Music: ” (Once Upon a Time) In Your Wildest Dreams”

 

There is a rare disease that afflicts anyone living near a theme park like Six Flags or Dollywood. It’s a painful ringing echo in your ears that comes from the endless repetition of radio advertisements for the park’s signature ride, usually a mammoth roller-coaster with a name like Avalanche, King Cobra or Hurtinator. In 1986 the signature ride for Utah’s Lagoon theme park was the Colossus rollercoaster and its radio spot was in heavy, heavy rotation on every AM and FM station along the Wasatch front. However, that commercial flood didn’t bother me much – in the spring of 1986 our life in general had become one big existential roller-coaster full of ups and downs in our income, health and quality of life.

The peaks included:

  • My career was really starting to take off. I was winning awards and making a regular income and as far as we could tell that trend would continue.
  • We moved into a larger/nicer home with the best studio space I’ve ever had.
  • I was able to fly home to Alaska for a visit to see my sister Robin graduate from college.

…while some of the valleys were:

  • Our car was broken into, resulting in a smashed window and stolen tape deck.
  • Lori suffered a miscarriage with serious complications.
  • I developed major back problems – severe pain,  spasms and lack of mobility.

At first, I assumed I’d just aggravated an old back injury1, but the pain grew daily until I woke up one Saturday morning unable to move. I dutifully put on the “captain face”, told jokes to the boys and made light of the situation but that schtick soon wore thin. A late-night phone call from  Mom2 just made the situation worse; she hinted at a grim, possibly fatal prognosis but refused to answer specific questions as she wasn’t “attending” (physically present).

The pain was unbearable, and I distinctly recall lying in bed expecting to go to sleep and never wake up again. Oddly enough that finality didn’t bother me as much as the physical pain; it may have been just the painkillers talking but I wasn’t worried about a Last Judgement – I was just sad at the thought of separation from Lori and not being around to raise my sons to adulthood.

As I started to drift off I felt more resigned than scared and was almost asleep when a song came on the radio that caught my attention. It was a simple synthesizer melody that slowly grew into a lush sound with symphonic backing to which an understated syncopated percussion joined in after a few measures. That soft cadence was in turn followed by a bass guitar – and at that point the combination of sounds was creating a slightly familiar but frustratingly unidentifiable sound…unidentifiable until the vocalist started singing and the last Lego snapped in place:

Once upon a time

Once when you were mine

I remember skies

Reflected in your eyes

It was Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, a progressive rock band that I’d been a devoted fan for decades…and when I say fan I mean dyed-in-the-wool DNA fan maintaining a complete set of their albums through two sets of vinyl and one set of cassette tapes.

(Note: We Moody blues fans are a snooty, opinionated lot comprised of three distinct camps divided by the group’s three incarnations:

1)    1964-1966: The original group featuring Denny Laine as lead vocalist, and doing mostly covers of American pop and R&B

2)    1967–1972: The “Core Seven” years when the band reigned as the premiere art progressive rock band producing one of the first concept albums “Days of Future Past”3

3)    1977-present: Now a Soft rock group recording synth-pop tunes like In Your Wildest Dreams – the tune that was currently playing)

As a staunch member of Group 2 I normally would have passed on a recent release like the song I was now hearing but for some reason I kept listening.

I wonder where you are

I wonder if you think about me

Once upon a time

In your wildest dreams

 It could have been nostalgia that kept me listening – at thirty-three you’ve lived just long enough to have something to look back at. Earlier in the summer we’d run into my former Best Friend and her family4 and since that time I’d been thinking more often about my time in Fairbanks (coincidentally the time of my peak interest in progressive rock) which brought me back to:

 Once the world was new

Our bodies felt the morning dew

That greets the brand-new day

We couldn’t tear ourselves away

I wonder if you care

I wonder if you still remember

Once upon a time

 It could have been the character of the group and their music in general. I always thought that the Moody Blues music was “stealth scripture” – necessary knowledge/ truth that would have been otherwise rejected by an audience had it been presented via traditional organized religion.

 And when the music plays

And when the words are touched with sorrow

When the music plays

And when the music plays

I hear the sound I had to follow

Once upon a time

In typical music industry fashion, the song faded out to an unheard conclusion, but it kept running through my mind for the rest of the evening. In my opinion it wasn’t even close to the quality of “The Story in Your Eyes”, “Question” or just about anything else they recorded during the Core-Seven years, but it did have a nice, reassuring feel, as if a good friend had stopped by to tell me that everything is going to be OK, mate!” That’s when I sat up in bed and realized that all the morbid thoughts I had earlier that day were gone, displaced by that new Moody Blues song and thoughts generated by it, proving again the “stealth scripture” aspect of music produced by Mr. Hayward and company.6

I wish I could say that after listening to “In Your Wildest Dreams” everything was OK and that I made a speedy recovery…but I can’t. I went through another 9 weeks of misery before the pain began to subside and while the condition5 causing the discomfort went into remission it returned with a vengeance fifteen years later and has continued unrelieved to this day.

However –  I did get to raise my sons (and a beautiful daughter) to adulthood and my beautiful Saxon Princess is still by my side. I’ve continued to create images with both paint, paper, wax and words.

…. and I am still listening to the Moody Blues.

 

 ______________________________________________________________________________________

 Notes:

1)    See 1985: Fighting Soldiers from The Sky

2)    A registered nurse

3)    For years we were told that the album was the product of collaborative magic between the Moody Blues and the London Festival Orchestra. The real story is a bit more pedestrian and starts with the group working off a hefty advance from DERAM Records…

4)    Including a spouse who bore an unnerving resemblance to the husband in the song’s official music video.

5)    Ankylosing Spondylitis: An autoimmune disease involving pain and inflammation along the vertebrae – a condition much like rheumatoid arthritis and connected in no way whatsoever to ankylosaur or any other type of large lizard.

6)    The fact that it was the Moody Blues singing the song was significant as well – I doubt I’d have listened as intently to any other musician(s) with the same intensity.

1971: You Can Never Go Back Home

English majors will think first of Thomas Wolfe when encountering the title of today’s post, but the line makes me think of a song written by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues on their 1971 release Every Good Boy Does Favor.  I purchased the album in August of that year while driving with my family back to Alaska from the lower 48 and had not had access to a record player until we got to my sister Robin’s apartment in Anchorage. I spent that silent week studying the lyrics printed on the record sleeve and was very undecided about the opening lyrics to You Can Never Go Home Anymore”

  I don’t know what I’m looking for

I never have opened the door

Tomorrow might find me at last

Turning my back on the past

My family would be parting company the next morning with my parents and younger sisters driving on home to Sterling and my older sister Robin staying in Anchorage while  would be taking the train to Fairbanks, my first year at college and my adult life.

I really wasn’t going back home.

The departure wasn’t as traumatic as it could have been. I’d been away from home many times before; youth conferences, Boy’s State – even flying by myself to California and back more than once – these all had given me the experience to take change in stride. I’d even been on a family trip to Fairbanks once before to take in the 1967 Alaska Centennial exhibition so I would be on familiar turf.  I was also counting on plenty of built-in friends, people I knew from living in Anchorage and others I’d met through the aforementioned trips and activities.

Even so my departure would have been even easier had it come a year earlier. Growing up as a service brat meant moving a lot; you learned to make yourself at home quickly and then move on just as easily. Since moving north in 1962 I’d lived in three different homes and attended four different schools so I’d little opportunity to put down roots – I felt more like a displaced California kid than an Alaskan boy. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I began to feel like a dyed-in-the-wool Kenai Peninsula rat content spending the rest of my life living between Turnagain Pass and the Homer Spit.  However, economic realities of the time required training or schooling beyond what was available locally, so I was off to the University of Alaska.

