term “awesome” for describing something less monumental than Hoover Dam or Pamela Anderson’s upper story. I never used the term myself until about a week ago – and when I did my daughter all but threw a party for me. Her congratulatory remarks:  “Daddy – you’re trying to use slang” were delivered in the same tone of voice as entreaties to her four-year old in his delinquent potty-training efforts.

It took an entire episode of The Big Bang Theory for me to learn the meaning of “earworm”. What I took to be yet another Star Trek reference was instead a term referring to a snippet of an almost-forgotten tune that drives you crazy as you try to remember the song’s title. I rarely suffer from such a dilemma but I do battle a similar problem, something I call an “ear cobra” – a song played over and over so many times that I am driven to suspect that the DJ’s playlist is shorter than my afore-mentioned grandson’s attention span. Such was the case when we listened to the radio while encamped at Clear Creek Alaska during JRX Brim Frost 1981 and heard the Tony Orlando tune “Tie a Yellow Ribbon (Round the Old Oak Tree)” played on the radio over and over and over…..One day earlier the American hostages in Iran had been freed, and while the Ayatollah’s spokesman denied any connection between the timing of the release and Reagan’s inauguration it didn’t take a genius to connect the dots between their release and the hawkish stance of the new administration. However, politics had little to do with the way radio stations were continuously playing “Yellow Ribbon” as a token of the nation’s collective joy, but as the song was endlessly repeated my mood went quickly from “that’s nice” to “that’s irritating” to “that’s REALLY p*ssng me off” so my tent mates took to hiding the radio whenever I came in from the cold.

However, the problem wasn’t the song. It was the view.

Daylight in February is a rare commodity when you’re standing in the snow at a point less than two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. As I stood at the barbed wire perimeter and faced north I could see the lights of downtown Fairbanks; if I was very careful and double-checked the map I could just make out lights at the University of Alaska1 where a decade earlier I had stood next to the window in my warm, snug dormitory room and looked south in the general direction of all those crazy soldiers camped out in sub-zero weather. As I looked north in 1981 I had to wonder what my reaction would have been back then had I known that one day I would be one of those aforementioned “crazy G.I.s”.

I doubt it would have been complimentary. With my family’s strong military tradition and my own large dose of transpersonal commitment I was nowhere close to the deep antiwar/antimilitary feeling held by my classmates, but I did have some concerns with the situation in Southeast Asia. Unbiased information was scarce in those pre-Internet days but I studied both sides of the issue as best as I could…and still came away confused.

Ten years before that time of confusion I had no doubts at all. As I boy in the Anchorage of 1962 I was living in as army-friendly environment as you could get.  America was enjoying a healthy economy and it was less than twenty years since we’d collectively handed Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo their respective a**es at the end of the Second World War.  Pop music was full of positive references to “soldier boys”, TV schedules were loaded with programs like McHale’s Navy and The Lieutenant, and all the Christmas catalogs were filled with war toys. At the time the only problem I had with the military was wondering what “Checkmate King Two – this is White Rook” meant when Sergeant Saunders barked it into his walkie-talkie on Combat! every Monday night.

As I stood in the 1981 snow and looked at the city lights to the north I mentally hopped back and forth over those ten year increments.

  • My inner ten year old was ecstatic at the idea of being an officer in the army.
  • The college freshman was wistful as he looked north to the site of the beginning of his adult life and his first real love.
  • The twenty-something lieutenant was baffled by a post Viet-nam hollow army that bore slight resemblance to the soldiers I admired as a boy.
  • The grounded aviator was wondering why he was in the army at all.
  • The young father worried about his children’s future in light of global tension brought on by the recent Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

I turned and walked back to camp. It was the last week of the exercise; I was physically exhausted and a bit sluggish from a steady diet of C rations, but there would be little chance of a rest during the redeployment back to FT Richardson. We’d been blessed with relatively mild temperatures2 during the exercise but the long Alaskan winter nights would still complicate our tasks as we were forced to grope in the dark for tools, tents and tires. As we went into the last 36 hours on the ground it all became a blur as I took on more and more tasks, simultaneously preparing load plans for our flights south and supervising my troops as we broke camp and took down our defensive perimeter.

The corners of my mouth and fingernails became cracked and sore. My eyes ached and burned with that odd warm feeling that only extended wakefulness can bring on. The mental debate between childhood idealism and current cynicism was being steadily crowded out by a fatigue-fueled anger until I found myself with one fist clenched and the other one grabbing the collar of a soldier that had been slacking off to the detriment of his comrades.

