1971: Subterranean Plantation

There was no end to the surprises that came with a definitive diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis. I was fully aware of the chronic pain part and the chronic, progressive, irreversible parts weren’t all that surprising, but I was taken aback with the genetic aspects of the disease – that  over 90% of the people with A/S have the HLAB27 chromosome with evidence that the  condition dates back several thousand years. It was first described in the 1600’s but we know that a good number of the folks pushing stone blocks for the Pyramids also had the inflamed joints and fused vertebrae of the disease known as Bekhterev Disease, Bechterew’s Disease, or Marie–Strümpell Disease before the medical world settled on ankylosing spondylitis.

In addition to the physical discomfort another source of stress connected with A/S has been the large number of people anxious to share a ‘silver bullet’ for my condition; said silver bullets being one of any number of naturopathic remedies that would completely cure me and eliminate all my symptoms just as soon as I signed up as a distributor and joined someone’s ‘downline’ in one of many multilevel marketing plans. Unfortunately what most of these folks can’t seem to grasp is that with just two exceptions I have little use for alternative medicine, and that antipathy dates back over 50 years when my parents would regularly bypass needed medical solutions for alternative (read cheaper) cures.

I don’t think  mom totally distrusted modern medicine – she had been a U.S. Army nursing corps cadet during World War ll and missed deployment to the Pacific Theater only after the war was cut short after Little Boy and Fat Boy permanently altered the Japanese landscape. She worked as a registered nurse in a public hospital for ten years after the war and continued to stay certified through continuing education clear up into the late 1970s, but when we moved to Alaska she somehow became convinced that between the lack of sunlight, and the amount of preservatives in our food, her children were nutritionally short changed.

She started out modestly with bean sprouts and sun-lamps but by the time I hit high school she was in full alternative mode with a daily regime of “additions” to our diet that seemed to exceed our intake of regular food…but of all the additions she tried three stood head and shoulders about the rest:

  • Nutritional supplements in pill and capsule form
  • Vitamin B-rich yeast mixed with orange juice referred to as “dirt”
  • Almonds

The pills and capsules started out with just a One-A-Day® multiple vitamin but as time went by Mom followed classic addict behavior and began to increase our dosages by the odd pill or capsule, until  my third year in high school saw me knocking back  a small shot glass full of assorted pills, capsules and gel caps containing every vitamin in the alphabet.

‘Dirt’ was our term for a tumbler full of orange juice mixed with a powdered Vitamin B/ yeast compound. I had very serious issues with ‘dirt’ from the very beginning :

  1. The powder wasn’t mixed with real orange juice – it was mixed with Tang, and no matter how you mixed it or how many astronaut jingles  played on TV, Tang was just water flavored with equal parts Orange Pixie Stix and Alka-Seltzer.
  2. If you entertained any hopes for a social life you really, really did not want that stuff in your system as the day progressed. As a bullet-proof seventeen-year-old I could care less about any heretofore undetected problems with my nutrition, but I was extremely concerned with the rotten-egg burp and room-clearing killer farts the yeast brought on in a healthy digestive tract.

Almonds entered the equation at roughly the same point the pill count got out of hand. I never really knew why we were taking the almonds – something about cancer, but as a dyed in the wool cashew man the almonds grew old on the second day Mom dropped them in the shot glass. My normal response would have been to chuck it all in the trash, but Mom was as vigilant about monitoring our intake as she was in providing the stuff. Inmates entering prison for the first time were under a fraction of the surveillance Mom exercised when she issued the pills and dirt. She stopped short of a full body cavity search but once that stuff was ingested there was no opportunity for ejection short of an alien abduction.

It was a no-win situation until my senior year of high school when my mom cajoled the school board into allowing my younger sister to attend eighth grade at school in town. My sister was not a morning person and the resultant turbulence while loading up the car meant I now had time for diversion. Disposing of the dirt was easy enough – I’d grab the tumbler and mumble something about drinking it on the way out to the car when in fact I’d dump it as soon as I got out of the door, a scheme that worked until snowfall when the brown splotches that started to appear between the front door of the house jump-started maternal suspicion1..

The shot glass full of pills, capsules and almonds remained a problem – mom still shook us down before we left in the morning, so I finally came up with an avoidance method that relied on the location of my bedroom. Access to my attic was by a ladder through a hatch in the closet at the end of the hall – which was kind of cool because of the secret aspect of it all. In addition to the water heater the area behind the ladder served as a closet of sorts for clothing and other items I was unable to stow in the scant storage spaces in the loft itself. The space was a mixed blessing because in addition to providing access to the attic, the hall closet provided our only route to the crawl space under the house, and while the ladder was securely fastened in place I was none too sure about the trap door over the hole leading to the depths below.

As we bounced around the house early each morning I made sure to make one additional pass by the door to my ladder  where I’d empty the shot glass between the boxes on the closet floor. Each evening I would take a broom and sweep away the pills I tossed there earlier, either hiding them in the bottom of the kitchen trash or sweeping them through the gaps around the hatch to the crawlspace.

