2021: Reunion

(This is actually a year late. I started work on in the late August of 2021 but then we all started trading Covid and writing slipped a few notches down my list of prioriites.)

Despite the focus my work requires, it often gets a bit lonely in my studio, so I usually have either music or a movie running while ‘making stuff’. My choices in video skew towards old favorites like the epic historical dramas of the 1960s/70s, but every so often I find something of more recent vintage as was the case when I watched The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw last week. Starring Kenny Rogers as professional gambler Brady Hawkes, the film is one of five made-for-TV westerns built on the storyline and success of Kenny’s 1978 hit single The Gambler and tells the story of Hawkes’ efforts to make his way to a high stakes poker game in San Francisco scheduled to be played on the night before the enactment of the Street Betting Act of 1906 that will ban gambling and eliminate Hawkes’ way of life.

Luck of the Draw includes plenty of horses and gunfights, but it also includes newer technology such as internal combustion engines and semi-automatic firearms that highlight changes in the way of life on the frontier as it closes. More interesting to me though were the frequent reunions with old friends Hawkes meets up with during his odyssey, a group made up of actors and characters from the classic television Westerns I’d grown up watching on our little black and white Zenith three decades earlier. Some of the stars like Hugh O’Brian (Wyatt Earp) and Chuck Connors (The Rifleman) had weathered those thirty years in good shape while others like Clint Walker (Cheyanne) had – in the patois of the movie’s time frame – ‘been ridden hard and put away wet’. As the members of that second group came and went on the screen I had to wonder if it wouldn’t have been kinder to avoid replacing our collective mental picture of them from their glory days

It brought to mind a recent reunion of my own, that of my high school graduation. It was the first such reunion I was able to attend. I was a first lieutenant and a company executive officer midway through a field-training exercise when the first one happened and the second came up while I was attending graduate school 4000 miles away. After that I was too caught up with being a dad, teaching college, running a business and in general living life to catch the next three, but somehow everything fell together in August of 2021 to make it possible for me to attend the 50 year reunion of the Kenai Central High School graduating class of 1971.

Kind of.

At first it seemed as though history would repeat itself as a series of unforeseen events and minor disasters prevented my Beautiful Saxon Princess and I from attending in person, but the blessing/curse of technology allowed me to attend via ZOOM hook-up – and even with that miracle of modern technology I came close to missing out, having lost track of days on the calendar. That confusion continued even after making the connection as I watched a parade of what I took to be the parents of my classmates introducing themselves, but when I glimpsed the reflection of my own grizzled features in my laptop’s screen I realized that those equally grizzled figures were not my classmates’ parents, but were in fact my classmates themselves. There were one or two trim individuals who looked like they’d been sleeping in Tupperware for every one of the 18,250 nights since commencement but most of them were packing as many extra pounds as me, and what hair they had left was as white as mine.

I didn’t care – I was just happy to see them all, even if it was via technology. Attending a school on the ass-end of the world comes with a social awareness different than what you pick up in most schools; it seemed like I was sitting in classes next to cousins rather than strangers with all the of fighting, arguing, and bickering you’d expect in an extended family, but upon closer scrutiny it’s obvious the peculiar social cohesion goes beyond that. There’s been discussion that there are actually two parts to the Baby-Boom generation: the stereotypical, student radical Big Chill group born right after World War II and a second smaller wave made up of those of us born in the first half of the fifties. There’s even been a name suggested for that second group – the Jones’s – but the discrepancies between the two wavelets involves much more than names. There are several factors involved in the formation of the Jones’s mini-boom, formative events quite different that those that molded our older siblings:

  • Their cultural milepost was Woodstock while ours was Watergate.
  • They entered a red-hot war-based economy with decent wages and reasonable mortgages while we dropped into an economy crippled by ‘stagflation’ and the oil-embargos of the Seventies.
  • Most tragically, they saw the British invasion transform popular music while we had to endure the musical travesty known as disco.

All of which made the KCHS class of 1971 appear out-of-step with our older and younger class mates starting in the fall of 1967 with our freshman year faculty sponsors throwing their hands up in the air at our first class meeting (“we’ve never seen a class with such an attitude”) to comments by former upperclassmen in the 1980s (“your class was just funny that way – not funny “ha-ha” but funny-“yeesh”). Maybe that “collective individualism” is why I’ve felt a fraternal attachment to my classmates even though I hadn’t attended any of the earlier reunions – the fact that something about being born in 1953 has us all marching to our own drummers.

We still seem to be marching to those drummers though that cadence has taken us over some rough existential terrain:

  • We’ve taken a beating – out of 150 that walked across the stage only 120 are still alive.
  • We’ve taken a beating – most of us have been married for a LONG time.
  • We’ve taken a beating in that we have a higher than average number of veterans.

You could also read the effects of those difficult journeys in the lines and worn expressions of the faces I could see via the ZOOM hook-up. Even though we are relatively young and yet to reach the biblical allotment of ‘three score and ten’ there was a moment when I began to rue the use of the video link that, as was the case with The Luck of the Draw, it would have been kinder for some to be only remembered from their glory days…but in the end I was glad for the link. Despite those lines I could still see that:

  • Carey is still gracious and beautiful.
  • Jim is still quick on the uptake with a wickedly funny comment.
  • Rick still looks like he could bench press an engine block.

…and I was glad to have had the chance to see my cousins one more time.

1966: A Friendly Umbrella In a Stormy Life

I turned off the TV and reluctantly admitted to defeat.

 Batman was terrible.

I had been a “bat-fan” since the summer of 1964 when Julie Schwartz had Sch-rewdly rescued the comic from cancellation by making just three changes:

  • The chest emblem changed from a generic bat figure to a bat superimposed on a yellow disc which could be trademarked.
  • The current team of artists was replaced by comics’ superstar Carmine Infantino.
  • Tales of aliens and costumed supervillain antics were replaced by more realistic detective stories.

This fundamental change was dubbed “The New Look”, and when I first learned about it I assumed it would be like Peter Gunn with capes and Batarangs. Unfortunately, producer William Dozier had been introduced to the Caped Crusader via the goofy 1950’s incarnation and the 1940’s Columbia serials Batman and Batman & Robin, both bearing little resemblance to any of the more serious eras in the books. It didn’t help that the Anchorage station carrying the Bat-series aired the first two episodes out of order, making it difficult to understand what was going on.

I tuned into that first episode shivering with anticipation. Events of the yet-to-be seen first episode were recapped with a voice-over narration over a series of still photographs, which led me to conclude that I’d be watching a puppet-show like Fireball XL5 or Supercar. Then the animated opening credits ran, and I readjusted to the idea of an animated cartoon like Jonny Quest, but when the credits cut to an opening scene of a less-than-buff middle-aged man in a costume that only faintly resembled my hero, I knew that I was screwed. I suffered through the rest of the episode, tuned into the second/first/? Episode broadcast aired two nights later and forced myself to continue to watch the show, fervently hoping for a change in quality, but by Easter I’d given up hope.

…which was why I was less than excited about the announcement in March of a new show called The Avengers. The story was buried in the middle of the weekend edition of the Anchorage Daily News and held little real information about the upcoming show other than it would star Diana Rigg1 and Patrick McGee. This Rigg lady could be either the Wasp or the Scarlet Witch, and if Mr. McNee would be playing Captain America I hoped he’d been hitting the gym a bit more often that Adam West did. With my luck, Iron Man would be portrayed by a now elderly Jack Haley wearing his Tin Man outfit from The Wizard of Oz.

It was all so depressing.

Not that I had much to be happy about at the time. I was heading into the Summer of No Bedroom, and I was feeling like a refugee in my own home. The previous winter my mom had decided I was too old to be sharing a bedroom with my little sisters, and that Dad needed to make a bedroom for me. Space was at a premium, so by the process of elimination the attic became the site of my new digs, and we got a good start in late February, but by late spring construction had come to a halt. Unfortunately, this happened after I’d already been moved out of that room I was sharing with my three little sisters.

