Sketch Cards for Dog King John

2018-06-03 GrandKid Cards JUN 2018

As I’ve written before I take great delight in my role as “papa” (AKA grandfather,  abuelo, old geezer) and even though six out of my seven grandchildren live far away I work hard to keep in contact with them. One of the ways I do that is by regularly sending drawings to them as postcards, starting out with one a month to my sole grandson and eventually expanding to a half-dozen every two or three months.

With these particular sketches  have fun and let my imagination run wild  – for example for my granddaughter Hazel I went through a six month run using yetis as a theme. The Yeti is/was Hazel’s own personal boogey-man and over the span of that half-year I worked to change the yeti’s image from something scary to a comedic figure.

Lately I’ve been using the cards as a design forum for my book project Dog King John and The Stolen Syrup. I want to keep the details consistent so I’m using these drawings to work out details before working on the actual book art .

…some of the cards are just cards though. The younger grandkids don’t really understand the book-thing – for them I come up with something quasi-educational like the “fourteen-flounder” card above

The Telephone Game

Remember playing “Telephone” ?

A dozen people would sit in a row and whisper a brief sentence one to another, with the entertainment coming from the way the  message is garbled when arrives at the end of the line of whisperers. It was a party standard when I was a kid but a bit more challenging now – there’s more than enough distortion in a sixty-year old’s ear-drum before the message is even started.

Sadly there are people who practice this procedure in real life, and they play it with no “game” in mind.  You can call it gossip, back-biting, or fake-news-at-a-personal-level – there are individuals purporting to be close friends or relatives  who inexplicably prefer to pass on distortions  instead of truth.

Unfortunately I’ve recently had that sort of activity aimed at me and I’ve found it’s easier to retrieve pillow feathers in a windstorm than stop the damage.  Please, if you hear something that “David said” that really doesn’t sound like something this particular David would say please double-check with me.

 

Music: Doobie Brothers “South City Midnight Lady”

 

During the heyday of 33rpm records – the 1970’s-  there were a few albums that could be found in every collection you encountered. They weren’t always Grammy winners or even particularly good, but they showed up everywhere. Some examples are:

  • Other Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
  • Rumors by Fleetwood Mac
  • Saturday Night Fever soundtrack

The Captain and Me by the Doobie Brothers enjoyed that status for most of 1973. It contained a couple of well-played singles like “Long Train Running” and “China Grove” but the music worked best when it was played in sequence, though it wasn’t really a concept album like Pet Sounds or Rubber Soul. The hits were great, but my favorite was the second track on the B side: “South City Midnight Lady”  a mellow ballad and a marked contrast to “Without You” which preceded it. It was penned and performed by Patrick Simmons, the only member of the band in all its incarnations:

South city midnight lady I’m much obliged indeed You sure have saved this man whose soul was in need I thought there was no reason For all these things I do But the smile that I sent out returned with you


I love two separate passages in that song: The break, which features a beautiful guitar solo backed with strings, and the last couple of measures that lead into the fade-out, which again features beautiful guitar work, but laid over the backing track of an ARP synthesizer.

When I returned home in the early summer of 1973 I found that my job at Swanson River had fallen through…and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find work until three weeks before going back to school. I spent most of my summer working on plastic models1, watching television2 and binge-listening to The Captain and Me. I spent so much time listening to it on the stereo that it began to run through my brain all the time – like a Walkman without the earbuds.

There was one other thing that occupied my time: making a long-distance reconciliation with my Best Friend after our break-up the previous spring. She was back up in Fairbanks and while we’d been regularly writing and calling the discussions had hit a plateau. As was the case when I totaled the Maverick 3, it was at this point when I was in trouble that my Dad made a connection with me and showed himself to be an incredibly caring and sensitive man.

We were on vacation camping on the banks of the Little Susitna river in the same place we’d camped in 1970. There was one big difference this time?  The Parks Highway had been completed and it was possible to drive all the way to Fairbanks. Dad must have noticed the times I’d wistfully look north because after we’d packed up and got in the Microbus, Dad turned around and said “You know, we haven’t been to Fairbanks since 1967. Let’s drive on up!”

I would have never thought he’d piece together the reality of my broken heart and without saying a word administered the best medicine. Later, that day we reached Fairbanks and 30 minutes later I had found and made up with my Best Friend and for a short season everything was OK.

Because that mental stereo had been playing The Captain and Me I will forever connect it with that trip. I have one special mental snapshot of us driving along the highway next to Denali (then Mount McKinley) with the closing instrumental to “South City Midnight Lady” playing in my head. I can close my eyes; my family is put-put-putting along under the mid-summer Alaskan night sky painted with magenta and orange. Patrick Simmons plays a slow crescendo on the synthesizer and it’s all good.

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  1. A 1/25 scale kit of a German Tiger Tank by Tamiya. It has a complete interior and the tracks were made of individual polyethylene segments that had to be snapped together.

It took almost an entire month.

  1. Mostly Watergate hearings and on-going discussion of the passage of Roe vs. Wade the previous winter.

 

  1. See 1969: Blue Paint and Dry Pavement

1966: Mukluk Camp

Military service is a much more popular career choice now than when I was a young man. While public antipathy had ebbed from the poop-flinging, hippie-spitting antics common during the height of the Viet-nam conflict, wearing an ROTC uniform on campus didn’t exactly make me a babe-magnet. The kindest comment usually involved my military aspirations being motivated by not having brothers to play army with when I was in grade school.

…a comment that wasn’t all that far off. Living on a homestead in Sterling (AK) with only my four sisters for company left me with little prospects for recruiting playmates (oops!) squad-mates.  Living in Anchorage had been a different case entirely when on any given day there were at least two armies headquartered in Mrs. Green’s fifth grade class. These two armies were usually under the command of either Mark Davis or myself with national identity alternating between Americans and Germans, depending on who looked coolest on the latest episode of Combat!