…and then suddenly it was the end of the semester, academic year, and high school. Work schedules didn’t mesh quite as smoothly as school schedules did and Mom’s program of vitamins and supplements dropped by the wayside. As I came and went on my travels as a student, missionary and soldier I eventually forgot about pills, “dirt” and almonds until one summer day several years later when my folks discovered a  noticeable dip that had developed in the middle of the house. My parents asked me to check on the cement  footings under the middle of the main floor, which would take me down into the crawlspace. No one had been down that closet hatchway in years and even though various sisters, nieces and nephews had used my old loft at one time or other, no one had settled in for the long haul, so my collection of stuff was still there.2

There were no permanent lights rigged behind the closet ladder so I had to work by touch, and after cleaning my stuff up it still took some time to clear out the old sheets of cardboard and scraps of carpet that insulated the hatchway. The cloud of musty mildew odor the “poofed” into existence after thirty  minutes of mucking about let me know when I’d made it to the dimly-lit crawlspace, and I was surprised to find that it was dimly lit as fingers of daylight pushed through the random gaps between cement block, poured cement footings, and leafy stalks.

Leafy stalks?

Years earlier in an effort to provide better access as well as elbow room, the area just below the hatch had been excavated an additional three feet. Growing out of the dirt just to the side of this excavation were a half-dozen twisting stalks, each with just a leave or two and looking like something grown in a zero-gravity environment. The leaves were not the healthiest looking I’d ever seen, their color that of Thanksgiving  found in the back of the oven a week after the event but  they were vaguely lanceolate in shape like those of a willow tree. I would have never suspected anything would sprout in the crawlspace but given the plants’ location between the hot-water line to the bathtub and one of the only places that sunlight reached into the crawlspace I wasn’t totally surprised.

…no, the surprise didn’t happen until several years later and several thousand miles away as I was preparing an assignment for a graphic design class I was teaching. The project entailed designing snack-sized packaging for various types of nuts, and as I was assembling reference materials and imagery I was stopped cold by the photos of almonds and almond trees.

Slender branches with long oval leaves that looked like the head of a lance? I shook my head – the time frame between ditching the almonds and finding the plants was much too long for any germination to be possible…but at the same time I remembered that it had been raw unprocessed uncooked almonds Mom had us gagging down. I’d also just read about a research project in the United Kingdom sprouting grain seeds found in one of the pyramids.

The clatter of pots and pans startled me back into coherent thought as my Beautiful Saxon Princess began preparing dinner, and as I gathered up my papers and gradebook I thought of  mom’s nutritional efforts all those years ago, I had cheekily dismissed all her efforts to improve my health with her pills and supplements …and almonds. There never seemed to be any connection, any measurable benefit to the stuff she had us choking down but here I was staring at a plant that was healthy enough to thrive in such adverse conditions – a plant displaying the rigorous health mom had sought for her children.

Clattering pans brought my attention back to dinner and when I confessed ignorance of the aroma my Beautiful Saxon Princess said: “It’s a vegetarian garlic almond quiche”

She went on breezily. “As I recall it’s not exactly your favorite, but it was one of your mom’s favorite recipes.”

“Dish me up a double helping….”

———————————————————————————————————————–



  1. I eventually convinced her the “splotches” were the result of an intestinal disease affecting peninsula moose that I’d heard about on the radio
  2. The stuff ranged from corduroy bell bottom pants to the missing lid of my FIREBALL XL5 lunchbox among other things, and most of the detritus that had to be cleaned up before opening the hatch dated from my tenure,

 

 

 

 

 

 

1970: Boy’s State

As a service brat one of the first lessons I learned was the transitory nature of my ‘stuff’. As much as I’d like to always keep a favorite possession, there was always a certain amount of attrition among my toys and books. The trend continued into my adult life and other than a couple of paperback books and the suit I was married in there’s not a lot of stuff around here that dates its existence further back than 1983 – with the exception of one small object I have held on to with a death grip for almost fifty years. It’s small, maybe an inch wide at its broadest point and is made of enameled brass, and even though the enamel is chipped it holds more value to me than just about any other tangible possession. It’s the pin given to me at the conclusion of Alaska Boy’s State in June of 1970.

Boy’s (and Girl’s) State is a summer citizenship training seminar held for high school juniors and has been conducted in each state of the Union by the American Legion starting in 1935. My selection to the program was a fluke – up until the year of my eligibility, Boy’s State delegates from KCHS were selected by the principal and faculty from our school’s upper crust: athletic team captains, student body officers, and National Honor Society members. The new principal assigned to our school in the fall of 1969 changed the selection process to one based on a competition in public speaking, which was my only asset other than a slim portfolio for my time as a teacher’s aide in Physical Education,

As expected, our Boy’s State would be held on a campus, but unlike Alaska Girl’s State and most of the other programs in the nation we would meeting not at a college campus but at a boarding school in Copper Center, located near Glenallen (AK) and absolutely nothing else. Getting there was an adventure in its own right as we flew via puddle-jumper commuter airline to Anchorage where (in a nice foreshadowing of my military service) we would bunk in the National Guard Armory along with delegations that had flown up from the Panhandle. The next day we were bussed to Copper Center.

CopperVallySchoolWinter

(School during Construction)

The school’s floor plan was based on an octagon with several wings radiating from the domed center structure each with a specific use such as:

  • Dormitories
  • Cafeteria
  • Classrooms
  • Offices
  • Gymnasium

CopperValleySchoolInterior

(center hub interior)

CopperValleySchoolFrontDoor

(The view that met us as we left the bus)

Our arrival was marginally less stressful than arriving at bootcamp; as soon as we grounded our luggage in the parking lot we were immediately lined up for assignments to a dorm room with each floor designated as a political subdivision or city. We were allowed to name our cities, a decision the staff debated when one group adopted Yakadang which they swore was the term for ‘rotten fish’ in some obscure native dialect. We were also assigned a political party (the Pioneer Party in my case) and assigned to one of four schools of instruction:

  • Government Executives
  • Judicial Law
  • Law Enforcement
  • Legislative

Half of each day was taken up with instruction in those schools while the balance was used for general assemblies, (including astronaut John Swigert in one of his earliest post-Apollo 13 appearances) athletics, and in my case, work on the newspaper and election material. Boy’s State kept us busy…and when the incredibly good chow was factored into the equation it was easy to see why didn’t have much of chance to get homesick.

