1980: Canvas, Diesel, Brasso & Bentley

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

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

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

Thomas Bentley.

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

November 1980

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What – you’re gonna write me up?”

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

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

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

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

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

April 2021

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

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

——————————————————————————————————

Notes

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

Move On

The First Night

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

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

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

“What’s not to like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Night

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

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

The Third Night

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

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

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

The Fourth Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fifth Night

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

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

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

Me: “Do you see him?”

Bernie: “Who?”

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

Bernie: “WTF?”

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

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

The Sixth Night

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

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

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

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

IT’S OK.

IT’S BEEN A GOOD LIFE, EH?

IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON.

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________________

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

1966: Ban The (F)Bomb

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

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

Yeeeaaah…a vacation. Right.

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

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

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

Our carefully rehearsed routine of carefully orchestrated stunts included;

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

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

“F*ck!”

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

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

“F*ck!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________________

Notes

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

Gospel According to Saint Ticonderoga

Way too early in the morning…

>CLICK<   Whrrrrrrrrr.

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

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

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

“GUS!”

…. or Mom.

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

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

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

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

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

 Still Cold.

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

Still cold…and for some reason getting colder.

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

“Augustus!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It looks like a pencil.”

“An astute observation Augustus. Use it well.”

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

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

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

“Hey dumbass!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Bell

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

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

“Finnegan?”

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

Second Bell

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

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

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

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

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

Third Bell

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

Lunch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Bell

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

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

We were so totally screwed.

Fifth Bell

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

“Did we get everything taken care of?”

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

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

TAP -TAP

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

Sixth Bell

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

Final Bell

♫ Oh when the Kenai Kards walk down the street

They look a hundred per from head to feet ♫

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

♫ They got the smile, the style the winning way

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

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

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

They have high school spirit pep and go ♫

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

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

“You want to keep your stuff or not?”

CLICK-SLAM

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

CLICK-SLAM

♫ GO-GO! ♫

CLICK-SLAM

“We’ve only got five minutes!”

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

CLICK-SLAM!

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

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

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

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

“WHAT?”

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

“NO! YOU SUCK AT BASEBALL!”

“YOU WANT TO KEEP YOUR STUFF OR NOT?”

♫ The team from Kenai Hi-i-igh! ♫

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

“♫ YA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-Y!! ♫”

Later

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

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

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

“OOF!”

– – – – – – –

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

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

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

__________________________________________________________________________

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

© David Ralph Deitrick 2021


1980: “…you have a nice smile!”

May 1980

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

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

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

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

May 1970

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

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

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

August 1980

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

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

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

August 1970

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

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

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

August 1980

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

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

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

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

Then she smiled.

August 1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was getting my stereo.

August 1980

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

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

“A long time ago.”

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

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

LCHR 1954-2020

She was the girl with multiple nicknames:

  • Samantha (Stevens)
  • Honey (West)
  • (Doctor) Venus

Golden-haired girls were in short supply at Sterling Elementary in the mid-Sixties so it seemed like anytime a blonde would show up on television she would be tagged with the character’s name the following week…but for the other fifty one weeks of the year we knew her as Linda Christine, third of four children in the Hansen family living diametrically opposite from my home on that great circle made up by Robinson and Scout Loops in Sterling, Alaska. 

I carried a torch for her for most of 1966 but as time went by and my Napoleon Solo/U.N.C.L.E.- inspired swagger failed to win her heart our relationship morphed into that often more valuable state known as Good Friend. We’d bounce ideas off each other, share new music, deliver post-mortems on our respective romantic entanglements and just before I left for college in 1971 I lived my seventh grade dream when we went out on a pleasant albeit very platonic date.

I went on to my life and three-fold career while she went into nursing and family life with one of the finest men I have ever known. We would touch base from time to time over the next fifty years and every meeting was equally warm, as if no time had passed, but sadly the time for base-touching is past as she passed away a few days ago. With anyone else I would be ranting about the cruel timing of her demise but if you knew Linda you’d appreciate the symbolism. She is/was one of the most sincere women of faith I have ever met and given the nature and rapid progress of her illness It doesn’t surprise me that she left this mortal plane so close to the anniversary of the birth of our Savior.

She was that nice.

Let me put it this way: you know that stereotypical fundamentalist Karen character that the popular media keeps throwing at us? The narrow-minded, judgmental harridan warping scripture in twisted attacks on just about everyone else?