That type of play was not happening when we subsequently moved to the Kenai Peninsula where I encountered a reverse sophistry in place. You’d assume that an urban institution would be much hipper and “grown-up” than a country school but the opposite proved to be the case: while imagination games were accepted at Woodland Park Elementary the kids at Sterling were much more interested in sports (and the female body). It may have been a natural change in attitude for that particular age so it was possible  the Anchorage kids were embracing older interests at the same time but as the change in attitude happened  at the same time as a change in locale I missed the memo and ended up being mocked unmercifully by my Sterling classmates for playing “baby games”. 1

Eventually I smartened up and learned to blend in at school by talking tough and playing sports during recess but at home my spare time was still taken up with living room maneuvers with my plastic soldiers, writing to former comrades-in-arms back in Anchorage or (on warmer days) getting outside to run and fight the phantom armies of my imagination.  Such activities were good for passing the time, but I never had as much fun as I’d previously had back in Anchorage with my buddies. Sadly, the situation didn’t look to get better anytime soon as there was little hope for recruiting the manpower to fill the roster for an elementary school infantry squad.

Then a solution came to me one evening as my whole family was gathered together watching Sink the Bismarck! on TV.  As I looked at the faces around me transfixed by the on-screen action I realized the answer to my manpower shortage was in fact girl power – my three little sisters who had had been pestering me to join in the war effort from the day I got my first Mattel Tommy-burst.  All along they’d been sitting right next to me watching Combat!  and The Gallant Men, and had been bitten by the imagination adventure bug, but in my grade school chauvinism I had classified all three of them as 3-F: three little females with no business on the battle field whatsoever.

It appeared that in the intervening year or so all three of my little sisters had grown out of their toddler clumsiness and would make good soldiers.  It also appeared that the tom-boy gene figured prominently in their DNA and they could all shoot and scoot right alongside of me without missing a step.  What’s more each one also brought a unique skill that added to the play:

  • Holly had the gait of a deer and made an outstanding scout.
  • Heather was deceptively strong and was good at negotiating obstacles.
  • Dana had a talent for camouflage and could literally hide behind a clump of grass.

They also collectively possessed something else that would add immensely to our experience: friends. There wasn’t a weekend that our squad strength was not augmented by the addition of Patty, Sandy, Bonnie or any number of the girls’ friends who were just as enthusiastic about pseudo-combat duty as they were.

I soon had them kitted out in mix of helmet liners, satchels, canteens, carry-cases that I had acquired as personal gifts, thrift store purchases or trade with other kids2, and I was able to issue each one of them at least two items of equipment. It was during the issue of this equipment that the experience took on an even more realistic Army flavor when Dana, the youngest and smallest of the three was invariably saddled down with the heaviest gear.

Once we were all equipped I started out with some very basic training:

  • How to wear and use the wide assortment gear I’d come up with
  • Basic terminology – as in using the term “weapon” instead of “gun”
  • Marching in step was right out so I just taught them to all move in the same direction
  • Proper use of our toy weapons to include proper sound effects3

One seemingly obvious training aid conspicuous by its omission was the use of pyrotechnics or in our case fireworks. At the time they were legal and when we lived in Anchorage my friends and I would add realism to our maneuvers by lighting off the occasional string of Black Cat firecrackers or peppering each other with torpedoes, a silver-colored munition about the size of a cherry bomb that would detonate on impact.  With my sisters involved it seemed better to rule out firecrackers, a seemingly altruistic decision that in fact came about when I discovered the hard way that I couldn’t lead troops and chuck Black Cats at the same time.4

Despite our rural location one of our biggest problems was finding areas to train in. There was a real danger from wild animals like moose or bear so we had to stay relatively close to the house but as LTGEN Arthur Collins states in his excellent book Common Sense Training you don’t always have to have large areas to conduct good training. The outbuildings behind our home worked well for house-to-house combat and while the barbed wire fences around the horse pastures weren’t quite the impenetrable obstacles that concertina coils were, they could still prove to be tricky to negotiate and added an element of realism to the activity.

Both my mom and older sister were working at a cannery in Kasilof so there wasn’t much to distract us from our training.  Other than the week I was at scout camp we spent the entire summer outside conducting operations, which says a lot when you consider that KENI TV began day-time television and Saturday morning cartoons in mid-June. The only reason we stacked arms and stood down in August was the start of school.

Like most aspects of my youth playing army didn’t abruptly stop but was slowly edged out by other activities competing for my attention. My relationship with my little sisters changed as well when I left Sterling Elementary for high school – it created an interest-gap just a little too wide to bridge. In the following years we would still have a good time playing outside but working every summer made it hard to keep the intensity going.  Playing army slowing morphed into a combination of hide & seek and tag with undertones of James Bond, but as I continued to take on further outside interests and activities the time we used to spend running around the outdoors was replaced by Risk and other board games played inside.

Then I blinked my eyes and I was leaving home for college, mission and the “for-real” army where I would run my platoon through collective and individual combat skills in the same way I trained my little sisters. Another blink and I was no longer a soldier but still passing hard-won leadership skills on to students, Scouts and Scout leaders…then I blinked a third time and found that I was old, and my body was cashing all the checks my ego had written years ago.

Now any shooting and scooting in my life happens only in my memory.

___________________________________________________________________________

1) It was my first exposure to mankind’s innate hypocrisy. All day long at school I was mocked for playing baby games (army), playing with baby toys (army men), and (gasp!) playing with dolls (G.I. Joe action figures). However, when George, Steve or any of the other kids at school came over to my house they’d make a bee-line for my Mattel Tommy-burst or my G.I. Joe, but the next morning at school they’d revert to type.

2) Between operations in the state during World War Two and the nearness of both Army and Air Forces bases Alaska was blessed with a plethora of surplus clothing and equipment. Quonset huts dotted the landscape, every contractor had at least one surplus Caterpillar tractor and thrift shops were loaded with personal gear.

3)There were several schools of thought on reproducing gunfire sound effects.

