1964: One For The Road

We were living in Sterling for no more than a week when it became apparent that I wasn’t the only member of the family who missed Anchorage. From the middle of August to the end of September of 1964 we made the trip three times, for reasons ranging from coordinating Church programs to getting medical treatment at the Elmendorf AFB hospital to retrieving some odd item left during the move while crashing at night with mom’s best friend Jeanne Johnson, though Mom let me stay with my best friend Mark instead.

However, because of the recent Good Friday earthquake the trips could end up taking more than just the time required to transit the 276 mile round trip. A good portion of the highway curled around Turnagain Arm, the branch of Cook Inlet that extended to the south of the Anchorage basin. The trip around Turnagain is one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the world and takes in majestic spruce covered mountains with countless waterfalls as well as a few rivers and several major streams crossing under the highway to feed into the arm…and there’s where an element of chance entered in.

During the earthquake the ground level around the southern end of Turnagain arm dropped six feet and in the process guaranteed the eventual death of Portage, a small hamlet/railway station at the south end of the arm. The abrupt drop either destroyed or severely compromised all the bridges over the aforementioned waterways so as part of the recovery effort temporary bridges were erected to the side of the old ones and anchored on raised berms that put the driving surface an extra six feet above the original road bed to prevent damage from ocean waters that now flooded the highway during periods of high tide. it also meant that if you failed to consult the tide table when planning a drive around Turnagain arm you stood a good chance of being stranded on one of those elevated bridges until the tide receded.

…which was how we ended up stranded on a bridge late one August night. My mother, four sisters and I ended up spending four hours crammed into a our white Ford Falcon station wagon, though by that time the mud from transiting the regularly flooded highway had our car looking more than white. It could have been worse – August still gave us extended daylight hours and we were able to pass the time with a stack of comics and a box full of home-brewed root beer we’d been given as we left Mark’s house.

As Mom had forgotten her wristwatch on the trip we were clueless about when we could leave the safety of the bridge and it was a little scary when a set of disembodied headlights appeared off the end of the bridge, lights that slowing coalesced into the front end of a Alaska State trooper’s cruiser. The officer parked and walked up to talk to my mom sitting in the driver’s seat, slowly playing the beam of his flashlight though the interior of the Falcon while enquiring about situation.

Suddenly the flashlight stopped and the trooper asked “Mrs. Deitrick, is everything OK with you and your children?” to which my Mom breezily answered in the affirmative.

“‘Are you sure everything is OK?”

I started to duck for cover – Trooper or no trooper, one thing you never did twice was contradict my mom, but in some random act of sanity she resisted verbally blasting the officer, and glanced back to the spot where the officer’s flashlight was shining…on my five-year-old sister Heather guzzling from an Olympia beer bottle. There was a moment of awkward silence then we all started laughing and explained that Mark’s mom hadn’t removed the label when she refilled the bottle with home-made root beer. She had been a war-bride from Helsinki and had grown up with Finland’s much more relaxed attitude towards alcohol so the thought of removing the labels had never occurred to her.

The trooper got good laugh as well, and after clearing us to proceed he left with a copy of the root beer recipe that Mark’s mom had given us, a recipe that my family also tried shortly after getting back to Sterling.

We just made very, very sure to remove all the labels from the bottles before we used them ourselves.

1977 / 2019 : Then And Now

MiltryBall77 sundayafternoon

In our never-ending war against clutter an occasional gem will float to the surface, as was the case last Sunday when I found a little black & white photo in a pile of papers I was sorting. It dates from March of 1977, it was taken at the BYU ROTC/AFROTC Military Ball, and was taken shortly before we got married. Despite the fuzzy focus it remains one of my favorite photos as perfectly captures not just our appearance but the essence of the moment.

…and even though more than 42 years have gone by the same can be said for the other photograph in today’s post , that “capture-the-moment” vibe is still there. It’s a different kind of moment now, but one that is just as precious to me.