Well, that wasn’t our Linda.

Linda Christine Hansen Robinson was the anti-Karen, and such a fundamentally good woman that we will all be poorer for her going, but at the same time we are that much richer for having known her.

1964: Uneasy Perch for a Lame Duck

It stood out just enough for me to push the brake pedal on my morning Facebook crawl:

“Established titles! For just $49.95 you can own one square foot of Scottish land which will entitle you (as a landowner) to be addressed as “Lord” – or as the Scots say, “Laird”!” I went on to read that your not-quite-fifty bucks would buy you one (1) square foot plot of land on an estate in Scotland; a unique/numbered plot where they’d plant a tree if you so desired. Topping off the deal was your choice of either a digital or hard-copy version of a personalized certificate of Laird status.

Despite my strong distrust of Facebook sellers it was enough to make me pause for a moment before deciding to save my $49.95. The advertisement was very specific in noting that there was no substantive title of nobility transferred and I’d already been down that particular genealogical road with my Mom’s nonstop assertion that her maiden name (coincidentally “Laird”) was somehow proof that her family came from a line of failed Scottish nobility.

…but I still had to smile as I read about the “wee” plots of Scottish land for sale because there had actually been a time in my life when buying land in one square foot increments had been a very attractive proposition.

May 1964

I was a lame duck.

…a lame duck Woodland Park Elementary fifth grader that is. Normally summer was a great time for a kid, especially during the relatively rain-free summer of 1964 in Anchorage. It was a time for running and playing with my buddies until late in the still-sunlit evening, all the while discussing the events of the past school year and speculating on the school year to come, but  with my family’s impending move to Sterling down on the Kenai Peninsula all such discussions came to a screeching halt.…and it wasn’t just the move that bothered me. After two years of sharing a room with my three younger sisters I finally had my own digs, and even if it was just an alcove portioned off from the front room with two book shelves I was content with having my own space to set up the blue and yellow Roman soldiers I’d ordered off the back of a comic, and display models with a reasonable expectation of their survival. Rumor was that I’d be bunking with my little sisters again after the move south and I wasn’t looking forward to that.

I was caught up in those unhappy thoughts when I happened to see a pair of posters in the hallway of the church the next Sunday announcing construction of a new meetinghouse on Maplewood Street on the east side of town. Several adults were gathered around the first poster talking about the project but I was transfixed by the chart on the second placard labeled “Building Lot Purchase” which depicted a section of land divided up into numerous small squares of various sizes, each annotated with a dollar amount varying proportionally to the size of the square.

The group of adults slowly got larger as more and more people took note of the posters and I was slowly but surely edged away. I could hear snippets of conversation including such phrases as “stake center” and “fund raiser” but I tuned them out. In that continual suspension of disbelief underlying the thought process of all eleven year old boys I had found a solution to the impending move to the Kenai Peninsula and the loss of my personal space. I was going to buy my own place to live.

FOR the next few weeks I went from house to house on Barbara Drive, looking for chores to earn money for my budding real estate empire. I took on any chore offered to include raking, sweeping and on one occasion disposing of a small dead animal which brought in just over a dollar each week which I then turned over to the fund-raising committee on Sunday. As I marked off each square on the chart, I took great care in keeping my purchased lots together, even stooping to the stratagem of erasing and moving initials of other purchasers that appeared inside the boundaries of my proposed estate in the southwest corner of the main lot.

The process gave me a purpose during the summer as my parents came and went on medical trips and attended various camps as we slowly packed for the move. Never long on praise my mom and dad both commented each Sunday on my faithfulness and generosity which I brushed off through my preoccupation with surveying old crates in the garage for use in cobbling together a plan for a small cabin large enough for a sixth grader to lay down in.

 It wasn’t until mid-July that I actually got to see the site of my future kid-stead. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning and members of several congregations had gathered at the lot covered with medium height birch and spruce trees typical of south central Alaska. The perimeter of the lot had already been cleared which allowed quick access to my personal area of interest. As I sat down on the moss mentally building my new home I noticed a group of men clustered in the middle of the lot, blueprints in hand and pointing out corresponding areas on the property. It was as I observed their purposeful movements and overheard bits of their discussion that I realized the situation might not be as I’d imagined – there were entirely too many “shuns” in the conversation, words like:

  • Construc-tion
  • Founda-tion
  • Dona-tion

…and the internal Stukas started their strafing run through my insides as I finally tumbled to the fact that the church hadn’t been in the micro-real estate business after all, but had in fact been conducting a fund-raising effort to raise the purchase price for the site of a new central meetinghouse.