  • Single shot was easy – a loud raspy “K” sound formed inside the back part of your mouth.
  • The easiest machine-gun sound was a phonetic “duh-duh-duh” chanted out at low pitch.
  • Another option was a variation on the single shot method, with the raspy “K” rapidly repeated.
  • My favorite a combination of a tongue-stutter combined with a kind of deep gargling sound which a buddy’s  veteran father told me sounded disturbingly similar to an MG42 in the distance.

4)  The first accident involved a short-fused Black Cat that went off just as it left my fingers which required burn salve and bandages for a week. The second incident involved a torpedo that blew off the side of my sneaker. I didn’t wait for a third incident.

Lost Days

I can deal with most of the challenges of my life but I don’t handle “Lost Days” very well. Days that just don’t start out bad – they stay bad and I get very if anything done during the day.

 I’m told that at my age I should just slow down and enjoy life – and while I appreciate what people are trying to tell me I am hard- wired to be busy. Reading or watching the tube may seem like heaven to you but it’s hell for me.  I will be slowing down right about when the first shovel-full of dirt hits the top of my box.

 It’s very hard to “slow down” when I am:

  • ·       Goal-oriented
  • ·       Driven (to an extent)
  • ·       Competitive in that I constantly try to best my own efforts.

I woke up at 1:31 AM, then again at 4:14, 5:30 and 6:00. Each time it seemed like I was “awake for good” but each time I fell back asleep – hard. I didn’t fully wake up until 9:30 and I ended up staying awake because “distress in the lower tract” …and I am having a particularly nasty AS/RA flare that makes simple movement very painful.

 I won’t get much done – hence the term “lost day”.

 …which won’t be totally lost. I’ll call old friends and write to others. I’ll spend time with my grandson when he gets home. If I can do enough for other people it won’t feel quite so lost.   

1965: Three O’clock High

 “Colonel – we’ve got more flak holes than fuselage and Skippy is stuck in the ball turret!”

“OK – keep working on getting him out.”

“Pilot to crew: Keep a sharp lookout for enemy fighters. We’re going in!”

“Pilot to bombardier: We’re coming up on the IP.”

“Patches of cirrus clouds obscuring the area sir!”

“Get your boots on Gus!”

“Can you still see the target?”

“I said get your boots on NOW!”

“What?”

>click<

…and just like that I went from 25,000 feet over the armament plants in 1943’s Schweinfurt Germany to 3 feet above the living room floor in 1965’s Sterling Alaska. For some reason KENI TV had decided to run the second season of Twelve O’clock High on Sunday afternoons. For an equally mysterious reason my dad chose Sunday afternoons to go out and get firewood.

Oh, and did I tell you that it was the middle of winter?

I’d learned long ago that there was no point in arguing discussing the matter; after pulling on my work boots and grabbing my coat and gloves I’d slog out to the pick-up where (with any luck) Dad would have the heater already going. Riding in Dad’s 1941 Ford truck was one of the very few positive aspects to our firewood expeditions – I loved that old bucket-of-bolts and would eventually earn my license by driving it all around the pastures surrounding our house. The other slightly positive factor was the proximity of dead trees to cut: we lived in the middle of what had been the big fire of 1947 when a good part of the Kenai peninsula had been burned out – so there were plenty of cuttable dead trees fairly close by.

While this trip took us only a couple of hundred yards up the road it was still physically challenging as  years of harvesting left most of the suitable wood  at least fifty yards off the road. It was not an easy hike – after negotiating the earthen berm left from the road’s construction there were enough fallen logs, hillocks, and depressions in the ground to make the trip between cutting site and  truck more of an obstacle course than a stroll in the woods.

…all of which contributed to the blue funk I was wallowing in. In addition to the hike I was cold, the chunks of wood were heavy, and to be brutally honest I was kind of creeped out being around Dad (not that anything hinky was going on) – I just didn’t know him that well.

Dad had spent twenty years in the Navy, retiring when I was about five and during those five years I rarely saw him  – he was just this guy in a uniform that showed up about every six months. Unfortunately when he finally did become a full-time parent not much changed.  As I have mentioned before my dad wasn’t so much “raised” as dragged up; his birth father abandoned the family when Dad was an infant only to be replaced by a physically abusive step-father, so my father had little opportunity to observe much less develop parenting skills. I think that shortcoming bothered him more than he let on because his  first five or six post-service years always entailed  jobs  that entailed a lot of travel away from the family.

He was gone a lot until we moved to the Kenai Peninsula where  job duties and our living arrangements kept us all in close proximity for the first time. As the fifty-year-old-man-in-a-twelve-year-old’s-body that I was it didn’t take me long to figure out his past absence was a major factor in my discomfort, but that was information that I shared exactly one (1) time with my mom who unfortunately was in the middle of one of her bi-polar spells. It took time, effort and an icepack to extinguish the resulting metaphorical flames.

…but for the moment I was tired, cold,  my feet were wet, and there was a butt-load of   wood left to haul from the cutting site to the truck. A year earlier I would have been sniveling and crying at my cruel fate, but from the lofty perch of my 12-almost-13 years there was no way I was going to give in to tears. I think it surprised Dad – he’d started out gruffly giving instructions, but as  visibly started to tire his tone of voice started to soften a bit.

He asked if I was OK, mistaking my silence for whine-control, but when he saw the determined look on my face his expression hardened for a moment – then softened again. Then told me that I’d moved a lot of firewood, almost as much as a grown man would have and when his chainsaw stalled he called me over and explained the process as he manipulated the choke, then asked for my input and had me try pulling the start cord a couple of times too.

Then he inexplicably stopped trying to restart the chainsaw, packed it back to the truck and started helping me with the rest of the cut wood. I was mystified – when we piled up the last piece the truck wasn’t nearly as loaded down as usual, which I most definitely did not comment on for fear of spoiling the moment and somehow prodding him into cutting and sawing again. Instead of more cutting and sawing something incredible happened – he started the truck up, briefly instructed me on the functions of the clutch, brake & throttle, then asked me if I wanted to drive the truck back home!