It was also a period of transition for higher education – while most jobs did not require a four-year degree the Vietnam conflict was running hot and the draft was in place. This meant more young men were going to school to get that all-important 2S Deferment, so college enrollments were on the rise. As I rode the train north I could see that most of the other passengers were also headed for college and that a lot of them were edgy about this new phase in their life….or was it that deferment?

I suppose I was a bit smug as I sat and watched the others; living away from home as part of a large institution held no terror for me.  I was sure I’d easily find my way around campus and based on the 1967 family visit navigating around the city of Fairbanks itself would also be easy. According to my parents this included getting to church, but it didn’t seem likely that my shadow would be regularly crossing that doorstep any time soon. While I had always been blessed with a knowledge of God’s existence, I had serious church issues, a few of them doctrinal, but most of them social. As I grew up church attendance had been compulsory which was particularly galling as our little congregation in Soldotna had not been a safe place for me.  That resentment had combined with the usual adolescent chafing brought on by the “shalls” and “shalt nots”; my plan was that once I left home I would to go to church once or twice (so I could answer in the affirmative to my mom’s inevitable questions) then slowly extract myself from activity and start a new life.

…. a new life that was well on the way to starting the minute the train arrived at Fairbanks, when I promptly:

  • moved into my dormitory room
  • plastered the walls with black light posters depicting “healthy” barbarian women
  • registered for classes
  • started seeing Molly, a charming young lady from Anchorage
  • got caught up in playing intramural football on Sundays

Everything seemed to be going to plan up to the point where I ran into the brick wall – or cement floor to be precise. It happened after a dance held during orientation when a disagreement with a former high school classmate turned physical1. Unfortunately the bruises and scrapes from bouncing off doors, walls and floor of the Moore/Bartlett/Skarland complex entry way weren’t nearly as distressing as losing just about all my friends. Molly was very cool to the idea of dating someone apparently prone to brawling and my former friends from Kenai lined up behind the other guy and stopped talking to me.

My shiny new life had fallen apart.

By the middle of the first week of instruction I was climbing the walls. While my roommate and the other floor occupants were nice enough, most  conversations ended with a three-minute pitch on why I should be smoking weed with them2. Other than discussing syllabus and textbook requirements nothing was happening in my classes, so I couldn’t really throw myself into schoolwork. After spending a few afternoons looking for patterns in the acoustic tiles on the ceiling above my bed I took the bus into town.

As I mentioned, I was already familiar the down-town area, but after hiking a mile out to the hobby shop and back there wasn’t much to fill the time until the last bus later that evening. With no particular destination in mind I started walking again and was startled a half-hour later to find myself going past the Monroe & Minnie chapel. The late afternoon sun was warm and my feet were really starting to ache so I walked up the cement steps and sat down next to the front door. For a moment I smirked at the irony of the situation – I’d gone off to college trying to escape church and now I was sitting on the front steps, but I had to admit I was feeling more comfortable and relaxed there than at any other place since I stepped off the train two weeks before.

If I were writing an article for the ENSIGN, this would be the point at which I started to fervently pray – but it was more like a conversation with myself while God listened in on the extension.  I actually hadn’t been doing much praying because I didn’t want Heavenly Father to tell me to not do things that I wanted to do – a spiritual version of  sticking my fingers in my ears and chanting “ LA-LAL-LA-LA-I-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU-LA-LA-LA!” or the way I would  carefully edit what I’d tell my parents about my extracurricular “activities” rationalizing that a half-truth was better than an out-and-out lie. What my youthful hubris kept me from realizing was that I wasn’t fooling Him one bit and that maybe His plans for my life were different than my own.

As the sun continued to sink towards the horizon the air got a little cooler, so I stood up and stretched – and heard some indistinct sounds from inside the church. I checked my watch (5:30) and I wondered if Mutual (youth meetings) met on Wednesdays so I checked the door and found it unlocked.  After a self-inflicted eye-roll I eased through the door and into the foyer where I found two young ladies sitting on the floor against one of the walls. They were seniors at Lathrop High School and after walking over to the church they’d taken a quick snooze to rest up for a “Get Acquainted” dance due to start in about an hour. One of the girls I knew in passing from youth conference while the other one…

…was someone that I really, really wished I already knew as well. Bearing a strong resemblance to my friend Marie3 back in Soldotna, she was fair-haired and petite with umber eyes that played to my weakness for brown-eyed blondes.

Hmmmm.

About a month later…

I was sitting in church, the petite brown-eyed blond on the pew next to me. We were on our way to becoming Best Friends, a development that I did not see coming, but welcome just as the overall improvement in my life was greatly appreciated. I also liked where I was sitting – this congregation definitely was a safe place. The members had been very welcoming and warm towards me and I knew I was where I had always wanted to be.

I had enough fun at the dance to prompt my appearance at regular church meetings the following Sunday where I ran into Lance, Gwen and other friends from past youth conferences. During the intervening weeks a disastrous visit back home to the peninsula was met with an icy reception by former friends, and convinced me that the future was here with college and my new circle of friends…

…who became almost as important to me as a newly reacquired spiritual awareness.

Between sermons, motivational speakers and inspirational posters I’ve gotten the message that you can’t blame all your shortcomings on other people – but at the same time there’s something to be said about the negative effect of growing up with never-ending criticism and ridicule in a place that was supposed to embody divine love. There was also the stress of trying to reconcile what I was taught to be proper behavior with the open-secret off-hours antics of men who were supposed to be my role models.

It brought to mind the an old saying “I could not hear what you said because your actions shout so loudly!”  4 To me that statement had added weight: Early in life I learned that I didn’t get smacked as often if I paid more attention to a person’s body language and actions than to what they were saying. At the same time, I learn mainly through analogy and patterning, so verbal presentation of abstract concepts can often come across as someone speaking French – I can piece together a little bit of the information but most of the meaning is lost.

What I was starting to figure out was not particularly Gallic in nature, and therein was hope.  I decided to try and have more “conversations with myself with God on the extension” and would try reading and studying in the hope of gaining faith, the difference being that this time it wasn’t to keep my parents or even my new Best Friend happy….

…. this time it was for me.

 


 

1.He had given me a hard time all the way through high school and after a couple of very improper comments to Molly I thought to myself “I’m not going put up with  another four years of this” and punched him in the nose. He then proceeded to mop the floor with me. Did I mention that he was an All-State, 4-year letterman in wrestling and had at least three inches on me? Definitely not a good choice on my part.

2. See 1972: A Different Kind of Bug Dope.

3. See 1971: Alaskan Graffiti.

4. A line that had to have been written by someone who grew up in a bi-polar household.

CPT Ron Fernstedt’s Last Jump

Despite the common uniform relations between active and reserve components of the Army are not always the most cordial, a fact I soon learned upon assignment to 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (ABN) Utah National Guard. It was January of 1984 and had just been assigned as the battalion S-2 (Intelligence) after four years of active duty and I was finding reception by the other officers to be decidedly cool.

The ink was still damp on my orders when I had an administrative hot potato dropped in my lap, specifically a Line of Duty (LOD) investigation. Whenever a reservist is injured while on drill an LOD must be completed to verify the conditions surrounding the injury and eligibility for future medical coverage. Never an easy task, this particular LOD investigation was a particularly complex and critical situation because of the timing and circumstances of the injury in question. I also happened to be the third officer assigned to the case, the previous two begging off because of conflict of interest, hair in need of a wash or some other flimsy excuse.

It was while I was struggling with this LOD that I first met Ron Fernstedt. The solider in question was a member of his team and as far as I could tell the investigation wasn’t looking good for this soldier. Ron stormed in one day and with his face set (in the way only Ron could manage) and demanding fair treatment for his subordinate. While not nearly as forceful I replied that I was doing the best job I knew how to do and that his sergeant would get an honest and fair investigation.

The room got quiet as our eyes locked. Several thoughts came to mind:

  • My path to the nearest exit
  • Money available for an emergency room visit
  • …and if I ever lost my axe this guy’s face was hard enough to make an excellent replacement

A minute passed, Ron’s face softened an iota and he spoke:

“You’re Deitrick – the new S2 here. You just came off active duty – right?”