I was assigned to the House of Representative as part of the Legislative school and in yet another bit of foreshadowing I was designated as the house minutes clerk. During the day we’d conduct mock legislature, introducing and passing bills and making ersatz law in much the same manner as the ‘for real’ legislature did in Juneau. There was little spare time, but there were a few random holes open in the schedule when we could just hang out – and it was during those periods that I learned the most.

The first thing I learned was that there was a lot more divisiveness in the state than I had anticipated, beginning with the first session of the mock House of Representatives when a delegate from the Panhandle stood up and angrily urged all the delegates from outlying areas to band together against the Anchorage delegates as they “were all going to move the capital to Anchorage if it’s the last thing they do”. Guys from the larger metropolitan areas were much more politically minded in the Sixties sense of the word with much of their legislative efforts going towards condemning the war in Vietnam, condemning  anti-ballistic missile systems as destabilizing the Cold War standoff and instituting social measures like population control and decriminalization of ‘victimless’ vice offenses.

At the other end of the spectrum were the delegates from the outlying Bush areas who were primarily concerned with very basic issues like housing and infrastructure. Fishing regulation was their hot topic and one discussion over international relations dissolved into a near brawl over Russian proclivity towards cutting Native fishermen’s nets and floats. As a delegate from one of the ‘in-betweens’ like Kenai, Palmer and Haines, I was a little lost – not much in common with the smaller places but culturally lagging behind the urban group by about ten years and not really hip enough to mix with them.

There was also an interesting schism between the service brats and those from a purely civilian background. At the time there was a proportionally much larger military presence in the state with three major installations each for the Army, Navy and Air Force. My status as the dependent of a retired service member (and Pearl Harbor survivor) was the one arrow in my professional quiver and I made sure to network with every service brat I could identify.

There was the inevitable booze party planned, oddly enough by one of the local Glenallen delegates rather than one of the more sophisticated Anchorage guys. My one claim to Boy’s State fame came about because of that party: I’d been washing-up in the restroom during the party planning session but noticed a chaperone slip out after the discussion, having gone unnoticed while occupying one of the bathroom stalls. The heads-up I then gave the ringleaders earned me a bit of public ridicule, but each ringleader later thanked me for keeping them all out of trouble.

The week wound up with elections and selections: state officers from Governor on down were elected from the Boy’s State general population and the two delegates to Boy’s Nation in Washington DC were elected from a short list prepared by the program administrators. Out-processing and the backhaul home were a mirror image reversal of the trip to Glenallen eight days earlier and before I really knew it I was back sprawled on my bunk in my attic loft bedroom in Sterling listening to my stereo…but this time my biggest concern wasn’t whether the new Blood, Sweat and Tears album was as good as the previous one.

For the first time in my life I was seriously  concerned about my future.

My trip to Boy’s State had been based on wanting “something to do for summer vacation” and while I had a great time at Copper Center I was totally blown away by the manner in which my fellow delegates were preparing for their future, not just in terms of good grades but in real-life experience like internships and pursuit of appointments to West Point and Annapolis. They shared many of my values but were really doing something instead of just listening to music and drawing barbarians and superheroes.

That one real life-skill that got me into Boy’s State? I went into the experience thinking I was a pretty good speaker, but after listening to all the speeches given at Boy’s State I realized that I was in fact a shallow bulls**t artist that ran out of steam after three to five minutes – and while this might sound overly self-critical, thinking about it got me going in the right direction in life, though it was four more years before my change in course was complete.

Another benefit had to do with career choice: after wading through the complexities of the legislative process I became interested in the law and during my final year of high school and first year of college I was planning on a legal career. Obviously that wasn’t the path I took in life, but something must have taken root because both of my sons are practicing attorneys now.

Senior Picture 1970

(Senior portrait taken the following September)

Music: Wichita Lineman (Revisited)

 

 

There’s always “the one”, the friend that was either too hip or too nerdy, too edgy or too zealous to fit in with the rest of your friends and or family. You know the one:

  • Their name elicits snickers when mentioned.
  • They are allowed in the house only if an exit strategy is already in place with your folks.
  • Any positive traits seem to be known only to you.

If songs were people Wichita Lineman would be “that” friend.

Maybe it’s because it was too popular too many years ago and when it was popular our parents liked the song just as much as we did. We also have to consider the lobster-in-the-pot syndrome as well –  Americans tend to drag down a star just as quickly as a lobster escaping a pot of boiling water gets pulled back by his companions – and that song made a whole bundle of money.  Unfortunately what it boils down to for Wichita Lineman is that over the years the song has become the poster child for the comically un-hip; ironically touted as aural kitsch, which can be evidenced by its use as Uber-nerd Matthew’s rock anthem on NBC’s wickedly funny ‘90s sitcom NewsRadio.