The trip back to the house felt more like riding a severely gaited mule than a truck, but eventually I made it back to the house driving all the way in first gear. After stacking the wood, we went in to hot chocolate and oatmeal cookies, with Dad and I bantering in “guy” talk with like he never had before…but then Mom started setting the table for dinner which was my cue for cleaning up and getting my stuff together for school the next day.

…and just like that the spell was broken…

If this incident had been a script for an episode of The Waltons my relationship with Dad would have changed for the better and from then on we would have become close buddies as well as father and son but unfortunately The Waltons would not be on the air for another seven years and our relationship didn’t change much. There were other non-video factors at work – in addition to his own self-doubt about fatherhood Dad had to operate under a set of strict guidelines my mom had given him regarding me, guidelines that guaranteed a permanent gap.

She had watched her older brother struggle with alcohol for most of his life, a condition that in my mom’s very black-or-white manner of thinking was brought about by excessive family pressure to excel in everything he did.  Her favorite example was when he would play the first half of a football game (both offense and defense) then play the tuba with the marching band at half time, THEN go back for the second half, again playing in both directions.

She was convinced I would follow that same path, so she told Dad that she didn’t want him forcing me into any kind of sport or interest – that I had to approach him to instigate the activity. It didn’t matter if it was just playing catch or collecting stamps – I had to express an interest first.  When you connected the dots between Mom’s restrictions and Dad’s own inner demons it was easy to understand why my father and I existed on the same planet but lived in different worlds.

Unfortunately, this was decades before even the idea of family counseling, and in our textbook bi-polar home the situation remained an open secret and was never discussed. Nevertheless that particular day we went chopping firewood together was a start. The door had been opened just long enough for me to see what Dad was really like and from then on, other doors were opened from time to time. We could be framing a shed, camping with the family or even just standing on the roof adjusting the T.V. antenna; I’d catch his eye, he’d look back and his expression would relax just enough for me to know that the door was open and for at least a couple of minutes the words “father” and “son” were not just titles.

1941FordStakeBed

 

 

1999: Red State / Blue State / White State

The call came the spring of 1999, shortly before the second of our three trips from Knoxville back to the Kenai Peninsula.   The ravages of Parkinson’s disease made difficult for Dad to make himself understood on the phone, but there was no mistaking the message of his call:

 “Son, I miss you and I don’t have much time left. What would it take to move you home?”

I was stunned speechless. My father was thrifty to a fault and had turned me down once before when I had asked for help getting home right after I finished grad school, but that wasn’t the sole reason for my discomfort. I wasn’t sure if we could make the move back – and It was the first time that Alaska hadn’t immediately trumped every other card in my hand. The truth was we’d invested a lot time and energy to “bloom where we were planted” in East Tennessee.1 Plans were in place to get the boys through their missions, we were finally winding up Meghan’s adoption process and my part-time teaching gig showed signs of becoming a fulltime job. A 4000-mile move was not the simple decision it was when our family was much younger. It would need substantial planning, but fortunately the vacation back home that we’d already planned for the summer would allow us to gather information we’d need for such a move.

We came back from the trip feeling positive about moving but during our first church meeting back I was abruptly pulled aside by a friend whose family was undergoing some rough times. She hissed: “You’re leaving, aren’t you? You’re going home? YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME! You can’t leave now. I need you! My whole family needs you! Our whole world is falling apart and you’re the only people I can depend on!”

 …which put the needle on my awkward-o-meter well into the red caution zone.  I knew from personal knowledge that she wasn’t exaggerating – if anything she was down-playing her domestic situation and unfortunately, I was still at a point in life where I thought I was Batman and could save anyone. She was so distraught that I mumbled something vague about postponing the move and for the time being we went back to the exquisite hell that is life for a Yankee in the Southern Appalachians.

…but then the real problem was that we weren’t Yankees – or Southerners. Living on the northern arc of the Pacific Rim took us neatly out of north vs. south // urban vs. rural // mountain vs. flatland // red state vs. blue state rivalries. However, to be brutally honest I couldn’t care (bleeping) less whether I was in a red, a blue or a purple state.  The only state color I ever cared about was the white state – Alaska.

Alaskans are different – and when I refer to Alaskans I’m not talking about snowbirds who try the Great North on as an experiment then run back to Oregon or Ohio when they find out life is hard on a frontier. I am referring to a person whose feelings for the last Frontier cannot be indexed against the size of this year’s PFD pay-out.  Someone whose emotional bond with the state is more a matter of citizenship rather than residency.2

It’s said that you can take the boy out of Alaska, but you can’t take Alaska out of the boy. If you talk to anyone that knows me well you’ll find that I have never completely left – and for the first twenty years of our marriage that was literally the case as education, military and ecclesiastical service prompted moves back and forth between the Last Frontier and the Lower 48. Every plan and/or decision in my life included the end goal of returning to Alaska – we’d never have left Alaska in 1989 if my job situation with Kenai Peninsula College hadn’t been changed by university politics.

By the same token an extended stay in Knoxville after graduate school was never part of my plan – it would be more accurate to say that we were marooned in East Tennessee by a combination of unforeseen setbacks. In the last forty-five years I’ve moved 22 times and lived in 16 different states but at heart I am still an Alaskan boy with an Alaskan license plate on the front of my car.

The funny thing is that I didn’t really think of myself as an Alaskan until I left for college in 1971. Since moving north in 1962 I’d thought of myself as a transplanted Californian – I kept up regular correspondence with my cousins and seemed to make friends easier with other transplanted kids who had been hauled north by parents either serving out at Wildwood Air Force Station or working as petrochemical managers and engineers getting the new North Road refineries running smoothly.