The move had been inexplicably caused by Mom and older sister Robin securing summer jobs just as school was ending. They’d be working at a fish cannery in Clam Gulch about 30 miles south of Sterling. The original idea was that we’d spend the work week with them, and then return home to Dad for the weekend. Unfortunately this proved to be unworkable, so the new plan was that the younger sisters and I would stay in Sterling while Mom and Robin would shuttle between the ranch and the cannery. The situation seemed a winning proposition when A) Mom promised to pay me for babysitting, and B) Robin uncharacteristically allowed me to crash in her room. Unfortunately my fortunes just as quickly reversed when A) Dad halved the baby-sitting rate2 and B) Robin revoked crashing rights in her room. I also lost use of the living room couch because each trip would include two to three fellow cannery workers tagging along for showers and laundry, and they would be crashing at the house overnight.

After trying (and discarding) the living room floor, the top of the clothes dryer and the cargo space in the station wagon as sleeping quarters I began to panic. But then a Classics Illustrated adaptation of Robinson Crusoe gave me an idea: I’d make my own home. We were having a relatively dry summer, so I made myself a room at the back of one of the outbuildings by stacking military surplus pallets together. Modest insulation and cushioning was provided by four-foot square pads stuffed with what we suspected to be horse-hair, and a garden hose stretching from the back kitchen door provided a modicum of communication with the rest of the family during the night.

…which seemed to last forever. Granted there was enough sun at 10:00 PM for reading comics, but sleep didn’t come easy knowing that both bears and moose could be wandering around the ranch just out of sight in the brush. Even worse than the big critters were the little ones – mosquitoes, and an even tinier and more voracious flying pest we knew only as the “no-see-um,” made a bug-buffet out of the smallest bit of skin left uncovered, and I’d invariably wake up looking like pin cushion.

Oddly enough, my sole window of respite came on Saturday nights when the younger kids were down for the evening and the teenagers & adults were either doing laundry or out on the town giving me a chance to sprawl on the couch and watch TV. This worked out kind of nice as it also give me a chance to see the aforementioned Avengers television series that I had lost interest in when it became clear no superheroes were included in the cast.

Equally confusing as the first Batman episode aired the previous January, the inaugural episode of the Avengers opened with a man fleeing across a giant chessboard neatly bulls-eyed in the back by a throwing knife, while a voiceover with an upper-class British accent announced:

“Extraordinary crimes against the people and the state have to be avenged by agents extraordinary.”

“Two such people are John Steed – top professional and his partner, Emma Peel – talented amateur”

“Otherwise known as The Avengers.”

Then the  camera cut to the two coolest-looking characters I’d ever seen in my thirteen years of life, specifically a fortyish man equipped & umbrella sipping champagne with a slim leather-clad brunette who moved like a cat1 The title card (THE AVENGERS) flashed then was followed by a flawlessly composed series of BW stills and the most totally bad-ass TV theme EVER!

The episode itself bore little resemblance to any other detective or spy show I’d seen and involved mechanical men attacking various characters with following episodes featuring similar fantastic story lines set against the background of a particular aspect of British life. I didn’t learn until decades later that this was a calculated move on the part of the producers – The Avengers was an existing show retooled to maximize sales to the United States by featuring stereotypical versions of English settings, characters, and life that appeal to “potato farmers from Idaho” as expressed in another British export years later3.

I wouldn’t have cared had I known at the time. I was just then beginning to understand that the British made up the bulk of my ancestors4 instead of just being people with odd accents playing the bad-guys every other week on The Wonderful World of Disney. I soaked up every nuance of British history and culture that The Avengers showcased each week while repeating the dialog to myself in hopes of acquiring the slight drawl and soft R’s of the British accent.

…and that theme music! I wouldn’t realize it until years later, but the music established the characters, their relationship, and the setting, every bit as much as the plot and dialog.

  • The music opens with brass fanfare that would easily fit into a military parade.
  • As the fanfare recedes a harpsichord starts a rhythmic repeating pattern, reflecting John Steed’s conservative Edwardian style.
  • At the third repetition of the harpsicord’s pattern, a string section joins in reflecting Emma Peel’s fluid manner and Carnaby Street style.

The harpsicord and strings smoothly blend, symbolizing how the two leads interact, while echoes of the brass introduction punch through occasionally at just the perfect moment, symbolizing the action that is interspersed just as stylishly in each episode.

…and just as I’d get totally caught up in the show it was over and time to shut the television off and head out to my fort and bedtime. But despite being located a hundred feet from the house it didn’t scare me so much anymore. With the “almost” midnight sun of June, July and August, the likelihood of critters sneaking around in the few small trees and underbrush around the house soon lost its terror for me, but it could have been lonely.

No one ever used the garden-hose intercom I’d so laboriously installed, nor did anyone even come out to the fort to inspect my sleeping arrangements, but I was OK. I’d just dust on a coat of OFF! Insect repellant, snuggle down in my blankets, and go to sleep to visions of bowler hats and jumpsuits while a harpsicord and a string section wove a musical backdrop as I was “avenging” with my friends in England instead of sleeping in a fort made of pallets and barrels in Sterling, Alaska.

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Notes

  1. That same summer I came across a year-old issue of PLAYBOY featuring Belgian lass Hedy Scott as the centerfold/Playmate. Given her uncanny resemblance to Diana Rigg. my friend Jesse and I nearly came to blows over whether or not Scott and Rigg were the same person.
  2. Unfortunately, it was a pattern that would repeat itself for the next thirty-seven years. Dad couldn’t resist the temptation to take advantage of me in every business or financial agreement we ever made.  
  3. As Time Goes By – an excellent BBC rom-com that aired 1992-2005.
  4. I am well over 75% British. Those maps that come with the results that testing firms send you with the colored dots showing the location and number of DNA matches? Mine are clustered in western England and the Canadian Maritime provinces.

1964: The Community Hall

(This post is a bit of a mystery. It wasn’t long after publication that I realized that my first book (The LIfe and Times of A Midnight Son: Growing up in 1960’s Alaska) needed to be a bit longer and this story was one of a dozen or more that I wrote in an effort to achieve that goal. As was the case with earlier writings those stories were published before being added to the book-manuscript…but I’m not sure if this one was included. In my extended post-COVID daze I was unable to find in among my WordPress files online and it wasn’t saved on any of my thumb drives or the two computers I used in maintaining this blog. It finally came down to digging up the archive copy and retype it word for word)

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“She’s a doll, she’s a queen, she’s a tantalizing teen.”

“And Karen is her name (they call her Karen).”

David”

“At a party she’s a stomper and a rock and roll romper.”

“Everybody’s glad she came.”

“…DAVID!”

“Hey that’s Karen!”

“DAVID RALPH DEITRICK!”

NBC had great hopes for its “umbrella sitcom” 90 Bristol Court, but of the three sub-series, Karen, was the only program to survive – and I was very glad. Why? Well, it could have been the mental escape it provided from the isolation brought about by the move from Anchorage to the Peninsula, but then again I was on the cusp of puberty, and quite smitten with the fetching Debbi Watson, star of the teen sitcom re-running in my imagination. How smitten? Smitten enough to miss the car stopping and becoming totally bewildered when my inner review of last night’s television feast was interrupted.

“Huh?”

Hiyako Jocko-san! We’re late!”

Dad motioned me across the gravel parking lot. It was our first regular Sunday, and unlike the post office, drug store, and local Air Force station, we hadn’t thoroughly checked out the church beforehand. The week before, a larger-than-usual congregation brought about by a missionary farewell took us to the Elk’s Hall, so I was looking forward to seeing the “real” chapel and comparing it to the one we’d just left in Anchorage…but at the moment I was confused because I could see no church. I looked around, but was met with only the lush greenery of 1964 Soldotna, and a rather dilapidated storage building made of grey, weather-beaten plywood. There was nothing to compare with the majestic 11th and E chapel that we’d been attending for the previous two years in Anchorage

…and then I realized with a shudder that the storage building was the church.