2019: Becoming Pak

protector

Because it is usually displayed as a fairly small image most people don’t recognize my avatar as anything but some sort of alien, when in fact he is a Pak Protector. Pak Protectors are an invention of noted SF author Larry Niven and figure prominently in his Known Space cycle of stories. They are an old race from a world near the core of our galaxy, a world with high radiation levels and crowded conditions that brought on rapid and extensive evolution.

The Pak go through three stages in life with the first two analogous to human child and adult states,  but instead of expiring at our own  “three-score-and-ten” limit they go into a third phase of existence known as  the Protector stage, which is brought on after a breeder ingests a tuber called Tree-of-Life which a contains a virus that acts as an evolutionary trigger. Humanity is descended from a colony of Pak breeders stranded on Earth millennia ago when the Protectors that established the colony died when their Tree-of-Life crops failed. The original Pak Breeder population evolved into modern humans and all primates of our world would transform into the Protector stage if exposed to Tree-of-Life root.

The transformation produces  positive characteristic “improvements” that mirror the negative aspects of aging:

  • Skin thickens into a leathery armor-like covering
  • Teeth fail out and are replaced by a beak
  • Fingernails transform into retractable claws
  • Joints deform in a way that increases leverage available to muscles developing

All these changes make Protectors extremely efficient fighting machines, which is just as well as protection and survival of their family becomes their sole reason for living and their lives become one constant battle with other Protectors living on a crowded world with limited resources.

The most significant change is increased cranium size and brain mass which results in phenomenal increase in intelligence, which is why one of the first remarks a newly transformed Protectors is “I’ve been so stupid”…a sentiment I find myself expressing many times since passing age sixty. The experience surviving to your seventh decade alone imparts a lot of wisdom and if you’ve endeavored to learn from your mistakes you end with knowledge and judgement that would rival Mr. Niven’s creations.

There is a dilemma that comes with that knowledge: what do you do with it? In times past elders/seniors/geezers were accorded a measure of respect and their counsel was considered valuable. It sure doesn’t seem that way now though – most of the time people look at me and just see a member of the “fifty-five-to-dead” demographic with the more extreme voices advocating euthanasia or other marginally less drastic measures to reduce the cost of elder care on society as a whole.

I try not to think about the situation, in fact when my when my autoimmune issues started ramping up in the late 1990s and I was first diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. I took a page from the handbook of an eleven-year-old coping with the idea of Santa Claus: I embraced the idea of “well, what if Tree-of-Life really did exist” and instead of chronic pain and limited movement looked forward to life as a totally bad-a** senior citizen,

…a feeling that lasted for maybe three minutes at most and I embraced those small Pak traits I did end up with, namely a fiercely protective and supportive love of for my children, grandchildren and eventually great-grandchildren… and a desire to use whatever insights gained from my “I’ve been so stupid” epiphany to help them find an easier road in Life than I walked.

 

 

 

I Miss My Mom

I woke up yesterday morning to searing pain in the area that fifty years ago we euphemistically referred to as the “lower tract”. It continued until mid-afternoon, prompting at least thirteen trips to the WC but by early evening the discomfort had eased off enough to allow me to get some sleep. Today has been almost normal but the slightest tummy-rumble has me calculating the location and transit time to the nearest bathroom.

Normally I wouldn’t both mentioning this development, but the exact same thing happened two weeks ago with the same symptoms and progression. We’re still searching for a common factor between the two weeks…but  as I have been  checking out medical guides and websites I couldn’t help but think of my mom, the walking PDR (Physician‘s Desk Reference). She was a registered nurse with a four-year degree and would have been a second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps had Little Man and Fat Boy not rearranged sizeable portions of Japanese territory. I never worried about any sort of illness or mishap as long as I could get her on the other end of the phone.

I miss my mom.