I replied with a witty rejoinder: “Urk – yeah”

“They’ve dumped this grenade in your lap with the pin half-pulled and you’ve probably never seen, much less completed a National Guard line-of-duty investigation before”

Again, the clever quip: “Urk!”

The change was imperceptible, but there was change nonetheless. He became just a little less confrontational and a little more helpful as he realized that I had been put in just a precarious position as his team member. He helped me through the maze of National Guard Bureau and Utah National Guard regulations that had me completely baffled and eventually the LOD investigation was resolved in a less-than-total win for his subordinate, but it was a resolution that was totally fair and according to regulation.

It was pattern that in my experience would repeat itself every time I worked with Ron. He had a larger-than-life personality and definitely played to win, but at the same time his actions were tempered with a sense of justice and expertly camouflaged compassion. He had a strong set of standards to live by but wasn’t ostentatious about the matter.

He was like my favorite uncle – he could be a little scary, but I always knew where I stood with him, that he was looking for my best interests and that we were all safe in every sense when he was on watch. He took his Last Jump to a better life earlier this week while standing on his feet –  a soldier to the last – and we will all be a little poorer because of the loss.

1975: A Better Christmas

I have yet to utter my traditional Yuletide greeting (“I >bleep< hate Christmas!”) but I have found that to be the case as I have been  drifting through this emotional wasteland known as December as I have every year since 1966.  You’d think with my Arctic upbringing I’d at least like the weather, but I don’t. It just seems like the recurring irritants of life intensity during the closing of the year, things like:

  • Financial strain
  • Homesickness
  •  Disagreements with my Beautiful Saxon Princess over correct holiday traditions
  • …the fact that every disaster in my life has happened during the closing-of-the-year holidays

I’m not kidding. Disaster seeks out my Christmas like a starving eagle circles a bunny burrow – and we’re not talking about minor things like a stubbed toe or getting the Power Droid instead of Carbonite Han Solo in my stocking. We’re talking major life-changing events such as:

  • My father dying
  • My mother dying
  • Narrowly avoiding death while totaling my dad’s car
  • Losing a job (more than once)
  • Disfiguring facial surgery
  • The unexpected end to an engagement
  • Revocation of flight status while on active duty

All these (and more) happened between Thanksgiving and MLK day, so please excuse me for flinching when I turn to that last page in the calendar.

It wasn’t always that way. I can remember Yuletide seasons in Little Shasta Valley and Anchorage that were truly wonderful but as I started into my teens the line on my Joyeux Noel Index started inching down until it hit rock bottom in December of 1973, the year I spent the holidays with my grandparents right after my engagement folded. Grandma and Grandpa had stopped the tree and gift routine years earlier so when I showed up at their doorstep on the morning of December 22d they really didn’t know what to do with me. Christmas consisted of dinner and a surreptitious glass of wine at my Uncle Roy’s vacation cabin on Donner Lake.

1974 wasn’t much better. I was in the seventh month of my “bicycle penance” – missionary service that by its innate spiritual nature was supposed to sew my broken heart back together, but it just wasn’t happening.  The city I was working had the same name as my former Best Friend (Lynn, Massachusetts) and I was training a new missionary with a bad attitude who took his frustrations out on me. The weather was also most uncooperative; I had envisioned a picture postcard New England holiday with white snow drifts blanketing cozy salt-box homes with colorful lights blinking in the windows; what I got was a gritty industrial city where rain came as often as snow, creating an environment that:

  • Soaked you to your skin in the space of minutes
  • Slushed up the roads, making just the act of walking around a chore
  • Gave those people we would tract out another great reason to slam the door

…all of which added to the extremely self-absorbed attitude I already had. We were also collectively balking at a new proselytizing procedure the mission president had just introduced so the result was a totally wasted Christmas. I spent the day grumbling around the apartment feeling sorry for myself and making the day a contender for the worst Christmas of my entire life.

Christmas of 1975 was a little different; sometime during the previous twelve months while walking the width and length of New England I’d grown up a bit and became a little less self-absorbed.   I had just been transferred to the small country town of Littleton, Massachusetts and assigned a problem elder for a companion, though I soon learned that Elder Neyland’s problems were more a question of ability than attitude. He had multiple severe learning and social disabilities – to the degree that he would have not been called on a mission under the criteria used for today’s missionaries.  It was like being teamed up with a thirteen-year-old cousin – the one with Asperger’s Syndrome –  and within three days it was obvious that negotiating the last two weeks in December was going to be a bumpy ride.

Still –  the morning of December 23rd didn’t seem all that different when I got up but then I really wasn’t interested in doing anything other than wasting the next couple of days away. Then as I was daydreaming at my desk the phone rang and pulled me back into consciousness by the voice of my mission president calling to confirm a day-trip I would be making to FT Devens in January to attend to an ROTC scholarship application. After exchanging information and confirming dates he hesitated for a minute, and then said, “While I’ve got you on the line I’d like to talk to you about your situation”.  I rolled my eyes – having President Ross rattle off the list my character flaws was not my idea of fun – “by this point in time you’ve undoubtedly that discovered Elder Neyland is a little different from most other missionaries.”

I groaned inwardly – “a little different” barely scratched the surface o but I continued to listen as President Ross went on to talk about Elder Neyland. It was actually important information: Neyland was getting little to no support from his parents, he was functionally illiterate, and his personal challenges made him so difficult to live and work with that changes in companions and areas happened more often than usual for him. Ross went on: “As I was considering his situation in light of the holidays I realized that there had to be one individual that could get him successfully through his first Christmas in the mission field – and when I turned to the assignment board your tag literally fell off the wall.  I felt strongly prompted to move you to Littleton for the holidays.”

  At first, I felt mostly disbelief tinged with cynicism; up to this point in time President Ross and I had mixed together much like oil and water, but as a good portion of my aforementioned “growing up” entailed learning to simply shut up when needed, the balance of my conversation with the mission president was uncharacteristically productive. After ringing off I stayed sitting by the phone and thought through the situation very carefully. Since turning twenty my life had been a series of disasters and while changing that trend had been one of the major reasons I’d gone on a mission it still seemed like my road in life had more than its share of land-mines. I’d read once that the definition of insanity was the act of  repeating the same actions yet expecting a different outcome. Maybe babysitting Neyland would change my luck.

My change in direction kicked off at 5:30 the next morning when I got up early and made Elder Neyland pancakes for breakfast. For most of the day we kept close to our regular schedule, but I made sure that we worked in the more heavily decorated parts of town and as we tromped through the slush I’d prompt him to talk about his family celebrated Christmas when he was a child.

I continued cooking for him for both lunch and dinner, playing a cassette full of Christmas carols during both meals, then we spent the rest of the day taking cards and presents to people that we had been teaching. Upon our return home we helped our elderly land-lady trim her tree until 10:30 when I all but barricaded Neyland in his bedroom so I could set up Christmas for him in our front room.

I was thoroughly exhausted when I turned in, but sleep was the furthest thing from my mind, so I got up and sat at my desk and tried to alternately read scriptures and a facsimile copy of the first edition of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. That lasted all of seven minutes, so I traded the books for my two best friends; Messrs. Paper & Pencil. At first, I started sketching, but in between images of linebackers, Iron Man and the starship Enterprise I started listing some of the thoughts bouncing around in my head:

  • Teaching abstract theological doctrine might be a good part of my job description but it wasn’t giving me much job satisfaction in return.
  • In contrast, doing something for another person – rendering service – most definitely punched my job satisfaction buttons.
  • Giving service to someone I wasn’t too terribly fond of in the first place did an even better job of punching those buttons – and made it easier to be kinder in the future.
  • For the first time in months – maybe years – I felt…happy!