“L.T. – why doncha let me take care of this” I felt my platoon sergeant’s hand on my shoulder as he quietly kept me from making a career-killing punch-in-the-throat. “You probably should check on the guys filling in foxholes and salvaging concertina.3 

“and cool off some” I mentally added to his words

I walked back out to the perimeter for one more look north at the University but rather than cooling off I became even more angry; again I knew that the anger was fueled by fatigue but I didn’t care. In my twenty-something conceit I felt that I had been singled out by life and cheated, though I was at a loss to coherently state what I had been cheated out of.

I was startled into a state of awareness by the sound of something moving toward me through the snow-covered brush. Two weeks earlier a ground surveillance team had observed a bear ambling around just outside the perimeter, the warm weather having fooled his internal calendar into thinking that spring was near. Cursing the rule against carrying live ammunition during field exercises I mentally fumbled/figured the odds between a folding Buck knife and a bear’s claws when one of my soldiers burst through the willows and stood next to me on the ridge.

“Heya sir – you doing OK?” Near-ursine size and a flat Minnesota accent identified the soldier as SP4 Newville, one of the better soldiers in my platoon and a ace truck driver that could get an M35A2 2 ½ ton truck through any kind of terrain or weather.

 “Boy this back-haul is a bitch doncha know?”

I muttered something.

Pointing north towards Fairbanks he continued: “So – Sarge says you went ta college up there. Betcha that was sumpin! You know – ‘Sex, drugs, rock & roll’ and all that stuff?”

I muttered again, trying to discourage further conversation but Newville either missed or ignored the cue and went on.

“Listen Sir – this ain’t like listening to no ‘Stairway ta Heaven’ but I thought you’d enjoy it”

He extended his paw hand: In it was a can of 7-UP – and in that moment a carbonated beverage changed my whole world.

While setting up our tents at the beginning of the exercise I had shared a childhood story about my older sister’s pranks and how they always involved 7-UP as bait. I had even recreated an experiment in creating a home brew version of the Uncola with Alka-Seltzer and sugar that failed just as miserably in 1981 as it had in 1961, and had ended the demonstration with the comment that soft drinks were just as inaccessible at our remote airhead as they were in my childhood home. Together the story and demonstration took at most ten minutes but that was long enough to prompt Newville to give up desperately needed shut-eye in order to make a side-trip to a convenience store as he drove all night to collect infantrymen scattered over the area of operations. It was a lesson in Christ-like service that got the point across better than any sermon or scripture.

I popped the tab and took a gulp, the cold sweet carbonated water shocking me back to a more alert state. I mentally made a new list:

  • Even if there had been a few more marks in the “down” column of my life than in the “up” category, I had always been able to stand back up after each time I was knocked down.
  • While Fairbanks was the cradle for the worst heartbreak of my young life it was also the birthplace of my true understanding of God, family and friendship.
  • Maybe my cross-country trips were now made in a jeep at an altitude of three feet instead of helicopter at a thousand but I’d have never known or learned how to lead men like Newville if my career had kept me flying.
  • …and maybe I’ll never be as cool as SGT Saunders, but I had something he’d never match: A two-year old son, another on the way, and my smoking hot Saxon Princess sweetheart that had crusty CW4 introducing themselves to a lowly second lieutenant just on the off- chance that she’d shake their hand..

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  1. There was no UAF, UAA or UAJ when I first went off to college in 1971. We were “the” University of Alaska and all those other places were community colleges.
  2. The weather had been so unseasonably warm that the ground started getting soft. There were doubts that the airstrip at Clear Creek would stay frozen enough to support the large number of C-130’s taking off and landing during deployment/redeployment.
  3. Concertina: a type of barbed wire that was stamped out of very thin steel. It was issued in tight rolls that would expand or contract like a small accordion (hence the name) at the most inopportune time. Also called razor blade wire.

1981: Lieutenant Moonlight!

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(Boy, that sounds like a Golden Age superhero titles, doesn’t it? Flyer’s helmet and goggles, short cape, boots and a half-moon logo on my chest.)

Ah, but it is not to be. Rather than fighting criminals or “Ratzis” the subject of today’s post has to do with the amount of freelance art work I did while serving in the Army – and it started the summer before my last year of undergraduate study.