Summer allergies provided a reasonable excuse as I started sniffling in disappointment until I remembered with relief that no one had been aware of what I had been doing…no one, that is except maybe my dad, a suspicion born out when the next couple of weeks saw me slowly regaining the money I had inadvertently donated towards the building project. Normally Dad was thrifty to a fault, hanging onto to every penny so tightly that Abraham Lincoln’s eyes bulged… but there were soon several instances when he would uncharacteristically give me the change after a small purchase or pay me for a normally un-paid chore so that by the time we made the actual move my losses had been made good.

As it was I didn’t have much time to mourn the loss – within weeks we were starting a new life 65 miles to the southwest in the tiny hamlet of Sterling on the Kenai Peninsula, and when later visits to Anchorage had us attending church in the beautiful new meetinghouse, I was more interested in the girls than my lost dreams of home ownership.

…but to this day there is one particular parking spot in the southwest corner of the lot where I will park even if I have to walk through snow or rain to get to the building.


1969/2020 “Bah, Humbug!”

(This is one of two Christmas-themed stories I re-run every year. This time around it’s a little different in that I’m not nearly the Scrooge I’ve been in years past, I don’t know if it’s my age or a reaction to the insanity that has been 2020 but I’ve found myself really enjoying the tree, the cars, the scriptures and the music.)

Have I already mentioned that I hate Christmas?

My enmity to this time of year has little to do with the actual day but rather the personal history that surrounds it. Name a personal disaster or heartbreak in my life and odds are the event happened either in December or within 2 weeks north or south of that month. I’m not going to produce an itemized list but if you really want to know why I dread the twelfth month of the year, and why I am miserable to live with during that time send a private message. If I get enough a large enough response I’ll elaborate a bit and then you’ll know why my dear sweetheart deserves a six-figure cash bonus, the Victoria Cross and immediate translation for simply enduring my presence during the holidays, much less talk or interact with me in any way.

Christmas wasn’t always miserable for me. There have also been some very happy times associated with the holidays, but they are totally overwhelmed by the number and intensity of the negative stuff. That contrast is no doubt fuel for the fire as well; I’m like the hungry homeless man with his nose pressed against the window of a four-star restaurant tormented by the sights and smells of food he can only imagine.

Even when thinking back as objectively as possible I cannot understand how I survived some of those times.  However those Yule seasons that seemed to be even more Yuseless than usual also happened to be times when I was blessed with an “adjunct angel” an individual whose words and deeds were vitally important to my continued mental health ( at one time to my life)– yet probably had no clue of the service they rendered.

There have been many such individuals ranging from a college instructor whose timely letter of praise and understanding drew the venom out of a heartless betrayal in a rebound relationship following the most crushing break-up of my life to a flight school buddy that refused to shun me when my medical disqualification made me invisible to the rest of my classmates (maybe they though vision problems were contagious). However, one of the most heart-warming may have not been a person at work – but rather circumstances; what we call “tender mercies”

.  It was Christmas Eve 1969; my sister Holly and I were up in my attic bedroom listening to some distinctly un-holiday rock music on my stereo and commiserating about how there was no “joyeux” in the “noel” when you weren’t a little kid. There was a lull in the music as the changer dropped another LP onto the turntable – and that’s when we heard the footsteps. Yes, footsteps on the roof just 10 inches on the other side of the ceiling of my attic bedroom.

We couldn’t tell exactly what kind of footsteps they were – there was a chinook (mid-winter warm front passage) going on which always brought on a chorus of humming, whining and moaning as the wind ran past the T.V. aerials, their supporting masts and guy-wires. It didn’t matter though – we looked at each other in wide-eyed shock, then Holly shot down the ladder to her bedroom while I shut off the light and dove under my covers.

There were no hoof-sprints or skid marks on the roof the next morning – but there was also very little snow after the warm winds of a Chinook.

 Had our cats running around the attic?

Had my dad on the roof adjusting the living room TV antenna?