My Beautiful Saxon Princess at Work

Most people don’t realize that my Beautiful Saxon Princess is an incredible artist in her own right, that we first met in an art class,  and we worked side-by-side as freelancers for twenty years. Unfortunately my struggles with A/S and repeated bouts with upper respiratory infections got us both wondering if I’d see the other side of 55 so we jumped through all the hoops to get her moved into education and a more secure income.

She still takes time to make art, only now it is art-for-art’s sake rather than commerical work so she gets to pick-and-choose and can take as long needed with each project to insure stunning results. This folksy decorated table was a small metal shop table I inherited from Dad that is being put to much better and more colorful use.Orca table

I Am The Axe-Man!

Ax-man

Every weekend my Star Pupil and I try something new and this week it was use of an ax. It was a skill that really wasn’t on the schedule but a box of tools I recently gave him unfortunately included a sort of multi-tool-on-steroids that inexplicably included an ax blade…and as anyone with kids will  tell you glaciers can be moved by hand before you’ll get a five-year-old boy to change his mind about something like this.

After a safety briefing we spent about forty-five minutes in the shop chopping away and eventually produced the sundered one-by-two you see in this photo. The process could have been faster but one too many roadrunner cartoons convinced him logs literally jump into with one direct chop with an axe held straight on. I’d demonstrate alternate chopping at an angle but then he’d politely correct me and attempt to bludgeon the board in half.

We finally succeeded in parting the one-by-two and now he’s out with his mom visiting friends while I am busy hiding every other cutting implement before he gets back.

Velma Howell 1935-2019

(It seems like the punchline to an old Henny Youngman joke, but I actually was asked to deliver the eulogy at my mother-in-law’s funeral over the weekend.)

Leading the way into any endeavor involves what we referred to as “spiritual growth” in the mission field and “good training” in the Army, both of which are innocuous terms for an experience that will terrify or put you through an emotional wringer. Being the first to marry into the Howell family brought on plenty of spiritual growth for me. The first time Velma laid eyes on me was at the gate in Dulles Airport twelve hours before I was to marry her oldest daughter Lori and I think the prospect of relinquishing her eldest to some wild man from Alaska was causing some concern.

She was quite vocal about the situation and would cycle through admonishing, questioning and teasing me, which was beginning to wear thin when it all came to a head a week later here in Huntsville. We were out buying paper goods and plastic ware for the reception and as we were driving around town Velma decided to share her philosophy on family relations. She said ” I like to think that I have gathered my family into a shiny bubble away from the world and its influences, where we are all happy all the time and nothing bad ever happens.”

As I sat in the back seat all I could think was “This chick is nuts”

It was an understandable reaction, given all the wisdom and insight I’d gained in my twenty-four years on earth as the oldest son in the family that put the “fun” into dysfunctional. Most of my family experiences involving shiny things also included pop-tops or lines on a mirror so I had no way of knowing that what Mom was really saying was

  • She loved her family and wanted the best for them.
  • She loved the Lord and wholeheartedly embraced every aspect of the Gospel

That was the pattern for her entire life. She was born and raised in southern California first San Bernardino then Colton where her family first met the missionaries when she was quite young – a trend that continued until she was almost twenty-one when she snagged one particular missionary by the name of Elder Howell as he was headed home. As a young lady she worked awhile as switchboard operator but once she was married her life’s work was being an excellent mother for her five children and supporting or serving alongside her husband in his callings as stake president, mission president and counselor in a temple presidency.

Outside of her family the Gospel was her whole life and she led a life of worship and devotion that is an example to us all. Look up the term “stalwart saint” in the bible dictionary and you’ll probably find her picture. Sometimes that degree of devotion can cause a person to become overly serious with that stern Bruce R. McConkie eagle-eyed look but Mom was able to keep a pleasant demeanor – and laugh.

She loved to laugh and could be quite a tease – but there were other things she loved as well.

She loved:

  • ice cream,
  • quilting
  • flowers
  • ice cream
  • birds
  • kaleidoscopes
  • Ice cream.

