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.

________________________________________________________________________

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.

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

1966: Ban The (F)Bomb

“I know what everyone was saying but none of them knew what was really going on. Mother needed help around the house and it just made sense to bring the three little girls with me. Calling a simple vacation a separation and then jumping from there to “Dave and June are heading for a divorce?” That’s people for you, always making a mountains out of molehills. The girls and I were just taking a vacation. Not a separation – just a simple vacation!”

Hmmm.  A three-month vacation with just the three younger sisters with just a single postcard and one phone call for the entire time?  I was having a hard time squaring that line with Dad sleeping on the living room couch most of the previous summer and dinner-time tension was just as hard to slice as the liver1 we regularly had to gag down.

Yeeeaaah…a vacation. Right.

Irony aside it was still a heartwarming surprise when Mom and the little girls returned home shortly before Christmas, followed by an even bigger surprise when Dad didn’t resume sleeping on the couch. I loved my little sisters and it was so nice having them home that I blew off basketball practice to spend that first weekend listening to their stories and looking at photos of grandparents, cousins, and former classmates from Bell Hill Elementary. On the other hand I had nothing really new to welcome them home with other than my abysmal showing at basketball or the fact that my attic loft bedroom had finally been finished2. I was surprised to find that meager offering to be just the ticket as my three little sisters immediately demanded a tour of my new digs.

Unfortunately an 8’X12’ plywood shell heated to a marginally habitable degree held little interest for the older two, and within minutes it was just me and my youngest sister Merriweather, which was OK by me as she was my favorite. As the second of five children and the only son, I had awaited each subsequent birth with fervent prayers for a brother, but when I learned that there would be two Y chromosomes involved in the final addition to our family I resolutely declared that gender aside, I was going his final sibling to “teach her how to play ‘boy’ stuff!”

…and that’s exactly what happened. I don’t know if it was the fact that our birthdays were three days apart, our first names started with the same letter, or just her cuteness quotient factored into the seven years between out ages: Merriweather and I were inseparable. When she moved from toddler to kid her innate talent for gymnastics combined with the vast difference in size and strength made for an act that would have fit right in on The Ed Sullivan Show or The Hollywood Palace.

Our carefully rehearsed routine of carefully orchestrated stunts included;

  • Picking her up by her head…while keeping her weight supported by her concealed grip on my wrists.
  • Walking on her stomach…which entailed a rather theatrical hop while all my weight was supported by my other non-hopping foot.
  • Climbing me like a mountain …which was exactly what it appeared to be.

The loft tour quickly transitioned into talking about our favorite songs and TV shows like The Monkees and Space Ghost interspersed with the occasional kid-centric observation from the California trip. It didn’t really matter – she was my beloved baby sister and I would have been delighted to listen to any topic as she chattered on and on, curled up in the quilt at the end of my bunk. However after the third comment on the raging Davy Jones vs. Mickey Dolenz debate I started to zone out in favor of the latest issue of Mad magazine and I didn’t immediately pick up on the long pause …but I most definitely caught the first word as she resumed her commentary.

“F*ck!”

It was one of the earliest times I can remember that Fate dragged the great cosmic tone arm across the 33 1/3 rpm album of my life. The abruptness of the utterance stunned me into a prolonged silence broken by my trademark witty response (“URK!”) squeezed out as my normal anxiety became even more uncomfortable. A quick check of Merriweather’s open expression revealed that she really didn’t understand the gravity of what she’d just uttered – so in a ploy to buy time I armed her with a sheet of paper and my treasured turquoise Flair pen to distract her while I desperately came up with a plan.

…only to be further distressed when Mom unexpectedy called up the ladder “Hey kids is everything going OK up there?” which was almost immediately followed by a second utterance of bombshell from my little sister.

“F*ck!”

I slipped into hyperational thought: “Hey – its 1966 and we’re well past getting uptight about body stuff. Besides Mom’s a registered nurse and hip to the ways of the world. She’ll see right away that this is something Merriweather picked up during the trip and…”

Then reality set in and I thought back to catching hell for:

  • Failing to keep Fauna from running her arm through the wringer of a derelict washing machine sitting along the south pasture fence line while I was digging postholes along the north pasture fence line.
  • Driving my father back into a pack-a-day habit through my callous decision earlier in the year to buy a pair of Beatle boots for school wear.
  • Allowing my drawing skill to ‘distress” a classmate into  liberating (for himself) arithmetic homework answers from the teacher’s manual. 

Mom’s third and even more strident inquiry up the ladder jolted me out of my reverie into reality and a “Yep – I’m a dead man”. Knowing that further delay would just add velocity to the inevitable percussive counseling I called down the ladder to Mom and as euphemistically as possible reported on Merriweather’s expanded vocabulary.