I’d like to say that the clouds opened, and heavenly choirs stared singing praise to my faith and wisdom but all I could hear was the dog barking Jingle bells on our land-lady’s radio downstairs…and when I was able to shove my cynicism aside I had to admit that despite the lack of presents or attention from my own family it had been a good day

…and possibly the best Christmas of my life.

1982: “Good Luck!”

It’s not always easy to make friends while serving as a lieutenant in the Army.  With as few as a dozen officers in a battalion – and half of them higher-ranking your pool of available buddies is small. It can also be tough finding others with similar outside interests – common occupation doesn’t always mean common avocation, so once in awhile you make friends across the officer/enlisted gap. Most of time it’s not a good situation to be in – as an officer it is important to avoid the fraternization trap and retain that commitment edge necessary to good leadership.

SSG James Bradley and I managed to avoid those pitfalls.

For starters we were in different units and didn’t normally work together during the day. When we did interact was “Lieutenant Deitrick” and “Sergeant Bradley” and everything was conducted according to regulation. Off-duty it was “Dave” and “Jim”.

Jim and his wife Jane attended church at the same congregation but in addition to our common faith we shared interest in speculative fiction, military history, computers and Monty Python – but the best overlap in interests was our collective love for the outdoors. At least one Saturday a month was spent climbing, biking, hiking or rafting over whatever parcel of Alaskan forest we could reach. Most of the time our activities were moderately adventurous but once in a while we’d end up in a situation almost beyond our abilities. Such was the case when we decided to raft down Moose Creek, a tributary of the Matanuska River not quite ten smiles upstream from the town of Palmer.

Lively discussion was the norm for any time spent with Jim and Jane and this trip was no exception. Most of the talk revolved around the evolution of outdoors etiquette – the way people acted and interacted on hiking trails or campgrounds. We all agreed that there had been a change for the worse in the previous five years and I saw that where once I felt I could count on the kindness of strangers in the wild I now had to constantly stay on guard against the chance that unknown person might try to kill me and ravage my wife into the bargain.

Similar sentiments were voiced but discussion broke off as we reached the turn-off to Moose Creek.  After parking and unloading our raft and supplies Jim and I spent several moments studying a map of the area. It showed a fork in the creek just downstream from our position and as I read that note I remembered that one of the two forks was much more suited for rafting than the other, so we flipped a coin and chose the east fork.

As the first deadfall loomed across the creek minutes later we realized we’d chosen the wrong fork. We all ducked down into the raft as it barely squeezed under the tree, then repeated the action three more times in rapid succession before the raft was stopped against a fallen tree too large to allow us to get past. We hopped out and shuffled people, supplies and raft around the jam and started out again.

The creek made a lazy curve to the right towards the river and seconds later we hit the biggest jam of them all. Several trees of various diameter were jammed together with the flow of water forced through a half-dozen gaps. We hit the log-jam so hard that I saw stars, and when my vision cleared I saw that Jim, Jane and Lori had managed to get to the close-by bank with our supplies.

On the other hand, I was semi-stuck on the raft. The contour of jam combined with the tremendous flow of water had the raft turned almost vertical against the logs; I was standing on the front buoyancy cell of the raft, facing the logs with the bottom of the raft at my back. I was spared a dunking by gaps in the log-jam that directed the water away from me, so I was able to climb up out of my little pocket in a mostly dry condition.

After tying a safety line to the raft, I stepped over to Jim and the girls for a conference. There was no way we were ever going to get that raft out of the creek – the volume and velocity of the water-flow combined with the Pick-up Stix ® pile of fallen trees comprising the jam made it difficult to grab the raft at any point other than the eyelet when I had tied the safety line. It was the afternoon of a midsummer Alaskan day, so we should have had plenty of light, but clouds had moved in which would end up allowing only limited light to work by that evening. I was beginning to think that the best course of action would be to just leave the raft and forfeit the damage deposit when we heard a loud thrashing in the brush across the river.

Three of the scruffiest men I have ever seen pushed their way through the thick willows crowding the opposite bank of the creek. One of them was carrying a chainsaw, two of them were smoking and all three were unshaven and slightly scowling. One of the smokers looked over at me – and as his gaze shifted very pointedly at the holstered pistol on my belt couldn’t help but recall the “kill me/ravage my wife” discussion we’d had in the car earlier.

Then the entire situation changed.

The expressions on all three of their faces softened and one of them called out “Hey, are you guys OK? We heard some yelling and got worried that someone was hurt” He went on to explain that they were three locals that had gotten permission to look for down/dead timber to cut up for firewood. At that point Jim jumped into the conversation and the five of us worked out a plan for eliminating the deadfall and releasing the raft. Unfortunately, the tremendous pressure of the water had pulled the knot in the safety line so tight that it had literally melted together.

We’d already failed at trying to pull the raft back out, so the only solution was to put one person in the raft, cut the rope, and have that occupant guide the raft to the side of the creek as soon as possible. Jim won the coin toss and climbed into the raft with a paddle while I stationed myself at the safety line, knife at the ready. Jim looked over and gave me a thumbs up; I responded with a hearty “Good Luck”, cut the line and the raft shot down the creek like a rocket, with me splashing along the creek bed afterwards.

The story ended well enough – Jim and I got the raft beached before he hit the river and the girls showed up carrying our supplies. After leaning the raft up as a windbreak, we had lunch, then spent a few minutes talking and resting before taking the raft back to the car and going home.

During our after-dinner discussion we collectively came up with the following conclusions

  1. You can’t always judge by appearances; the three guys we took to be thugs turned out to be just the help we needed in a pinch1
  2. “Good Luck” was probably the corniest thing I could have said when cutting the safety line
  3. Our next outdoor adventure was happening on dry land.

  1. Whenever we tell this story we refer to those guys as “The Three Nephites that Smoke and Carry a Chainsaw”

 

1981: Tie A Yellow Ribbon

BrimFrost

I am slow at picking up slang. For example, it was in early 1985 that I first heard someone use the term “awesome” for describing something less monumental than Hoover Dam or Pamela Anderson’s upper story. I never used the term myself until about a week ago – and when I did my daughter all but threw a party for me. Her congratulatory remarks:  “Daddy – you’re trying to use slang” were delivered in the same tone of voice as entreaties to her four-year old in his delinquent potty-training efforts.

It took an entire episode of The Big Bang Theory for me to learn the meaning of “earworm”. What I took to be yet another Star Trek reference was instead a term referring to a snippet of an almost-forgotten tune that drives you crazy as you try to remember the song’s title. I rarely suffer from such a dilemma but I do battle a similar problem, something I call an “ear cobra” – a song played over and over so many times that I am driven to suspect that the DJ’s playlist is shorter than my afore-mentioned grandson’s attention span. Such was the case when we listened to the radio while encamped at Clear Creek Alaska during JRX Brim Frost 1981 and heard the Tony Orlando tune “Tie a Yellow Ribbon (Round the Old Oak Tree)” played on the radio over and over and over…..One day earlier the American hostages in Iran had been freed, and while the Ayatollah’s spokesman denied any connection between the timing of the release and Reagan’s inauguration it didn’t take a genius to connect the dots between their release and the hawkish stance of the new administration. However, politics had little to do with the way radio stations were continuously playing “Yellow Ribbon” as a token of the nation’s collective joy, but as the song was endlessly repeated my mood went quickly from “that’s nice” to “that’s irritating” to “that’s REALLY p*ssng me off” so my tent mates took to hiding the radio whenever I came in from the cold.

However, the problem wasn’t the song. It was the view.

Daylight in February is a rare commodity when you’re standing in the snow at a point less than two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. As I stood at the barbed wire perimeter and faced north I could see the lights of downtown Fairbanks; if I was very careful and double-checked the map I could just make out lights at the University of Alaska1 where a decade earlier I had stood next to the window in my warm, snug dormitory room and looked south in the general direction of all those crazy soldiers camped out in sub-zero weather. As I looked north in 1981 I had to wonder what my reaction would have been back then had I known that one day I would be one of those aforementioned “crazy G.I.s”.

