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.

2021: The Magenta Zone

“…then he just threw down the stadia pole, screamed ‘THEY’RE ALL WATCHING ME!” and took off running down the road. I don’t think he stopped running before he hit Fairbanks and the department had him flown back down to the Lower 48 by the end of the week.

…and with that comment break time was over and the formal lecture resumed. The course was called SnowHawk, a week-long orientation course teaching the principles of arctic and mountain operations to new arrivals in the command. As I was both an officer and a home-grown Alaskan the instructors dealt with me a bit differently, seeking me out at breaks to get my input.

That latest anecdote dealt with a summer job the instructor had worked on before joining the army. The job involved making surveys of federal property up in the Brooks Range, and the stress of long daylight hours, isolation, and basic exhaustion had basically unhinged the screamer in the story. Hallucinations followed, prompting him to constantly scan the surrounding wilderness for the mysterious watchers that he knew were stalking him. 

The story brought on a chuckle, but as the class resumed I continued to think about it. Truth be told, hikes and camping trips out in the wilderness had always had a slightly spooky feeling, especially when we were in the area that had burned out the middle of the Kenai Peninsula during the epic 1947 fire. As the forest was still taking baby-steps towards recovery the trees were much lower than normal, and half-burnt snags were scattered everywhere, giving a surreal flavor to the surroundings and scant protection from winds off the mountains to the east. Between the alien landscape, the constant moaning of the wind, and the isolation, it was easy to let your imagination get the best of you. This eerie atmosphere  was exacerbated by my preference for speculative fiction in both print and media. After watching the series premiere of The Invaders I spent the entire night wide awake, sitting up in bed grasping a baseball bat, convinced that aliens would make a beeline for me up in my attic loft while completely ignoring my sleeping parents and sisters in the house below.

But with the same logic as “your paranoia does not rule out the possibility that someone is out to get you!”  these imaginings did not rule out the existence of things that go bump in the endless Arctic night. While there’s been a paucity of Bigfoot sightings, we do have home-grown cryptids like the Lake Illiamna monster and the Kush-da-ka1, and as a teenager I saw something over the Chugach Mountains that looked and moved like a UFO.

…so there is definitely a spooky side to life on the Last Frontier, and a good portion of the fiction I have started to write involves that “oooheeeyooo”2 influence; stories that are not fully speculative/otherworldly, but also not fully anchored in reality. In any other by setting, I’d identify them by the classic television series The Twilight Zone, but even that analogy isn’t completely accurate. Dawn and dusk during the Alaskan winter is unusual; while the actual hours of daylight are short, dawn and dusk are lengthy, and bathed in an 0therworldly orange and magenta. These colors have figured prominently in my art, and now they’ll be part of my written work – from here on out I’m using the term The Magenta Zone when referring to these slightly scary stories set in Alaska.

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Notes

  1. …and once we get into Alaskan Native beliefs and things like shamanistic transformation even scarier concepts crop- up.
  2. Think Moog synthesizer, theremin or the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet.

Music: On The Threshold of a Dream

( I have to warn you what follows is much longer than my usual posts about music…but then this album is one of the most important bodies of music in my life.)

(1) Moody Blues On The Threshold Of A Dream 01 In The Beginning – YouTube

Nothing beats a small town when it comes to rumor-mongering, and the folks running the local music store were being mongered more than usual. They were all members of, or friends with, a long-time Peninsula family, and at various points of time in the summer of 1970 I heard that at least one of them was:

  • Dealing drugs
  • Receiving stolen goods
  • Pregnant

…the last option being extremely doubtful seeing that the group running the store was overwhelmingly male, the only female on staff was a middle-aged aunt that started working in the place well after all the gossip started. I didn’t care – I was caught up making my break between two-a-day pre-season football practice sessions as leisurely as possible, and a post-burger stroll through the store seemed just the ticket.

I hadn’t shopped there since the preceding spring, and the only visible sign of distress was a noticeably large SALE box holding albums marked down to $1.00. Surprisingly enough, there were several top-sellers in the stack, but none of them posed any threat to the prospect of a second hamburger until a tree-branch with ears floating in the middle of a midnight blue square of cardboard caught my eye. Red letters in a modified Arnold Bocklin font skewered me with The Moody Blues and On The Threshold of a Dream – and while none of the songs on the back cover were familiar Moody Blues AM hits, such as Nights in White Satin or Ride My See-saw, all the titles hinted at being listenable, so I forked over a buck and walked out with the album later described by a little sister as “the record with the weird tree on the cover.”

The rain soaked us during the second afternoon practice, and washed out all thoughts of that new record, so it wasn’t until I painfully climbed up to my loft later that afternoon that I recalled the purchase. I was too sore to climb back down the ladder, but one of my sisters blessedly retrieved the record and cued it up on my stereo while I laid on the carpet and tried to mentally will the lactic acid out of my muscles. That mental effort almost blocked out the cosmic hum at the beginning of the first track leading into a restrained synthetic crescendo, but the subsequent ethereal catechism alternating the question/response of human to computer dashed all thoughts of passive listening:

I think

I think I am

Therefore I am I think

Then in the dystopian mood of speculative fiction popular at the time those tentative words are pushed aside by a mechanical voice identified elsewhere as the Voice of Establishment:

Of course you are my bright little star…

Human and computer trade words until both are abruptly supplanted by a third voice that contradicts the mechanical response with wise words ending in a phrase typical of the times:


…and keep on thinking free.

I sat there stunned. I had been expecting some pop kissy love song, but was instead blindsided by philosophical commentary that I would have expected from an episode of The Prisoner or an Arthur C. Clarke story, but before I could gather my thoughts I was musically slapped on my other cheek by the fanfare of guitars and drums of the second track, Lovely to See You. It was an irrepressibly upbeat tune that quickly dispelled any dystopian mood left by the poetry that opened the album, but just as my toe started tapping along with the beat, the song smoothly blended into the slower cadence of the more melancholy third track entitled Dear Diary, which sounded so different from the preceding selections that I flipped the record cover to see if I’d inadvertently purchased a greatest hits or K-tel collection.