Sometime during the winter of 1970-71 that mind-set began to change – and like most major changes in my life it was brought about by a very minor incident, in this case a story I heard while serving as a teacher’s aide in gym class. While sorting and folding towels Marie (my counterpart from the girl’s class) told me a story she’d heard in her Alaskan history class about a native witch that lived in the area many years ago.  This witch never seemed to age until the day she accidentally left her tribal lands –  her hair immediately began to streak with grey, wrinkles creased the skin of her face and the joints in her arms and legs became stiff and painful. It was all very terrifying until she stumbled back over onto home turf and the effects reversed just as quickly. The story became a predictable series of mishaps involving the witch (or her victims) inadvertently crossing the line.

Of course, I had to turn it into another of my very predictable running jokes, so from then on, I would always call for a shoe check whenever Marie would come into the room, the idea being that she was somehow a descendant of the witch and was able to retain her youth by hiding a small bit of dirt in her shoe that would allow her to still be technically “walking on tribal land”. At the same time though the witch story did more than just supply material for my sense of humor – it also generated in me an awareness that there could be something intangible linking me with the Great Land that surpassed all other relationships.

Maybe that’s why I was so careful unpacking my carryon bag when we got back to Knoxville after that trip in the summer of 1999. I didn’t bring back dirt for my shoes, but I did have a couple of small, smooth pebbles from the north pasture on the homestead where I had always wanted to build a home after moving back. As time goes by the chances of getting home keep getting slimmer and slimmer but I refuse to give up hope and until then those two pebbles will serve as a link.

I’d like to say karma rewarded our sacrifice for staying put to help our friends but unfortunately that was not the case:

  • Martin Landau never made it to the moon by September 13th and in the process tipped the entire Space:1999 continuity over into the ashbin of cancelled TV series.
  • The move back home kept getting postponed  and the next time I saw my Dad he was in his casket at his funeral four years later.
  • Shortly after this story the friend that so desperately needed us to stay in Knoxville informed us that since her “family was doing fine she didn’t need us as friends anymore.”

It was tough dealing with that statement /snub because I had yet to learn to stop crossing oceans to help those couldn’t be bothered to step over a puddle in return. Fortunately, there was something else that helped me move on, an aspect of my life and identity remains the same: Even though our subsequent move to Clarksville kept us in the Volunteer state I cannot refer to myself as a Tennessean, I cannot sing the entire Alaskan Flag song without breaking into tears and the sun always appears too bright and too high in the sky

Regardless of my physical location I am and will always be an Alaskan boy.3

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  1. In his epic poem “Cremation of Sam McGee”, Robert Service states that Sam’s home town was Plum Tree, Tennessee. When planting trees in our yard in Knoxville I made sure the first one put in was a plum tree.

 

  1. I’ve spent my life performing residency calculus – totaling up years, months, days – even hours and minutes that I’ve spent physically existing within the state’s borders. For years I was obsessed with keeping my “Alaskan citizenship”: From 1971 to 1989 I bounced back and forth like a tennis ball between the Last Frontier and various locations in the Lower 48, and for most of that time I was able to keep my Alaskan driver’s license with its wonderfully low number.

 

  1. See blogpost, “The Alaskan Diaspora”.

1971: “…then Dave turned sixteen and discovered girls.”

It was Brother Lombard’s favorite quip:

 “Yeah – it was all Batman and Star Trek until Dave turned sixteen and discovered girls

It may have been funny to some members of our congregation upon first telling, but after being retold several hundred times over the next two years it lost whatever wit it once had. I do have to admit that he did get one thing right with the pop culture reference – life as a teenager in   Alaska wasn’t just The Wonder Years with snow and moose; battling isolation and a hostile environment six months out of each year left a kid with a lot of time to kill and it was easy to murder the hours and minutes sitting in front of the tube.

Truth be told, I was very aware of girls all along and at an age younger than most of my peers. It was proficiency in “hustling” that I lacked:  introducing myself to young ladies, chatting them up, securing phone numbers and making dates –  basically becoming Tarzan in a letterman’s jacket. My approach was much more low-key in that I was polite to parents, well-mannered out in public and witty enough to keep a smile on the face of any young lady I kept company with. Maybe it was because I was one of those kids born “middle-aged” and for the previous 17 ½ years I had been the only adult in a bi-polar family of seven, acting as the peacemaker and keeping long-term consequences in sight when everyone else was angry.

You’d think that sense of propriety would go a long way towards building a measure of trust with my parents but unfortunately that didn’t happen. From the very beginning Mom had Puritanical-verging-on-medieval standards when it came to dating and when my older sister left home under clouded circumstances the rules tightened up even more.   While Mom wasn’t as strict with me as she was with my younger sisters it had less to do with any increased trust than the fact that I couldn’t get pregnant – if there’d been a chastity jock strap she would have had me fitted for one on my sixteenth birthday.

 Getting out of the house on a date was like living out an episode of Hogan’s Heroes with me as a prisoner of war and my mom playing the part of Colonel Klink. While there weren’t any tunnels running underneath the homestead I did make a secret passage from my closet to the garage rafters but rarely had to resort to its use –  my escapes hinged on more on quick-thinking than escape & evasion.

The camp house rules for dating or activities with the opposite sex were as follows:

  • Mom had to personally approve each activity in detail at least a week in advance.
  • We were not to date any one person more than two times in a row.
  • A single date had to be followed by two double dates before another single.
  • We weren’t allowed any sort of personal diary.

No debate was allowed on the subject and the penalties for noncompliance were dire, so like any kids I found ways to work around those draconian regulations – I never lied to my parents but I did become quite adept at “editing” what I told them. For example, I’d tell them I was going to a wrestling match while conveniently omitting the fact that A) I was taking my girlfriend and B) the wresting match was in Ninilchik.

Colonel Hogan couldn’t have done it better.

I had a social life – but I paid for it. Subterfuge did not come to me naturally and my technical honesty compounded the “normal” stress any eighteen-year-old encountered while jumping through the hoops that were supposed to be preparing me for a future that could entail either college classes or rice paddies. Instead of becoming part of the path to normal socialization process, dating became a pitfall and an additional source of stress which meant that I didn’t always make good choices. Instead of The Dating Game I was stranded in The Gong Show and the contestants weren’t always a good match.