 Did a sleigh park on our roof that night?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, just like I don’t know why selected friends over the years have chosen this time of year to perform life-changing acts of kindness for me.  While footsteps-on-the-rooftop didn’t have the heavy emotional weight of some of the other incidents I’ve shared, the event did have a life-changing, softening effect on my personality at a time when as a sixteen year old I was making important choices about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with my life. The timing was perfect.

…and as I was thinking about this post it came to me that timing has also been very effective with this whole holiday curse mindset. It’s cleverly turned my expectations about what should be a happy time into a subtle but non-stop attack on my faith.  I’m just very fortunate that at the same time those little attendant holiday miracles have been just as clever and even more effective in bolstering my faith.

Merry Christmas!

1971: Descendant of Beowulf

(I had to simplify things for the title to  this last peek at my upcoming book – I had so many friends, cousins and sons that I had to resort to sketching wiring diagrams before typing up the titles) 

It was a commercial made up of clones with Robert Redford’s doppelganger putting his best Sundance moves on Katherine Ross’ twin sister while a sound-alike band sang a jingle set to the tune of Santana’s “Evil Ways”:

You got a smoke that’s something else Win-chester.

A whole new taste and straight your way.

It’s something else Win-chester”.

Cigarette advertising on television was officially banned as of January 1,1971 but the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company was pushing the issue with Winchester – a small cigarette-sized cigar that used a loophole in the new law to continue their on-air promotion of tobacco products. It was a maneuver that would become more common as we got deeper into the “Me Decade” of the 1970’s, a narcissistic side-step of accepted norms in an effort to increase profits.

Other developments in 1971 included:

  • Broadcast standards for language and subject matter were pushed further with the premiere of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking comedy/social commentary All In the Family.
  • Resistance to the Vietnam conflict increased to a 60% disapproval rating and triggered bombings in the US Capitol with the unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers, a government document that revealed that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied about the conduct and progress of the war.
  • The Uniform Holiday act put all federal holidays on Monday.
  • To the delight of young people all over the country the age to both vote AND drink was lowered from 21 to 18.

Events for the state of Alaska likewise ranged from the monumental to the trivial:

  • In December President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act into law.
  • Nuclear testing continued at Amchitka Island out at the end of the Aleutian chain.
  • Public television finally arrived in the state with the establishment of KUTV channel 9 at the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks.
  • …and a new shop building was opened at Kenai Central High School located across the parking lot to the south of the main building. In line with the trend at the time toward vocational education the new complex included an auto shop, a carpentry shop, a drafting classroom, and a student supply store.

1970: Or Classmate of Brother of Friend of Son of Beowulf Junior

(carrying on with excerpts from my next book)

Can they do this?

Can they legally print a picture like this?

It was the LIFE magazine retrospective covering the previous decade and the image in question had been taken during the height of craziness surrounding the Democratic National Convention the previous year and in the middle of the crowd it depicted a shirtless young man “flipping off” the photographer/viewer. It was a photo that captured the essence of the times and while it seems a fairly tame image for current standards that conflict between content and reaction was a perfect metaphor for the era as the media had us all convinced that the freight train of societal change was threatening to derail at any time.

It definitely looked like things were changing, with some changes definitely on the plus side:

  • Earth Day was established on April 22d of that year.
  • The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.
  • The federal government put an end to commercial whaling.
  • OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) was signed into law.
  • We got Monday Night Football!

…while other changes were not all that great:

  • Both superpowers continued with above-ground nuclear tests with one of the main sites being (gulp) – the Aleutian Islands.
  • The space program stumbled with Apollo 13’s near disaster.
  • Militant groups including the SDS and the Weatherman Bomb were setting off explosions in cities and universities.
  • The invasion of Cambodia dramatically broadened the scope of the war in Southeast Asia.
  • At Kent State in Ohio, National Guard troops opened fire on student protestors with fatal results.

As for the Peninsula; without the influx of fire-fighting money like we had the previous summer, 1970 seemed economically stagnant – at least for young people. The school district was able to scrape together enough money for the high school to insure that the cafeteria where we’d been eating sack lunches for the past year was finally going to have a functioning kitchen, but other cost-cutting measures threatening to severely curtail operations and activities.

It was in response to a vote on proposed school appropriations that the four-page broadsheet dubbed “The Peninsula Clarion” started appearing in everyone’s mailbox. No one knew who was publishing it, but it was obvious that whoever they were, they really, really, really did not want the school bond to pass.