The change was so abrupt that I stopped for a moment to extract background information from the stunning gatefold album cover and equally dynamic lyrics booklet. However I became almost immediate confused when the grid-like arrangement of individual portraits and figures in the group photo facing each other across the open interior didn’t match in number. Determined to solve the mystery, I read down the roster:

  • Justin Hayward: Guitar
  • John Lodge: Guitar
  • Ray Thomas: Flute
  • Graeme Edge: Percussion
  • Mike Pinder: Keyboards (organ & Mellotron®)
  • Tony Clarke: Engineer

Armed with this knowledge, I went back to connect each band member with the songs they wrote/performed, and in the process pieced together the fact that Tony Clarke wasn’t a member of the band, but instead was the guy that organized things and got the music recorded correctly. It was a job that I knew little about, but even with that lack it was obvious the wonderful sound quality and the superb manner in which the songs all worked together more than deserved acknowledgement. It was a complex task as each song was a reflection of its author’s personality, which explained the buzz-kill brought on by the somber Dear Diary as it followed the extremely upbeat Lovely to See You.

The acoustical whiplash continued with the quasi-country tune Send Me No Wine on the third track, which in turn seamlessly led into the electric introduction of To Share Our Love, a number that quickly had me wondering if I’d taken one too many hits to the helmet during practice earlier in the day. I could swear I was hearing two songs playing at the same time; a mid-range tune and an almost-falsetto parallel song with a slightly different but supporting message, but it turned out that was exactly what was going on when I checked the lyrics booklet. It was fascinating stuff, but the complexity came with an almost physical effect, which combined with the consequence of back-to-back practice sessions earlier in the day made me extremely tired. I considered just turning off the stereo and going to bed, but in my truest OCD manner I held on till that last track on the first side…and I was glad I did because So Deep within You was a perfect stopping point.  While the song itself was an entreaty for communication, Mike Pinder’s commanding tone made me think of the “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” intermission clips at epic movies – it was a good time for a short break, which was perfect because I needed time for proper digestion of:

  • The cheese and mustard sandwich that I made in lieu of a supper that had gone cold.
  • The fundamental question haunting me, “What the hell am I listening to?

…after which I wasted no time getting back to the music that had me so enthralled. Until recently my album purchases had been limited to “Greatest Hits” compilations or Beatles albums, which given the chop-job Capital Records did to the original EMI playlists, weren’t that far removed from that first category. On the Threshold of a Dream was something completely different: none of the tracks fit the 2:45 AM radio hit format and each song sounded completely different from all the others, yet fit together to tell a story that the listener felt rather than read.

By this time serious fatigue had set in, causing me to start the “bob & nod”, so after placing the needle down on the “B” side of the album I crawled up on the bunk built into the sloping wall of my loft. I had meticulously read the lyric booklet, so it was obvious that the careful acoustic guitar chords and soft vocals that started Never Comes the Day marked it as a Justin Hayward tune. He was already my favorite out of the bunch, but I wasn’t prepared for the effect the song had on me as it built to a crescendo:

If only you knew what’s inside of me now

You wouldn’t want to know me somehow

I sat up so quickly that I damn near knocked myself cold on the low ceiling tover the bunk, so I laid back down and let the music wash over me. Taking to an entire album so quickly was a novel thing for me, but Never Comes the Day was hitting so close to home that it was almost uncomfortable. At seventeen I had reached a crossroads where self-fulfillment intersected with transpersonal commitment, leaving me frantic for a way to balance finding my direction in life with responsibilities for, and expectations of, those around me. Mr. Hayward was coming up with some pretty good ideas, and he making music that seemed like answers to me, words that were “stealth scripture” – necessary knowledge or truth from a Higher Power that would have been otherwise rejected by an audience had it been presented via traditional organized religion.

…then once again one song faded into the next, and I was listening to Lazy Day, another folksy Ray Thomas tune that seemingly extolled the delights of a lazy Sunday afternoon before introducing a parallel lyric line bemoaning the tedious sameness of workaday life. The tune was very similar in tone to his earlier song on the first side, and while I loved his work on the flute, I wasn’t sure if I’d want to spend much time Mr. Thomas in person. In those pre-Prozac® days I was just beginning to recognize depression’s effect on my life, and the downbeat nature of Ray Thomas’ work wasn’t helping…

I almost didn’t pick up on the soft singing and acoustic guitar work of the third track, Are You Sitting Comfortably, another Justin Hayward composition that washed away any angst the previous track may have brought on. I had just started learning about my Celtic heritage and the idea of a historically correct King Arthur, so the lyrics about Camelot, Guinevere, and Merlin the Magician combined with Ray Thomas’ haunting flute was particularly meaningful to me. It was all very happy-making, but as the track ended on a high flute note seamlessly blended into Mellotron music I fell again into a Moody Blues blindside attack:

 When the white eagle of the north is flying overhead

 And the browns, greens and golds of autumn lie in the gutter dead

I don’t know if it was Graeme Edge’s rich baritone voice, the faint Mellotron keening in the background, or the powerful lines of the poetry itself: I sat up a bit too quickly and bumped my head a second time in response to poetry that could have been tailored for me personally. The album was rife with multiple levels of symbolism, but these spoken words combined dream imagery with the cycle of both an individual day and the entire year, which in turn brought to mind the changing of the seasons, and my favorite time of the year — fall.

I hadn’t felt that way before moving north. California’s climate is temperate to an extreme, and autumn had just been something on a calendar involving new crayons, new television shows, and Halloween. The idiosyncrasies of the South Central Alaskan climate are such that fall starts in early September with the countryside exploding into yellow, gold, orange, and the occasional splash of red, and it’s the only time of year with reasonable weather set against a backdrop of equal parts of day and night. Starting school meant regular days for a while, but there was always the specter of winter and the menace of long nights lurking just over the horizon.

Then as softly as a sundown the backing Mellotron merged into a subtle introspective melody entitled Have You Heard?

Now you know that you are real

Show your friends that you and me

Belong to the same world…

By now the blended transitions are expected and the music eases into the beginning of The Voyage before slowly transforming into something like the soundtrack to a movie, musically taking you through a magic door. A hauntingly slow minor key melody is joined by a flute, then jumps into a rumble, conjuring dream images of running through dark forests, narrowly escaping barely seen dangers, but then the rumbling becomes less intense as piano notes move up and down the scale, the intensity slowly increasing to a more forceful, more frenetic level, before dropping off to a reprise of Have You Heard and returning full circle to the cosmic whistle with which the album began.