…and then a miracle happened. It may have been that the lack of visual contact between the bottom of the ladder and the loft buffered the shock but instead of going ballistic Mom went into a very articulate but symbolic definition of the word. Rather than dismissing it as “dirty” she explained that it was a coarse expression for what was otherwise a beautiful, reaffirming act between two loving people. Merriweather seemed to follow the general concept but her attention started to drift when Mom side-stepped into a more esoteric seed/earth/plant analogy.

 At first all I could think was “Who are you and what have you done with my Mom?” but then I could see that her measured response simultaneously fulfilled Merriweathers’s curiosity and neatly excised the reactive curiosity an angrier response would have triggered as in “If Mom’s that worked up it must be something cool!”…then with perfect timing Dad’s voice rang out with a summons for a late breakfast and any remaining tension was dispelled in the general stampede towards the table.

Nothing was said during the meal, but then again you never let anything as minor as the spoken word get between you and a Dad-breakfast of eggs, bacon, biscuits and pancakes. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop during the following week, but during the following month I pieced together enough otherwise random off-hand comments to see that the trip south had been an eye-opener for Mom regarding some of her extended family, and that she’d immediately concluded that Merriweather had picked up the term during their trip to California. With the exception of a dried-out turquoise Flair pen, I’d gotten out of the incident unscathed.

Unscathed but not unaffected. I don’t know if it was fallout from the move down to the Peninsula in the summer of 1964 or my mom’s admitted discomfort with dealing with teenagers, but the two of us had been mixing like oil and water for the last couple of years. Watching her tackle such a difficult subject with such grace added a new dimension to her personality which in turn provided some hope for an eventual thaw in our icy relationship.

As the years went by, there was another smaller side benefit for me. When people talk about life in the Sixties what they usually mean is the latter-half of the decade on up to about 1972. Mad Men aside, the first part of that decade was not much different from the Eisenhower era immediately preceding, but little did I know that as a thirteen year old I was standing on the edge of a cultural tsunami that would upend society’s norms for just about everything connected to sex including That Word. Where it had once been unmentionable to 90% of society its use became widespread enough to be the subject of a best-selling comedy album/routine3. Where its use had once been limited to the locker room, oil field or army barracks, it became the “universal adjective” 4 used by people in all walks of life

…but whenever I heard the word all I could think about was Merriweather’s confused reactions to Mom’s “seed” analogy5 and I’d bust up laughing….

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Notes

  1. Serving liver for dinner was the meanest culinary trick ever; a bait switch of the worst kind as it smelled as savory as a regular steak but had all the mouth-watering taste associated with licking a flashlight battery.
  • More accurately unfinished. My father was plagued with personality quirk that kept him from completing every project I ever saw him start. To this day 54 years later the last four feet of my room remains unpaneled and the four outbuildings he built on the homestead continue to stand unfinished in some way or another. 
  • George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t say on Television” from the 1972 album Class Clown. Also used extensively in multiple albums by L.A. based “hard comedy” duo Cheech & Chong.
  • As in “close the f*cking door and sit down at the f*cking table. It’s f*cking cold in here!” as heard in the mess tent at the Clear Creek Forward Operating Base during JRX BRIM FROST 1981.
  • “…wait, is there supposed to be dirt down there?”

Gospel According to Saint Ticonderoga

Way too early in the morning…

>CLICK<   Whrrrrrrrrr.

The heating element glowed bright orange against the inky dark. At the same time the little fan in the compact electric space heater wheezed into live and did its best to push back the near-freezing cold of my small attic loft. It would take a crowbar get me out of bed.

>CLICK< “I am a lineman for the counteeee!”

There goes the clock radio. Must be time to get up for school but it will take a crowbar AND a stick of dynamite to get me out of bed today.

“GUS!”

…. or Mom.

“Your dad couldn’t get the truck started so he had to take the station wagon. You’re going to have to ride the bus today.”

“Oh great”, I thought as I slumped into my seat at the breakfast bar. “Why don’t I walk through a pack of wild dogs with a steak tied to my throat instead?”

“I didn’t think it got that cold last night but there’s Alaska for you!”

I looked down at the cold congealed oatmeal and tried not to gag, then passed on the meal with my stomach rumbling, leaving the table only after finishing the fight scene between Captain America and Mr. Spock that I had been penciling on my placemat. After a perfunctory kiss-on-the-cheek, and the obligatory lecture from Mom about neglecting my homework in favor of drawing superheroes, I trudged out the driveway and across the road to the designated bus stop, which felt a bit colder than expected. I was going out a little early – fresh snow tended to muffle sounds and the last thing I wanted was a surprise arrival and a frantic dash to the bus before our dim-bulb driver Johann took off again after the regulation three-minute wait.