More than anything else she loved her husband Parley and was at this side whenever she could  be there…. in fact the words Parley and Velma Howell should be just one word “PARLEYANDVELMAHOWELL”.

I will miss her laugh and I will miss her.  Regardless of our faith we all have that inner Cro-Magnon straining to howl at the separation of death. But because of that faith we know that Mom is blessedly free from pain and much happier now that she was in the shiny place she always sought in life.

So…Run free Mom. We love you,

 

 

Music: Ghost of A Chance (Rush)

 

Teaching at Lincoln Memorial University was a good news/bad news type of situation. On one hand the school’s expectations weren’t too high, I had a tremendous amount of freedom in the way I handled my class and there were  a few fairly competent students. On the other hand the pay was terrible, the administration gave scant support and most of the art majors avoided my class because I actually expected them to work.

I just told myself I was fortunate to be teaching somewhere.

Capping it all was the miserable commute: while the school was located only 50 miles to the northeast there were several ridges and valleys to transit, and I spent as much time going up and down as I did moving forward. My schedule also had me returning to town in the middle of the evening rush hour which made the last 5 miles as tedious as the preceding 45.

It was a wet, sloppy evening in early November, I was tired and cold, and it was a strain to see through the rain and slow-moving traffic. Struggling to stay awake and alert, I turned on the radio and tuned into the local classic rock station – which like every classic rock station ever had a playlist shorter than a five-year old’s attention span.

I was surprised – instead of hearing the inevitable “Freebird” or “Stairway to Heaven” a young man was talking about Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, a topic which caught my attention in the same way dog whistle rattled a collie. I’d discovered Jung in graduate school, became intrigued with this work, and worked at integrating some of his concepts into my thesis project but just as I was piecing together what was being said, the speaker stopped, and the song he had been so long in introducing started to play.

Electric guitars shot out a very basic but compelling tune which repeated  like a car alarm, accentuating the tension and stress of the surrounding traffic. Negotiating this nerve-wracking commute had my pulse pounding so hard I could hear it in my inner ear and when a vocalist suddenly started to sing it took me a moment to hear past the thub-thub-thub.

Like a million little doorways
All the choices we made
All the stages we passed through
All the roles we played

 There was no mistaking that voice: Geddy Lee, which meant I was listening to the Canadian rock trio Rush, most appropriate for my situation as I didn’t have the soundtrack for Mad Max in my CD player. Lee continued to sing, his voice getting more forceful and strident:

Somehow we find each other
Through all that masquerade
Somehow we found each other
Somehow we have stayed

 Voice and instrument continued to build to a point of frenzy, then suddenly it was like cresting a mountain or going into free-fall:

In a state of grace

Languid guitar chords lead into a restful interlude devoid of the song’s previous intensity::

I don’t believe in destiny
Or the guiding hand of fate
I don’t believe in forever
Or love as a mystical state

 The cardiac pounding in my ear eased off as I relaxed a bit

But I believe there’s a ghost of a chance
We can find someone to love
And make it last
And make it last

Guitar chords echoed and a feeling of calm continued to envelope me, but then the chaos abruptly renewed with strident vocals and crashing guitar chords once more

Like a million little crossroads
Through the back streets of youth
Each time we turn a new corner
A tiny moment of truth

The quiet, calm returned:

In a state of grace

I believe there’s a ghost of a chance
We can find someone to love
And make it last

This time when the pattern broke  the lead guitar began an improvisational guitar solo that caused my heart to sing as well.  It  also helped me  tune out the lurching/honking/swerving and I was startled to find myself on the last leg from the freeway to my home, free of the tension and chaos of rush hour as the song returned from the solo to the calm of the dreamy interludes:

I believe there’s a ghost of a chance
I believe there’s a ghost of a chance
We can find someone to love
And make it last

…which transitioned into a measure or two of a slightly mournful, slightly wistful echoing guitars. I pulled into the driveway, turned off the engine and sat listening to the tick-tick-tick of the cooling engine. Rush was not a particular favorite group of mine; while I had respect for their talent and dedication, their music and their message usually did not resonate with me … but I had no doubt that at this point Ghost of A Chance was stealth scripture – truth given in an unexpected manner that would have otherwise been ignored, and at this very low point in my life it contained a very important message for me.