I was stunned. I had never heard anything like it – ever. While it was true that I had previously enjoyed both Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, neither Beatles masterpiece so thoroughly embraced the idea of the concept album as the album I had just heard – or reached its level of meaning. The music had touched me on several levels, becoming important enough to warrant going through two vinyl copies, two cassette copies, a compact disc, and a download, giving me ready access to its stealth scripture throughout my life.

Quite a bargain for just a dollar, eh?

KCHS Class of 1971: 50-year Reunion

(I’ve never been able to attend any of my high school class reunions. It wasn’t a deliberate choice – it just always seemed work or teaching issues got in the way. I thought that we’d make it this year for sure but then a late-breaking medical situation ruled the trip out and all I could do was give thanks that we hadn’t bought our airline tickets yet.

I’m still trying to stay involved by working on the preparations to include composing the text  below which will be used for the main invitation. They’re going to set up an online presence so at least I’ll be able to see everyone, but for now I’m just hoping the horse will sing and we can make the trip in August)

1971

  • The Rolling Stones were playing sold-out concerts.
  • Star Trek re-runs were playing on TV.
  • The nation was involved in controversial conflict in Asia.
  • I was looking forward to the future and my own jetpack.

 2021

  • The Rolling Stones are still playing sold-out concerts.
  • Star Trek re-runs are still playing on TV.
  • The nation is involved in controversial conflict in Asia.
  • …and I’m still waiting on that jetpack.

Fifty years went by in a flash leaving us all with the feeling that there is an eighteen year-old trapped inside our sixty-eight year-old bodies screaming “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED”. Fortunately you will have the opportunity to compare notes with other “trapped eighteen year-olds” by attending the 50-year reunion of the KCHS graduating class of 1971.

  • When is it happening?   Saturday August 7th 2021 from noon until dark
  • Where is it happening?  Jeff & Carey Matranga’s place on Forest Lane, Soldotna
  • Who’s invited?               You and your families
  • What’s going on?          Potluck dinner, yard games, water games and socializing

Plans are brewing for a ZOOM/on-line presence and more information about food will follow. We also need help in getting the word out. In those fifty flashing years we’ve scattered all over the country and right now we’ve only reached about one-fourth of the class. Feel free to forward this notice or reply with the information and we’ll handle it here from reunion central.

Please RSVP to careylfoster@outlook.com or (907)252-4640

1965: Wildwood Air Force Station

The Present

Even on the sunniest days the place remains shrouded in the miasma that surrounds every prison, dungeon, or jail ever made, but even without the “hoosegow funk” Wildwood Correctional Complex is not one of the more picturesque sites in Alaska. It sits surrounded by the stunted spruce, marsh and moss of the muskeg that makes up a large part of the Kenai Peninsula and only the odd fence placement and discolored patches on the ground marking foundations of former structures hint at quite different times and a vastly different function for the facility

1965

It was no accident that Wildwood Air Force Station seemed as if part of the more civilized part of the Lower 48 at been sliced off and transplanted to a few miles north of the small town of Kenai. American Cold War strategy called for the construction of military bases all over the world, and the installations were all built with a common layout and architecture that mimicked the look and feel of middle class Eisenhower-era suburbs “back home”.  The uniform familiarity in the design fostered effective training and good troop morale while easing homesickness and the psychological shock of frequent relocation. All I knew was the place gave me a little bit of normal to hang onto as it felt so much like other installations I’d previously visited that whenever we went on board base I felt like I’d gone home.

Comprised of 4300 acres and 65 buildings (including 18 family units), Wildwood Station was established in 1953 as an Army Signal installation charged with the reception and monitoring of Soviet radio traffic, but when we moved to the peninsula the base was being transferred to Air Force control. Even though we lived thirty miles away in Sterling we managed to visit the base at least twice a month. As a retired service member, my father was entitled to the use of the facilities, which ranged from a movie theater, medical clinic, commissary, and Base Exchange, and as dependents my sisters and I could do likewise.

…but it wasn’t better prices and newer movies that had me psyched early one evening in June of 1965 as we passed by the sentry at the gate. I had been surprised at the end of the school year to learn that my best friend from Anchorage would be spending the summer in North Kenai and this was the first chance we’d had to meet up.  Mark and I sat side-by-side during fifth grade, refighting World War II during every recess and the loss of that companionship had made the move difficult for me.  His dad was working on summer-long project upgrading North Kenai road and he brought his family with him, and while there was still a forty-mile road trip separating Mark and I the chances of doing something together became much better.

One of those “somethings” was a plan to meet at the base theater to see In Harm’s Way, a war film starring John Wayne that was based on the James Bassett novel of the same title. Interest in the military was not something my current Sterling classmates favored, but it had been a major factor in my friendship with Mark, so a big-budget epic about World War II in the Pacific was an ideal choice for our boy’s night out.

Between bouncing on the seat and talking nonstop I must have driven my mom almost but not quite crazy during the hour it had taken us to get to the base. It had been a hard winter and I hadn’t been able to fit in with the Sterling kids very well. As mentioned in Anchorage we’d been  refighting World War II at a fever pitch, battling over vacant lots with cap-firing Mattel Tommy-bursts® and Marx Monkey Division bazookas lobbing foam rubber rockets, but the closest my new classmates came to a military organization was a club called the “FBI” which I thought it was kind of cool until I was dismissed with the curt explanation that in this situation the initials stood for “Female Body Inspectors”. It had stung to be simultaneously mocked and ostracized but for the moment I was excited at the prospect of some good sessions of mock combat with Mark over the summer.

My first hint that things had changed was when he got out of his mom’s car sporting a new haircut. Up to this point neither one of us maintained any sort of recognizable hair style, opting instead for an unruly thatch of hair that would scare a comb to death. As Mark was getting out of the car that evening he was sporting a pompadour with slicked back sides that looked less like SGT Saunders and more like Elvis Presley. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just his hair that had changed: In times past meeting up with Mark involved equal parts yelling, arm-punching and cupped-hand-in-the-arm-pit faux flatulence, but  this time he was very cool and standoffish. The vague disconnect continued through the film – when I’d get excited during a battle scene he’d roll his eyes, a move he repeated when Barbara Bouchet slipped her dress off during her beach romp with Hugh O’Brian and I wasn’t quick enough with a wolf whistle.