I doubt it would have been complimentary. With my family’s strong military tradition and my own large dose of transpersonal commitment I was nowhere close to the deep antiwar/antimilitary feeling held by my classmates, but I did have some concerns with the situation in Southeast Asia. Unbiased information was scarce in those pre-Internet days but I studied both sides of the issue as best as I could…and still came away confused.

Ten years before that time of confusion I had no doubts at all. As I boy in the Anchorage of 1962 I was living in as army-friendly environment as you could get.  America was enjoying a healthy economy and it was less than twenty years since we’d collectively handed Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo their respective a**es at the end of the Second World War.  Pop music was full of positive references to “soldier boys”, TV schedules were loaded with programs like McHale’s Navy and The Lieutenant, and all the Christmas catalogs were filled with war toys. At the time the only problem I had with the military was wondering what “Checkmate King Two – this is White Rook” meant when Sergeant Saunders barked it into his walkie-talkie on Combat! every Monday night.

As I stood in the 1981 snow and looked at the city lights to the north I mentally hopped back and forth over those ten year increments.

  • My inner ten year old was ecstatic at the idea of being an officer in the army.
  • The college freshman was wistful as he looked north to the site of the beginning of his adult life and his first real love.
  • The twenty-something lieutenant was baffled by a post Viet-nam hollow army that bore slight resemblance to the soldiers I admired as a boy.
  • The grounded aviator was wondering why he was in the army at all.
  • The young father worried about his children’s future in light of global tension brought on by the recent Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

I turned and walked back to camp. It was the last week of the exercise; I was physically exhausted and a bit sluggish from a steady diet of C rations, but there would be little chance of a rest during the redeployment back to FT Richardson. We’d been blessed with relatively mild temperatures2 during the exercise but the long Alaskan winter nights would still complicate our tasks as we were forced to grope in the dark for tools, tents and tires. As we went into the last 36 hours on the ground it all became a blur as I took on more and more tasks, simultaneously preparing load plans for our flights south and supervising my troops as we broke camp and took down our defensive perimeter.

The corners of my mouth and fingernails became cracked and sore. My eyes ached and burned with that odd warm feeling that only extended wakefulness can bring on. The mental debate between childhood idealism and current cynicism was being steadily crowded out by a fatigue-fueled anger until I found myself with one fist clenched and the other one grabbing the collar of a soldier that had been slacking off to the detriment of his comrades.

“L.T. – why doncha let me take care of this” I felt my platoon sergeant’s hand on my shoulder as he quietly kept me from making a career-killing punch-in-the-throat. “You probably should check on the guys filling in foxholes and salvaging concertina.3 

“and cool off some” I mentally added to his words

I walked back out to the perimeter for one more look north at the University but rather than cooling off I became even more angry; again I knew that the anger was fueled by fatigue but I didn’t care. In my twenty-something conceit I felt that I had been singled out by life and cheated, though I was at a loss to coherently state what I had been cheated out of.

I was startled into a state of awareness by the sound of something moving toward me through the snow-covered brush. Two weeks earlier a ground surveillance team had observed a bear ambling around just outside the perimeter, the warm weather having fooled his internal calendar into thinking that spring was near. Cursing the rule against carrying live ammunition during field exercises I mentally fumbled/figured the odds between a folding Buck knife and a bear’s claws when one of my soldiers burst through the willows and stood next to me on the ridge.

“Heya sir – you doing OK?” Near-ursine size and a flat Minnesota accent identified the soldier as SP4 Newville, one of the better soldiers in my platoon and a ace truck driver that could get an M35A2 2 ½ ton truck through any kind of terrain or weather.

 “Boy this back-haul is a bitch doncha know?”

I muttered something.

Pointing north towards Fairbanks he continued: “So – Sarge says you went ta college up there. Betcha that was sumpin! You know – ‘Sex, drugs, rock & roll’ and all that stuff?”

I muttered again, trying to discourage further conversation but Newville either missed or ignored the cue and went on.

“Listen Sir – this ain’t like listening to no ‘Stairway ta Heaven’ but I thought you’d enjoy it”

He extended his paw hand: In it was a can of 7-UP – and in that moment a carbonated beverage changed my whole world.

While setting up our tents at the beginning of the exercise I had shared a childhood story about my older sister’s pranks and how they always involved 7-UP as bait. I had even recreated an experiment in creating a home brew version of the Uncola with Alka-Seltzer and sugar that failed just as miserably in 1981 as it had in 1961, and had ended the demonstration with the comment that soft drinks were just as inaccessible at our remote airhead as they were in my childhood home. Together the story and demonstration took at most ten minutes but that was long enough to prompt Newville to give up desperately needed shut-eye in order to make a side-trip to a convenience store as he drove all night to collect infantrymen scattered over the area of operations. It was a lesson in Christ-like service that got the point across better than any sermon or scripture.

I popped the tab and took a gulp, the cold sweet carbonated water shocking me back to a more alert state. I mentally made a new list:

  • Even if there had been a few more marks in the “down” column of my life than in the “up” category, I had always been able to stand back up after each time I was knocked down.
  • While Fairbanks was the cradle for the worst heartbreak of my young life it was also the birthplace of my true understanding of God, family and friendship.
  • Maybe my cross-country trips were now made in a jeep at an altitude of three feet instead of helicopter at a thousand but I’d have never known or learned how to lead men like Newville if my career had kept me flying.
  • …and maybe I’ll never be as cool as SGT Saunders, but I had something he’d never match: A two-year old son, another on the way, and my smoking hot Saxon Princess sweetheart that had crusty CW4 introducing themselves to a lowly second lieutenant just on the off- chance that she’d shake their hand..

========================================================================

  1. There was no UAF, UAA or UAJ when I first went off to college in 1971. We were “the” University of Alaska and all those other places were community colleges.
  2. The weather had been so unseasonably warm that the ground started getting soft. There were doubts that the airstrip at Clear Creek would stay frozen enough to support the large number of C-130’s taking off and landing during deployment/redeployment.
  3. Concertina: a type of barbed wire that was stamped out of very thin steel. It was issued in tight rolls that would expand or contract like a small accordion (hence the name) at the most inopportune time. Also called razor blade wire.

1969: Amber Skies

Every autumn the air over Clarksville is permeated by a slight aromatic amber haze; a seasonal smoke that is a holdover from the days when Big Tobacco was a lot bigger than it is now. The smoke comes from tobacco leaves being processed by local farmers ; even though in these more health-conscious times there aren’t as many plants to handle, the burn-off is still there and you can’t help but notice it when you first go out in the morning. However, that tinge of smoke and the amber cast to the sky means something very different to me – it takes me back to the Kenai Peninsula and the summer of 1969 when it seemed like forest fires were blazing everywhere. Fires were nothing new for us on the Last Frontier – our homestead was in the middle of a barren stretch of land from a major fire in 1947 – but that summer it seemed like there were more fires burning for longer periods of time and threatening a larger number of people.

One large fire took a big chunk out of the middle of the Kenai Peninsula Moose Range, stretching from the Swanson River oilfield all the way across the middle of the Peninsula to the city of Kenai1. The fire eventually reached a point about four miles from our home and when the winds came from the west it would sometimes carry flaming embers to our homestead. Since only the smallest embers were light enough to be carried that far, they weren’t really much of a threat, but we’d had a dryer-than-usual spring with little precipitation that transformed trees and other vegetation into amazingly dry tinder, so we weren’t taking any chances. Under those conditions my primary family chore was to keep the garden hose handy and soak anything that looked “hot”, even to the point of climbing up on top of the house and hosing down the roof daily as a precaution.