It most definitely was not viewed so dismissively when it was released in late1968 as yet another hit song penned by Jimmy Webb. Wichita Lineman stayed on the top 100 for 15 weeks and as of Glen Campbell’s1 passing in 2017 it had sold over 350,000 downloads. Back in the day it was covered by a staggering number of A-list recording artists from a wide range of genres, and was praised by British music journalist Stuart Maconie as “the greatest pop song ever composed”.

…but that’s not why I love it.

For most of my youth I lived in areas where the wind blew.

All. The. Time.

With marginal tree cover there wasn’t much to keep the wind from coming off the Siskiyou Mountains and roaring past our home in Little Shasta Valley2. Likewise with Sterling Alaska: our ranch was situated right in the middle of the scrubs, snags and saplings trying to recover some of the 300,000+ acres leveled by the Skilak Lake Fire of 1947.

In both locales the wind blew past the homes, outbuildings, and through the winding lengths of power lines, phone line antennae, and guy wires that surrounded all those buildings, creating a haunting melody that changed as the wind altered its direction and speed. Despite the lack of a Walkman or even a transistor radio we never lacked for a haunting musical soundtrack to outdoor activities be it work or play.

By the use of high-pitched violins and strategically-placed changes in key, the instrumental background to Wichita Lineman comes closer to the sound and feeling of wind in the wire than any other piece of music I’ve ever heard. While the lyrics specifically refer to power company maintenance workers the message applies to anyone who has spent time around power or telephone lines running through a desolate windswept area; people who know that those lines aren’t just making noise – they’re voices talking – or better yet – singing to you.

It brings to mind Henry Farney’s masterpiece from 1904 Song of the Talking Wire.

Song of the Talking Wire

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve found myself standing in this gentleman’s moccasins. This image and Wichita Lineman come  the closest to capturing the essence of solitude on a windy winter night  – especially as I would walk in between hitched rides and listen to the wind and the wire sing. It gave me a sense of connection with something larger than myself – something cosmic.

….which makes this closing clip all that much more cool…in more ways than one.

https://www.bbc.com/news/av/science-environment-46490149/listen-to-the-wind-whistle-on-mars

It’s a very faint, very subtle sound and even with augmentation it’s hard to pick out, but what you are listening to is  a recording of the wind as recorded by the British seismometer package carried on Nasa’s InSight lander as it  detected the vibrations from Martian air rushing over the probe’s solar panels.

At least that’s what the BBC say it is.

To me it’s the sound of the wind in the wire as I’m walking from the highway to the ranch along Scout Lake Loop road.


 

Notes:

  1. It was only when Glen Campbell passed away in August of 2017 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s that the snarky comments began to slow down. It was then that Mr. Campbell, and by extension his work, started receiving the objective appraisal he so richly deserved. Consider for a moment the following list of achievements:
  • Twenty-nine Top 10 hit songs
  • Twelve gold albums
  • Four platinum albums
  • One double album
  • Multiple Grammy awards
  • A hit CBS TV series in the late ‘60s

Most noteworthy was his status as a charter member of the legendary group of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. The Monkees weren’t the only pop musicians that “didn’t play their own instruments”. Top 40 headliners from the Beach Boys on down would rely on the Wrecking Crew to provide instrumental back-up to their vocals when cutting a record.

2. located in the actively-volcanic high desert of northern-almost Oregon California.

Music: White Car

 

Despite my fondness for the genre I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the British progressive rock group Yes. I immediately took to their first single ”Your Move” but the AM radio version I first heard at the University in the fall of 1971 did not accurately reflect the band’s basic sound. The raucous addendum “I’ve Seen All Good People” tacked on to the tail end of the album track was missing from the radio version, so I was immediately taken with vocal harmonies and a pleasant, maybe even pretty, acoustic accompaniment topped off with a majestic but not overpowering organ in the last couple of measures.

Hmmm. Kind of like Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, I thought.

Then Marty and Jeff  down the hall played The Yes Album in its entirety and I became a fan of the band on their own merits and not because I though they sounded like someone else…but since I really, really liked the harmony and uncomplicated nature of “Your Song”  I mentally filed it in a place separate from Fragile, Closer to the Edge and other subsequent Yes Albums.

Time passed, and music evolved:

  • The Moody Blues broke up then reunited into a shadow of themselves.
  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer alternately mugged our ears/broke our hearts  with Love Beach.
  • Along with more than 200 million other Americans I survived the Great Disco Epidemic by the narrowest of margins.

With all these changes I found my tastes in music evolving to modern jazz artists like Tom Scott and Tim Weisberg while my progressive rock albums gathered dust on the shelf. I also found that my life was changing as I went from student to missionary to student to soldier  – until one night when I was sitting in our quarters at FT Richardson with KRKN1 playing on the radio  while I was spit-shining boots.

…so while I’m fumbling with matches, a can of Kiwi shoe polish, and an old diaper, an album began to play on the radio. I missed the introduction  – and as KRKN was an album-oriented rock station there was no deejay patter in between tracks  –  it  took almost all of that first track to figure out that maybe, just maybe I was listening to a new Yes album.

Then the track ended, there were several seconds of between-track silence and then the second track started to play, and I was transfixed.

  • Kettle drums lead with synthesizers-posing as strings, creating a melody that toggles between classical music and a motion picture soundtrack.
  • A mandolin plays a syncopated accompaniment in the background.
  • A very martial-sounding roll on the snare drum and a kettle-drum repeat winds up the segment.
  • The whole thing starts over again and repeats three more times.