  • Bachelorette #1 should have had a staple in her navel. She could put any Playboy Playmate to shame: Beautiful, petite and as curvy as a Coke bottle and blessed with long luxurious brown hair cascading down to the small of her back – the kind of girl that you expect to have “Mattel” embossed on her tush.  Sadly, there was no real connection in terms of personality and after three dates of one-way conversations we went our separate ways.
  • Bachelorette #2 was also a knock-out with the added advantage of having been a good friend before we became romantically involved. Unfortunately, she lived fifty miles away and taking her out entailed cover stories that were harder to support when things went wrong. In the end logistics won out over love and we reluctantly reverted to “good friends” status.
  • Bachelorette #3 was a recent move-in and younger-than-usual, both of which aggravated her innate teen-age angst for which she would compensate in unexpected ways. For example, for one big date she wore an oversized wig then spent the evening constantly adjusting it to the exclusion of everything else.  Unwilling to find out what other unconventional grooming changes were in the works I hastily withdrew from the relationship

At that point I was close to giving up.

Not that I had much faith in long-term relationships to begin with as it seemed like people all around me were getting divorced. The idea of a permanent commitment to another person seemed bankrupt and became little more than a point of contention with my locker-neighbor Carey, who was counting down the days to her own nuptials soon after our graduation in May.

It was during one such bicker-fest that I met her locker-mate Debbie, a junior and recent transfer from Oregon. Dark haired and leggy with a Jane Leeves vibe (before there was a Jane Leeves) Debbie had already turned the smart-kid’s mafia a** over teakettle with a razor-sharp intellect and a GPA to match. My interest was piqued but she showed no interest at all – for that matter she wouldn’t even talk to me and Carey refused any aid in the matter at all: “She’s a nice girl Dave and she wants to have a family someday. You don’t ever want to get married so all you’d do is break her heart.”

BAM! Usually it was at least ten minutes before the inevitable shut-down but this time I was shot out of the saddle right away. I slunk off to class, but when I went to my locker the next morning Carey and Debbie were already there taking much longer than usual to stow their lunches and retrieve books. I nodded hello as I started rooting around in my own space, but something clicked when Carey managed to loudly mention the up-coming Valentine’s dance three times during their morning conversation – so I wasn’t totally surprised the next morning when Debbie was at the locker by herself. I immediately looked around for the neon sign flashing “SET-UP/SET-UP/SET-UP”, but no man ever went to his doom happier than I was. After some small talk I politely asked if she would go to the dance with me to which she smiled for the first time and simply said “Yes”.

I couldn’t tell you whether the Valentine’s dance was a success that year – all I know is that we walked in, I turned to ask her to dance and the whole universe changed.  By the end of the evening we were an item, but within days it was apparent that we were the only people pleased by the arrangement.  Her mom didn’t want Debbie in an exclusive relationship with me, the smart kid mafia was incensed that I had poached one of their own and one of my own close friends took a totally random dislike to her – none of which changed the fact that I was totally smitten with this wonderful young lady who inexplicably liked me.

On my part the attraction could have been due to any number of things – she was drop-dead gorgeous, she was extremely (but not insufferably) intelligent, her singing would bring tears to my eyes – and she “got” me.

  • She understood why I drew.
  • She understood why I wrote.
  • She understood why I preferred the Moody Blues over Creedence Clearwater Revival.
  • She understood why I thought Robert Klein was much funnier than Flip Wilson.
  • …and she got all my terrible puns.

It was the first time I could completely drop my guard, be myself and be happy in what should have been a lengthy rewarding relationship. Unfortunately, when you grow up in a bipolar household “happy” doesn’t feel normal. Even though by this point in time my mom’s dating rules minefield had been defused it had been replaced with the objections of family and friends and it seemed like the relationship was doomed. There was no big blow-up but by the time I graduated we were no longer an item and at some warped level I thought that I was happy for getting out cleanly…

It was only later that I discovered how wrong I had been. All my spare time had been taken up with navigating through high school graduation and starting my summer construction job, so it was early June before I got a chance to sit down and look through my yearbook. It was then that I found out that my exit had been far from clean –  between the stereotypical “remember cutting up in (fill in the blank) class” and “don’t ever change” dedications I found a short note written in a perfect cursive:

Dave:

To a real nice guy. I’ll never forget you, ‘cuz ya see, I’m in love with you.

Good luck attorney

Love, Debbie

I can still feel everything about the exact moment I read that inscription:

  • The ache in my back where I was leaning against the side of my bunk
  • The sharp acrid smell that came with wooden walls warmed up by a summer sun
  • David Crosby’s rich tenor woven that of Nash and Young in “Music is Love”
  • The total shock that came with her declaration

It was the first I’d heard the word “love” directed at me since we’d moved to Sterling seven years earlier.

I wish I could say that I immediately ran out, found her and reconciled on the spot but that didn’t happen. It was more like a Harry Chapin song; we did briefly date again later that summer, but I was off to college before any rekindling was possible.  Any subsequent chance of a do-over was obliterated a year later by a prank on the part of a buddy that went bad with craptacular results and finally in the spring of 1974 I learned that she was married.

Why is this an issue with me over forty years later? Part of the interest is fueled by nostalgia. Part of it is just one of the on-going hazards of being blessed/cursed with this laser-sharp, steel trap memory…but part of it is gratitude. Lori laughs when I tell her that she wouldn’t have liked me much had we met when I was eighteen instead of five years later but it’s true. Like my parents I wasn’t so much raised as dragged up and I am not joking when I say that I had a thin exterior layer of “thug” when I was eighteen.

But at the same time….

Call it good luck, a blessing from God or the planets being properly aligned – starting with Debbie and every intervening girlfriend between her and Lori I was completely outclassed by each young lady in question – and I knew it. No matter how cool a pose I may have been putting on inside there was always a nerd-boy spazzing out as in “Hummana-hummana – I CAN’T FREAKING BELIEVE SHE LIKES ME!” so and I would try as best as I could to refine my manners, curtail the fart jokes and generally try to be someone worthy of the girl I was matched up with.