It was a scary summer. The sky was always tinted amber and there was a constant whiff of smoke in every breath you’d take. I’d get that good whiff as I’d leave in morning for the Neighborhood Youth Corps2 job that had me working at a little museum just off of what is now the intersection of College Lane and Kalifornsky Road3, and while I certainly liked having a job, leaving the homestead to go to work each day was a little nerve-wracking. At every break I’d check radio reports for any fire news and while I was actually working I’d keep an eye on the sky in the direction of my home just to be sure. The end of the work day brought little respite; as I hitchhiked home every driver I’d meet seemed unable to talk about anything but the fires and how they seemed to be getting worse.

Stress for me didn’t peak until the end of summer when funding for my NYC job ran out and I had little to do other than hang around the homestead waiting for school to start. Rumors of evacuation were thicker than the summer mosquitoes and were often accompanied by unofficial reports of looters stealing from houses left unattended by people giving the evacuation order a head start. I was less than thrilled when Mom decided to leave me to guard the homestead against looters real or imagined when she took my little sisters to Anchorage to shop for school clothes. Looking back, there wasn’t much else she could do – they needed to make the trip but Dad was gone, having hired on with a local guide to cook for a hunting expedition in a mountain range up in the Interior…and for some unknown reason he was staying to finish the trip rather than come home to deal with the fire threat so it fell to me to take care of the place in Mom’s absence.4

 I was restless the first two nights alone  as I curled up on the front-room hide-a-bed with Dad’s 12 gauge shotgun and .38 revolver close at hand.  When it became clear that I wouldn’t be fighting off hordes of looting zombies I felt comfortable enough to divert my attention to spending more of my time reading while listening to the epic Blood, Sweat and Tears album and thinking thoughts more serious than usual.

I figured that if the fire got any worse there was at least a 50/50 chance we would be moving. I was going into my third year of high school putting me perilously close to adulthood and starting my life’s work. The draft was on and the war in Viet-Nam was in full swing so it looked like I was being herded into a decision, the first big decision in my life that I couldn’t weasel my way around or “out of”. The thought of moving was so unnerving that I closed up the hide-a-bed and retreated back to sleeping in the comfortable surroundings of my little attic bedroom where I’d drift off to slumber while my stereo was still playing…

…Blood, Sweat and Tears.

 It was my first “album-crush” My initial reaction to it was indifference, but through a combination of physical distance from the record player and sheer laziness I sat through it a couple of times and found that I really, really liked it. It was one of the first serious records in my collection, serious as in it wasn’t  just a collection of greatest hits, and I found myself listening analytically, savoring each note and pause. Rather than simply conjuring up memories connected to each song, the music prompted new thinking.5

….then before I knew it Mom and my little sisters were back from Anchorage, followed closely by Dad returning from his hunting trip, so I was free to go to Youth Conference. Normally one of my favorite events, Youth Conference that year was kind of a miss; mostly because I had to join in mid-stream after the activities had started. It felt a little “hollow” to me as well – none of my past Youth Conference friends were in attendance…and it was also difficult to feel much concern about what workshop to take or which girl to dance with when a week earlier I had been going to bed wondering if I’d still have a home to live in the next morning.

2017

There was a happy ending to this story: The fires were contained and never came too terribly close to our home on Scout Lake Loop Road. The forest has grown up to be very lush and full around the house, giving it quite a different look from the flat, open space that existed there when I was young. The move away from the Peninsula never happened, in fact nearly fifty years later there are still Deitricks living on the homestead now, my sister Heather and her son Jesse having moved in when they came to care for my mom in the last year of her life.

As I write this it is the wrong time of year for Clarksville’s version of amber skies – it’s spring rather than autumn, but I find that I am feeling the same unsettled feeling that I had all those years ago. In two weeks I will turn sixty-four which places me right in the middle of the 55-to-dead demographic and if that wasn’t unsettling enough I’ve lost many dear ones, including my mother and my dog in the last nine months. I find it difficult to shake off a mood of finality similar to what I felt when the threat of losing our home loomed and I have to wonder how long do I have before that other, more profound unavoidable issue of “moving” will confront me.

I won’t have much latitude in that decision either.

——————————————————————————————————————————-

1: Not everyone ended up as lucky as we were. Several of my friends from school got burned out – including Glenda, a most foxy freshman girl sitting in front of me in typing class. Our first assignment was to type our name and address, but as we all start hunting and pecking away she started to sniffle, and then explained that she didn’t have an address any more.

2: NYC – Neighborhood Youth Corps: A federal jobs program for teenagers put into place by President Nixon. Similar in aim and operation to Depression era programs like the WPA or CCC, the NYC provided work to a lot of kids during the late 60s/early 70s. The jobs paid $1.75 an hour for 30 hours a week and ran for 90 days in the summer and usually involved maintenance of government and community projects.

3: Back then it was spelled “Kalifonsky”. Sometime in the early 1980’s borough planners restored an “R” that had been somehow deleted when the road signs were made in the pre-borough, pre-pavement days 25 years earlier.

4: Had Dad known the situation he would have returned immediately, but the guide he was working for didn’t want to lose a prime cook, so he “censored” any fire reports out of the news from home.  It was the last time Dad cooked for him.

5: Well, there was one song that definitely brought happy thoughts of times gone by. I had spent two years too nervous to test any link to Sonya Alexander past the “just friends” point, and during the last week of school I had asked her out – and she accepted! You’ve Made Me So Very Happy had been released as a single off the album and was getting heavy air-play at the time we went on that date, and I found that listening to that song brought back some nice memories.

1975: Attack of The Casseroles!

It was a marvelous opportunity to start over, to re-energize myself. After spending close to eight months (a third of my mission!) dealing with the challenges of missionary work in Lynn, Massachusetts I was finally being transferred to Skowhegan Maine. That little mill town would prove to have its own set of challenges and rewards, but I loved being there, if for nothing else because people both in and out of the congregation seemed to latch on to me as well. I’d like to think the esteem came from my excellence as a teacher and diligence in the work, but looking back it probably had something to do with pity and the fact that I came from one of the very few parts of the nation that could get colder than Maine.

When I first arrived I was a I was a little unsure– as I left Massachusetts everyone told me that “Maniacs” were very stand-offish and that I would not be accepted for at least the first three months…which kind of confused me when the first Sunday in town had me praying for an arm sling after being rather energetically greeted with energetic handshakes by everyone in the congregation.  I was a bit confused because the members of the Skowhegan congregation were every bit as friendly as the ones I had left behind in the Lynnfield (MA) ward.

The light dawned after my companion and I had been working in the area for about a month and our arrival at meetings on Sunday began to resemble a VJ day ticker-tape parades down Madison Avenue. The nay-sayers in my first area had been correct and my reception had been a bit cool when I first arrived; it’s just that the Maine version of standoffishness had the same warmth as the Massachusetts version of high regard.

…and it wasn’t just the congregation. The townspeople in general were just as warm; merchants would give us discounts, post office personnel would make sure we got our packages quickly, and clergy from other faiths were more likely to trade funny sermon stories than contend with us over scriptural interpretations. There have been very few times/places where I felt so loved, but there was one time when I was almost loved if not to death then to a state where I wished it.

It was in the early spring at the second of two evening events at the church space two weeks apart. The first was a general dinner/social event but the second was an open house than Elder Miller and I had organized. This open house was the proverbial Big Deal – we’d worked overtime the preceding month preparing displays, inviting speakers and scheduling musical numbers, all of which was happening in conjunction with the dinner I was missing while conducting the event.

As I said I was well-loved in that little congregation and shortly was beset by a cluster of Relief Society sisters, each one holding their casserole and ladling a portion of it onto a plate that had mysteriously appeared in front of me. I didn’t want to offend anyone so I took of bite of each one – and I have never encountered such a wide array of tastes before in my life. Most of casseroles had a basic savory taste but some were salty, some were very tart and some obviously prepared by a cook of Italian extraction. A couple of them had an odd, almost gamey taste that I had heretofore only found in venison, but in this case was mostly likely TVP1. I bolted the contents of the plate as fast as I could after which my Miller and I wound up the event, took down the displays, cleaned up the multipurpose room and went home.