The walk out warmed me up a bit, but the chill mounted an immediate counter attack. I had dressed as warmly as social conventions allowed but the chill kept coming, so I hopped up and down hoping the exertion would lend a little more warmth

 Still Cold.

I tried hitting snowballs with a stick but failed to connect even once, and concluded that with an RBI average of .000 no baseball team – not even the New York Mets – would sign me up for any position more skilled than towel-hander-outer.

Still cold…and for some reason getting colder.

It was then that I noticed streaks of color low in the sky, kind of like the aurora borealis, but running toward red and yellow instead of the pale greens and blues you would normally see. I was mystified: while actual daylight at our latitude was only about six hours long, we had extended periods of dusk and dawn that filled the sky with magenta and orange streaks…but they weren’t due for at least another hour. Come to think of it, the northern lights were something I usually saw late at night rather than early in the morning. It was definitely a mystery, but I was too cold to think about it and was toying with the idea of dancing the Funky Chicken in place as a better method of getting my circulation going when I was startled by a resonant voice calling to be from behind.

“Augustus!”

I spun around and almost stumbled into a man standing behind me in the snow. Man? More like a wizard from the cover of a Conan paperback. I tried to shake off the startle, but I was too creeped out by his glowing pupil-less eyes to completely settle down…but at least I wasn’t cold anymore. 

With increasing urgency his deep echoing voice rang out again “AUGUSTUS!”

In my mind I cleverly quipped “So, do you carpool with Batman?” but what came out of my mouth was more along the lines of “URK!”  I cleared my throat, then meekly said, “Actually, just ‘Gus’ will do”.

“Augustus,” he continued as if he hadn’t heard me – “Favored child of the gods of creation– heed my words. I bear a sacred gift for you – a token of honor from the Old Ones!”  From out of a deep pocket in his gold-trimmed red robe, he pulled out a box the size of a Dune paperback sliced in half length-wise and made of what looked like cedar, but with gold threads running through and along the grain. There were lids on both the top and bottom of the container, though the latch to the bottom looked like it had been wired shut.

He handed it to me and said, “To you I give this most precious gift from that mystic patron of dreams made real, even the Old One known as NoshWiggi. Use your gift this day to grant form and life to your grandest dreams and secret thoughts. Use it well, but remember that such grace and largesse deserve a modest offering in restitution. I will return at sundown to assist you in rendering this ever-so-small courtesy for the superb gift NoshWiggi gives to you – the power to made tangible your most precious dreams and desires!

I took the box and held it, tracing the grain of polished wood, and feeling its weight. I opened the top lid to find a slightly tarnished pointed cylinder sitting in a velvet lined slot, red and gold light flickering around it like the St. Elmo’s fire that I had read about but never seen. A small card printed with almost-unreadable script was tucked into a side crease of the velvet cushioning, but I shoved it into a pocket intending to read it once I got some place with decent lighting, and for now all I could see was the little cylinder puking red and yellow sparks.

“It looks like a pencil.”

“An astute observation Augustus. Use it well.”

At that point I heard a subdued rumble, and turned around and jumped when I saw the bus rolling to a stop behind me, the snow muffling its approach just as I had thought. The door opened, and a cloud of warm, moist air wafted out.

“Git-onna-bus-wipe-yer-shoossit-down-no-smokin-no-eatin-sit-down!”

I lurched into my regular seat; the occupants on each side surprised to see me on the morning run. Across the aisle three hulking figures were playing penny ante poker with much more zeal than the stakes merited. One of them threw his cards down in disgust and turning from the game, spied me and smiled. The smile resembled that of a wolf eyeing a lamb at dinner, and to anyone else it would have been terrifying, but that lupine look of glee meant I was talking to my friend Wayne. He’d been the Damon to my Pythias in junior high, the Rowan to my Martin, but high school had done what no amount of tissue stuffed in Linda Knight’s bra had been able to achieve – it had split us up. While I took college prep courses like Principles of Biology and Plane Geometry, Wayne was studying Principles of Petty Theft and Covet Alcohol Consumption 101…. but while we weren’t best buddies any more we were still friends and our occasional conversations were just as warm as ever.

“Hey dumbass!” I said.

“Hey dickhead!” he replied, “you slumming today?”

“Station wagon wouldn’t start, so yeah, I’m slumming. And starving. You got anything to eat other than your mom’s gut bombs?”  His lunches were the epitome of homestead haute cuisine, the most frequent dish a sandwich assembled from Spam and Velveeta with a dill pickle slice and Miracle Whip on white bread – not something my poor stomach needed to contend with so early in the morning, but I was starving.

“NO SMOKIN NO EATIN NO SMOKIN!” Johann’s garbled Nordic bellow startled me for minute and I asked, “Does he get a bounty for busting kids for smoking?”  The bus bounced over a small ridge left by the snow plow. I went on, “Seriously – you got anything to eat? I’m starving my ass off”.