What this means is Debbie was the homeroom teacher in husband school …and for that I will always have a soft spot in my heart for her. I have no idea where she is now though I occasionally check face book and do a Google search. I did get a scare about ten years ago when I found an obituary notice with a similar name but the dates didn’t match up.

I just hope she’s happy and doing well.

GoldGreen600dpi-CC

Infinite Cool

I spent five months of my bicycle penance in Maine, and one of the best parts of living in Maine was the seafood. I am especially fond of lobster and was delighted to be invited once to a dinner featuring lobster as the main course. Unfortunately as we started eating our host explained the way the lobsters are cooked – they’re dropped into boiling water. I confess that I was a bit creeped out at first but according to our host lobster brains are so small and the cooking process so quick that little pain is involved.

I silently but fervently hoped so.

He also shared an interesting fact about preparing several lobsters at the same time: if one of the lobsters tries to escape the boiling water the others will pull him back in. It made me think of a t-shirt I had seen in a pick-up game of basketball in Boston earlier in the year. The slogan on the t-shirt read: “Winning isn’t nearly as good as seeing you lose”

It saddens me when I see that type of thinking and behavior in people around me, especially people close in friendship or blood-relation. Their comments are never “You did a good job on that last project”, “Thank you for being so kind “or “I’m sorry for stealing from you”. Instead they invariably say things like “Remember the stupid stunt you pulled last year” or “Your hair cut makes you a little like Shemp from the Three Stooges” or some other equally belittling sentiment.

I’ve never understood that kind of behavior. As best as I can tell, people like that look at self-worth or relative cool-osity as a zero-sum equation, that somehow there is a limited amount in the universe and that if you have less they will have more.

It’s a sad because they’re totally wrong. Life isn’t a competition but rather a vast array of individual journeys and at the end of this life the bank president gets the same six feet over his grave as the janitor.  Tearing someone else down doesn’t add an inch to your own stature and does nothing but cause division and animosity.

There’s plenty of “cool” to go around, plenty enough for everyone.

1962: Arctic Armor

Mention the Trojan War and most people think of the contoured body armor worn by all the combatants – breastplates, greaves and armbands made to look like the ideal version of human musculature. You look so good in it that you don’t want to take it off – even for a lunch break or a trip to the “loo” – which is exactly why Michael Keaton would routinely “hold it” rather than change out of his body suit of similar construction during the filming of the 1989 version of Batman.

Do a little research and you will find that the people besieging Troy were actually Mycenaeans – predecessors to the Greeks with a much less impressive military wardrobe. Instead of form fitting suits resembling Michael Keaton’s Batman armor, Mycenean technology limited their suits of armor to cylindrical components lashed and riveted together in less-than-totally-functional armor. As they marched to battle they looked more like the Michelin Man than Batman.

I ended up in a similar situation during my first winter in Alaska. None of our family members anticipated weather-related clothing problems – after all we had extensive experience with chilly winter weather after surviving  three entire years in the Little Shasta Valley located on the California/Oregon border. We got at least four or five days of snow a year which often persisted through the night to a second day, so we weren’t exactly rookies when it came to be dressing for warmth.

Indeed, Mom’s expression was the very essence of smug as she showed me a picture of my first Alaskan winter coat as sold through the JC Penny’s catalog.  She was delighted; the listing showed a roomy and well insulated olive-green winter coat complete with vinyl shell and detachable hood, cut long enough for coverage to my knees.  I was not equally entranced – a garment made of polyvinyl plastic might work fine with my Rocky and Bullwinkle Color-forms set but that trendy acrylic wash rendering didn’t fool me for one second – It was one of the most hideous, least functional garments I had ever seen and for some reason I took to calling it simply Ugly Coat.

I should have taken note of the small inset black and white photo of an Oriental boy modeling Ugly Coat in the catalog because it would have given me a better sense of size and cut –  not even the Army would ever give me a garment that fit so poorly in so many places. Rather than reaching my thigh the bottom of the garment barely overlapped the waistband of my trousers. The hood was so small that I had to tie the drawstring under my lip and none of the zippers or openings were lined to keep out the wind…and as I was still sporting the bright red hair of my toddler days donning that plastic monstrosity had me looking like a Spanish olive stuffed with a pimento.

…but lurid color would prove to be Ugly Coat’s smallest drawback – as daily temperatures plunged well past the mild chill we’d experienced in California I found  that in arctic weather vinyl freezes stiff and becomes very difficult to bend – and will eventually crack at bending points.  By Christmas time I looked like a Landsknecht mercenary wearing looted, slashed clothing as I moved about in the snow, my shirt and trousers flapping through the long cracks in the vinyl.

I considered just staying inside all the time but with only a single Mighty Mouse program on Saturday TV, , the only thing close to weekend kid video entertainment was mocking commentary that we made for  the announcers on ABC Wide World of Sports.  It started out as pure sarcasmm , but as I watched over the weekends I slowly developed an interest in winter sports, By Thanksgiving I was eager to master as many events as I could, unaware that Ugly Coat was going to spend the next five months working to keep me from doing just that.

Our family’s “all for one /one for all” motto meant that no one was going to get decent skates anytime soon, so a lack of suitable equipment forced me into a reasonable facsimile of skating through running and sliding on the ice in front of the 11th Avenue/ E Street chapel. If I left the building right as Sunday School ended I could get in ten minutes of faux-skating before we left for home; The smooth leather soles of my Sunday shoes were nice and slippery, and I soon learned that by adjusting my stance and center of gravity I could  stay both vertical and cover a good distance.

Unfortunately, the day came when the temperature took a nose-dive and I had to wear Ugly Coat over my church clothes. The closing “Amen” had barely left our lips as I hit the front door at a dead run, my legs  churning even before I reached the front sidewalk – but as I launched into my slide I discovered something was dreadfully wrong: It was almost impossible for me to move or bend in that frozen vinyl shell.  Any sort of course correction was impossible and within seconds I was in serious trouble, spinning and sliding along towards a frozen berm to one side.

