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 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.1

Despite 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.

___________________________________________________________________________

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

2018: Third Parent

Ranch2003Dad

It was a buzz-word as common to the 1970’s as paradigm was to the 1980s. Gestalt – it’s a German word that first became popular in the 1890s Berlin throughout medical circles. It refers to the idea that something can be more than just a sum of its parts. It’s used mostly in psychology, but I have found the concept to be true in other aspects of life:

  • In Sports when members of a team collectively accomplish much more than they could separately.
  • In Art when mixing several colors can make a painting more effective than just black & white.
  • …and in residential architecture when a home becomes more than a collection of rooms.

I grew up in a Gestalt home.

The house we moved to in August of 1964 was definitely a whole comprised of many parts. It started out as a three-room cabin built in the late 1950’s by the original homesteader Jim Hovis.  Family growth required a largish addition to the front of the original three-room cabin followed soon after by a row of three bedrooms built on the north side of the house. When a double garage was built on to the south end of the house, clapboard siding was added to the home’s exterior giving the place a unified, almost gentrified appearance. For a time it was the showcase home of the whole Sterling area – while everyone else was living in log cabins, Quonset huts or trailers the Hovis place looked like it had been scooped up from a neighborhood in the middle of Anchorage and dropped down along the east end of Scout Lake Loop.

We had no idea of the building’s history when we moved into the place at the end of the summer of 1964 because we had more pressing matters on our mind:

  • My older sister and I were very unhappy about the move to the Peninsula and were convinced bears would soon eat us.
  • The previous renters had completely trashed the place and it took our whole family six months of steady work to get the place into shape

On the other hand Dad was pretty happy about getting the place for a low price and comfortable terms. Mrs. Hovis had become ill enough to require relocation to the lower 48 which meant that  Mr. Hovis had been a “motivated seller”.

We really didn’t understand the convoluted construction details until Dad and I started work on my attic loft bedroom and had to remove portions of two other roofs under the one that was seen from outside of the house. When plumbing problems took us into the crawlspace we found even more indicators of start-and-stop construction, most notably three different types of foundation.

It was just after that discovery that Dad finally concluded “in for a dime/in for a dollar” when it came to additions/modifications to the house. We finished my loft just before Christmas 1966 then in the fall of 1970 Dad and I started converting the inner portion of the double garages into additional living space. I don’t think there ever was a specific goal for the remodeling when we started, but by mid-1973 we had a cozy TV room just off the kitchen and another nicely finished space that alternately served as a bedroom and/or home office. Fourteen years later the remaining garage space was converted into a studio where I could continue my career as a freelance illustrator while my parents served as missionaries on Prince Edward Island. The last major change was a new garage on the south end of the house that my folks were able to add using the inheritance Mom received when her stepfather passed away in the mid-nineties.

….but in and around all of those physical changes other less tangible modifications were made to the home and surrounding pastures. During the next 50+ years three generations of Deitricks grew up, and all the love, hate, hope, tears, sickness and health involved in that process imbued the house and land with a benevolent spirit that would sometimes echo and other times mend what we were feeling at different times. The ranch became a haven and refuge and for me I knew that no matter how physically or emotionally damaged I may be, all I had to do was push my fingers down into the dirt to be cleansed from whatever ailed me.

Very soon all of that will end. Both my parents have passed on and circumstances are such that the property will be sold, and the home likely destroyed. Over the decades the quaint idiosyncrasies of a continually modified homestead cabin have become liabilities; shifting foundations, sagging rooflines and questionable wiring have transformed what was once a showcase home into an oddity.

British author Brian Aldiss wrote that the only unchanging aspect of life is that change happens. Children, grandchildren and great-grand-children will move on to find other places for imaginary adventures with Klingons, halflings and Cybermen and a new family will move in for their own story of a half-century. Life will go on, but for me there will always be a little bit of my heart missing. Even though it’s been fifteen years since I walked through that clunky, squeaking door I still miss it and mourn our Home’s eventually passing.

It’s like losing a third parent.

Ranch1976Al

 

 

Music: Reasons for Waiting (Reconsidered)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iybAyDFrhhI

 Schadenfreude has never had any appeal to me. I’m convinced that taking “shameful joy” in another person’s failure is both pointless and petty, but there is one failure for which I will be forever thankful.   Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull fame gave up learning to play the guitar when he became convinced that he’d never play as well as Eric Clapton and I applaud that set-back for two reasons:

  • We’ve already got an Eric Clapton.
  • Without Anderson’s skill with the flute we’d never have had “Reasons for Waiting”.