“Mom let the gruel get cold again eh? Sorry. Not even Spam and Velveeta this morning.

I turned back toward the front of the bus and slid down into my seat. It was going to be quite some time before lunch. I started to grope around my coat pockets for a piece of gum or a leather strap to chew on, but instead of Juicy Fruit my fingers jammed up against the cedar box, which I’d momentarily forgotten while distracted by my rumbling breakfast-free stomach.

I opened the lid just a crack and slid (for a better word) the large pencil out of the box and held it in my classic cramped grip. I had no sooner grumbled, “Grandest dreams and thoughts? I’d settle for a cheeseburger!” when the pencil shuddered and took on a slight glow. I started experimenting, moving it around and found a slight resistance to each move, much like what happens when moving a spinning gyroscope…but as I waved the pencil around it left a glowing sparkly line in the air that quickly faded away unless crossed with another line.

I whispered “Hey– keep Johann distracted for me,” then started tracing the outline of a cheeseburger in the air behind the seat in front of me. Adding outline and shading made the image flicker and periodically coalesce into something with volume, but it wasn’t until I penciled in the final edge of sliced cheese that my drawing took on full form and substance – a hot, juicy cheeseburger popping into existence in front of me and immediately falling to the floor.

I caught it on the first bounce, then wolfed it down, my hunger trumping whatever bacterial contamination that may have survived on the icy bus floor. Wayne had no sooner growled out “Damn – that looked real,” when Johann looked up and gave me a suspicious glare in his rear-view mirror while barking out a few more verses of “sit-down-no-eatin-sit-down!” but when he looked back at the road I started drawing breakfast for Wayne as well. Every couple of minutes Johann would sniff loudly, convinced that someone on the bus was smoking, but when Wayne grabbed a hapless freshman’s lower arm and coerced him into a noisy version of the “Why are you Hitting Yourself?” Game our Nordic transit captain ceased his search for smoldering tobacco and focused on yelling at Wayne to stop tormenting the younger student.  

Wayne was licking the grease off his fingertips as the bus turned off the highway into the school’s entrance lane. “Totally bitching burger Gus. You always come up with the weirdest stuff but this time you hit the jackpot!” to which I responded by coming up with another burger Wayne could pack away for lunch. Yes, it was weird – and more than just a bit bewildering – but I wasn’t going to worry about it. After a breakfast that good I knew it was going to be the best day of 1968 ever.

First Bell

Johann hadn’t exactly set a new world land speed record getting to school this morning, but then with a 25 mile bus route he rarely did. I didn’t walk to my locker as much as bolt, so I had little time for socializing other than fending off the inevitably caustic comments from the wrestlers that were homesteading the heat registers right outside the gymnasium doors. Hoping to at least make eye contact I glanced towards Tim’s locker only to be stunned by the sight of a statuesque blond wearing dark glasses and a black leather jacket standing next to him as he rustled through his books and papers, apparently looking for something. A passing jock in a letterman’s jacket started to sneer, “He always hustles the new chicks before they find out who–” but his comment ended with an “OOF!” when I “accidentally” elbowed him in passing.  When I glanced back towards Tim’s locker he was gone so I set out to find Neal.

Only a fresh bear kill would have been easier to find that Neal’s locker. The door was wrenched open, his lunch was smashed into the back wall and his books scattered on the floor to each side.

“Finnegan?”

“Of course.”

“What does that guy have against you? This has to be some kind of psychological fixation with him.”

“I don’t know,” he sniffed, “Maybe he had identity issues – I mean a Korean kid with an Irish first name? I tried talking to him once, but it just seemed to make him more obnoxious than he was before.”

“My dad says the Koreans are the Irish of the Orient – something about their hot tempers I guess, but still–” and I was cut off by the slam of Neal’s locker door as a smattering of sparks trailed to his hand – which I passed off as the static electricity that we all struggled with during the cold and dry mid-winter months…but then I could have sworn I saw just a trace of red and gold sparkles before Neal pulled up his coat zipper as we both took off running for our first classes.

I slid into my desk only seconds before the tardy bell rang and felt quite proud of myself until I looked around at the other students in my Spanish class, all of whom were holding blankets, sombreros, maracas, or some other Latin American artifact. “Oh no!” I groaned inwardly. “I forgot to bring something Spanish!” so when Miss Gardill started taking roll and marking off artifacts, I begged full bladder and ran around the corner to the boy’s bathroom. After insuring I was alone I pulled out the electric pencil and used it to draw a small figure of a bull, modeled after the one souvenir that survived our trip to Tijuana in 1961, then dashed back to class with the faintest trace of red and gold sparkles trailing behind me.