…and then the vocals start but I will warn you: if you listen too closely they screw everything up. The first few times I listened to “White Car” I really keyed into its quasi-soundtrack feeling and let the vocals work as pure instinctive sound – another instrument in the band. The combined effect of  indistinct voice and music painted a magic mental picture of walking along the docks of a port in some alternate reality steampunk city and taking in the sights:

  • Ships featuring both sails and steam-powered paddle-wheels
  • Nautilus-like submarines with bulbous glowing eye-ports
  • Rigid-frame airships; zeppelins winching cargo up and down from the surface
  • Singer Gary Neuman2 driving around in a Stingray convertible

SKKRRIITCCHHHH!

Nothing can drag the tone-arm across the Great Record Album of Life like this non-sequitur.

I see a man in a white car
Move like a ghost on the skyline
Take all your dreams
And you throw them away
Man in a white car.

 ….namely Mr. Neuman’s white Stingray, which is the official subject of this composition.

 However this short (1:21) song worked such powerful magic for me that I trained myself back into listening with “vocals as instruments” ears  and I’ve kept “White Car” in every format and playlist I’ve had since that night in 1980. It provides a wonderful eighty-one second side-trip to a nicer world and has done wonders for the anxiety that so readily besets me.

My only complaint since then is minor and has to do with the song’s placement in the playing order of the album Drama. It brings to mind a spin-the-bottle game I was drafted into when I was much younger. I say drafted, but I went quite willingly when I found that the game already included a beautiful brunette I was very interested in.

…but when I sat down in the circle I discovered that the young lady in question was flanked by…by…I’m sorry – there’s just no tactful way to describe the two young ladies sitting to each side of my  raven-tressed Faye Dunaway wannabe. Their appearance in contrast to her beauty  was as jarring as having “Man in a White Car” situated between the equally jarring and discordant  “Machine Messiah” and “Does It Really Happen?

.. but that contrast might just be what makes “White Car” so beautiful. Sometimes a sharp contrast goes a long way in bringing out both physical and musical beauty.


Notes:

  1. KRKN (104.3 FM,) was an AOR (album-oriented rock) FM station in Anchorage Alaska from 1980 to 1986 when it changed to an oldies format. Through a process that totally mystifies me the KRKN call letters are now assigned to a country music station in Iowa.
  2. Yes, that Gary Neuman of “Cars” – the 1980 New Wave techno hit that will now be running through your mind and driving you crazy for the rest of the week.

Tremors and Dial-tones

Nostalgia rather than fear was the overriding emotion in our home during the March 1964 Earthquake. As we had been living in that howling wilderness otherwise known as Spenard for less than two years we styled ourselves as  temporarily  transplanted Californians rather than locals so the first few tremors brought on smiles and “Hey – just like back home” rather than any expressions of fear. It wasn’t until we lost our television signal (and the closing scenes of the “Invasion” episode of  ‘Fireball XL5)  that I began to feel  any emotional distress.

However things were a little different during today’s quake– I was chatting on the phone with my sister Heather when she stopped for a moment then said: “Oh boy…earthquake!See the hanging lamps? – they’re bouncing all over the place.”

Intestinal Stukas  started churning my insides as I nervously glanced around my own living room,  but I was puzzled to find all our lamps perfectly motionless.

Suddenly the proverbial  lightbulb flashed on  and I made a conclusion of my own:

  • Heather wasn’t asking me to look at the lamps, she was talking to my nephew Zack.
  • My hanging lamps weren’t bouncing around because Heather, Zack and the quake – were 4135 miles away in Sterling Alaska.

For my dad aviation was the best yardstick for measuring the march of progress – he was born into a world with biplanes and lived to see television broadcasts of regular shuttle service to  the International Space Station. For me it’s been phones: 55 years ago a call from Tennessee to Alaska would have been made only under the most dire circumstances, taken the help of at least three operators and would be made using a device that could not be owned by an individual – it  had to be  leased from the phone company.

I’m still getting used to it.

James Albert Smith (1933-2018)

Like so many other rites of passage, the whole idea of “talking trash” to peers didn’t occur to me until fifth grade at Woodland Park Elementary School, located in the wilds of deepest, darkest Spenard (Alaska). Central to the art of verbal dueling was developing a good defense, even if it was something as simple as “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”, when you were receiving fire, as in  “You were such an ugly baby your mom fed you with a slingshot”. I figured that the anxiety brought on by “words” would ease off as I got older but unfortunately there have always been statements that could definitely shake me up:

  1. “Surface winds on the DZ have dropped momentarily to light and variable.”
  2. I’m sure it’s just a mole.”
  3. “We have some questions about some of the deductions on your Schedule C.”
  4. “I’m going to raise my sons the same way I’ve watched you raise yours.”

That last comment was the most worrisome, and when my friend Delton spoke those words to me I slept poorly for a week, convinced that one or all of his boys would end up in an asylum or jail based on some faulty parenting technique he’d observed me practicing. I always wondered if Brother Smith’s chuckle-in-response was covering up a similar reaction when I made the same statement years ago.

That’s because no other man (including my own father) had as much influence on my growth as a parent as did James Albert Smith. He continued to laugh the idea off, maintaining that he’d never done anything that remarkable while raising his kids, but he never caught on to the fact that it wasn’t the things that he did, but the things that he didn’t do that made all the difference in the world.