I softly chuckled in relief.  “A nice soft snow bank” I thought to myself, magnanimously accepting second place in Olympic Sidewalk Sliding. I should be so lucky. I hit the berm sliding backwards and the heels of my feet hit the edge of the sidewalk and caused me to do the splits…the Chinese splits. My legs shot out sideways, my kiester hit the icy pavement and I pulled muscles in places that I didn’t know I had muscles…or even places.  My folks took me home immediately and put me in a tub of the hottest water I could stand but neither hot water or liberal applications of Ben-Gay seemed to help. I couldn’t walk properly for the next ten days and to resort to short hops and sideways shuffles to get around the house or classroom.

The three weeks spent hors de combat after the Chinese splits incident cut heavily into the time available for marking winter sports off my list, but my prospects got better when we started sledding after our weekly Cub den meeting.  Bobsledding was another favorite from the ABC Wide World of Sports and while there wasn’t a total hardware matchup a regular runner sled seemed a suitable substitute, especially when I was teamed up with Robby Gray.

Robby  was as thin as I was hefty, but our den chief Calvin had us stacked on the sled in such a way that disparity in weight was put to good use during our downhill run.…which again proved to be false hope from the very first starting push. As we slipped, slid and pirouetted down the track it was obvious that once again I was in first in line for  the “agony of defeat” category. Robby was able to bail out in time but once gain Ugly Coat proved my undoing. A strategically placed crack in the vinyl snagged on a corner of the wooden seat just long enough to ensure that my full weight was behind my right foot as it hit the fence post at the bottom of the run.

From that moment on I made my discomfort very verbally apparent but after three days of percussive counseling Mom relented and took me to the emergency room where she was horrified to discover her diagnosis had been incorrect. I really WAS hurt, despite her curt sniff to the charge nurse that I was making a mountain out of a molehill.  Initial inspection revealed that the “little baby bruise” was in fact one or more broken bones in the flat of my right foot. After a subsequent inspection by the doctor an Air Force medic slapped a plaster cast on my leg to support a considerable injury consisting of three broken metatarsals, during which my mother cuddled me in her lap and whispered sweet little maternal wishes of reassurance in my ear. (1)

As we drove home all I could think about was the upcoming four weeks that I would be spending in a cast, watching the hours of sunlight lengthen while the snow steadily melted. It seemed like my luck had run out when the day before my cast was to be removed an article in the Anchorage Daily Times announced that the Lake Hood skating area had melted past the point of safety.

I was undeterred and remained sure that I could mark “ice skating” off my list with just a few more sessions on the family rink3 Use of the word “rink” was charity of my part; what we had was in fact three large uneven blogs of ice blobbed together, the whole thing looking like a giant frozen amoeba. The idea that people would groom, and smooth ice never occurred to me (2) just as I had never thought to flatten and level the ground underneath the ice – I just found a part of the lawn that was closest to being level and started to haul buckets of water one evening. It was used only on nights we couldn’t get to Lake Hood and now looked to serve as a last-ditch substitute since the weather was getting warmer.…in fact the undulating surface of the rink added an element of novelty; any one could skate on level ice but only a real sportsman could negotiate our bumps and swerves – at least that’s what I was telling myself on that last night of the 1962-63 winter sports season.

…but to be totally honest melting ice wasn’t the only reason I liked to skate on the family rink. In my ignorance I had committed the most heinous of sins when getting my first pair of skates – instead of getting those bastions of testosterone-laden footwear otherwise known as hockey skates I’d picked up a pair of figure skates.

…. otherwise known as “girl skates”

The simple act of owning them was bad enough, but possession also capped off the preexisting charge of insufficient fourth-grader misogynism brought about by my excessive number of sisters and a fleeting romance earlier that winter(3). A confined and bumpy skating area was a small price to pay for protection from such withering retorts as “TWO-LITTLE-LOVEBIRDS-SITTING-IN-THE-TREE / K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”. Lacking those crude distractions, I could slowly circumnavigate the small splotch of ice, the chill tweaking my nose, the Northern Lights presenting a light show and-

KA-SNICK!

 THUD!

“OWWWWWW!”

I’d been so caught up in the beauty of the night sky that I had failed to keep a proper look-out and hit one of the mid-rink ridges at an awkward angle. I tried to retain my balance, but Ugly Coat’s stiff frozen polyvinyl chloride carapace prevented any attempt at a wind milling recovery and down I went to fall flat on my behind on the ice.

I should be so lucky.

Instead of a flat fall one of my legs had buckled and folded underneath me, the sharp trailing end of the skate blade on that leg passing through the only break in that area of Ugly Coat’s vinyl shell. Lloyd Bridges on Sea Hunt couldn’t have skewered a shark with a spear gun any better than that skate blade pierced my “cheek” that night.

Memories of my transit indoors from the rink are fuzzy but one thing I am sure of: that coat was gone. I must have ditched it in the garbage barrel on the way in and until the weather got warmer I relied on sweaters and long underwear and played indoors as much as possible.

I was also very involved in the purchasing process of my winter coat the following year. It was made of thick but pliable-under-all-temperatures cotton, had a looser fit but thicker insulation and truly did reach down to mid-thigh. The hood was an interesting design – it normally lay like a short cap across my shoulders and upper back, but the zipper ran from my neck to the apex of the hood, turning into something resembling an elongated point on medieval serf’s hood. It gave a slight “pixie” vibe to the garment but I didn’t care.

It might be 100% total dweeb wear, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t out to get me.

 

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  1. “…if you ever tell anyone I HAD YOU walking on a fractured foot for three days I WILL KILL YOU!”  …did I mention she was very proud of her status as a registered nurse (vs LPN) with a four-year degree from a WW2 Army cadet program?

2. I thought “Zamboni” referred to a recipe for Italian veal.

3.  See 1963: A Question of Cooties

 

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