As rare as compliments were from Mom, she remarked very loudly at the reverent way her son was walking into church, but little did she know, it was shock rather than religious fervor prompting my reverent manner. “Church” was a single windowless room measuring forty by sixty feet, with a single door at each end, and walls covered with butcher paper. Environmental comfort was provided by what I suspected to be a Soviet heating unit left over from World War Two suspended from the ceiling in one corner. There were no bathrooms, and seating consisted of multiple pairs of old leather covered bus seats welded together, which meant that the first order of business on Sunday morning was moving the seats from the perimeter of the room where they had been placed for the teen dance the night before and lining them up into rows. In the process we would air the place out and sweep up the dirt and detritus left over from the previous evening1.

…not that the seats stayed put for very long. The dispersed geographical nature of our congregation meant that meetings usually held at separate times on Sunday were held back-to-back in order to save time and gas, so the seats were periodically rearranged like a great upholstered square dance changing from pew-like rows for the main worship service to separate clustered squares that would accommodate individual classes in Sunday School.

Life with attention-deficit disorder was already a losing proposition for a kid in the 1960s and attending church in this manner was particularly torturous with Sunday School class as the absolute low point. Four different instruction groups ranging from adults to toddlers were presented simultaneously in that one room, and I had difficulty paying attention, especially as I’d been held back to a church history course that I’d already completed in Anchorage the year before. I was also bemoaning the fact that there was a dead-ringer Debbie Watson look-alike in that class I had just missed2.

“She sets her hair with great precision,

It’s her favorite indoor sport,

And by the light of television,

She can even write a book report.”

So it was that I spent most Sundays leaning over with my head in my hands, fingertips surreptitiously stuck in my ears so I could alternately fantasize about Karen, or the Karen clone in the next class over – that is until the day we had Roberta Jackson for a substitute teacher for Sunday School.

The Jacksons were one of the cornerstone families in our congregation, a family with five sons that made every other young man feel totally inferior. To a man they were muscular, handsome, musically gifted, mechanically talented, and blessed with the coolest haircuts ever, that I was never able to duplicate no matter how much tie I spent in front of the mirror, or how many tubes of SCORE Clear blue gel I troweled on top of my head. I desperately wanted to hate all of them, but I couldn’t because they were just so damn NICE.

Given the family’s musical talents, it wasn’t a total surprise when Roberta brought a guitar case with her when she was asked on short notice to cover our class. At first she was a little hesitant talking to us, until she pulled out an electric guitar from the case and started to sing. I was loathe to halt my internal re-run, but if you’ve ever listened to someone picking an unplugged electric guitar, you’ll know it has a very delicate sound – and as Sister Jackson began to play, it was all too apparent that her sons had inherited their talent from her. Rather than sounding like a musical instrument, the notes were more like the ripple of a wind chime magically blending together in melody.

Fingertips popped out of my ears, and I leaned in as she began to sing.

“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.

I keep my eyes wide open all the time.

I keep the ends out for the tie that binds

Because you are mine, I walk the line.”

For a moment I was confused – I knew that Johnny Cash had written and recorded the song a long time ago, and I couldn’t figure out why Sister Jackson was singing it in Sunday School, but then it hit me, and I had to fight the tears. Left to her own devices to teach a mob of unruly brats, Sister Jackson had reached to us in the way she best knew how to express love – through music. It was then that I also realized that she wasn’t singing about her husband, or an old boyfriend – she was singing to someone Higher, and in this context, walking the line entailed more than mortal affections.

…and in that moment the heater kicked into operation, simultaneously deafening and desiccating us all. Scant seconds after that explosion of sound a bell rang, prompting closing prayers, and before I knew it we were on our way home…but for the first time since leaving Anchorage I wasn’t scowling as we bounced and weaved along the thin concrete ribbon that was the Sterling Highway, running through the snags and stumps of a decades old forest fire. To be honest, our family’s church membership was more a matter of appearance than devotion, and I still hated the fact that we’d moved from Anchorage, but this particular Sunday had been different as Sister Jackson’s music, for the first time ever, prompted a spiritual feeling in my heart that was both unmistakable and indefinable. Was it a manifestation of Divine Power? It was a long time ago and I was only eleven, and as I try to conjure up memories of what I felt in my heart my mutant razor memory is for once a little hazy, but I do know that the experience was enough to start me pursuing matters of faith, not just for appearances, but for myself.

…and it was the last Sunday that I hummed a television series’ theme song to myself during the opening hymn.

Notes:

  1. Cigarette butts, soda cans, and an item of girls’ underwear during one memorable occasion…as well as other items you really don’t want to know about.
  • Her name was Kristi, and I was totally twitter-pated and unable to talk to her. I would daydream about her constantly though, and as a prepubescent eleven-year-old, those dreams revolved around a scenario in which I save her after she falls into the Kenai River only to be rewarded with a kiss of gratitude when she recovers consciousness.

“Karen” written by Jack Marshall, Bob Mosher, and performed by The Beach Boys.

1967: Second City

“Patrolling the city leaves me little time to rest, so I catch my breath as I move from one rooftop vantage point to another. Ridding the city of crime and corruption is a never ending battle, made all the more difficult by the need for stealth as each night I make my way from my secret headquarters on the edge of town to the crime-ridden alleys and avenues in the middle of the city. From such a vantage point I can scan for any sign of wrongdoing while I listen intently for screams, gunshots – even whispers that would betray nefarious deeds on the part of the underworld.”

“What’s that I hear? A cry for help?”

“DAVID! GET DOWN OFF THERE BEFORE YOU FALL AND BREAK YOUR NECK!”

…and with those words the tone-arm on the great record-player of life scratched across the 33 1/3 RPM record of my inner sound-track and transformed the rooftops of Gotham City into the top level of the Anchorage J.C. Penny’s parking garage. Brushing the cement dust off the lower legs of my Levi’s I mentally tuned out the inevitable snarky parental comments as I climbed into the back seat of our station wagon and settled in for the three hour drive back to Sterling. It was tough visualizing the life of a nocturnal urban crusader when the only available urban area was a smallish city 134 miles north of home.

Prior to our northward migration in 1962 I had ridden through several Left Coast cities, but Anchorage was the first city I had actually lived in, and learning to navigate an urban environment entailed just as much study as regular schoolwork. However, I soon learned that while they were few in number, (2!) there wereother larger municipalities in Alaska. Juneau had been our original destination when Dad transferred to the Alaska State Employment service just prior to our move north, but there was another city even further beyond, up in the Interior, that was larger than Juneau, but smaller than Anchorage.

That mysterious other place was called Fairbanks, and although the pickings from my pre-Internet research were slim, I learned that the city was situated amongst the following installations:

  • An army base similar in size to FT Richardson.
  • An Air Force base equal to or larger than Elmendorf AFB.
  • The flagship of the state’s secondary education system, i.e. the University of Alaska.
  • An international airport which served as a logistical staging area for the Interior.

…And even more important to a fourteen-year boy was the existence of the Tom-Tom, a drive-in kid hang-out in the middle of town that featured GO-GO DANCERS IN PLEXIGLAS BOOTHS flanking the DJ’s compartment. Unfortunately given the militant aspect Mom attached to religion  I avoided even looking at the Tom-tom’s location on the map when I was in her presence.

Such was the extent of my knowledge of the area before actually setting eyes on the city of Fairbanks in July of 1967 when our family made the trip to Alaska’s Second City. Like most of our summer expeditions we hadn’t planned on making the entire thousand mile round-trip journey at the outset; we had just been touring the Glenallen area when the ever-present family wanderlust prompted us to check out the scenery “just a little ways up the road” and extended our trip in increments – first to Gakona, then FT Greeley, and finally all the way into Fairbanks where we booked rooms at the transient quarters on FT Wainright and settled in for an extended visit.