He seemed more like the old Mark when we hit the snack bar after the show was over.  Maybe it was the sugar rush from milkshakes, but we slipped into the obligatory arm-slug and armpit-fart routine from years past, but on the ride home that night I came to the realization that a fundamental change had come about in our friendship and my life. Prior to our eventual landing in Sterling my family had moved constantly – by seventh grade I’d attended seven different schools and the visit with Mark was the first time I’d ever had a chance to go back and see a friend post-move. It was also the first time that I dealt with an important principle thrown over the fence by Wilson in the Tim Allen sitcom Home Improvement:

 “He hasn’t been your best friend for twenty years. He was your best friend twenty years ago.”

The chaos and indifference of my growing up had left me reluctant to leave the trappings of childhood for adolescence, which put  me in a difficult situation complicated by my tendency to hang on to friendships a bit too long.  The change I saw in Mark showed me that it wasn’t just the move from Anchorage had changed my world – my age and the changing landscape of the 1960’s had also played a part in the chaos and I’d have to survive the turmoil of adolescence on my own. I could still fight battles with my plastic soldiers and keep a Mattel Tommyburst at home, from now on it had to be all sports and girls when I was at school.

What didn’t change was our periodic trips unchanged to Wildwood for shopping, medical care and entertainment. Social visits were added to that list two years later when I discovered in high school that I got along much better with other mobile military brats than my other classmates.  Activities on base like a date with Cassie or an illicit beer with Mike so firmly stitched Wildwood Air Force Station into the embroidery of my life that it was a real shock when I returned home from my first year of college to find the base closing as part of the post-Vietnam realignment. Various plans for the installation were in the making when it was transferred to the Kenai Native Association in early 1973, but after consideration as a support facility for boarding students from Bush communities, and a brief tenure as rental apartments it was converted into a correctional facility in 1983 and the family housing units razed.

Seeing the place now is like looking at photos of actors from the same period.  Robert Conrad was the star of the TV series The Wild Wild West which debuted soon after the time of this story, and as such he embodied the strength, wit, and charisma that my “Female Body Inspector” classmates could only aspire to. Sadly the photo of the hollow-eyed white-haired old man in his Wikipedia entry bore little resemblance to the action hero of my youth just as the faint traces of demolished family quarters and the copious strands of barbed wire gave no clue to the vibrant community and vital military installation that Wildwood once was…

… but even those days are gone I can still watch my DVDs of Conrad at his best and I can remember when Wildwood Air Force station was just as important to the emotional stability of a young boy as it was to the security of the United States.

(The book Military Brat by Mary Wertsch (Ballantine 1991) provides insight to the unique life and worldview of military dependents during the Cold War)

1965: Man from U.N.C.L.E. / Boy From S.T.E.R.L.I.N.G.

My mom was a living contradiction. She would think nothing of leaving me in the car for a lengthy subzero wait while she visited her church friends, but strictly managed bedtimes and television viewing at home, which made my introduction to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. nothing short of a miracle. That first viewing happened in the winter of 1965 and came about only because it was an “underwear night”, one of those rare instances when my dad and I would stay up late and watch TV together while lounging in T-shirts and pajamas.

I was eleven and languishing in the twilight zone that is prepubescence – starting to realize that an action hero didn’t necessarily need a cape, and those icky girls were starting to look interesting, but to be honest I was mostly just concerned with staying up past 9:00 PM, when the sedate academic environment of Mr. Novak was abruptly replaced by trumpets blasting out the opening bars of one of the most totally bitchin’ themes ever I was riveted to the TV set.

Bond films were a year or two in my future, so it took me an episode or two to figure out the whole secret agent thing. Even at age eleven I was fueled with a strong sense of transpersonal commitment and the idea of a benign secret world-wide organization composed of people from all races and nationalities fighting evil was an idea I wished I’d come up with myself. I was struck by the casual but deadly teamwork between veteran enforcement agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriyakin, and when you factored in the witty banter, cool equipment, and slinky ladies (which were starting to be extremely interesting at that point in my life) I was sold …but unlike previous television favorites I didn’t want to just sit and watch images on a screen.

I desperately wanted to be an actual U.N.C.L.E. agent.

I figured they had to have some sort of feeder organization, kind of like Boy Scouts, but without the knot-tying and flag-folding. Unfortunately there was no U.N.C.L.E.  number in the phone book and to make matters worse, my parents and school teacher told me no such organization existed (the question alone was enough to trigger one of my mom’s legendary rants about the United Nations). As my dad had briefly worked in intelligence during his naval career I finally concluded that the denial had been implanted in his brain during those years afloat as some sort of protective measure because at the end of each episode ran a credit line:

We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law Enforcement without whose assistance this program would not be possible.

However, I was undeterred by the lack of information or contact. If I couldn’t join the organization I would:

  • Train myself as an agent
  • Acquire and become proficient on the equipment
  • Organize a subunit of U.N.C.L.E. there in Sterling

Taking on the persona of uber spy Napoleon Solo was the logical yet the most unattainable first step. For starters no matter how many tubes of SCORE clear hair gel I worked into my unruly ginger mop there was no way it would be mistaken for his carefully tonsured brunette locks. My single attempt at wearing my dark-colored woolen go-to-church suit to school ended with a disaster involving a faulty milk carton, but to be honest the suit situation wasn’t a deal-breaker for me –I was rapidly outgrowing the suit and when the wool material itched so bad that I had to wear long underwear year-round I ended up looking less and less like a secret agent and more like Ken® dressed in three outfits at the same time. I decided to stick to the everyday plaid flannel shirt, denim trousers and Tuffy® work boots, reasoning that I was working in very deep cover for the time being.

As for training in spy craft there wasn’t much I could do with a foot of snow on the ground and not access to any sort of gym, so I resigned myself to the fact that training would have to wait.

Equipping myself was bit more difficult. In those dark pre-mobile phone days the best I could do for secure communication was a Marx Monkey Division® walkie-talkie set handed down to me from my cousin Gary. Unfortunately it was a sound-powered device just one step up from a pair of tin-cans connected by string and while the olive-drab military design of the handsets fit the mission, the twenty-five feet of copper wire connecting them would be counter-productive to any sort of covert function.