Second Bell

By mid-morning it was obvious that something odd was going on. For one thing I was running across red and gold sparkles everywhere I went and I’d been whisking them away like mosquitoes ever since I talked to that guy with the weird eyes. Eventually I figured out that creating a drawing with the magic pencil produced the little glowing bits in the same way using a pink pearl eraser leaves you with all those little rubber crumbs. The more luminous flecks I saw floating around the hallways, the more sure I became that I wasn’t the only guy with one of those magic pencils.

…and when you go to a high school situated on the ass-end of the world you run out of new things to see by Thanksgiving break. It was the first week in December and in since getting off the bus I’d seen weird crap that you wouldn’t expect in Disneyland much less Kenai, Alaska.

Among the stories I heard between first hour and lunch were reports of:

  • A submarine periscope coming out of the drain in the girls’ locker room showers.
  • A Roman legionnaire’s helmet and short sword sitting on the teacher’s desk in world history class.
  • The floating Nomad robot from Star Trek drifting around the oil-change pit in auto shop.

I drew the line at the story about Finnegan Kim getting chased by Klingons down the freshman locker hall with his pants around his knees, as I couldn’t imagine Kim getting pushed around by anyone. I thought I saw the weird-eye guy across the commons by the smoking area, but he was bundled up in an army surplus parka and passing as a stoner while drifting with the flow in the hall during class change. He kept his distance, but he had that creepy half-smile Uncle Les would get when I was a little kid and he’d talk about gladiator movies. As cool as the magic pencil seemed, something wasn’t right, and since I had study hall for third period I decided to dig out the little card that had been packed in the box and start studying it.

Third Bell

It was written in a flowery language that made me think the writer had been using the Bible or Shakespeare for reference. All the “thee’s”, “thou’s”, and “shalt’s” were confusing and I had a hard time figuring out the first two lines, until the effects of family scripture reading with The King James Bible kicked in and I was finally able to understand. Even so, when I got to the third line I was baffled – “This can’t really mean what I think it does” – but I remembered the last creepy look the old guy had given me out in the hall, and then I recalled the leer on Uncle Les’ face the day he found out that a seven year old boy could run faster than a middle-aged man with his pants down around his knees. I read on until my stomach felt like I’d just jumped off the high dive as I realized exactly what the third line meant…

Lunch


My multiple pencil theory was confirmed when I slid into the seat of our regular lunch table and found Tim and his latest paramour surrounded by a cloud of what looked like red and gold mosquitoes. I turned to Tim’s silent companion – and with a quick “excuse me” – and as gently as possible – removed her shades to reveal no eyes, but rather just blank concave spaces on each side of her perfect nose. Any other time I would have been terrified, but I just turned back to Tim and said “I thought she looked too much like a Vargas girl”.

“You know I’ve always had a hard time doing eyes.”

This vision of ultimate female foxiness wasn’t a new move-in – she was a drawing. A blond bombshell of a drawing, but a drawing nonetheless and my thoughts instantly descended to the lowest common denominator.

“You are one sick puppy. Have the two of you – you know – done ‘it’?”

“OF COURSE NOT!”  His outburst scattered napkins and startled people sitting around us. “No we haven’t done anything. It’s not even possible. You think I have problems drawing eyes? Crap on a stick Gus – how can I draw something I’ve never seen.” He slumped in his seat and continued. “ Hell – I only turned fifteen three months ago and the only “reference” I’ve had access to are my cousin’s Barbie dolls and a Playboy I stole from Dad…and they don’t show anything down there.”

Neal strolled up trailing a cloud of sparkles and sat down. I handed them both a penciled copy of my translation. “Okay – so you both have the magic pencils and we’ve all been having fun – by the way, nice touch with the Klingons Neal – but have you taken the time to read the note the pencils came with?” I pushed my own card along with my penciled edited version across the table towards them and they both started reading silently.

Tim is prone to moving his lips when reads, but when his mouth snapped into a tight straight line that you couldn’t stick a pin through I knew he’d reached the third line. Neal on the other hand – I’ve read descriptions of a person’s face “turning ashen” but with Neal it was more like an image on a color television screen that had the color level down. His face noticeably lost vibrancy until it was just short of cadaver level. He looked up and as if on cue both of them turned to me.

“OK…as my dad is always saying, ‘There ain’t no free lunch’. When we took the pencils, we entered into a contract. There’s a price for the pencils and unless we return them AND everything we created with them by sundown Mr. Weird-Eyes gets to–”

“That’s OK! Neal interjected, his hand held up like a stop sign. “You don’t need to say it out loud. My stomach is upset enough as it is.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty grim but I still think we have a chance. If we really hustle during class changes we can round up and erase all the stuff we drew – be even better if we could each ditch at least one class to give us a margin… Our deadline is sunset…I checked and it’s at 3:45 today but school gets out at 3:30.” I paused, then continued almost wistfully, “I just think it stinks that we have to give up the pencils. Just think what we could do with them!”