1972

Room-mate Roulette is just one of the challenges a college freshman encounters, but it may be the most crucial. The stress involved in learning to mesh with a complete stranger can have a major effect on both your academic career not to mention your entire life so I’d assumed that careful thought and preparation went into room assignments…so please forgive me for being disturbed when I learned that the selection process was only slightly more sophisticated than a dart game.

Unfortunately I had to go throw the dart board twice. The first assignment worked out well : I drew an upperclassman whose part-time job and interest in the outdoors essentially gave me a private room. Unfortunately he dropped out mid-year and I had to go through the room assignment game a second time and ended up with Scott, a fellow freshman with a heavier footprint requiring  more accommodation and coordination, especially in the following areas:

  • Getting up in the morning
  • Turning in at night
  • House-cleaning
  • Laundry
  • Setting the thermostat
  • Female visitors
  • Post-fart courtesy

…and so on. Music was one of the hardest points to negotiate –  Scott favored hard rock (Grand Funk Railroad/Quicksilver Messenger Service/ Led Zeppelin)  while I preferred progressive rock and acoustic groups (Moody Blues/Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young/America) Playback volume was sticky issue until we agreed on a head-phone truce which unintentionally kept us from mixing our music  and appreciating what the other guy listened to.

It took the simple act of Scott turning over in bed one February morning to change all that. The sun was just peeking over the Alaska Range to the south and was bathing the morning sky with orange, magenta and purple while a train crawled along the track on the other side of the parking lot, building up speed for the day-long run to Anchorage, the exhaust from its diesels adding to the wisps of ice-fog that had come up from the Chena River. As I was taking this all in I was mug-in-hand, leaning on our chest-high window sill with my toes tucked under the heat register when somehow in the process of waking up Scott pulled the headset cord out of his stereo and the first notes of possibly the most beautiful song in rock music poured out into our little basement dorm room.

The soft acoustic introduction of  Jethro Tull’s Reasons For Waiting  leads into a flute solo so beautiful that my eyes welled up — then Ian Anderson started to sing in his slightly wavering tenor:

What a sight for my eyes
To see you in sleep.
Could it stop the sun rise
Hearing you weep?

 Writing under the pseudonym Stendhal, 19th Century French Novelist Marie-Henri Beyle observed that viewers can be overwhelmed by the sight of an art masterpiece and sent into a state of distress much like a panic attack. What I felt at this particular moment was probably a low-grade Stendhal incident: the music, the view, the warmth from the hot chocolate, being in love – I couldn’t catch my breath

Oh –  I  didn’t mention that I had recently fallen in love? My Best Friend and I had spent the first semester playing at being in love – making those first tentative moves: holding hands, sneaking a kiss, whispering endearments hardly understood, but it wasn’t until the separation at Christmas Break that the relationship really found its depth.

We were in capital “L” Love.

You’re not seen, you’re not heard
But I stand by my word.
Came a thousand miles
Just to catch you while you’re smiling.

Notes from the flute become frenzied and erratic but then acoustic guitar steps back in for just a moment to restore the orderly flow of musical notes.

What a day for laughter
And walking at night.
Me following after, your hand holding tight.
And the memory stays clear with the song that you hear.
If I can but make
The words awake the feeling
.

Again the flute become frenzied but just at the point of discomfort, the song explodes into a cascade of violins with Anderson’s flute weaving a thread of notes in an around the strings as they underlie the final verse

What a reason for waiting
And dreaming of dreams.
So here’s hoping you’ve faith in impossible schemes,
That are born in the sigh of the wind blowing by
While the dimming light brings the end to a night of loving.

I’d spent most of the previous evening curled up on the couch with my Best Friend watching television, but by the middle of Night Gallery she’d fallen asleep tucked up against the left side of my chest.  As the closing credits ran I looked over at her snuggled up against me and suddenly Stukas started to fly interdiction against my central pump. I’d never really looked at anyone sleeping much less a beautiful blonde and I just marveled at the soft, open look to her features.