As for the requisite attaché case: while neither Napoleon nor Illya had anything nearly as cool as James Bond, the 1965 Sears Christmas catalog featured a four page color insert of 007 related toy that included a detailed diagram of the aforementioned attaché case that I referred to during my planning. I momentarily considered asking for the 007 set for Christmas but I was sure such a request would trigger a Mom-rant worse than her United Nations tirade so I settled on using a generic book bag until I accumulated enough summer baby-sitting money to buy a for-real attaché case when school started in the fall.

The gun was simultaneously easier/more difficult to get. The single element in the universe more certain that death or taxes was a Christmas gift request to my Grandma Esther. Once she understood that the IDEAL Man from UNCLE Napoleon Solo Gun set was what I wanted I knew that nothing would stop that from happening, but it wouldn’t be happening until December. As a stop-gap measure I created a model using a fountain pen with extra cartridge, a 2 inch binder clip, Bic® pen and a #3 bulldog clip which worked great until Tacky Powell’s white shirt ended up blotched with blue ink during a recess training session.

The organization consisted mostly of compiling lists of names and organizing them into sections in rosters made up of official stationery made by pasting UNCLE logos carefully cut from Gold Key comic adaptations. Of all the aspects of my self-made covert training this lasted the longest with the organization going through several name changes until my freshman year of high school when the rosters morphed into “reliability ” lists of classmates I compiled as I was getting bullied . The list-making was discontinued only upon discovery by my parents and my explanation was met with something very similar to the “have you no shame” comment that helped take down the red-baiting Tail-gunner Senator Joe McCarthy thirteen years earlier.

For years I assumed that longest-lasting benefit from my tenure as a junior U.N.C.L.E. agent was my eventual work as an intelligence officer with both the Army and the Navy Reserve when I took great delight in pinning my triangular U.N.C.L.E. badge inside my jacket during classified exercises. I wasn’t aware that the most beneficial aspect of my interest was the least tangible and one that I didn’t appreciate until I was much, much older.

 My dad spent his entire life running, dragging us from one out-of-the-way spot to another, never staying anywhere for longer than a year or two, even after he retired from the navy. It was a murky situation made even murkier as more and more snippets of “what really happed” came to light after my parents passed away and I’ll probably never know anything other than that Sterling was the end of the road and the running.

The seven of us were crammed into a tiny three bedroom house in the middle of an ocean of burned-out snags from a catastrophic fire seventeen years earlier, ten miles from town with no local radio stations, and spotty radio and a single TV channel from Anchorage, 65 miles to the northeast. Even more distressing was the fact that no plausible explanation was ever given as to why were there. After traveling the entire length of the west coast of the United States, Sterling was end of the road, and an unfriendly end to boot as my classmates there were all “territory babies” and understandably reluctant to accept a chattering mob of Californians into their midst.

 Every night I struggled to find sleep as I worried about what I had done to deserve the exile, but at nine o-clock on Tuesday nights everything changed. Never mind that the back streets of Los Angeles were standing in for New York, London, or Paris. After fifty minutes of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriyakin using the coolest guns to fight evil THRUSH Agents, restful sleep was no longer a problem. While drifting off to sleep with the strains of the most totally bitching closing theme echoing in my mind, I was no longer stuck in the middle of a burned out wilderness – I was traveling the world.

1980: Canvas, Diesel, Brasso & Bentley

It’s been said that of all the senses, smell is the strongest trigger when it comes to recalling memories – and that has definitely proved to be true for me. The smell of linseed oil and turpentine instantly takes me back to the winter of 1974 and the chaos involved when my first “for-real” painting class coincided with a rather painful break-up. Play-doh1 has a similar, though indirect, effect as it has a smell confusingly close to the classic Coty perfume Emeraude, a fact that I was quite vocal about until I realized it was the fragrance of choice for my girlfriend at the time.

But for me the trifecta of olfactory cues consists of damp canvas, diesel exhaust, and the pungent ammonia reek of Brasso.2 The slightest whiff of any one of these three aromas instantly transports me back to 1980 when I was serving as a platoon leader at FT Richardson Alaska, as it did the other day when the ammonia I was using to clean the hall bathroom had me time-tripping back to the days of steel helmets, green fatigues, and the constant rumble of multiple M34A2 “deuce and a half”  trucks idling in the background.

The flashback was enough to prompt me into sitting down for a break, but as I perched on the edge of the sink and thumbed through the digital edition of the Anchorage Daily News on my phone, I came across a name that completed my forty-one year trip through time faster than you could say “Doug and Tony”.3

Thomas Bentley.

It was an obituary for one Thomas Bentley of Wasilla, Alaska. The location threw me as the Bentley I’d known had grown up in the Great Lakes region, but as I looked at the picture and mentally trimmed four decades of grey hair and jowl I realized that this recently deceased gentleman was the Bentley that figured so prominently in my eighteen months as a platoon leader.

November 1980

As I have written elsewhere I was simultaneously elated and depressed to be assigned to FT Richardson AK after my unexpected grounding from flight status due to an undiagnosed vision problem. It was a literal comedown to accept that instead of cruising at 1000 feet AGL (above ground level) in a UH-I helicopter I would puttering around at 3 feet AGL in an M151 jeep. However, I had been blessed by a valuable lesson I’d learned as a missionary to “bloom where I was planted” and make the best of a bad situation. Maybe I wasn’t going to be the dashing aviator I’d always hoped to be but I was going to be the best freaking truck platoon leader ever! After a two-week period of observation I put into action a two-part plan to raise performance standards through an ambitious training program and regularly scheduled technical inspections of assigned vehicles. It was an ambitious plan that could have easily ended in failure if either one of the following “ace cards” had not been in play:

  1. An outstanding company commander in the form of CPT Robert Moore who provided  me with the perfect balance of guidance and freedom.
  2. Preparation in life that most of my fellow lieutenants lacked: I was five years older with a good part of that time spent working as a roustabout for Chevron USA at the Swanson River oil field, I was the son of a career non-commissioned officer in the Navy and I had seen every John Wayne movie from The Alamo to The War Wagon!