He didn’t get a caribou

Growing up on the Kenai Peninsula I was surrounded by hard men – carpenters, mechanics, roustabouts and commercial fisherman who were veterans of World War 2 or the Korean conflict. A moose hunt  with them was more like combat reconnaissance patrol than a hunting trip. I couldn’t help but inwardly smirk as I watched Jim casually load up his boys on a fall morning in 1971, one rifle for the three of them and all of them in street shoes, however as I listened to them interact upon their return later that day I realized that the trip had less to do with steaks and more to do with forging bonds between a father and his sons, that he was spending more time teaching than hunting.

He couldn’t grow corn.

I witnessed Jim’s efforts at vegetable gardening in a sub-Arctic environment over the course of three summers and it never ceased to amaze me that corn stalks always took up a  fair amount of space in his plot. It didn’t seem to matter that the growing season is too short, the soil too wet and daytime temperatures don’t stay warm enough for corn to thrive. It wasn’t until that third summer that I finally tumbled to the fact that his attempts had less to do with having fresh corn-on-the-cob for dinner and more to do with giving a little bit of Davis County ambiance to help his homesick sweetheart cope with the cold and dark  winters so far away from home.

He didn’t kick my fourth-point-of-contact

I have it on good authority that I can be somewhat of a dumb-a** at times, and I was in that mode of thinking when I once caused a great deal of distress for one of his children. At the time I was literally living on the other side of the continent and figured I was home free from any sort of parental retribution. I wasn’t prepared for the flinty stare he met me with when we finally did meet up in person two months later, a flinty stare which lasted all of twelve seconds before he broke into his trademark grin, slapped me on the shoulder and started quizzing me about “those fancy new graphic design classes you’ve been taking”.

It was truly amazing watching him in parental mode.  My own parents were firm believers in the percussive discipline school of child rearing and while my presence no doubt had a tempering effect on his conduct I was always impressed with the positive, low key manner with which he  counseled and corrected his kids…and when I told him that I was trying to adapt those traits into my own parenting style he just brushed off the statement and changed the topic of conversation to a short story he was working on.1Despite time and distance the warmth never wavered – he was the only person I’ve ever known who had a grin that could be heard on the phone.  He was always interested in what I did, though to the very end he kept urging me to switch from design to copywriting2.  When I recently shared with him an illustration I created for The Friend his reaction was to tell me that my work was the best part of the magazine, a comment that meant more to me than all the other certificates and ribbons I’ve been awarded in my entire career.

I just hope when this life is over he’ll say the same thing about my parenting skills.

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Notes

  1. The plot involved father and son cobbling together a hovercraft out of the wreckage of a plane they’d crashed in.
  2. Writers ae usually paid better and are selected more often as supervisors

Another Thirty-year Old Drawing

Puffinzilla0003

This dates from back when we were house-sitting for my parents in Sterling in the late 1980s. I sold the original years ago but I think it  measured about six inches on the vertical side.

As for inspiration there are three things going on here:

  1.  I’ve always liked the way Val Paul Taylor works Pacific Northwest themes into his work – Val and I were classmates for one all-too-short years at BYU.
  2. I’ve been a fan of alternate history since Kirk Mitchell’s Procurator series in the mid-Eighties and I take great delight in designing arms and equipment for “What if” scenarios.
  3. While the Kenai Peninsula art “scene” had opened up immeasurably since I left home in 1971, it was still very much dominated in 1988 by touristy themes such as moose, mountains, the Northern Lights and PUFFINS!

We couldn’t go anywhere without running into paintings of puffins….

1968: Mercantile Subversion

This week’s selection for “Re-Run Saturday”.

David R. Deitrick, Designer

broken eggs2

When you’re on the brink of adulthood a year can seem like a very long time. Given that puberty was a near-fatal condition for me it seemed like the 365 days between my 14th and 15th birthdays would never end – but blessedly they did, and to my surprise I was a much different young man in 1968 than I was in 1967. I had added an inch to my height and chest, my voice stopped cracking and I could run without looking like I was engaging in a series of stumbles. I had also acquired some basic social skills so at that point it was safe enough for the community for me to have a summer job.

At first I was unsure about the idea; I had had a miserable freshman year and had been looking forward to taking a month off to decompress, but that plan…

View original post 1,849 more words

Music: Songs for Beginners

 

After the astounding success of Déjà Vu the four members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young each embarked on solo albums, occasionally crossing  back and forth between projects when their particular talents were needed. Songs for Beginners was Graham Nash’s own individual venture and while I really liked the album I was a little surprised at the bittersweet overtones in most of the compositions. It wasn’t until years later I learned the melancholia stemmed his recent break-up with noted folk singer Joni Mitchell.

…and when it came out in the summer of 1971 that bittersweet album briefly became a very appropriate soundtrack to an event in my life.

1971

Katy Christiansen was a Professional Girl – not “professional” as in working in an office or (ahem)street corner, but a Professional Girl as defined by columnist Cynthia Heimel: the girl that all the other girls hate because she is perfect, she knows it and relies on it to get through life.

She was also a member of an extended family group that would descend on our congregation every summer. The Christianson’s were one of the more stalwart families in church, and would host various aunts, uncles, cousins and friends as they rotated through the summers to work at their set net fishing site on the east shore of Cook Inlet. They all hailed from the Intermountain West and the kids were especially a most impressive bunch, every one a varsity athlete, cheerleader, or honor roll student. It was only later that we found that in the manner of all teenagers away from home for the first time they were embellishing credentials to impress the locals.