I was so tired that I was asleep the minute my head hit my pillow…but less than two hours later I was awake – awake and doubled up with the worst stomach ache I had ever had in my life. The stomach ache soon morphed into nausea and threw up so hard I thought I saw my socks come up. Then the “distress in the lower tract” started and I spent thirty minutes out of every hour on the commode.

It wasn’t until the Relief Society President checked on me the next morning that I figured out that I had contracted food poisoning. It had to have been one of the casseroles at the open house the night before so we checked around to make sure no one else had shared my fate…and fortunately no one had. We considered other possibilities but it always came back to the open house and when we got a second call from the Relief Society president the mystery was solved.

When women in the ward would prepare a hot-dish or casserole for a social they would cook it in a bread pan.  I’m not sure how the custom started; it may have been a cost-cutting measure but then I’d often see a family bring in more than one bread pan so it may have been a way to inject some variety into the meals. It certainly was a savior for families with several small squirmy children that would have had real trouble transporting a full sized casserole dish at the same time.  Lastly, it also may have been a tactic to speed up serving because so many pans could be heated in the meetinghouse oven at the same time.

…which is how my tummy trouble came about.

When everyone arrived for the regular church social two weeks earlier they all placed their bread pan casseroles in the oven, but when it came time to serve the food one of them was left behind – and sat in the unheated oven for two weeks until our open house. At that point the oven was again filled with the small pans, but this time ALL of them were removed and the contents served, including the one that had stayed behind a fortnight.  To my misfortune I was the only one to each part of that dish – I had to eat so quickly that evening that I passed off unusual smell or taste to (again) TVP.

I really couldn’t blame anyone for the incident. The members of the congregation were guilty of nothing worse than enthusiasm and I probably should have paid closer attention to what I was eating. Unfortunately I am by no stretch of the imagination a gourmet of any type. For me food is simply fuel and my idea of haute cuisine is extra vinaigrette sauce on my Jimmy John’s #5 so a moderate difference of aroma raised no warning flags.

The bottom line was that everyone really liked/loved Elder Deitrick – and if two hours of tummy trouble was the price for that esteem I would call it the bargain of all bargains.

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1 TVP Textured vegetable protein – an economical meat substitute that was very popular during the recession-ridden Seventies

 

1975: Mid-Winter Butterfly Collecting

skowheganzipcode

Skowhegan Maine.

I read the letter from the mission office again – Skowhegan Maine. The irony was enough to deflect a compass needle. After nine months in my first area I was finally getting a transfer to what would probably the most awkward area for me in the New England States mission – (er) the “The Massachusetts-Boston mission”. Six months earlier a more uniform system for  naming stakes, wards, districts and missions was adopted to make places easier to locate  but the new names lacked a bit of charm. Charm was the least of my worries though – a little more than a year earlier as a student at Ricks College I had become involved in a brief romantic misunderstanding with a young lady from Skowhegan and I wasn’t looking forward to the icy glares and barbed comments of her family and friends in the local congregation .

My worries were in vain; the area hadn’t had any missionaries for a couple of years so my companion and I had lots of work to keep us diverted . As was the case with most missionaries we spent most of our time tracting. Known in our mission as “dooring”, tracting entailed walking from front door to front door making cold-call approaches to whoever answered the door…which made for a very wide range in responses. I was just winding up the first third of my mission and so far while tracting I had been:

  • Threatened with a shot-gun.
  • Quizzed for two hours about numerology and alien invasion while standing on a doorstep in103 degree heat.
  • Propositioned by a nubile young lady clad in a marginally secured robe made of a very loose knit.

…none of which was likely to happen this icy month of January in Maine. Going from door to door usually meant doors that never opened to sub-zero temperatures. Oh, from time to time people would talk to us – especially when they found out that my home was in Alaska, but we soon found out that their interest had more to do with meeting someone from a colder-than-Maine locale than any interest in theological discussions.

It was also a mill town, with most of the people working in hard physical labor during the week so the last thing they were looking forward to on a Saturday morning was the sight of two young missionaries on their door-step. Soon after my arrival in town we received a mission bulletin instructing us to make Saturday mornings our primary tracting time reasoning that success in teaching improved when we met with entire families on Dad’s day off. I complied, but it had me wondering if I was the only one in the mission who had ever worked a “grown-up” job that wore you out so badly that weekends were little more than recuperation. Unfortunately the first Saturday was a disaster – the threats and caustic comments were so hard to take that Miller and I stopped knocking on the fourth door and trudged back to our attic apartment to come up with a better plan.

It turned out that the men of our local congregation had an ongoing service project clearing land for a local farmer. The wood was cleared, cut and divided into bundles and then either given to welfare aid recipients to heat their homes, or sold with profits being donated to the welfare program. As missionaries we were technically not part of the congregation and not obliged to help with the program but the locals would often drop rather broad hints about the tremendous help two strapping young men would be with such taxing labor, and it was when I was considering the latest “suggestion” the answer came to me:

  • We would help cut, haul and stack the wood on Saturday mornings.
  • The men from the local congregation would invite non-member friends to work on the project as well.
  • With those men working alongside us we could strike up low-key conversations and thus be able to report our activity as “father contacting time”.
  • The wood got cut, welfare recipients got assistance and we got smiles from our mission leaders for “working the program”.

It worked well for the first couple of weeks and those wood-cutting sessions earned us a lot of credibility when the locals saw that we could and would work and that I knew my way around woodsman’s tools. However, even though I had extensive experience with saws, axes and chain saws the congregation leaders stayed between us and any of the edged and/or power tools. No one wanted an injured missionary on their watch

Not that it would have been easy to do. As we went out on one mid-February it was “wicked cold” as they say it in New England and we were all bundled up in several layers of clothing to provide insulation against the sub-zero temperatures. The sight of all those cutting tools triggered my typical knowledge nerd response and I couldn’t help but see my clothing in the same light as the quilted cloth armor MesoAmerican warriors used as protection against the obsidian edged swords favored by the Aztecs, only in my case the quilted cloth armor looked suspiciously similar to a blue air force parka, bib overalls, flannel shirt, sweat pants and woolen long johns with galoshes over sneakers serving as boots.

I was shaken out of my reverie by an indistinct oath – the farm owner was kneeling over his chain saw where it was stuck in a tree. The weight of the tree he was cutting had shifted and put a bind on the blade; instinctively I reached over and pushed on the tree to shift its weight and free the saw’s blade. We couldn’t really talk over the bbrrrraaaappp! of the chain saw but it was pretty obvious that he was going to pull his saw out and start on another tree so I stepped back to give him room to move. At that moment we both kind of stumbled and sloshed around, during which I felt a bump on my shin. When he finally got past me I looked down and saw that all that shifting around had kicked up some mud…then I looked closer and realized that it wasn’t a reddish brown color I was seeing, it was just plain red.

Blood.

I spun around checking everyone for cuts, and then I happened to look down at the snow around my own feet.

Blood.

I started to get a little light-headed and knew that I was going into shock so I told Miller what was going on and started walking toward the house, my thoughts and surroundings swirling into that odd sort of compressed existence I call Tardis-time. Outside of my brain and body things were happening at a lightning-fast clip but inside my thinking and perceptions had slowed down to a sedate, manageable rate. I was able to clearly see everything going on, evaluate the information coming in and devise a workable plan for getting everything “fixed”.

I was feeling like a merry-go-round rider on his fifth ticket when I got to the kitchen but when people crowded around I calmly remarked “I’m going to be OK but I am going into shock for awhile”, put my head down as close as I could get to my knees and silently thanked the Lord for the advanced American Red Cross First Aid training I took the year before. Once my head was down I was able to surrpetiously inspect the wound and breathed a sigh of relief when I found out that it was much, much less serious than I had expected.