Three “Fairbankisms” became very obvious the minute we started our exploration the next day:

  • Despite the difference in population, both cities had a similar vibe with a limited downtown area, and Army and Air Force bases sitting just to the east. Those installations continually advertised their presence with helicopters and jet interceptors constantly zooming across the sky, and (in the case of FT Wainwright) the M113 armored personnel carriers that periodically interrupted one evening’s picnic as they  burst through the trees next to our campground before clanking off in another direction.
  • The trees were much shorter in stature than those found in Anchorage and the Peninsula, and became bonsai-scaled when compared to the redwoods back in California.
  • Summer in Fairbanks was much warmer and brighter than southcentral Alaska. Temperatures were in the high seventies, and the extended daylight hours were even more …well, extended. The evening sky during a Sterling summer would see the sun dip just over and below the horizon, but in Fairbanks it stopped just short of the skyline and skirted along the horizon around us giving late-afternoon light the whole night through.

Discovery #3 dealt a deathblow to the possibility of one of my future career options in connection to the area. By now it should be fairly obvious that “Caped Crime fighter” still figured prominently in my list of future fields of employment, but I was pretty sure that by the time I was Bat-aged (and in much better physical shape) there was a good chance another caped crusader would have already set up shop in Anchorage. When I was working only with maps, Fairbanks seemed a good second choice, but continuous summer sunlight ruled out any sort of “dark night detective work”, and the limited road network and paucity of adjacent caves ruled out use of a secret headquarters.

(…all of which failed to leave any lasting impression on me after I walked into the Woolworths on Cushman Avenue and found one of my personal Holy Grails in the form of Aurora Model’s  Captain America kit for which I had been searching the length and breadth of the South-Central portion of the state during the previous year.) 

I was so stoked at finding the kit that I was ready to immediately head back to Sterling where my spray paint and model glue awaited, but we stayed two more days to attend church and take in the A67 Centennial Celebration, a state fair/media event commemorating the purchase of Russian America by the United States in 1867. The summer-long fair was located in what is now known as Pioneer Park, and featured a replica/reconstruction of an 1890’s Gold rush town, the SS. Nenana, a shallow draft steam-powered paddle wheeler that plied the Interior River system, a totally bitchin’ midway fairgrounds with the usual spin-and-barf rides and Up, Up and Away by the Fifth Dimension blaring endlessly over the public address system.

…and then in a flash we were on the road back to Sterling, which mysteriously seemed to take only a fraction of the time it took us to drive north. While it was true the trip north had been a stop-and-go thing as opposed to the relatively nonstop/straight-through trip south, it seemed like we got home much too quickly. The mystery was solved only after we’d been home for a day or two and I had an uninterrupted look at the map properly oriented.

Once I had “Map North” aligned to magnetic north via the compass, I concluded with flawless eighth-grader logic given that Fairbanks was located above Sterling on the map, our trip north had been an uphill journey, which made our return trip downhill.

Gravity had sped us along.

One month later

I couldn’t process the images I was seeing on Grandma’s TV. I was in California visiting her, Grandpa, and the rest of mom’s side of the family, but the real attraction for me was a video feast with more channels and a clearer signal than I’d ever enjoyed. Suddenly the program I was watching cut to a slightly fuzzy picture of a city landscape that I couldn’t quite make out until I recognized a Woolworth’s storefront, the Woolworth’s on Cushman Avenue in Fairbanks where I’d found the Captain America model a little more than a month earlier. In a disaster that would subsequently result in the passage of the Flood Control act of 1968, summer rains falling at three times the normal rate caused the banks of the Chena River to overflow and flood the city of Fairbanks and the surrounding area.

I wish I could say that I was profoundly moved by the damage I was seeing, but in those days of thirteen-inch black & white screens, all that came to my self-absorbed adolescent mind was how lucky I was to find the Captain America kit before it was swept away by floodwaters. It was only after I returned to the area in the fall of 1971 to enroll at the University of Alaska that I saw signs of damage from the flood still recognizable, even after four years of recovery, as well as evidence of the determination of the people who had worked to regain the level of commerce and development lost during the flood.

It was an amazing feat of community spirit and industry and more than just a little moving as I stood on the banks of the Chena, but some of the spirit of the fourteen year old that had stood in that same spot four years earlier lingered because all I could think was:

“Maybe I could use a boat for my anti-crime patrols…”

1965: Piscine Product Design

(This was published in a slightly different form a couple of years back – I’m in the process of putting togeether a second/expanded edition of my book and this was one of the sections that has been reworked)

 During her lifetime my grandmother went from “If man were meant to fly God would have given wings” to “That’s one step for man, one giant leap for mankind!” .In her all-all-too-short “three score and ten” the world changed almost beyond recognition and when she talked about those changes I wondered if all the really cool stuff had already happened before my time,

 I was mistaken.

 (I promise to not queue up “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel at this point.)

There have actually been a lot of changes in my life, but most of those changes were subtle. For example, when we moved to Sterling, Alaska in the summer of 1964 most people – including many Alaskans – had no idea where Sterling was located, but since that time the area has become a very popular vacation site. In 1965 the same stretch of riverbank at the confluence of the Kenai and Moose Rivers where my friends and I would leisurely spread out to fish now holds at least 65 “combat fisherman” every day and hour of the season.

However, in 1965 location was far from being the sole requirement to be considered a true angler. Veteran Fishermen from Sterling Elementary had to possess two other items:

  • A fishing license (depending on your age)
  • A Lu-Jon lure

I’m sure you know what a fishing license is, but you may not understand the majesty of a Lu-Jon Lure. Shaped like a streamlined abstract Paul Manshipesque vision of a salmon, these lures were silver in color and sold for a dollar. They trailed a treble-hook behind them (yes, they were legal but then so was snagging!) and we knew they were irresistible to anything with fins. However, these silver treasures were nothing in comparison to gold Lu-Jon lures…in fact the mere idea of a gold Lu-Jon still takes my breath away 50 years later. The difference in color no doubt was a matter of what color lacquer was in the spray-gun when the workday started at the factory, but through some quirk of distribution the gold ones were rare in Sterling. Scoring a gold Lu-Jon was akin to winning the Irish sweepstakes. They were unbeatable.

Fishing technique was basic – you cast the lure out as far as you could across the water, then you would vigorously yank the pole back, winding the line up as fast as possible. No bait was used – as I said snagging was legal, so your goal was to make as many casts and get your line out as far as possible to increase your odds of getting a fish. My sister Holly still stoutly maintains that the reel and line would moan “llluuuuuu-jjoooonnnn…. llluuuuuu-jjoooonnnn” during all that yanking and rapid-reeling. I missed that soundtrack as my buddies and I were too busy talking, sharing the Playboy Party jokes that Jesse was reading to us from the back of the pin-up of one Belgian lass by the name of Hedy Scott a.k.a. Miss June 1965…though we really didn’t understand the jokes or the shapely Miss Scott all that well at the time.

Google turns up pictures of a small orange carton that these lures were supposed to be sold in, but I never saw them come in anything other than a plastic zip-loc bag – which is the real subject of my story. My first Lu-Jon was given to me by an older fisherman, so the first time I actually bought one of my own I was surprised to find that the local store sold them in Zip-Loc bags. That might not mean much – but I had never seen a Zip-Loc bag before….and while the Lu-Jon lure was a real prize, that Zip-Loc bag was stunning. I did not know the name for the field yet, but I was already interested in product design, and I was captivated by the beautiful simplicity of the closure/lock process. It helped that it was made of a heavy mil plastic – nothing like the flimsy sandwich bags that use Zip-loc feature now so there was a very satisfying zip and pop when opening and closing the container. I knew of nothing else like it. There were some forms of plastic wrap available, but we all took our sandwiches to school wrapped in wax paper.