That wasn’t the case with Katy – she was as genuinely outstanding as everyone else said they were. A natural blonde with finely chiseled Scandinavian features, she was graceful to the point of seeming to glide regally through a room rather than walk. I was interested but doubtful; I wasn’t a bad kid, but not a totally good kid either, but with Katy there was no “wiggle room”. Proper belief and behavior were dominant aspects of her personality and she was troubled by any variation from the standard however slight.

She first appeared the summer after my sophomore year but attempts to meet her were foiled by the cloud of cousins that surrounded her wherever she went. It was August before I figured out how to weasel my way through her familial entourage;  the effort left me exhausted and all I could manage as a greeting was something like “Hellorgle borgle argle” before bolting for the back door of the meetinghouse at a dead-run.

It’s amazing what two years can do for a young man’s confidence and when she came back to work the summer after graduation I felt  little stress in striking up a conversation. However, as we talked about our respective plans in life I began to wonder why she’d come back North; while I was slated to simply start school at the University of Alaska in the fall she had a schedule of seminars, photo shoots and conferences that seemed to leave little time for school much less work on a fish site. I also learned quickly to avoid any topic in conversation that came even close to variance with church guidelines for youth.

We seemed to get along well enough that it seemed safe to ask her out on a date. There was no ulterior motive on my part; my romantic life was already complicated, and I was just looking for a time-out and an opportunity to relax – albeit with a beautiful blonde – but just a relaxing evening nonetheless. When I picked her up she seemed a little edgy , but during the drive to the theater  I finally got her to laugh a bit and it seemed like the evening had been saved.

When we got to the Mall Cinema the film had already started, and the theater  packed, so I took her by the hand and led her to what ended up being the last two empty seats in the house. As we sat down I looked over at Katy and was shocked to see a slightly stricken, ill look on her face. She took her free hand and using just two fingers she removed my hand – the one clasping hers and moved it to the armrest between us. There was a theatrical element to her movement – she used just her thumb and forefinger which made the movement look like she was handling a dead fish.

The evening went downhill from there. We left after the first film in a double feature and as I drove Katy back to the fish site the inside of the car felt more like Alaska in January than Alaska in June. On the long drive home later on I replayed the evening over and over but remained totally baffled – it wasn’t until long afterwards that I learned that I hadn’t been a date for Katy – I’d been a project, something to be fixed.1 At some point I had been judged as being defective and she’d lowered herself to spend time with me in hope that some of her “goodness” would rub off.

That stung infinitely more than the dead-fish hand-removal – that somehow embroidered jeans, shaggy locks, a bit of facial hair had made me into a liability, someone to be diverted (but not necessarily saved) from the path to perdition. It was a body blow. I could handle open hostility or contempt, but this?

In the end I sought my usual last resort – I sprawled in the bunk of my loft bedroom and cued up a record on my stereo, which happened to be the aforementioned Songs for Beginners. As I laid there thinking the events of the evening pushed two particular songs to the front in my thinking:

I Used To Be A King

“I used to be a king

But it’s all right I’m O.K. and I want to know how you are
For what it’s worth I must say I loved you as you are

And in my bed where are you
Someone is going to take my heart
But no one is going to break my heart again”

Wounded Bird

I’ve watched you go through changes
That no man should face alone
Take to heel or tame the horse
The choice is still your own
But arm yourself against the pain
A wounded bird can give
And in the end remember
It’s with you you have to live
And in the end remember
It’s with you you have to live

 I also walked away with two convictions seared in my heart:

  1. No matter what they looked like, how they acted or what they did I would never look at anyone as stereotype or anything as a complete person.
  2. I would never bother with another “Professional Girl”. When we were dating My Beautiful Saxon Princess would fret over her slight tummy a la Ursula Andress in the seminal Bond flick DR.No. Little did she know that slight (in her mind) imperfection was the “deal-maker” for me

 

  1. A few summers (and a haircut) later I heard a first-time-around  Christianson cousin loudly enquiring at a church dinner about the “mangy hippy” Katy had gone out on a date with a few years earlier.

Music: To Our Children’s Children’s Children

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL_c1_kaI1Zf8ZXffqfNq6ibQqhW78fEqn

(I love progressive rock. The music of the Alan Parsons Project, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the Moody Blues all strike a resonant chord in my heart and listening to their music brings peace and directs my thinking to grand and cosmic topics. Unfortunately some of those wonderful songs are “time-stamped” with less than grand events and listening them brings on memories of what was going on in my life  when I first heard them, cosmic or not)

It was the latter part of November 1970 and well into that part of the Alaskan year when our days seemed more like life on the Moon than life on Earth. Only five degrees latitude separated us from Eternal Night and with only six hours of true sunlight each day SAD (Seasonal Adjustive Disorder) was a very real battle for people like my dad or my older sister –  but not for me.

Why was I so blessed?

  • Maybe it was because I’d spent the last eight years growing up in photonic-starved environment.
  • Maybe it was because I spent most of my waking hours as a student indoors focused on reading books.
  • Maybe it was the distraction music and television provided.

Whatever the case, darkness was no curse for me. It also helped that I had mentally tacked the two hours of morning and evening twilight onto our officially allotted daylight; twilight that would paint everything with a magenta/orange glow as magical as anything found in fantasy or science-fiction. For that matter daily living in a sub-Arctic winter wasn’t that much different from what I saw on 2001: A Space Odyssey: We bundled up in parkas and warm clothing marginally less complicated than space suits and went about our business in harsh conditions under the stars. Alaskans would make great astronauts.