At this point Tim finally found his voice, which was not surprisingly shrill, “You wanna know what I think? Okay, so I like to draw. I really, really like to draw. But I’m also going to really, really like ‘doing it’ and if I have to choose between drawing and ‘doing it’, the pencils are history.”

Fourth Bell

As our art teacher was prone to spending most of the period in his office “burning incense” it was easy enough to slip out for recovering and erasing as quickly as possible. The three Klingons proved to be so much of a challenge that I recruited Wayne to help us chase them down one by one and “rub them out”. Surprisingly enough, Tim took the erasure of his synthetic girlfriend in stride, explaining his lack of angst with the simple statement that he “hadn’t written a script for her yet.” It looked like we’d almost make the deadline, but as we were waiting to be let out of class the public address system crackled out an announcement that interrupted a yardstick and eraser baseball game I was losing with: “Attention all students! Buses will be held until 4:00 so students will be able to attend a mandatory pep-rally for the basketball team immediately after school. Let’s get ready to give a real Kardinal send-off to the basketball team as they leave for their first away game of the season in Homer!

All of a sudden the ease with which we’d been cleaning up made perfect sense. There’d been tons of people running around the school with red & white banners and crepe paper – evidently the teachers and staff had passed off our antics as part of the preparation for the pep rally.

We were so totally screwed.

Fifth Bell

It was open reading today and as usual Tim and I were sitting next to the window at the back of the portable classroom whispering behind the covers of the science fiction paperbacks we were all reading. Wayne was sitting nearby– and after determining that he was also subject to the contract after his breakfast of cosmic cheeseburgers that morning, he became an energetic participant in the clean-up.

“Did we get everything taken care of?”

“I think so, I hope so. This guy is starting to kind of scare me.”

“There’s no ‘kind of’ about it.” Wayne broke in “I mean, I don’t mind punching it up with anyone but I think this guy might be out of my weight class. I think these Old Ones are the Lovecraft variety rather than the Sunday School version, and we need to–”

TAP -TAP

It was the guy with the creepy eyes and the Uncle Les expression peering through the window next to us, but it seemed like only the three of us noticed him or heard him say, “Augustus, it is good that you have availed yourself of the incredible potential granted you by the ever-powerful NoshWiggi. Such power should be enjoyed to the fullest, given the gravity of the offering you will be inevitably giving up to the Old Ones”.

Sixth Bell

I drifted through Geometry, interacting with my teacher only when he called me to task for gracing my homework with a sketch of a topless Wonder Woman for which I narrowly avoided detention as her coiled golden lasso strategically obscured all the interesting parts. “That’s about as close as I’m ever going to get”, I thought as I contemplated our impending doom. At the last class break Neal shared an important discovery: the magic pencil tips glowed when close to or aimed at one of the drawings. It was definitely good news. We’d been pretty thorough, but there was still one drawing left to erase. Unfortunately it was on the other side of the gymnasium and it and the halls on each side were starting to fill up with students heading for the pep rally.

Final Bell

♫ Oh when the Kenai Kards walk down the street

They look a hundred per from head to feet ♫

It was our school’s fight song, accompanied by the arrhythmic thump-thump of bouncing basketballs and a roar from the crowd as the team entered the gymnasium. Tim and I pushed through the hall and met up with Neal and Wayne, all of us slightly out-of-breath and flushed after crowding through the hall.

♫ They got the smile, the style the winning way

And when you look at them you feel you want to say ♫

Weird-eyes was there as well, slowly walking across the commons, and while it was ever so slight, that creepy smile was just a little wider as he mouthed out something completely drowned out by the crowd, but looking like “very soon now”. Wayne pulled me around by my collar with a terse “just let him ‘bite me’”, to which I started to answer, “Yeah, well I think that’s already part of the plan” when Neal met back up with us.

 ♫ You’ll say that there’s a team I’d like to know

They have high school spirit pep and go ♫

Straining to be heard over the roar of the pep rally he yelled, “We’ve narrowed it down to somewhere in our locker hall. We have to check each one”, at which point Wayne handed each of us a short crowbar-like length of iron.

“WHAT THE HELL WAYNE!” Then marginally softer, “these look like burglar’s tools!”

“You want to keep your stuff or not?”

CLICK-SLAM

We split up and started working from each end of the two sides of the hall using the pencils like mine detectors and prying open the doors to lockers that gave any sort of indication…which invariably turned out to be bits of red/gold sparkle that had stuck like cockleburs to coats and scarves.