When the chain saw came back it hit my leg, but instead of hitting the back of my leg and chewing into my calf muscle the blade hit the front and bounced off the tibia, fibula or both.  I gave the wound a preliminary cleaning and wrapped it tightly after applying a fairly sloppy butterfly closure, then after consulting with the bishop we went back to the apartment to change into our regular suits before trying to find some treatment.

…which proved to be difficult. We hadn’t been totally forth-coming with the mission office about participating in the Saturday morning project, and while they were happy with our teaching numbers this was all happening during an era when full-time missionaries were discouraged from doing that sort of hairy-chested heavy labor type service.  Going to the emergency room would mean getting approval from the mission office so that was ruled out. As a military retiree’s dependent I was eligible for treatment under CHAMPUS but it appeared that there wasn’t a health care professional on duty at the time that knew what the acronym meant, much less the procedures required to get authorization. There was supposed to be a retired doctor in town that would treat missionaries free of charge but a quick phone call ruled that option out (he was wintering in the south of France).

….which is why I ended up sitting on Sister Harris’s table with my pant leg rolled up to my knee and grimacing while she cleaned the wound and closed it with another, more professional “butterfly” closure made out of surgical tape. The process of getting patched up wasn’t nearly as unpleasant at the stern lecture we got – Joyce was our surrogate aunt in Skowhegan and we could always count on her to give a totally unvarnished opinion, which in this case was very negative. She had been concerned about us working on the firewood project from day one  for the precise reason I was sitting on her table at that moment – someone could get hurt. However, as I got down from the table she gave me a light cuff on the shoulder and remarked that our willingness to get down and dirty with physical labor had gone a long way in establishing creditability in the town and our congregation.

With one look at the dimming light in the sky as we left the Harris home we decided to call it a day. As Miller and I started trudging through the snow we talked about the events of the week – and especially the day – and wondered how we could “safely” account for all the time on our reports. It was at that point that Miller came to a complete stop in the middle of the street, turned to me and said”

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

I stared at him dumbly.

Again (though not quite so agitated) ” Deitrick, what are you doing?”

“Well, I guess I’m walking down a very icy street, and just narrowly missed falling on my butt.”

Miller went on: “You just had your left shin chopped open with a chain-saw. Why aren’t you writhing in agony and screaming in pain?” (Prior to coming to New England Miller was a pre-med student and was prone to hyperbole when it came to medical issues.)

….but he did have a point. The laceration really didn’t hurt all that much. As we shuffled our feet in the snow for a minute or so and talked about the events of the day, our   conversation evolved into the sort of thing that you assume happens quite regularly on a mission but in fact rarely happens – a spiritual experience. We talked about why were out in New England knocking on doors. We talked about the people that would be warm that night because of the firewood we helped provide…and we talked about a Father that would spare a young man serious pain.

….then a car passed by at a high rate of speed, splashed us with very wet snow and the moment was gone.

Board of Directors Part One: Richard Bird

RichardBird1980

Mentor.

As a teenager the only Mentor I knew of was a member of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents – a Tower Comics character of minor interest, being one of the second string of heroes ignored in favor of everyone’s favorite Dynamo.  I learned the meaning of the word when I reached college but the definition was confusing – the idea of someone actually taking time with me was utterly foreign.  As you can surmise I had little guidance  in planning my life and making decisions; as a result I’ve spent most of it  getting old fast and smart slow  to the point that I  spend many nights lying awake trying to figure out how I managed to survive this far.

What saved me? A group of men I refer to as my board of directors. While I didn’t have a specific single mentor coaching me over a long period of time I did come into contact with a half dozen older guys who were kind enough to help me through the rough spots and important junctures in my young adulthood.

They are/were ( in no particular order of importance) :

  • T.H. Auldridge
  • Richard Bird
  • Wayne Carlson
  • LTC Gerald F. King
  • John Prowse
  • James Albert Smith
  • William Whitaker

There isn’t enough money in the world to equal the value of the insights and knowledge I gained  from these men ; they deserve recognition so  over the next couple of months I am going to write about each one of them , starting with Richard Bird; not the navy officer Richard Bird who made pioneering flights over Antarctica but rather the art teacher  Richard Bird who developed  pioneering new graphic design programs at Ricks College (now known as BYU-Idaho).

Not every member of the art department at Ricks College was pleased when I enrolled in the fall of 1972, in fact my figure drawing teacher made several broad  hints about changing academic majors. To be fair I was a little rough around the edges,  having spent the previous summer working in an oil field . My attitude was also pretty grim.  I was unhappy to be in Rexburg, having transferred  from the University of Alaska only because my Best Friend wanted to go to Ricks College.  Money issues were also part of the problem; the year before I had been offered a scholarship but declined because I didn’t want to cut my hair…and at nineteen it’s hard to understand why the school hadn’t saved it for me.

I had also never taken an art class and despite the fact that I’d spent my entire life drawing  on every available surface that lack of formal training bothered some of the instructors…except for  Richard Bird. I’ll never know if it was sheer luck , an effort to  cross-level class numbers or someone settling a bet that had me making a  last minute entry  his basic drawing  class – but after the third meeting I didn’t care. This Bird guy was good ! More importantly he saw through my lack of training and could appreciate the small talent and tremendous drive that I had.

…and when I say good I mean it in three ways.

  • Good in regards to artistic talent. He would pick up a pencil, marker or brush and the imagery would seemingly flow out of the tip in an effortless manner.
  • Good as in a good teacher. His demonstrations were informative , his classroom management was superb and in my entire life I have never had a more effective critique. He had this wonderful way of giving a totally honest appraisal without the ego-crushing that so often accompanies the activity. The critiques were always one-on-one and as he would finish he would say ” I want you to reach for an A” (penciling an “A” at the top of the paper) “but I’m giving you a B” ( penciling a “B” at the bottom of the paper).
  • Good as in he took care of “his kids”. Two weeks before I finished at Ricks I went through a devastating break-up that left me with very dark thoughts. The morning after the break-up I managed to get to his class but with no desire to explain the red, puffy eyes and hair that would scare a comb to death I sat apart from the others – but any hope of avoiding interaction was in vain. Richard came over and spoke quietly with me, then when class was over he took me upstairs to his office and had me set up in the corner to work , returning periodically to check on me.

These frequent displays of brilliance wisdom-beyond-his-years made hard to figure out his age and I was surprised to find out that A) he had come to Ricks just a  year before I did  and B) he was maybe a dozen years older than I was. That  youth  made his subsequent achievements all that more amazing; among other things he started a  graphics program that eventually morphed into a real-world design studio with students art-directing and creating posters, brochures and other communications tools that would have normally been handled by full-time school employees.

I also gained a wife because of Richard. In the fall of 1976 I was enrolled in a Presentation class at BYU and while showing my portfolio to the instructor the sole female member of the class perked up when I mentioned my time at Ricks. She asked me if I’d studied with Richard and somehow the discussion about this great teacher turned into a date and eventually an engagement.

( I think he always liked the fact that two of his kids from different eras had gotten together.)

We kept in touch over the years and every time I went to Richard for advice on teaching, technique, or just coping with life as a creative type I always went away  much smarter than I had been before. It has always been a point of particular pride that he invited me back to Ricks years later to conduct workshops and share skills I had learned from freelancing.  It hit me hard when I heard of his passing, more so because I had been out of contact with him for a while.  When my own health issues started multiplying it became all too easy to postpone calls, letters and eventually email messages and  I didn’t know of his passing until a year after the fact .

I had had no idea he was struggling with multiple serious ailments, but then I don’t think anyone did outside of his family. I don’t think I ever saw him without that same enigmatic half-smile he’d wear when marking my work with two different grades and I am sure he had that look to the very end.