Perhaps that’s why a Moody Blues theme album based on space travel hit appealed so strongly to me. Released in late 1969,  To Our Children’s Children’s Children was written and produced as a reaction to the Apollo 11 moon landing – with  generous portions of childhood memories and psychedelia as additional ingredients. I’d purchased the record at the suggestion of my friend Bachelorette #21  and soon found that playing it on my stereo wasn’t just a matter of listening – it involved interpreting and deconstructing the music and sometimes just basking in the glory of resonating synthesizers and haunting vocals.

Blasting, billowing, bursting forth

With the power of ten billion butterfly sneezes

Man, with his flaming pyre

Has conquered the wayward breezes

Whispered class-room discussions about the album led to a Friday date with B2 and as I started out that evening the album was still resonating in my head. I was definitely working on an outer space vibe  –  snowflakes caught in the headlights’ glare could easily be mistaken for stars and planets zipping past as the Enterprise traveled at warp-speed.

…but while totally stoked about both the album and the evening’s activities I was a little jittery – not because of the young lady in question but rather the location of her home just off the end of North Kenai road. I’d be putting 150 hard-to-explain miles on the odometer that night, so  it wasn’t the date but rather getting my cover story right that was launching intestinal Stukas. I took a deep breath and drove on, confident that I had planned for every contingency.

Our destination was a cinematic nerd-fest currently showing at the KAMBE theater, a double-feature including the Italian action flick Danger: Diabolik and a nondescript science fiction film entitled Project X. We were able to watch the entire first film, but Time was wearing Adidas that night and we had to leave half-way through Project X2. The snowfall had picked up a bit while we’d been watching the shows but the extra travel time brought on by the worsening weather allowed us to pick up our on-going medium-to-deep discussion about To Our Children’s Children’s Children,  and when we kissed on her doorstep I all but floated over the deepening snow out to the Maverick, elated on several levels but mostly relieved that the night was going to work out.

Oh you’d like it

Gliding around get your feet off the ground

Oh you’d like it

Do as you please with so much ease

CHA-THUNK!

The Hand of Fate abruptly pulled the cosmic tone-arm across the 33 1/3 record of my life as I ran the car into a snowbank while  backing out of the driveway. Twenty minutes of feverish digging and shoving got the Maverick out of the ditch and back on the road but in the process I lost the left brake lens cover and wasted another ten minutes searching for it before giving up and driving off.  As I turned onto North Kenai road I glanced at my wristwatch I could see that I had only forty-five minutes to curfew, but if I drove just a little faster I could get home on time. As I loosened my death-grip on the steering wheel and shook some of the tension out of my shoulders I mentally skipped to the next song.

Gazing past the planets

Looking for total view

I’ve been lying here for hours

You gotta make the journey

Out and in

Out and in

BA-WOO-WOO-WOO

All I could see in the rear-view mirrors were flashing red lights, so I immediately pulled over and started digging through parka and trousers for my wallet. An Alaska State Trooper materialized  at the side of the car and as I rolled the window down I wondered if Smoky the Bear trooper hats were designed to scare the hell out of people or if terror was just a fringe benefit.

“Going a little fast for conditions weren’t you son? Let me see your license please”

He looked at my license, bit his lower lip then said: ”Are you June Deitrick’s boy?”

“Yes sir”  I replied, silently adding “ …and if you’re friends with my folks I am so screwed”

He sighed: “You’re in trouble enough without a ticket. Get home as safe and soon as you can”.

A gypsy of a strange and distant time

Travelling in panic all direction blind

Aching for the warmth of a burning sun

Freezing in the emptiness of where he’d come from

Although I managed to get home without getting stopped by a second trooper unexpectedly cruising the highway close to home my internal dive-bombers had renewed their attack by the time I pulled into the driveway. Expecting the worst I was surprised when Mom didn’t go ballistic over the broken curfew. I explained in my half-truthful manner that I was late because I took a friend home, a friend “who I didn’t want to identify”.  Mom assumed the person in question was a football buddy too “— faced” to navigate but for some reason she only grounded me for the next week.

I never thought I’d get to be a million

I never thought I’d get to be the thing

That all his other children see

…Look at me.

By the time I climbed up to my loft and collapsed on my bunk the internal Stukas had all landed and I was able to relax. I cued up the album and let the music wash the stress away – as I’ve written before alcohol had little effect on me and I moved in the wrong social circles to get involved with weed so music was my drug by default, especially brand-new progressive rock albums.

Watching and waiting

For a friend to play with

Why have I been alone so long

Mole he is burrowing his way to the sunlight

He knows there’s some there so strong

…then with a start I remembered the missing brake light cover.

August 1971

Our legendary midnight summer sun had just edged under the horizon but there was still plenty of light in the sky as I dropped B2 off after our end-of-the-summer-headed-for-college date. As I backed the Maverick out of her driveway two thoughts came to mind:

  • Her home and surroundings looked totally different when not buried in three feet of snow.
  • The Maverick’s red plastic brake-light lens cover was sitting smartly on the side of the road as if it had been just dropped there…

__________________________________________________________________________

  1. See 1971: “…then Dave turned 16 and discovered girls”
  2. See Project X Amazon Review