As I think back to that moment two thoughts came to mind:

  • While I grouse about finances, the fact is that by owning a car and more than one set of clothes I am far richer than 75% of the world’s population. Even now there are third world countries where something like that heavy-duty Zip-Loc bag would be considered a valuable tool to be carefully maintained and secured when not in use.
  • I miss being able to totally focus on something like a Zip-Loc bag the way I could when I was young. Between naiveté of youth and the lack of all the electronic distractions of current times I was unencumbered enough to zero in on anything with the precision of an electron microscope.

I don’t know if I can personally eliminate income, inequality, and hunger referred to in thought #1 but I try as best I can with the resources that I do have. As far as the second concept goes: Is there any way to regain that Zen-state of focus? We have so many electronic distractions with “cool stuff” that it is hard for anything to hold my attention for long. I just must hope that as I continue to age the brain cells, I lose the ones that are infatuated with flashy, noisy electronic things. Maybe at some point I will regress to that second childhood everyone talks about and I will finally be able to figure out if the gold or silver Lu-Jons work the best!

1970: ‘…the name is Deitrick. David Deitrick!”

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

“Who does this kid think he is?”

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

The summer of 1970 gave me ample opportunity.

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

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

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

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

You see,  I wanted to be James Bond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————————————————————————————————————————-

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

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

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

1966: Super Ball

(I’m not sure why or how it happened but when I published my book a couple of years back a large number of my autobiographical blog posts were deleted from this blog, so I’m going to go back and republish that missing material…which is just a complicated way of saying: “If you think you’ve seen this before you probably have!)

One unique aspect about growing up in Alaska was the sense of disconnection we had to deal with – a disconnection that was even wider because we didn’t know it was there. I spent my young adulthood thinking that my youth and adolescence were just like everyone else’s – just colder and darker. There were in fact large communication and social gaps that made life on the last Frontier more like life on another planet. For example, there were no same-day network news programs on television until I was a senior in high school and even then they weren’t simultaneous broadcasts. The early evening news was videotaped in Seattle then put on an airliner to Anchorage, where it was broadcast after 10 at night. It made watching the Super Bowl problematic; the game was broadcast live on radio so you were faced with either knowing the score beforehand as you watched the game or spending the early part of the day with card pinned on your lapel that read “Don’t tell me the score!”

Regular television shows were broadcast two weeks late, and pop music got air-time anywhere from a month to six weeks after debuting in the lower 48 – which had something to do with the practice back then of getting music to the stations – demo records went through the mail to radio stations and it just took that much longer to get from Los Angeles to Anchorage than it did from Los Angeles to Portland.

Oddly enough though there were some fads that made it north quicker than others – most likely they were brought up by people flying back and forth for work or vacation. My sister Robin got a copy of “Cherish” by the Association when a suitor mailed her a copy over a month before it was first played by Ron Moore on “The Coke Show” in Anchorage.  My only early jump on a fad was the Super Ball – by Wham-0!

Though Wham-o attributed the super ball’s amazing performance to a miracle substance called Zectron, they were really made from a synthetic rubber called polybutadiene. Invented by chemist Norm Stingley, polybutadiene required a complex process to manufacture, including molding for 15-20 minutes at 320 degrees F while compressed under a pressure of 1000 pounds per square inch .The result was a rubber ball with an extremely good grip that would instantly increase or reverse its spin depending on how hard and at what angle it hit the floor. It also had 92% resiliency which meant it would bounce 75 times for 30 seconds when dropped from 6 feet….and it wouldn’t just bounce over your head – the package said you could bounce it over your house!

…and that’s what got me into trouble.  

It was early in the spring of 1966 – “break-up” as we called it in Alaska. There weren’t many places I could use my new Super-Ball – after several disasters I figured the best place to bounce a ball with 92% resiliency was the concrete basketball court just outside and to the side of Mr. Hall’s eighth grade class room at Sterling Elementary. On the first sunny day after the snow had melted off I went out during lunch-time recess to try out my Super-ball on the concrete.

I threw it down. It bounced back up close to the height of the basketball backboards. Impressive, but not higher than what I estimated the roof of our house to be. I tried throwing the ball down, this time jumping up before releasing the ball on my way down.  There was an even more impressive bounce, but again not high enough to match the rebound as portrayed on the package. As literal as I was it never occurred to me that there may have been a little artistic license in the illustration and I was determined to meet or beat the bounce on the package. I concluded that if the ball were thrown down from a higher point the added distance would increase the velocity of the bounce to the magic house-high altitude so I went back into the school, found a folding chair and brought it out on the concrete basketball court. I then stepped up on it, jumped up off it as high as I could and on the trip down I threw the Super-Ball down as hard as I could.

You know that bit about men never experiencing pain as bad as the pain women go through with labor pains? Well, I beg to differ. In addition to any extra velocity my Super-ball’s “extremely high coefficient of friction came into play” which meant that when it hit the ground the spin was reversed and bounced back up in between my legs.

Wax popped out of my ears.

I couldn’t breathe.

I couldn’t move.

I think I began to see through time….

I don’t remember how I got back into the classroom but the next clear memory is of sitting at my desk with my head laid down on top while I tried to breathe in short shallow gasps. I also remember that for the rest of the day I spoke in a key at least two octaves higher than usual, prompting me to wonder if this was the sort of thing that could halt puberty. I also remember a great deal of pain radiating from my crotch.

That wasn’t the worst pain of the day though. I guess when I went in to “recover” some of the other guys decided to try out my Super-Ball as well. The deepest pain came during that discussion when they all agreed that the Super-Ball “bounced higher than a house” when Ticky Powell tried bouncing it.

Ticky – or more formally Robert Powell. One of my best friends, a dead ringer for actor Andrew Prine and not bigger than a kitten. Seriously – he measured maybe 4’6” and possibly weighed 65 pounds soaking wet but somehow put me to shame with my own Super-Ball.

The pain radiated all that much sharper…..

1963: Rendezvous X 2

I’m old enough for polio to be a common health hazard in my youth, but rather than contracting that dread disease I contracted Greystoke’s Syndrome, an ailment that played havoc with my reading comprehension. It’s a condition common to children reading at a much higher level than expected – as a fourth grader I regularly read books written at a high school level and often came across words that I had rarely heard spoken, putting me in the same situation as John Clayton II, Lord Greystoke. Also known as Tarzan, young Greystoke taught himself to read by deciphering the small library his parents left behind when they were killed upon arrival in early twentieth century Africa. He rarely understood the spoken word as well as the written form, but fortunately I had an advantage the King of the Jungle lacked: my fourth grade teacher Cora Blinzler

Mrs. Blinzler was old school in the purest sense of the word and put great stock in proper classroom decorum maintained by percussive discipline, BUT she encouraged my extracurricular pursuit of knowledge as much as she could given her 30+ student class load. She spent extra time helping me develop my already prodigal reading skills, but despite that extra help I continued to struggle with penmanship and pronunciation: I eventually solved the first problem by turning from cursive to block lettering, but my continued mangling of verbal pronunciation destroyed words even worse than my horrible handwriting:

  • Idiosyncrasies became “Idio-crass-knees”
  • Taciturn became “tack-turn”
  • Hors d’oeuvres was mangled into “hour doves”

It was while I was her student that I encountered one of those mystery words when the subject of the up-coming Fur Rendezvous began appearing in conversations and broadcasts shortly after Christmas break. I didn’t immediately make a connection between the “Ren-dez-voos” I was reading about and the “Ron-day-voo I heard about on the radio until the week before the event kicked off, when I learned that both terms referred to an annual festival featuring cultural, sporting, and social events unique to our locale, combined with a general thumb-to-the-nose to Old Man Winter. The only down side was the lack of any kind of school holiday, but there would be a lot of interesting things to do and see during evenings and on weekends.