It took a week or two for me to firmly establish that “things were going to change in Delta Trans” but eventually when I showed up at the side of a truck clad in coveralls with creeper and flashlight in hand drivers took me seriously and eventually would go to great lengths to best my inspection checklist, especially when the highest scoring driver got the rest of the day off.

Unfortunately some of the more senior drivers remained a little jaded; one of the most vocal being SP44 Fourth Class Thomas Bentley. Bentley was already hampered by an inflated sense of self-esteem brought on by logging thousands of miles as a truck driver both in and out of the Army, but he also harbored a deep resentment towards me personally. I had been involved in a domestic disturbance call at his quarters late one Friday night and subsequently intervened in a scuffle he’d gotten into with his temporary barracks roommate a few nights later, so I knew that at some point there would be a showdown.

The clash came about during a field training exercise that had him detailed to stay back to repaint parking lines on the motor pool floor, a task that was possible only when most of the vehicles were out of the motor pool). Citing his aforementioned driving record he snarled that he was “a god-d*mn truck driver and not an f**king painter” then stormed out of the building to his five-ton tractor parked right outside. Feeling a bit irritated myself5 I followed him out to his truck, jumped on the running board,  pulled open his door and as I assumed my best Duke stance6 barked:

“Get back in there and start painting, or I am going to kick your ass!”

“What – you’re gonna write me up?”

“No, I’m going to drag you out of that cab and literally kick your ass!”

Time slowed down to a crawl as he scowled at me – then he quickly switched off the truck and sped back inside. I trailed him with my own scowl but stopped at the door after he entered so he couldn’t see me collapse with pent-up tension and relief when a) he didn’t call my bluff and b) I’d avoided an ill-considered career-ending incident.

Something must have clicked because from that point onwards we had an uneasy truce, but despite that slight improvement life just got harder for Bentley. A few months later he was served with divorce papers in the middle of a work day7; given the domestic disturbances of the preceding months it came as no surprise to me, but the development visibly shook him. However I didn’t suspect the depth of his turmoil until my next round of technical inspections a couple of weeks later. As usual, each driver tried to one-up the next, but I knew the competition had kicked into high gear when I looked into the engine compartment of a five-ton truck and found all the copper fuel lines polished to near-solar brilliance with Brasso. I was a little surprised because the five-ton section held most of the grumblers who scoffed at “training stunts” – but I was even more surprised when after calling out “I’ve found a winner” I looked up at the driver behind the wheel to find Bentley with a slightly sad smile on his face.

It was the first positive measure I’d seen him take so I wasn’t completely shocked when he put in an application to attend a professional leadership course the following spring. The real jaw-dropper came about when he graduated first in his class then spent the rest of his tour as an outstanding soldier. He was transferred to another duty station close to the same time that I left the platoon for assignment to battalion staff, and as all the good-byes were being made I felt compelled to ask him what prompted the change.

“I dunno. Maybe I just got tired of kicking back. Maybe it was the ass-kicking that didn’t happen…or maybe it was because for the first time in my life somebody gave enough of a rat’s-ass to threaten an ass-kicking for a good reason.”

April 2021

Other than a comical case of mistaken identity8 I never saw Bentley again. I assumed that he’d eventually end up in Minnesota or Wisconsin but according to the obit he returned to Alaska and became a commercial truck driver based out of Wasilla. He also remarried – and that time it stuck as a widow of some 20+ years was mentioned in the write-up. I was pleased that he finally had a happy ending, but I also had to smile at the two “happy facts” I’d learned from him; principles that served me well during the years ahead as I worked with young people in the military, academia, and Scouting:

  • Don’t give up on a “problem child” no matter how obnoxious they may be.
  • I had to stop using John Wayne as a template for leadership.

——————————————————————————————————

Notes

  1. Play-doh: modeling compound intended for use by toddlers. First formulated as a wallpaper cleaner in the 1930s, it has been sold as a toy since 1956, is produced in several brilliant colors, and has a slightly musky vanilla like smell that was trademarked by the current manufacturer Hasbro in 2018.
  2. Brasso: Metal polish designed to remove tarnish from brass, copper, chrome and stainless steel. Made up of ammonia and isopropyl alcohol. First sold in the UK in 1905, it has been the bane of an American G.I.’s existence since before the World War II.
  3. Doug & Tony: Protagonists in the 1966 Irwin Allen sci-fi series The Time Tunnel.
  4. SP4: Specialist Fourth Class. Junior enlisted paygrade equal to corporal but without the leadership role.
  5. The post facilities engineers ran tests in the motor pool building the following spring that found a frightening number of exhaust fans non-operational. We’d been breathing dangerously elevated levels of CO1 (carbon monoxide) which was the likely cause ed for the high level of agitation most of the preceding winter.
  6. Colonel Marlowe from The Horse Soldiers.
  7. The MP (military policeman) serving the papers was quite arrogant and when questioned about the appropriateness of serving I the papers in Bentley’s workplace sneered “I can go anywhere on this post I want”. He wasn’t quite so arrogant a year later when he was reassigned to the battalion as a supply clerk, having been punitively reclassified after failing a drug test.
  8. See 2003: “Have You Ever Heard of An Artist Named David Deitrick?”

Move On

The First Night

“I’m going to have to pass on this one Brandon.”

“Whaddya mean? Gus! Baby!  (Sniff) – Its pure gold. Emmy material.”

“Maybe, but it’s not for me. I had to struggle just wading through the series treatment.”

“What’s not to like?”

“Are you kidding me? “COP ROCK 2025.” The original series was so bad that I can’t unsee it, but you’ve managed to make something so tasteless that I doubt even Fox would run it!”

“(sniff) Are you going to start whining about seeing Dennis Franz’ ass again?”

“For the record that was “NYPD Blue” – but I’d still take that image over suffering through Justin Bieber as Frank Furillo Jr.  Holy hell Brandon, that’s yet another classic you’re butchering. I can’t work – I WON’T work on crap like this.”

A very unbrandonlike pause gave me just enough time to worry about the effect this conversation was having on my already troublesome blood pressure, but then he continued at a lower volume and slower rate.

“Yes, yes you can…and you will. (sniff) May I remind you that we have a contract and you still owe us a script?”