Fast forward to the next morning: that memory from the night before combined with scenic beauty, the music –  h*ll even the mug of hot chocolate –  all combined to create one of the most heart-flutteringly joyful moments of my life,  an instant of gestalt wherein the beauty of the moment outshined the factors creating it. I wanted to break the channel-selector off my life  and stay in that moment forever. In my short eighteen years of life I had never felt anything like that particular four minutes and seven seconds.

…and forty-seven years later just thinking about that moment still makes me smile.

1970: Steak and Eggs

It is said that the hardest part of being a parent is that the test always comes before the lesson. The same can be said for that last year or so before you leave home – you’ve been taught personal boundaries in home, church and school but the strength of those lessons is not apparent until after something has pushed against them…hard.

It was midsummer of 1970 and I wasn’t having any luck shoe-horning a job into the time remaining until football practice was to begin. I was feeling very sorry for myself and contemplating a very penurious autumn when I heard  my friend Greg was working for a roofer  in Seward and more hands were needed for the crew. Two phone calls later I was on the payroll working for a leading member of our congregation in what had to be the perfect set-up:

  • $8.00/hour
  • Regular hours
  • Room and board at the company’s expense
  • …and I was to start the very next day

My parents were much less enthusiastic with Mom gritting her teeth over the lack of control she’d wield 70 miles away and Dad skeptical that I’d be able to keep up with the work. In the bullet-proof manner only a seventeen-year-old can affect I blew off their concerns and motored off to my new job, passing the time on the trip by mentally spending all the money I’d be making. It seemed the greatest set-up a young man could fall into until I got to Seward and Greg whispered “You are in for the hardest work of your life” just before I got the orientation spiel along with two other new hires.

We’d be working for Eddie Maxwell removing and replacing the roof of the Seward High School. While Eddie had extensive experience working for others this was his first job as an independent roofing contractor and had substantially underbid on the job, and had to make  some changes. We’d be working with a short crew, I’d be paid a much lower wage than promised, and our room and board would consist of sleeping on the floor of the library and eating baloney sandwiches for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was another matter: Eddie made a big production about buying us anything we wanted for breakfast at a local diner as “the only way to get you bastards started in the morning” but he made an equally over-the-top announcement that the day anyone ordered steak-and-eggs would be their last day on the job.

Along with Greg and myself, the crew included two local men and Dan, a middle-aged cowboy who had come up to Alaska to work for the summer. One of the two locals was a competent laborer, but the second man didn’t last the first day. Dan was a bit of a mystery; he didn’t talk much but a broken nose hinted at a rough & tumble youth and when he did talk about  his younger days there were gaps in his narrative that had me wondering how those gaps lined up with train robberies made by the Hole-in-The-Wall gang. Misspent youth aside Dan was a definite asset to the crew with experience, an inclination to work hard and most important to me,  time to help me learn the trade and how to carry my part of the load.

…and there was quite a load to be carried. It was punishing labor as rigorous as anything athletics or military would demand of me at other times. The existing tar & gravel covering had been removed with a wheeled power saw, then new paper tacked down and covered with hot tar spread with fiberglass mops. In support of that basic task, debris had to be moved to a dump truck, then periodically taken to the landfill, rolls of tar-paper had to be carried up 30’ ladders, and hot tar shuttled in five-gallon buckets from the feed pipe to the area of application.

The tar was pumped to the roof top by way of a pipe connected to a trailer-mounted heating pot which had to be monitored and routinely fed with large chunks of solid tar. That trailer was the single item of roofing-specific equipment we had – while equipped with tack hammers and crowbars in those pre-OSHA days we had none of the “ladder-vators” or specialized safety equipment that roofers now use.

The work was hard and conditions spartan but most of the stress I started to feel wasn’t directly related to the job. While Eddie was a member of our church, the seventy miles to the  meetinghouse seemed to be enough to liberate him from maintaining expected behavior and standards. I’ve never met a man more imaginatively coarse, and as the youngest member of the crew I became his  primary target. It truly was amazing how he was able to liken every aspect of my life and behavior to some sort of aberrant sexual practice to include the way I walked, talked,  worked, and wrote a succession of unanswered letters to my Youth Conference crush Eileen. It was bothersome enough to prompt thoughts of quitting, but every time I came close to leaving I’d remember all that money and go back to work.

The only break I got were periodic runs to the landfill located several miles up a side valley; the trip through the forest along a rushing river providing a welcome sixty-minute respite from the intense labor, the smell of tar, and the blue language. I was teamed with Dan for those trips and our conversations became as much a break as the trip itself. He didn’t say much but what he did say was worth listening to – and it soon  became obvious that he also was less than pleased about Eddie’s comments.