Mom in particular gushed about the way Fur Rendezvous would be a perfect opportunity to learn about our new home, but I was less than enthusiastic about giving up my weekend to look at what I assumed would be a dog show. I was still recovering from a foot fracture sustained during a sledding accident, which made the simple act of getting around difficult. But even more pressing was the animated cartoon issue – Mighty Mouse was aired on Saturday afternoons, and while he wasn’t a particular favorite, his show was the only weekend cartoon we had. Unfortunately my artistic entreaties fell on deaf ears, and Saturday morning I dutifully climbed into the back deck of our Falcon station wagon as my family eaded downtown for the Ren-dez-voos.

I silently cheered “movie” when we filed into the Sidney Laurence auditorium, but my elementary school funk returned when I learned that we were there for an exhibition of native dancing and not a movie. Confusion continued as the exhibition began – I knew about square dancing from school, and I knew about the Twist from American Bandstand, but I was clueless when dancers in Native American garb came on stage. I’d seen enough Westerns to expect lots of jumping and yelling around a fire but these guys were just kind of shuffling around.

We hadn’t had time to remove our coats so I was getting hot and restless as we sat in the dark. “Restless” soon morphed into “fidgeting” which brought on the reaction that any other nine year old would have had in that situation: passive/aggressive resistance, as in kicking the seat in front of me…but within just a few minutes I was surprised to find myself kicking in time with the soft drum beats from the dancers on stage. I was also surprised that I could just about understand the story they were acting out, and I deduced that one guy was some kind of wizard as he wearing a totally bitching mask that could change faces with a quick pull on a cord…

…but just as the story was getting good we had to leave and go find a decent place to watch the races. With the first Iditarod a dozen years in the future, “race” meant the World Champion Sled Dog Races that ran on a track laid out amidst the buildings, streets, and forests of a much smaller Anchorage (40,000 in the 1960 census). After twenty minutes of stop-and-go driving followed by as many minutes of shuffing through the snow, we found a good spot along Chester Creek close to the site of where the Sullivan arena would be built twenty years later – and as the start point was downtown on Fourth Avenue we still had at least an hour to go before any of the entrants would pass.

 I was familiar with the competitors in the same way that I knew about sports figures in general: I knew some names but not much else. I was pretty sure that Bart Starr was a quarterback and Gordy Howes played hockey, but the only athlete I really knew anything about was Willie Mays, and that was because he played center field for San Francisco Giants – Dad’s favorite baseball team. Unfortunately, lack of knowledge about the mushers aggravated the disconnection I felt towards my new home and friends – while my buddies could swap names and statistics, the only racer I could recognize was the returning champion, Roland “Doc” Lombard, who while also an outsider, had the grace to be based in Massachusetts  (which actually got snow in the winter) rather than my sunny native California.

However, there was one nameless racer who stood out – a man in his thirties from someplace up in the Interior. There was a strikingly different cadence to the way he ran behind the sled that included an odd kick, and as he passed us I could see his face was set in manner that left no question about his intent. We learned later that he was an Athabaskan native from Huslia, a small town located up in the interior along the Koyukuk River, and that he was contending with and triumphing against serious physical problems. I was struck by his courage as was the rest of my family, and even though we would only attend one more Fur Rendezvous as a family there was always a positive comment when this particular racer would show up in the media.

The mushers passed quickly and I was surprised when Dad called us back to load up the Falcon to make our way home to deepest, darkest Spenard. It had been a much better day than expected and I wasn’t even miffed when I found out I’d missed Mighty Mouse. We’d had a lot of fun, and the day also proved to be the first real distraction to the disorientation that came with moving to Alaska. Despite its status as the “Last Frontier” we were living in an urban environment more developed than any other area I had lived in up to that point. At the same time it was also the only part of Alaska I knew about, the furthest I had been out at that time was a fishing trip to Bird Creek twenty minutes south of town. We still felt ourselves to be transplanted Californians, our only prior connections to the Last Frontier being Dad’s deployment to Kodiak Naval station with a P2V Neptune squadron in the 1950s and Mom’s great-uncle Ned who’d been a participant in the Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the century. The Fur Rendezvous we’d just experienced had been a blessed jumpstart to an adjustment to our new home in the north. It could have been the displays, the dancing, the dog races or just the fact that it was one of the rare weekends my family spent together without someone getting hit, but by the end of the weekend we felt just a bit more connected to Alaska.

Decades later

Even if genealogy hadn’t been actively encouraged by our faith, Mom would have been a fanatic in the art of tracking down ancestors. She’d always loved mysteries – and mysteries combined with family history were both entertaining AND a welcome distraction to the heartbreak of watching her beloved “innocent-shepherd-turned-sailor” slowly succumb to the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. She was sitting at the kitchen table with pedigree charts and family group sheets scattered all around when she was startled out of her genealogical reverie by the loud ring that only pre-touch tone telephones can produce. Like others of her generation she picked up the receiver automatically (“if it’s a phone call it must be an emergency!”) but when she heard the unfamiliar voice she started to hang up…until she caught the faint hint of an accent in the voice.

 “Hello?”

There was an odd roll to some of the vowels that could have come from the Yukon Territory.

May I speak to June Laird please?

Maybe the Great Lakes?

“HELLO?”

“Laird is my maiden name.” said mom as she shook off her distraction: “My name is June Deitrick now. May I help you?”

The caller introduced herself as middle-aged woman named Rose researching her own family lineage which appeared to include the aforementioned Uncle Ned. That revelation triggered a torrent of names and dates between the two ladies – a benign sort of mania peculiar to those who have been bitten by the genealogy bug…but after ten minutes Mom could no longer contain her curiosity:

 “Please forgive me but I’ve always been interested in languages and your accent baffles me. If I didn’t know better I’d think you were an Alaskan Native.”

Rose paused…

 ‘Well, maybe that’s because I am Athabaskan and I’m calling you from Huslia…”

It turned out that Uncle Ned’s sojourn into the North had involved a lot more than just prospecting for gold. When the Klondike proved to be less-than-profitable Ned headed west to the Koyukuk area in Alaska where he made an attempt at prospecting before turning to running a trap line and supplying wood to passing riverboats…but then the story of Uncle Ned gets hazy. Most of Mom’s notes from her conversation with Rose have been lost and those that survived are nearly indecipherable (Like mother/like son: penmanship was not her strong suit). What we can figure out gives us all the ingredients for either a soap opera or a Gary Cooper western:

  • Ned, or Ed as he was sometimes known, had a family with a local Athabaskan woman.
  • A feud over trade concessions developed between Ed and his son-in-law Viktor.
  • Ed killed Victor in self-defense after the younger man attempted to murder him.
  • Though found innocent, Ed rode off into the sunset, leaving the Koyukuk for the Lower 48.

(For details consult Sidney Huntington’s 1993 biography Shadows on the Koyukuk)

What does all that mean? Evidently Rose was my Mom’s second cousin through Great Uncle Ned, which means that all those years ago when I was taking classes at the University of Alaska (in Fairbanks) there could have been “shirt-tail relations” among the Native students I was sitting next to in my classes.

It gets even better.

Remember that one young musher we cheered so hard for during that championship race – the one with the special kick? That young man was Rose’s brother, and that kick became well known as the trademark move of world champion dog-musher George Attla. We didn’t know it at the time, but when our little family of disconnected California beach bums went to that Fur Rendezvous in 1962 we were rooting for that one tenuous but very real connection with our new home in the North that I’d always hoped for.

The connection I’d always hoped for had always been there.