I knew at that point there was no getting through to this broadcast wunderkind any time soon so I mumbled something about time zones and headaches, hung up and slumped at my desk disgusted. Actually at this point “disgusted” was an understatement, but I wasn’t sure who I was more disgusted with – Brandon for his patently offensive series proposal, or me for prostituting my talents by working on the aforementioned offensive material.

  • What happened to the novel I was going to write?
  • When did I become such a whore?
  • Is there a word for what I’d become? Writer-whore? Wr-hore? Whorter?”

…I longed for (much) earlier days – university days when I wrote for myself and enjoyed what I did. I doffed my glasses and pinched the bridge of my nose as I wrestled with the fact that I was getting more depressed by the minute and needed to distract myself, so after replacing the lid on the container of mixed nuts that fueled my creative efforts, I grabbed the mouse and started clicking through websites. In most situations this would be every wife’s nightmare – it’s late at night and her husband is hunched over a computer, his attention riveted to images on a flickering screen, but in my case it wasn’t pornography fueling my imagination and causing my heart to race – it was Alaska creating the fantasies. At my age porn holds far less appeal than the thrill of vicariously revisiting the mountains, forests, and paths of my youth, but unfortunately the after-effects of this type of digital dalliance are just as debilitating as any erotic addiction.  When I finally shut down my computer I was feeling so flat that Gina didn’t even notice when I crawled into bed beside her.

The Second Night

I forget the precise label to my geographic enabler – Google Earth, MapQuest, or one of several other virtually identical services providing a satellite’s-eye view of the earth’s surface so precise that instincts lingering from a previous incarnation as an intelligence officer screamed “Who the hell cleared this?” When I finally convinced myself that what I was seeing was not a breach of national security I started digitally exploring the various scenes of my youth, but then as is the case with all addictions, my gateway drug began to pale, and I graduated from the alleys of my Anchorage childhood to the “hard stuff” – close-up views of Fairbanks and the University. I don’t remember when I first found the camera aimed down Cushman Avenue but I do remember the thrill that came over me when I took in that modest skyline for the first time in five decades. The intersections had changed slightly, and captions told me that most of the buildings had changed owners and names several times, but as long as the Immaculate Conception Church was still on the east side of the road the scene was just familiar enough to make my heart skip a beat the same way it did the day Debbie helped me unpack my bags for my first year at the university.

My early childhood as a service brat meant that unlike some of my former high school classmates, moving five hundred miles away from home held no terror for me. If leaving home for college equated to some sort of symbolic death of adolescence, I’d been resurrected to an eighteen year old’s idea of heaven with plenty of beer every weekend, cool music playing all the time, a stone-cold fox for girlfriend, and no parental supervision.

The Third Night

While the task was far from easy, I was able to hammer the beginnings of a script out of Brandon’s craptacular concept. Unfortunately the task required ingestion of caffeine far in excess of any recommended levels so by the time I hit control-S I had a splitting headache bad enough to preclude any more cashew-crunching for the night…but as tired as I was I still felt drawn to the webcam aimed down that particular stretch of pavement in downtown Fairbanks. Getting a good day’s worth of word-crunching was always a mixed blessing: I was thankful I had an income, and if pressed I had to admit that what fame I did enjoy was …well, enjoyable, but I couldn’t help feeling that I could have done something better with my life. I rubbed my eyes, replaced my glasses, and looked back at the screen as the scene changed slightly – even though it’s referred to as a real-time view, it’s actually a series of still photographs that change almost imperceptivity, giving you something more like flipping through a sequence of still photos than live photography.

Half aloud I wondered, “How many times had I walked past that church?” – Which was followed immediately by the equally quasi-vocalized, “More times than I care to remember” – The long hair, boots, and tattered surplus parka made hitchhiking in subzero a hard sell no matter how innocuous the inane smiley face embroidered in yellow on the left shoulder. I’d walked down that street countless times because the university bookstore’s stock of girlfriend-getting ammunition was extremely limited, requiring frequent trinket runs into town, which in turn meant that I got to know that stretch of Cushman like the back of my hand…or mitten as the case may be. From what I could see on the screen, not much had changed over the years as there was no lack of scruffy people walking along under the gaze of the sub-arctic webcam, but I passed that off as yet another quirk of life in the Last Frontier. College kids down here in the lower 48 came surprisingly well equipped with cars, laptops and smartphones, but judging from what I saw, current Alaskan students would fit right in with us back in the day… even down to the long-haired figure in an Army surplus parka, blue jeans, and work boots that was crossing the screen as it powered down.

A cacophony of popping joints accompanied me as I slowly stood up from my chair and stepped over the now unused outdoor gear that littered the floor of my office towards the bedroom and my sleeping sweetheart. I felt the slightest twinge of guilt when I realized my memories of this patch of frost-heaved cement were substantially clearer than those of the streets around Gina’s first apartment, but driving an air-conditioned Trans-Am through Pawtucket in 1980 didn’t have nearly the same impact on my life as hitchhiking along a highway just three degrees south of the Arctic Circle ten years earlier….

The Fourth Night

The door was ajar, so I peeked in, assuming she’d been asleep for hours, but I’d figured wrong. An improbable “Hey G.I!. Me so horny love you long time!” hissed through the doorway followed by a throw pillow. I walked in, sat on the edge of the bed and whispered back: “…and here I’ve been thinking all along that it was student loans that paid your way through college!”

Gina elbowed her way up from reclining to semi-reclining, her long raven-colored hair spilling down across the pillows. She kissed me, then said “You’ve been spending a lot of time with that machine lately. Is there anything I need to be worried about?” I kissed her forehead then looked at her. In forty years I’d never done anything to cause those eyes to view me with reproach. I loved my wife more than life itself, but late-night digital forays came from a world that she never was a part of and knew nothing about.

“Naw. It’s no big deal. It’s just some barbarian warrior stuff Bernie and I have cooked up. Still trying to write our own version of Conan without Arnold Swartznegger. Bernie just wants to get my feedback on what he’s come up with so far.

“Gus!” It was long and drawn hiss out like a dying inner tube. “I don’t think any of you guys ever emotionally matured past nineteen. Still daydreaming about guys in fur jockstraps swinging swords and rescuing bimbos in metal underwear.” She planted a kiss on my cheek. “Just don’t stay up too late – you’re supposed to see the cardiologist tomorrow – remember?”