It all came to a head four days into the week when we were put straight to work without breakfast in order to make up for time when Eddie overslept. The late start came with the usual customary obscenities but as the day wore on his invective became even more harsh and unrelenting. I kept cool throughout the day but when Eddie’s comments branched into a new category of anatomically impossible acts something snapped.

I turned around with the mop full of hot tar and quietly told him “I’ve had enough”. Eddie laughed harshly and replied with an indistinct obscenity as he turned away to trim some tarpaper overhanging at the edge of the roof – and in the process his elevated attitude of jerk-osity tripped one of my mental circuit breakers. The rage boiled up inside me with the fervor only a seventeen-year-old can muster and  I grabbed one of the mops, dipped it in the hot tar and turned towards Eddy.

…but as I moved Dan caught my eye and quietly said “It’s not worth it”. Eddie was working at the edge of the roof with his back to me – given the poor safety standards there’d have been no suspicions had he gone over the side of the roof. For a moment I stood still with the mop up like a solider at port arms…It was deathly quiet, the only noise a kind of “ssst/ssst/ssst” as intermittent raindrops began to hit the fresh tar…then Dan spoke again – this time a little louder. “Eddie – we need to take another run to the landfill” and the two of us climbed down to a mostly empty truck and left.

This time the trip to the dump involved more than getting rid of old tarpaper. On the trip out Dan hinted at a similar incident in his own youth and I quietly wondered if some of those gaps in his background had involved incarceration of some sort. As I stood at the edge of the landfill I took an inventory.

  • While the money was less than expected I’d still make enough for my needs.
  • I’d proved I could “tough it out” with a difficult job.
  • I’d proved I didn’t need someone hovering over me to keep me on the straight and narrow.

…and I was also concerned about picking up some of Eddie’s “colorful metaphors” in my own internal dialog. I realized that Eddie was no different than any of the other bullies I’d encountered in life and wasn’t worth getting worked up over. It all felt liberating – I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d learned, but I knew I’d learned something and the rest of the day went surprising well. Eddie kept up his diatribe, but I just whistled and kept working – in fact I made a point of working harder than anyone else on the crew for the rest of that day. My indifference to his comments seemed to just make him madder and more obscene, and as afternoon eased into evening the obscenities were replaced with ominous comments about scaling back the crew to save money.

It didn’t bother me, and as hard as the library floor was I quickly went to sleep a smile on my face.

…and the next morning at the diner I ordered steak and eggs for breakfast.

 

 

 

1970: The Great Escape

1963

As much as I loved the sweeping epic motion pictures of the Fifties and Sixties I did not see “The Great Escape” when it first came out. Oh, I saw all the previews and was extremely interested in the subject matter but wasn’t able to actually see the movie because I was on the losing side of an ideological divide as vast as  Crown & Colonists or Union & Confederacy.

I was a Fourth Avenue theater kid and the “The Great Escape” was being shown at the Denali.

In those days before the Good Friday earthquake  there were just two movie theaters in Anchorage and they were located at the two ends of Fourth Avenue. Kids from the west side of town went to the Fourth Avenue theater while the kids from the east side went to the Denali….and never the twain did meet.

 1970

 “You’re welcome to finish out the year but I don’t see you accomplishing much other than developing good lab technique. Based on what you’ve done so far there’s no way you can get a passing grade.”

  I had to give Mrs. Denison credit; the executioner’s axe had cut quickly and cleanly, but as it swung three thoughts came to mind:

  • Shirley Denison and Mom were friends, so my folks probably knew about this already.
  • With the new English program1 I had a lot more options that I would have had the year before.
  • Given the axe-analogy I had to expand my leisure reading beyond John Carter of Mars and Conan the Barbarian.

The change to my class schedule was just as quick and clean; by the next day my newly-vacant third hour was filled with a brand-new journalism class to match my existing sixth hour debate class. I put up a token fuss about the move, but my protest was more of the “don’t throw me in that briar patch” variety. With a schedule made up of physical education (teacher’s aide!), history ( always a breeze!), geography (ditto), and two English classes I would have my first-ever “easy” semester.