Actually, it had been an issue since the day I signed up for ROTC. I knew that there would be a built-in conflict between the two career fields and I would bounce back and forth between planning for a career in the active army and a career in the design field combined with duty in the reserves. I would like to note that it never was a question of whether or not I would serve, but when I would serve. Too many Deitricks, Wrights, Lairds, and Williams had “taken the king’s shilling” for me to break with tradition.

It was going to be a little easier to do so when I hit the summer of 1978 though. I had one last year of school, a wife and a child on the way. I had put myself through school by way of the best school job ever: working as a roustabout for Chevron Oil at the Swanson River oil field on the Kenai Peninsula in the state of Alaska…and yes, there will be a post on that at a later time.

For some reason my skills took a vacation that summer. Summers before I would crank out drawings all summer long after work and on weekends, but that summer – yeesh. I don’t think I completed one major color piece and I came up with maybe a dozen sketchbook drawings, none of which were very good. I started to get a little panicky – as I said before I was going to be starting a family and was beginning to doubt that I’d be able to support them.

During that summer and the two summers before the head of operations in Alaska personally asked me to consider staying on full-time. (I believe his name was John Rollins). I was a good hand, I liked the people I was working with and it was a sure thing – which made it all that more heartbreaking when my boss T.H. Auldridge and some of the others on the roustabout gang strongly encouraged me to not stay on. They felt that with all the preparation I had made via schooling, mission work and military training I had too much going for me in the future to settle for Swanson River. It meant a lot that they felt s highly for me but at the same time it was hard shutting the door on that option.

So, Lori and I headed south and after a rough start to the school year (late registration, our housing plans falling apart and our truck dying) I went into the ROTC office and put in my application for active duty. Based on my grade point average, leadership and participation at school and my performance at FT Lewis I was given a regular army commission instead of a reserve commission on active duty. I was delighted to also get orders for flight school at FT Rucker for the following autumn so with everything squared away I settled down to just grinding through my school work and getting started on career as an Army officer the next fall.

…but then disaster struck. Whatever was keeping me from putting out decent artwork the summer before left me and I got much better at my work. My grades all went up at a minimum one entire grade level, everything I entered in the student show was accepted and walked away with a major award and I was able to start doing paying freelance illustration for gaming magazines and publishers. I was on my way to a bright future…then April of 1979 hit and that bright future turned into an olive drab one and I began to contend with a life-long dilemma – balancing the life-styles and mind-sets of two very divergent career fields.

The process was pretty much the same through all my active duty years. I had to have longer than usual dead-lines in order to accommodate extended hours at various times. Seeing my work in print was also sometimes under unusual circumstances; while taking a chemical warfare course I found my Cobra update illustration in a frame over an NBC NCO’s desk – it was my first experience with autographing work and I was ten days into JRX Brim Frost 1983 when I got my first look at the “kiddie Traveller” box cover I did for GDW while standing next to a C130 being off-loaded at Delta Creek assault strip.

Conditions under which projects were completed varied quite a bit too. While most of them were done as “moon-lighting” work at night and on weekends, some of them were not. I spent 6 months working full-time as an art director at the U.S. Army Aviation Digest while my medical grounding for eye problems was being considered; at that time I was working just like my civilian 9-to-5 graphic design counterparts. The image leading off this post  (which depicts a helicopter, a Lear Jet and a hanger) was one that I had to split in; when reassured that I was not required to go and FTX at FT Greeley (AK) I took on the which was for ERA helicopters (and a major coup!)  The next day I was told that I was in fact going, but with the collusion of my company commander Keith Kernek I was able to spend 4 days at FT Greeley conducting the down-load of the battalion airlift, sped home for 4 days to work on the illustration night and day, then back to Greeley to handle the retrograde airlift, then home when I spent two days finishing and prepping the art…then I collapsed. Incidentally, I bought my first computer with the money I made on that project.

(CPT Kernek used to say: “LTD, this art stuff is your real job. The army is just a hobby for you.”)

As time went by my clientele grew and I picked up a couple of industry awards. By 1983 I felt like I had enough work to warrant going full-time freelance so in May of that year I exchanged my green identification card for a pink one. Looking back I wish I had stayed in the Army and kept at a hobby, especially when computer-assisted illustration and design swept through the industry about ten years after I set up full-time. When asked about digital media I reply that I am of the Quigley: Down Under school of thought only with computers instead of pistols: it’s not that I can’t use them – it’s just that I don’t like to use them. Hindsight is of course 20-20, but I am very glad that teaching became a large part of my livelihood about the time the machines started taking over.