I left the room and headed towards my laptop. I thought: “Oh my God – I’ve just lied to Gina. I have never lied to Gina. Never. Ever!”

“What the hell is the matter with me? I’m acting like an addict hiding away his habit.”

Unfortunately as is the case with any drug used to excess, nostalgia can bring on unexpected damage. I can readily detect the warning signs for excessive use of alcohol or drugs, but reliving both the joy and pain of that time so long ago was doing more damage than anything I could have snorted, injected, or ingested, and by now it had brought on an elevated pulse and blood pressure that worried my doctor, but how could I explain that 2021’s heart issues had their origin fifty years earlier?

Without warning, the clock in the hall started to chime… eleven times. It was late, and the mild annoyance at meeting with my cardiologist so early in the morning wasn’t nearly as bothersome as the cold sweat brought on by just the mention of the word “stint,” but as I reached for the power button something showed up on the left side of the screen that stopped me mid-yawn. As the web cam image refreshed, a faint figure progressively became closer and clearer until it was distinct enough for me to make specific details:

  • Long hair
  • Blue jeans and work boots
  • An army surplus parka with a yellow happy face embroidered on the shoulder.

The Fifth Night

It was a favor guaranteed to put a strain on any friendship – even a friendship a half century old – but there were compelling reasons Bernie was the only person I could call for help. For starters he had the insight brought on by the (slight) difference in our ages. When my primary goal in life was to meet William Shatner he had well-mapped out plans for a career in local government. While he and his girlfriend were exploring the Kama Sutra I was still wondering if Debbie’s new retainer would make French-kissing her taste metallic. Most importantly for this situation he was the only one of us to end up back living in Fairbanks, and by default, the only person I could call on to verify what I thought I was seeing. It was a tribute to his character that he agreed to help me out by waiting at the site of the web-cam and verifying what was visible over the Internet.

I started this latest legume-fueled session just as I had the previous four nights but when his red SUV was nowhere to be seen in the foreground of the web-cam’s image my ears began to boom with the trip-hammer heartbeat that always came with blood pressure climbing.  Fortunately a panic-fueled volley of text messages established that he was in fact parked down in front of the office building, so close that upon inspection I could see that a thin red line – the front of his SUV’s hood – poked into the image area.

The rotating illuminated sign across the river first read a balmy -26o then announced that the appointed time had arrived. I tapped out a “see anything?” text on my phone which was answered almost immediately with a terse “Nope”. I screwed my eyes shut, pinched the bridge of my nose out of habit, and thought to myself “I’m going fricking crazy,” as my pulse and blood pressure went into a roller-coaster ride that couldn’t be doing me any good. A couple of key strokes gave me a slightly more distinct image …and a better view of a figure now moving past the church on the left, a hooded figure in the grey-green parka moving down the left side of the screen, passing Immaculate Conception Church in screen-refresh intervals. The harsh street light illumination and fog coming up off the river obscured details, but I definitely could see the damning yellow happy face grinning like a jaundiced maniac from his left shoulder.

Me: “Do you see him?”

Bernie: “Who?”

Me: “A young guy in an old army parka.”

Bernie: “WTF?”

Me: “The way I used to look. Me. Him. Screw it.”

Our text-message badminton was abruptly cut short by an incoming FaceTime call from Bernie showing absolutely NO ONE walking along the sidewalk next to the church, while the continually refreshing web-cam showed the figure in the parka continuing to walk down the street and past the Immaculate Conception Church, until the last image when he/me turned, looked straight into the lens and flashed the peace sign.

The Sixth Night

I’m going to die tonight. I’ve lied to my wife and now I am mixed up with something right out of Twilight Zone – no, not Twilight ZoneNight Gallery because this is a whole lot scarier than Twilight Zone at this point, but I can’t pull myself away from my laptop, and now God is going to strike me down for lying to Gina.

My phone chirped out an incessant summons. but when Bernie’s number showed up on caller I.D., I sent the call directly to voice mail and reflected on my self-made bastard status. He was genuinely concerned after last night’s fiasco and knew better than most the toll it had taken on me and my heart…but there was no way I was going to walk away without at least a few questions answered. In purest cinematic fashion He/me appeared right on time and started walking down Cushman Avenue just like he had for the previous nights. I had ceased trying to make any sense of the situation but found it impossible to look away even though I could feel my pulse thunder in my ear and there was something terribly wrong with my left arm.

“Dammit! Not now. Not when I’m so close”

He/me slowed a bit before passing off screen to the left then he abruptly stopped, looked up into the webcam camera and pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket. He smiled and opened the sheet up to reveal neat block printing:

IT’S OK.

IT’S BEEN A GOOD LIFE, EH?

IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON.

…then he/me tucked the paper into his pocket and the he/me image started to break into pixilated shards, but as he walked past the church and out of view I found I couldn’t breathe. My inner Cro-Magnon howled at the merciless irony of a heart attack robbing me of closure to a half-century of heartbreak…then there was a kind of “huff” sound and I could breathe again. What I’d thought of as cardiac arrest was in fact a piece of Brazil nut that had gotten temporarily lodged “in the wrong pipe,” …and it turned out that the pain in my arm was brought on when the day pack slung on the back of my chair slid down with the strap catching and eventually numbing my arm.

I took a deep breath and felt a wave of warmth spill over my shoulders while the pins and needles in my arm slowly faded. It had been too easy to let the advancing years send me mentally and emotionally fleeing to that simpler and easier time in my life – and whether it was an episode of Night Gallery I was experiencing or not, I couldn’t take up permanent residence. If I’d been able to freeze the calendar at 1971 I’d have missed so much in my life: Gina, the kids, my career, the first time we saw Full Metal Jacket in Sensurround– hell, even After The Love is Gone by Earth, Wind and Fire, which had been inexplicably playing in my internal mix-tape since I first heard it five years after I left Fairbanks.

Whatever this anomaly may have been , it made me realize something I needed to accept: as comfortable and carefree as 1971 seemed from the vantage of the 21st century I would have been a much poorer man had there really been a way to break the dial of the cosmic TV set of life and just stayed in that place forever. After putting the lid back on the mixed nuts I clicked on the Arctic-Cam URL, deleted it, and went to bed.

______________________________________________________________________

(another “fictional” break in the creative non-fiction that I usually write…)