…which would be finished off just as pleasantly by a sixth period motion picture class during the final nine week period.  Introduced as part of the new Literature & Communications curriculum, the Motion Pictures class had been the subject of some controversy until instructors demonstrated that the class entailed some academic rigor and was not just a “rocks for jocks” fluff course. We would start out with basic instruction on script-writing and cinematography, but the bulk of the class involved viewing/discussing two movies:

  • A Thousand Clowns: An Oscar-nominated MGM classic from 1965 starring Jason Robards as a nonconformist Madison Avenue drop-out forced to take conventional employment.
  • The Great Escape: The aforementioned United Artists epic concerning a mass POW escape in World War II Germany, also an Oscar nominee.

The class was possible only because of another recent change at KCHS – after eight years of unanticipated growth, an addition had been made to the building that included a cafeteria, a suite of business classrooms, and a little theater. Normally  partitioned off into three separate classrooms, the theater could be opened up into one large space for the motion picture class – or classes to be precise. Overwhelming demand meant that there were three sections scheduled for the one Motion Pictures class, which meant that in addition to regular classroom challenges the instructors had to:

  • Maintain order among a mob of 50+ students sitting in a dark room for fifty minutes at the end of a school day.
  • Keep students on task during a spring break-up  warmer and sunnier than usual, which should have posed no problems in a darkened classroom but fire laws required the rear exit doors to be open to a breathtaking view of the aforementioned glorious spring.
  • Complying with licensing and technical limitations which restricted students to viewing the films for less than half of the class period, including scenes from the previous day’s viewing repeated to maintain continuity.

Not to be out-done I had my own personal list of bullet-points to contend with:

  • I was concerned about my current girlfriend2. Our schedules were such that we  saw each other at most twice a day, which didn’t include Motion Pictures class. It might not have been quite so worrisome if there had been any depth developing in the relationship3.
  • I was quickly getting bored with the class. I’d been a movie buff since fourth grade making me better prepared than my peers. Repeated reviewing of very basic principles quickly became boring.
  • I was developing junior-osis. While it’s common knowledge that accumulated fatigue, boredom, and arrogance can lull fourth year students into an end-of-the-year malaise called senioritis,  junior-osis is a similar ailment that strikes at end of the third year of school as well. Year three involves minimal pressure – no letters to write, plenty of time left to clean up your GPA, and the closest you get to any sort of crunch point is the pre-SAT, which is just a warm-up for college placement tests the following autumn. It’s another example of a valuable lesson I learned later in the army: “Morale is lowest when the duty is easiest”.

…all of which conspired to rob me of any sense of urgency or dedication for that sixth and last hour of the school day. Snoozing in class was quickly ruled out by the clackety-clack and warbling sound track coming from the projector, and in 1970 I could draw in a darkened room about as well as I can now (I can’t). The semester was shaping up to be just one step up from Chinese water torture when fate smiled on me in the form of Mike Cole.

Mike was a service brat living on Wildwood Air Force Station, and in addition to the motion pictures class he was also in that first hour PE class. Our common service brat heritage and similar sense of humor made for an instant buddyship, and as he was equally bored with the motion pictures class we’d entertain ourselves by quietly chatting during the movies. It was during one of those conversations that he literally dropped a bomb shell: my former chemistry class had covered the required material a little early so Mrs. Denison was filling the final two weeks with for-real “BWAH-HA-HA” Mad Scientist projects that involved mixing chemicals, heating test-tubes and extracting the results with filter paper, said results subsequently given nonsense names like “flaming yekk” and “booming yakk”. It was obvious that the yekk and yakk were in fact  weak versions of flash paper and contact explosive, and at first the idea of supplying teenagers with such materials had me wondering if Shirley had been huffing some of the chemicals herself …but when I discovered the process required an eight-hour drying time, it didn’t seem quite as worrisome.

That all seemed to have no bearing as the class limped along the final week of school  – but then the perfect storm hit. We were on the last reel of the The Great Escape and collectively chewing the armrests while nervously watching  Steve McQueen’s attempts to jump a motor cycle over barbed wire when the power went out, halting the movie and extinguishing the aisle lights. The room was pitch dark and totally silent for several seconds, then there was a creak-CLUNK and a waft of fresh air when one of the instructors opened the exit doors.