Tomorrow morning I would get up bright and early and face another week head on:

  • submitting job applications to colleges sure to ignore me
  • canvassing art directors who routinely told me I was too old
  • worshipping in a congregation that cornered the market on cliques
  • teaching students who regarded study as a process akin to hustling free t-shirts at a concert

….but right now as I walked in the door…

You know I read somewhere that the onion is a distant relative to the opium poppy. Maybe that’s why I felt calm and happy as I walked into the house,  maybe I was getting a contact high as Lori was browning onions in preparation for making soup, but I knew there was more to the warmth I felt. I drew it all in as I shelved my teaching binder and hung up my coat: music was softly playing on the stereo and my sons had their yearbook open, scoping out the young ladies while conducting a post-game wrap-up of the Oldest Game Ever. Wrapped in the warmth of my family I felt the very essence of joy.

It may be that life was getting the best of me, that the academic and creative arenas in which I fought daily were more than a forty-year man could handle, but as long as I had this wonderful home and family as a place of refuge I had a chance, albeit a ghost of a chance.


___________________________________________________________________________

“Ghost of Chance” Songwriters: Neil Peart / Geddy Lee / Alex Lifeson

 

 

Lonely Nights….

Good morning mister sunshine, you brighten up my day
Come sit beside me in your way
I see you every morning, outside the restaurants
The music plays so nonchalant

Lonely days, lonely nights.
Where would I be without my woman?

It was several years before the Brothers Gibb switched to size small jockeys and started shrieking “Ah-ah-ah-ah stayin’ alive” that I first heard their earlier song Lonely Nights. It was the middle of an Alaskan winter, I was a senior in high school in between girlfriends and feeling lonely as only a seventeen-year-old can know…and I had no idea that there would come a day where I daily dealt with an even deeper state of alone-ness.

Please excuse the pun but I am not alone in this matter. The 11 January issue of THE WEEK magazine contains an article that hit very close to home for me, an article entitled:  “An Epidemic of Loneliness”. It cites multiple studies from around the world that all conclude that a LOT of us are lonely and it doesn’t do us one bit of good.

Connections have been found between loneliness and:

  • Mental issues like insomnia, depression and
  • Physical issues like increased risk for heart attack and weakened immune system
  • Social issues like increased political polarization.

There are plenty of reasons for this increased state of isolation to include the breakdown of the family unit, the often-transient nature of work and the emotional pitfalls found in social media. I’ve seen it in my own life – thirty years ago in addition to my family and local friends I had a circle of about twenty people I would routinely correspond with but now contact from anyone other than my Beautiful Saxon Princess and one or two friends is very sporadic.

I’m not going to snivel about how lonely I get slaving away in my studio, but I would like to suggest that you take a moment each day and think about those friends and relatives that might be shut-in or otherwise isolated. We live in perilous times and while so many of the terrors that lurk in our lives seem insurmountable (taking away my old aerosol cans won’t make a bit of difference to the ozone layer) this a problem that individually we can actually do something about.

It brings to mind a story I heard of  a man who’d walk along the beach at low tide to pick up stranded starfish and throw them back in the water. He was told “ You’re just wasting your time – there are thousands of stranded critters! Do you really think you’re making any difference?”  to which the man replied (after replacing yet another starfish):

 “I made a difference to that one!”

OK – so my inner hippie is showing, but please, please pick up the phone, tap at your keyboard or write a letter to that invalid uncle, your old room-mate who’s now a single mom, your high school buddy who’s now a widower – anyone that you know who’s fighting to get through each day alone.