1967/68 Fiddlin’ On (Under)The Roof

When quizzed about my initial interest in comics my autopilot response is “Detective Comics issue 327 featuring The Mystery of the Menacing Mask ”, the Batman story by Carmine Infantino and Gardener Fox that introduced “The New Look” and saved the title from cancellation. In reality, interest in mysterious avengers was kindled five years earlier with The Mask of Zorro, Disney’s 1958 black-and-white retelling of the Zorro (Spanish for the word “fox”), sword wielding crusader righting wrongs and fighting oppression in the Spanish California of the late 1700’s. I loved the mask, I loved the swordplay, I loved the horses – but what really intrigued me were the secret rooms and passages which served as an 18th century version of the Batcave. These areas were accessed through a hidden door in his chambers where the foppish Don Diego changed into his mask, cape, and black garb before descending a stair to the cave where he stabled his black stallion, Toronado, and riding off into the night.

For days afterward all I could think about were those secret rooms and passages. On the surface the allure was the basic “ooo-wee-ooh-ooo” factor that comes with every unusual element in a mystery, but there was also a hint of empowerment offered long before that term became trendy. There were so many times when navigating through a screamingly bi-polar household made clearing a minefield seem like a parlor game, which made the ability to move around unnoticed, or just hiding an option to explore in every one of the eight homes we occupied between my cinematic epiphany and our final move to Sterling – options that included locations such as:

  • The laundry chute in the rambling ranch house in Little Shasta Valley.
  • A tunnel dug in a lot next to our duplex on Garfield Street in Anchorage.
  • Stairs to the cellar in the hall closet of our Barbara Drive home in Spenard.

…but it wasn’t until our travels finally rolled to a stop in Sterling that I unexpectedly found a true, functional, secret passage. While our home with attached garage looked like it had been plucked from an Anchorage subdivision, it was in reality a small homesteader’s shack repeatedly modified; the changes hidden by clapboard siding nailed around the exterior. All those changes left odd spaces and loose boards that that offered ample opportunity for further modification, but it wasn’t until I moved into the attic loft Dad and I built in 1966 that I was able to take advantage of the situation.

My loft was essentially a wooden box sandwiched between the top of the original cabin(s) and the overall roof. For the first year or so I was too scared to explore the space around my room as I was convinced aliens would use it as a base for their conquest of the Last Frontier, but I eventually gained enough nerve to explore the rest of the attic. Whenever possible I was scrambling over the gritty surface texture of the original shingles, and testing my luck by carefully making my way from ceiling-joist to ceiling-joist, ever mindful that a mere one half inch of fragile sheetrock separated me from the rooms below.

My survey of the entire attic took about a week, and during those explorations I found my secret passage. A plywood panel at the junction of the house and garage yielded a space which was easy to hammer and pry-bar, allowing access to the area above the rafters in the garage – and while it was unfinished, the sheets of plywood and old double mattress stored up there provided me with (at last!) a secret hideaway. More importantly, I was now provided with an unobserved entry/exit way from my room through the attic(s) to a stack of discarded cable spools, crates and stepladders piled rafter-high in the garage. Unfortunately by the time I’d gotten everything set up there wasn’t much of a need for a secret exit. I still wasn’t completely comfortable with hitchhiking so any activity worthy of the consequences of a foiled sneak-out would have to be within walking distance, and there were only two of those: the annual spaghetti feed and the Halloween party held at Sterling Elementary, but by the time they came around it was too cold and dark to warrant the risk.

It was a quite a different situation the following spring. Life had finally become tolerable after surviving the beat-downs, family crises, and a wicked case of mononucleosis that plagued most of my freshman year, but I’d reached a weekend where it was all but impossible to cope with the boredom of a slow Saturday afternoon at the homestead. It was also one of the last “buddy” episodes involving my friend Wayne as we had both traveled far enough on our respective paths to have little in common. Where we had once shared interests in music, hobbies, and television, we now had just one connection, i.e. girls, as in Playboy Playmate pinups and the party jokes printed on the non-Playmate side, so it had been a bit of a surprise when he showed up early that afternoon, when his new thug-friends were otherwise occupied, so we spent an hour or two listening to music:

  • “The Mighty Quinn” by the Manfred Mann
  • “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
  • “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred and his Playboy Band

It was thoughts of the aforementioned pinups brought on by the name of that last vocal group that got us surreptitiously making our way out of the loft and into the attic proper where I kept my “library”. The climb up to my loft had become quite a challenge for mom, but she still made random visits and I didn’t want to risk discovery of any imagery of the female form, much less any of the less-than-fully-clothed variety. There was also the lurking menace of my three little sisters, Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather. With both Mom and Dad gone for the day their chief entertainment revolved about tormenting us, and the risk of one of them popping up through the hatch unannounced and spotting our contraband was as much a concern as a mom-visit, but the fortuitous appearance of a rather ragged cow moose in the front yard drew their attention away long enough for us to A) make a quick trip to my girlie-magazine stash in the attic and B) a equally quick move through the missing plywood panel and eventual access to the aforementioned secret hideaway above the rafters in the garage.

We had just started our formal debate on the merits of the curriculum vita of Nancy Harwood (Miss February) as opposed tp that of Gale Olson (Miss March) when the ear-piercing screams of Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather echoing like bloodhounds in pursuit of a fox broke out from the garage below us.

(Why were they screaming? There were always screaming. They would ring the downstairs landing to the loft access and keen for hours. It was like the albino zombies in The Omega Man chanting “I’m telling Mom” instead of “Neville! Ne-e-ville”.)

 The moose had left the front yard all too quickly, and upon returning to the ladder-in-a-closet entry to my attic loft they were all-too-briefly puzzled by our disappearance before fanning out to search the house and garage. Wayne and I did our best to remain hidden and silent but between the relentless searching of the three little girls and the finite interior space of our home, we were discovered within minutes.

I don’t know if it was the hypnotic effect of tthe sight of two brunette beauties au naturel, the soporific effect of the late spring sun heating up the space directly under the garage roof (or more likely) the mortal fear of my Mom’s Celtic wrath – at that point I stopped thinking rationally. Somehow I became convinced that our best course of action would be to dash back through the connected attics into my loft bedroom and then somehow convince my sisters – and by extension mom – that we’d never left my room, so after a brief side trip to stash the pinups I sped over the old rooftops, across the rafters, and through the back entrance to my loft with Wayne closely following behind me. Unfortunately, the requisite hop from rafter to rafter over sheetrock wasn’t quite as automatic with my friend, and as I hit the door a muffled crump caused me to spin around just in time to see sunlight erupt through the attic darkness around Wayne’s lower body.

He’d stepped through the sheetrock ceiling.

I scuttled downstairs to the dining area to meet with the never-to-be-forgotten sight of my friend dangling by his armpits between two rafters while his feet and legs bicycled in mid-air. I worked as quickly as possible to get him down and the worst of the debris cleaned up, but before I knew it almost an hour had passed, and even worse, mom’s station wagon was pulling into the driveway. In a colossal feat of legerdemain I managed to get Wayne out the door just as Mom was coming in, but the lady had a gift for noticing detail that would put and eagle (or Joe Friday) to shame and I I was sure she hadn’t missed a thing as she watched him walking briskly toward the highway and a thumbed-ride home.

I braced for the worst. My parents had only recently and reluctantly abandoned percussive discipline with me, but the poor grades I’d earned during the previous nine week grading period had already brought on severe restrictions of entertainment and social life, and I couldn’t think of how it could be made worse.  What really scared me though was Mom’s silence; after I took the bullet for Wayne and told her that it had been me who’d fallen through the roof, she just sent me to my loft and waited in the now-drafty dining area to confer with my dad when he came home. Listening to dad fix the ceiling was much like the unnerving swish/thud of the guillotine that French aristocracy had to endure while waiting for the world’s shortest haircut, but eventually it grew quiet and I was summoned to Mom and Dad’s bedroom for sentencing.

