To many people, eight is the age when a child assumes accountability for his actions, but experience has shown me that number is an average, as I have seen children of six with wisdom beyond their years, and adults in their mid-thirties that have all the maturity and good sense of a toddler. In my case it was when I reached my tenth birthday that I made a firm connection between my actions, intents, and consequences. It was also when I learned about fear. Mind you, life with a severely bi-polar parent made for scary experiences throughout my entire life to that point, but events during fourth grade taught me the meaning of capital-F Fear. If nothing else, the change from Little Shasta School to Woodland Park Elementary was unsettling whereas in the first six months I experienced:
- My first after-school fight.
- My first fracture (multiple bones broken in my right foot from a sledding accident).
- My first experience with city traffic and near-accidents.
Education in fear continued even after school let out for the summer as we witnessed a total solar eclipse during a weekend getaway to Palmer, and my grandparents had a near miss with the Reaper when they drove up the ALCAN for an extended visit. However, none of these teeth-chattering experiences could compare to the terror with which I struggled during our week-long excursion to Valdez when I was convinced beyond all doubt that the mountains were going to fall on us.
The trip had started out uneventfully, but when we stopped enroute at the Matanuska Glacier I finally understood how totally isolated we were from the Lower 48. I had slept through most of our migration north from California, and other than a few side trips, we never left Anchorage, so most of my knowledge of the Last Frontier came from glimpses of the Chugach Mountains to the east, and the Kenai Peninsula across Turnagain Arm to west. What little I knew about the rest of the state came from school assignments and events of our first Fur Rendezvous the preceding winter, but at that particular rest stop I was gob-smacked by the huge river of ice every bit as impressive as the mountains that bracketed either side.
The glacier was impressive, but it didn’t spook me as badly as it did my youngest sister, Merriweather, who took one look and ran back to the car screaming, “I DON’T WANNA LOOK AT ANY SLUSHER!”, a comment that mystified us all until we figured out that in her mangled four-year-old vocabulary, “slusher” equaled “glacier.” As far as I was concerned the only problem was the complete absence of any sign of a hobby shop to support my recently-acquired plastic-model addiction that would put a junkie to shame.
After a very brief look at the glacier I hopped back into the car to drink the last of my orange soda. Unfortunately, I was unable to drink it all before we hit the road again, and when Dad asked for “just a sip” I knew it would be gone. When he handed back the bottle it took all of my nascent stoicism to hold back the tears. For once Mom responded to my distress and took my father to task with, “No wonder you have a pain in your gut1 – look at the way you put your groceries away.”
Dad wasn’t physically abusive with any of us and would usually go into passive/aggressive mode when arguing with Mom, but one thing you never did was mess with, or argue with him about food or drink. Expecting a full-on fist fight I grabbed a pillow for protection, but was surprised when instead of going ballistic he verbally lashed out:
“Not only do I have a pain in my gut – I have a pain in my butt from traveling with people like you!”
Knowing my mother’s mercurial temperament, I pulled the pillow tighter and mentally gave a salute to the suicidal bravery in that remark but was surprised when the Mom-bomb didn’t detonate. She sat stone-faced while several miles of pavement ran by, then unexpectedly broke out into a chuckle and commended Dad for his witty retort. Exhausted by our miraculous escape from disaster, I shoved my former armor-pillow against the side of the interior and closed my eyes in my now-routine effort to sleep away the miles.
Heavy fog interfered with my first glimpse of Valdez the next morning, and as I made my way to the small cluster of buildings that passed as downtown, the vista didn’t seem that much different from what I was used to back in Anchorage. After being chased out of a small shop for reading (but not buying) comics, I found that the fog had burned off, and that’s when Fear grabbed my ten-year old heart and gave it a squeeze.
It was the mountains – they were so damn high (did I mention that Woodland Park was also where I first learned to swear?) and much, much higher than the Chugach range overlooking Anchorage. I’d heard snarky stories about Native kids on their first trip to Anchorage who would cower in the street for fear that the tall buildings would fall on them, and while the mountains surrounding the fjord were also part of the Chugach range they loomed over the town so terrifyingly close that I knew exactly how those kids from the Bush felt. I promptly fled to the motel where the security of four walls and a ceiling more than made up for the lack of television.
The next day we did a little exploring with the emphasis on “little.” In 1963 the town of Valdez was made up of buildings clustered around the Richardson Highway where it entered the valley along the Lowe River between MT Francis and the run-off from Valdez Glacier. The town hadn’t always been there – when the area boomed with the Klondike gold rush and the development of the Kennecott copper mine most people settled along the north side of the fjord. The center of the population moved east with the construction of the Richardson Highway, and when we drove out to what was called the Old Town, there wasn’t much other than gravel roads, tumble-down buildings, and a bridge. Little did we know that in nine months’ time a tsunami generated by the Good Friday earthquake would level the new town that we were now visiting in 1963, and it would be rebuilt as the New/Old Town on the site of the original settlement.
Upon returning to our lodging I made another trip to the shop I’d been chased out of the day before, where my presence was more graciously tolerated after I bought a small plastic model kit of a B-172. We left for home the next morning, which meant that for once I was awake for just about the entire trip, and by the time we passed Copper Center and entered the Copper River Basin, the scary mountains were well behind us. We continued north on the Richardson Highway until turning left onto the Glen Highway at Glenallen3, then continued on to Anchorage a little over three hours to the west.
That we had actually walked the ground in Valdez made its destruction that much more horrifying when the tsunami leveled it the following March. The town was often in the news during the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline – which also figured prominently in contingency planning when I was stationed at FT Richardson in the early 1980’s. The closest connection I had with Valdez after that was when I accompanied my older son Conrad to an environmental camp on the south side of Katchemak Bay in 1989 – as we were crossing back to Homer the first fingers of the oil sheen from the wreck of the SS EXXON VALDEZ were just entering the bay.
…and now there are only two situations when I am prompted to think of Valdez:
- Any time I see a mountain range I instinctively compare them to those oh-so-tall mountains that I was sure would fall over on me.
- Whenever I work on a model kit I think of that little B-17 model and those ridiculous rivets.
- Though I never saw an official diagnosis, my dad suffered from what he assumed was an ulcer and was constantly self-medicating with buttermilk and TUMS. Like most ‘60s dads he worried about his work situation and bills, but he also struggled with the fact that his children had a better standard of living than he did during the Depression.
- It was a small-scale model – possibly 1/200, but even as a ten-year-old I was skeptical of the rivet-head detailing on the wing. They were prominent enough to make a “zip” sound when a fingernail was drawn across like a comb…which meant that they would have been an inch or two in height if enlarged to actual size.
- I’ve been through that area several times, but my only lengthy visit was in the summer of 1970 when I went to Boy’s State at the boarding school at Copper Center. I’m still convinced that if you stood in the middle of Glenallen and looked off in the distance, all you could see would be the back of your own head. As wretched as the move to the Kenai Peninsula was the next year, I really did dodge a bullet with the move as Dad had also considered bidding on a job in even-more-isolated Glenallen.