CLICK-SLAM

♫ GO-GO! ♫

CLICK-SLAM

“We’ve only got five minutes!”

♫Sportsman ship that can’t be beat! Can’t be beat! ♫

CLICK-SLAM!

“What the hell? This is my own locker?”

Wayne stood dumbfounded in front of his open locker on my side of the hall and about twenty feet away. He seemed almost frozen as he held up the one single drawing that we had yet to erase – the cheeseburger I’d drawn up for his lunch. He was also the only one of us without the means to erase it.

Just over his shoulder I could see Weird-Eyes, his ratty old parka replaced with the gold-trimmed red robes he wore at our first meeting and in each hand carrying what looked like a yardstick with a long blade at one end and an over-sized treble-prong fish hook at the other…and if he grinned any wider his face would split apart.

I turned back to Wayne, “THROW IT TO ME!”

“WHAT?”

“THROW IT TO ME. I’LL HIT IT. LIKE HITTING A BAT WITH A BALL!”

“NO! YOU SUCK AT BASEBALL!”

“YOU WANT TO KEEP YOUR STUFF OR NOT?”

♫ The team from Kenai Hi-i-igh! ♫

The cosmic cheeseburger arced through the air, passing a clock on the hallway wall that read 3:44 and down where I swung and made the impossible hit. The burger burst into a cloud of red and gold sparkles followed a split-second later by all three magic pencils and the creepy-eyed guy.

“♫ YA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-Y!! ♫”

Later

The bus-ride home was anticlimactic, the sole subject of discussion between Wayne and I being the awful smell Weird-Eyes and the pencils made when they popped out of existence. (I suggested sulfur while Wayne flatly stated, “milk farts”.) It was dark when I got off the bus and as I looked towards the northern horizon I could see the aurora starting to ripple with the usual pale greens and blues…and then suddenly a cold wind started swirling snowflakes around my feet…

I whipped around to find another Conan paperback cover wizard guy standing behind me in the snow. He had the same weird eyes but his ears were slightly different and instead of the morning guy’s red and gold robes, everything was aquamarine and silver. I paused for a moment wondering why they always had to sneak up on people, but when I started to push past him towards the house he held up his hand, and with a flourish offered a box similar to the one from this morning, only this one was filled with a gleaming substance that could have been either wax or clay.

He called out with a deep echoing voice, “AUGUSTUS!” and broke off a piece of the wax clay and started kneading it in his hands as he continued, “To you I give this most precious gift that  the mystic patron of dreams made real, even the Old One known as ReebSnorboc.” He was working the clay and as he spoke he formed a rudimentary bust of a woman. His voice rumbled as he went on, “Use your gift this day to–”

“OOF!”

– – – – – – –

My mother really hates it when we track snow into the front room so as I got to the porch I carefully kicked the snow off my boots, went inside, pulled up a chair to the breakfast bar and asked, “Mom – do we have anything to eat?”

“Sweetie, Dinner is only an hour away but help yourself to an apple”, she suggested, but then asked, “Did someone get off the bus with you?

“It looked like you just pushed someone down into the snow.”

__________________________________________________________________________

(I write in a style known as ‘creative nonfiction’. Everything in my autobiographical writings actual happened –though sometimes I’ll tweak the time frame to make a better story. This is pure fiction – the first fiction I’ve written I’ve written since 1971 – if you don’t count the totally bogus/inflated efficiency report I wrote on SSG Rogers just to get him transferred the hell out of my platoon.)

© David Ralph Deitrick 2021


1980: “…you have a nice smile!”

May 1980

It was a toss of the dice that seemed to be a sure thing. Despite interest in branches of military intelligence, engineers, and armor, I chose transportation during the process that would see me transition from an ROTC cadet to second lieutenant. As a service support branch, transportation lacked the prestige and challenge found in my former first choices, but due to my lofty position on the order of merit list it would give me an almost immediate entry to flight school and training as a rotary wing aviator.

It did just that, at least for a brief season, but all too soon a heretofore undiagnosed vision problem grounded me permanently. Colloquially known as amblyopia, or “lazy eye” but formally known as “lack of convergence and fusion”, the ailment could make flight under night or instrument conditions more difficult or dangerous.

It didn’t have to be a death sentence for an aviation career, but my company commander bluntly told me he didn’t want to waste his time helping me fight the decision, though I suspect the fear brought on by my obscure medical jargon played an undue influence on his decision. My disappointment was eased a bit by an interim assignment to the staff of the U.S. Army Aviation Digest, but I was still struggling with the unhappy turn my life had taken…

…until the afternoon I got the phone call telling me I was being assigned to FT Richardson.