Have you ever been on a horse that smells water after a long ride? They are uncontrollable – you may think you’re going to the house, but the horse is heading for the barn and the water trough whether you want to or not. That’s what was happening in that darkened room: students surged en masse towards the sun-lit exits like a 1950’s movie monster but hesitated momentarily at a brief flash of light and a low pop from the center of the student-blob.

Mike quietly dropped the “F-bomb”.

It turned out end-of-the-year indifference hadn’t existed in just the motion pictures class. Chemistry students had been a bit casual with measurements for the latest batch of yekk and yakk which halved the expected cure time, which in turn meant that today’s output was fully weaponized four hours early. The first few explosions had been purely by accident, but as I looked around, students were gently touching fingertips to the chemical-laden filter paper giving them a magic finger tip that either flashed or popped when touching a surface of any kind.

As a mature young man of seventeen  I took the proper course of action and acted in a responsible manner –  I reached down to Mike’s chemistry book and loaded up both sets of fingers with yekk and yakk, then started finger-popping everyone around me.  After initially resisting the impulse Mike reacted in kind and we were having a great time until we noticed three instructors methodically moving toward us through the darkened student mass, checking for the yekk and yakk. We figured we had time for just one more round but as we both reached down to “reload” there was a blinding flash of light that left me temporarily daze /visually impaired and within grabbing range of at least two of the instructors.

I would still be serving detention KCHS to this day if the end-of-class bell hadn’t gone off at that moment, followed seconds later by the power coming back on. Between the blinding glare of restored classroom lighting and the collective surge toward the exits I was forgotten by the patrolling instructors and eventually made my way out to the bus. The trip home was uneventful other than slight bewilderment when I spied Mike wearing a polka-dot shirt as his bus pulled past mine and out to the highway.

The next day was Friday and the end of both the school week and the academic year, a half-day with time for little other than signing yearbooks and settling out financial obligations. In my case, that meant paying Mike ten bucks for my share of the damages inflicted during the motion picture melee:

  • The polka dot shirt Mike was wearing on the bus home was in fact the same light blue garment he’d worn during the day – what I had mistaken for dots were little burnt marks left from me tapping him with the yekk.
  • That last big flash? In our scuffling Mike ended up dropping his chemistry text book from about knee height, which wouldn’t have been a problem had he not stashed three additional sheets of yakk, inside the front cover, which together contained enough potential energy to blow the cover off the book as it hit the ground.

With my debts paid I blithely went on to a wonderful summer filled with Boy’s State, Youth Conference, a summer job in Seward and football,  and when I came back in the fall it was to a kinder, gentler chemistry class – a special section Mrs. Denison had formed for math-impaired students like me.

The lab component was different too. No more flaming yekk or booming yakk.


 

Notes:­­­­­­­­­­­

  1. In the fall of 1969 English classes were radically changed for sophomores, juniors and seniors. Instead of taking one class from one teacher for the entire school year students were to enroll in a different module every nine weeks. There were some guidelines – you had to take a set number of classes in three categories (literature, composition and oral skills) but other than that students were free to put together their own program.
  2. Bachelorette #1 from: 1971: “…then Dave turned sixteen and discovered girls…”
  3. The unsettled nature of my relationship with Bachelorette #1 didn’t stay that way for long and I soon learned why she’d been evasive whenever I’d talked about dating over summer vacation. In a note delivered by her half-sister she explained that she’d be working on a set-net fishing site during most of the summer break and didn’t think she’d be able to get back up the bluff at the end of a day and get cleaned up in time for a date. There is definitely an air of finality when you get brushed off by someone  who has to “wash her hair”  for three months.

 

1963: He’s A Cool, Cool Cowboy

I’ve kind of drifted into listening to recordings of old radio programs at night before going to sleep so it seemed natural to tap this post for this week’s Re-Run Saturday.

David R. Deitrick, Designer

One of my most prized possessions is the cabinet to an eighty-year old RCA Victor radio …and you did read that sentence correctly; it’s not the actual radio but the wooden box that used to hold a working device. It’s a beautiful example of Art Deco styling made of warm colored wood with dark Bakelite (cellulose-based plastic) trim and a large cloth speaker panel located in the center. Just below the speaker is a glass frequency gauge that would glow softly when the radio was on – and for the entire two years we lived in Anchorage it was on a lot.  I listened to that radio every night without fail.

I miss AM radio – not the jungle of evangelists, sports talk and conservative ranting we have now but that magic ethereal net of music and words that held us all together years ago.  It might seem that I…

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