The first item of business was that despite my protestations, Mom knew that Wayne had been the ceiling-busting culprit instead of me. She’d made that determination based on:

  • My little sisters’ testimony.
  • My well-known lack of sufficient upper-body strength needed to suspend myself in the rafters for forty-five minutes.
  • My (almost) clean trousers as opposed to Wayne’s denim jeans covered with white chalk from the sheetrock he’d stepped through…

I waited for the ax to fall…but it never did. With a slight smile she made the comment that while I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer I was loyal, and with the uptick in my GPA when report cards were issued the following week, even that first observation was moot. Thrilled with the stay of execution I continued to keep my grades up for the rest of the school year, but the improved GPA wasn’t the only change to stay in effect: the “percussive discipline” never came back, and from that point forward Mom started to deal with me as a person rather than a Neanderthal, taking time to talk with me rather than at me.

It was kind of nice, and for the first time in my life I stopped looking for an easy escape route whenever Mom started a conversation…

1963: Slushers

To many people, eight is the age when a child assumes accountability for his actions, but experience has shown me that number is an average, as I have seen children of six with wisdom beyond their years, and adults in their mid-thirties that have all the maturity and good sense of a toddler. In my case it was when I reached my tenth birthday that I made a firm connection between my actions, intents, and consequences. It was also when I learned about fear. Mind you, life with a severely bi-polar parent made for scary experiences throughout my entire life to that point, but events during fourth grade taught me the meaning of capital-F Fear. If nothing else, the change from Little Shasta School to Woodland Park Elementary was unsettling whereas in the first six months I experienced:

  • My first after-school fight.
  • My first fracture (multiple bones broken in my right foot from a sledding accident).
  • My first experience with city traffic and near-accidents.

Education in fear continued even after school let out for the summer as we witnessed a total solar eclipse during a weekend getaway to Palmer, and my grandparents had a near miss with the Reaper when they drove up the ALCAN for an extended visit. However, none of these teeth-chattering experiences could compare to the terror with which I struggled during our week-long excursion to Valdez when I was convinced beyond all doubt that the mountains were going to fall on us.

The trip had started out uneventfully, but when we stopped enroute at the Matanuska Glacier I finally understood how totally isolated we were from the Lower 48. I had slept  through most of our migration north from California, and other than a few side trips, we never left Anchorage, so most of my knowledge of the Last Frontier came from glimpses of the Chugach Mountains to the east, and the Kenai Peninsula across Turnagain Arm to west. What little I knew about the rest of the state came from school assignments and events of our first Fur Rendezvous the preceding winter, but at that particular rest stop I was gob-smacked by the huge river of ice every bit as impressive as the mountains that bracketed either side.

The glacier was impressive, but it didn’t spook me as badly as it did my youngest sister, Merriweather, who took one look and ran back to the car screaming, “I DON’T WANNA LOOK AT ANY SLUSHER!”, a comment that mystified us all until we figured out that in her mangled four-year-old vocabulary, “slusher” equaled “glacier.” As far as I was concerned the only problem was the complete absence of any sign of a hobby shop to support my recently-acquired  plastic-model addiction that would put a junkie to shame.

After a very brief look at the glacier I hopped back into the car to drink the last of my orange soda. Unfortunately, I was unable to drink it all before we hit the road again, and when Dad asked for “just a sip” I knew it would be gone. When he handed back the bottle it took all of my nascent stoicism to hold back the tears. For once Mom responded to my distress and took my father to task with, “No wonder you have a pain in your gut1 – look at the way you put your groceries away.”

I cringed.

Dad wasn’t physically abusive with any of us and would usually go into passive/aggressive mode when arguing with Mom, but one thing you never did was mess with, or argue with him about food or drink. Expecting a full-on fist fight I grabbed a pillow for protection, but was surprised when instead of going ballistic he verbally lashed out:

“Not only do I have a pain in my gut – I have a pain in my butt from traveling with people like you!”

Knowing my mother’s mercurial temperament, I pulled the pillow tighter and mentally gave a salute to the suicidal bravery in that remark but was surprised when the Mom-bomb didn’t detonate. She sat stone-faced while several miles of pavement ran by, then unexpectedly broke out into a chuckle and commended Dad for his witty retort. Exhausted by our miraculous escape from disaster, I shoved my former armor-pillow against the side of the interior and closed my eyes in my now-routine effort to sleep away the miles.

Heavy fog interfered with my first glimpse of Valdez the next morning, and as I made my way to the small cluster of buildings that passed as downtown, the vista didn’t seem that much different from what I was used to back in Anchorage. After being chased out of a small shop for reading (but not buying) comics, I found that the fog had burned off, and that’s when Fear grabbed my ten-year old heart and gave it a squeeze.

It was the mountains – they were so damn high (did I mention that Woodland Park was also where I first learned to swear?) and much, much higher than the Chugach range overlooking Anchorage. I’d heard snarky stories about Native kids on their first trip to Anchorage who would cower in the street for fear that the tall buildings would fall on them, and while the mountains surrounding the fjord were also part of the Chugach range they loomed over the town so terrifyingly close that  I knew exactly how those kids from the Bush felt. I promptly fled to the motel  where the security of four walls and a ceiling more than made up for the lack of television.

The next day we did a little exploring with the emphasis on “little.” In 1963 the town of Valdez was made up of buildings clustered around the Richardson Highway where it entered the valley along the Lowe River between MT Francis and the run-off from Valdez Glacier. The town hadn’t always been there – when the area boomed with the Klondike gold rush and the development of the Kennecott copper mine most people settled along the north side of the fjord. The center of the population moved east with the construction of the Richardson Highway, and when we drove out to what was called the Old Town, there wasn’t much other than gravel roads, tumble-down buildings, and a bridge. Little did we know that in nine months’ time a tsunami generated by the Good Friday earthquake would level the new town that we were now visiting in 1963, and it would be rebuilt as the New/Old Town on the site of the original settlement. 

Upon returning to our lodging I made another trip to the shop I’d been chased out of the day before, where my presence was more graciously tolerated after I bought a small plastic model kit of a B-172. We left for home the next morning, which meant that for once I was awake for just about the entire trip, and by the time we passed Copper Center and entered the Copper River Basin, the scary mountains were well behind us. We continued north on the Richardson Highway until turning left onto the Glen Highway at Glenallen3, then continued on to Anchorage a little over three hours to the west.

That we had actually walked the ground in Valdez made its destruction that much more horrifying when the tsunami leveled it the following March. The town was often in the news during the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline – which also figured prominently in contingency planning when I was stationed at FT Richardson in the early 1980’s. The closest connection I had with Valdez after that was when I accompanied my older son Conrad to an environmental camp on the south side of Katchemak Bay in 1989 – as we were crossing back to Homer the first fingers of the oil sheen from the wreck of the SS EXXON VALDEZ were just entering the bay.

…and now there are only two situations when I am prompted to think of Valdez:

  • Any time I see a mountain range I instinctively compare them to those oh-so-tall mountains that I was sure would fall over on me.
  • Whenever I work on a model kit I think of that little B-17 model and those ridiculous rivets.

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Notes

  1. Though I never saw an official diagnosis, my dad suffered from what he assumed was an ulcer and was constantly self-medicating with buttermilk and TUMS. Like most ‘60s dads he worried about his work situation and bills, but he also struggled with the fact that his children had a better standard of living than he did during the Depression.
  2. It was a small-scale model – possibly 1/200, but even as a ten-year-old I was skeptical of the rivet-head detailing on the wing. They were prominent enough to make a “zip” sound when a fingernail was drawn across like a comb…which meant that they would have been an inch or two in height if enlarged to actual size.
  3. I’ve been through that area several times, but my only lengthy visit was in the summer of 1970 when I went to Boy’s State at the boarding school at Copper Center. I’m still convinced that if you stood in the middle of Glenallen and looked off in the distance, all you could see would be the back of your own head. As wretched as the move to the Kenai Peninsula was the next year, I really did dodge a bullet with the move as Dad had also considered bidding on a job in even-more-isolated Glenallen.