May 1970

It was a bit late in my high school career to be taking up athletics. Football had come late to Kenai Central High School, our team arriving on the field just two years earlier. I’d taken tentative steps to try out for the team that year and the next, but an overall shortfall in my life had put me off until my senior year, a shortfall that consisted of the lack of:

  • Transportation for after-school activities.
  • Friends on the team.
  • Basic athletic ability and skill.

I also had the lack of support of the leader of our local congregation, who loudly stated that no one from the head-coach down to the assistant manager for towel control would waste time with me. Fortunately service as a teacher aide in physical education class had garnered a good reputation with the head coach but he made it plain that my lack of experience would work against me. I could be part of the team the following autumn – but as for playing time….

August 1980

The whirlwind was just starting to die down. In less than two months I had raced through:

  • Permanent-change-of-station
  • In-processing at FT Richardson
  • NBC (Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Warfare) school
  • SnowHawk (introduction to training in an arctic and mountain environment)

…all of which had played out against the backdrop of a mysterious knee problem that had my right leg in a full-length cast until just a few days earlier, which didn’t make standing in line for the cashier’s case in the basement of the post exchange any easier. The line seemed to be taking forever to move but I kept myself distracted by making a mental list of all the changes that had been made in the place since I’d last been there as a dependent, noting that with all the moving about the home entertainment section was still down here in the basement.

August 1970

Coach had kept his word – I got to suit up for games but spent most of my time playing center, guard, and tackle as in: “sit in the center of the bench, guard the water bucket, and tackle anyone taking a drink without spending at least a full quarter on the field.” It wasn’t the best situation, but there were some definite benefits:

  • I enjoyed what time I did get on the playing field.
  • I’d made new friends’
  • I was in possibly the best physical shape of my short 17 years on earth.

…and the next week I’d be going to the FT Richardson PX to buy the stereo record player I’d been saving all summer for.

August 1980

“Lieutenant, I cannot cash this check…and frankly I would think you’d know better than to come down here again without clearing up that other matter.”

“URK?” (A.K.A. my usual clever retort)

“Your NSF check from last spring. You haven’t made good on it yet – or the service charge!”

I tried to remain pleasant as I fell into a financial version of “He Said/She Said” at the cashier’s cage. I explained that I hadn’t even been in the command last spring and that she must have me mistaken for someone else (hint – she was) but it wasn’t until I pulled out my identification card that the chief teller left her desk and came over to act as referee. She picked up the Alaskan driver’s license that had slipped out of my wallet with my military ID and studied it for a minute, said “Lieutenant, you have a nice smile”, then started tapping out Central Accounting’s number on the phone.

Then she smiled.

August 1970

“I’m sorry but AAFES policy doesn’t provide for the sale of floor models.”

The salesgirl with a white name tag and a sitcom-mom shag haircut carefully explained the situation a second time. My record player of choice had proved to be a very popular RCA model that had sold out quickly. In addition to having a fairly nice sound and a reasonable price the unit was equipped with a pair of woodgrain speakers that clipped together and snapped in place over the turntable to make an easily portable unit, which was definitely an asset in the highly mobile life of a service dependent…and every one of them except the display model had sold out earlier in the week.

I could feel my face warm with a flush as my frustration threatened to erupt in a confrontation, but my inner fifty-year old man took over and with an effort to avoid a blow-up I shifted my gaze down to the toes of my shoes while I calmly explained my situation:

  • I’d worked and saved all summer.
  • There wasn’t another unit to be found in Anchorage or down on the Peninsula.
  • Even if there had been I wouldn’t be back at the Ft. Richardson PX until October.

The empty feeling in the pit of my stomach dropped even further floorward as I realized that the clerk with the Mrs. Brady haircut hadn’t spoken one word as I rattled off my concerns. I braced myself for what I assumed to be the final shutdown, but as I looked up she had just a hint of a smile as she turned and murmured to the gold-tagged supervisor who had joined the discussion after finishing a call on a nearby wall phone.

She turned back to me, flashed a smile usually found on your youngest/coolest aunt (the one that always had chewing gum) and said: “Young man you have a nice smile. You’ve also been very patient in what could have been a very unhappy situation…but I think we can figure out a way to get you your record-player.” She started to explain a lengthy AAFFES regulation, but once she got past something about no exchanges or refunds all I heard was the WAH-WAH-WAH trumpet sound of grown-up dialog in a Charlie Brown animation special.

I was getting my stereo.

August 1980

The Florence Henderson shag had been replaced by a Dorothy Hamill bob flecked with grey and the white badge she had worn as sales staff had been replaced by supervisor-gold but the “cool aunt” look was the same.

“You were once a dependent here on post weren’t you?”

“A long time ago.”

“You still have a nice smile.” She turned to the clerk and gave permission to cash my check. It turned out that there was another lieutenant on post with my same surname and HE was the one who’d been bouncing checks.

“…and you’re still very patient for a young man.”