(This post is a bit of a mystery. It wasn’t long after publication that I realized that my first book (The LIfe and Times of A Midnight Son: Growing up in 1960’s Alaska) needed to be a bit longer and this story was one of a dozen or more that I wrote in an effort to achieve that goal. As was the case with earlier writings those stories were published before being added to the book-manuscript…but I’m not sure if this one was included. In my extended post-COVID daze I was unable to find in among my WordPress files online and it wasn’t saved on any of my thumb drives or the two computers I used in maintaining this blog. It finally came down to digging up the archive copy and retype it word for word)
“She’s a doll, she’s a queen, she’s a tantalizing teen.”
“And Karen is her name (they call her Karen).”
“At a party she’s a stomper and a rock and roll romper.”
“Everybody’s glad she came.”
“Hey that’s Karen!”
“DAVID RALPH DEITRICK!”
NBC had great hopes for its “umbrella sitcom” 90 Bristol Court, but of the three sub-series, Karen, was the only program to survive – and I was very glad. Why? Well, it could have been the mental escape it provided from the isolation brought about by the move from Anchorage to the Peninsula, but then again I was on the cusp of puberty, and quite smitten with the fetching Debbi Watson, star of the teen sitcom re-running in my imagination. How smitten? Smitten enough to miss the car stopping and becoming totally bewildered when my inner review of last night’s television feast was interrupted.
“Hiyako Jocko-san! We’re late!”
Dad motioned me across the gravel parking lot. It was our first regular Sunday, and unlike the post office, drug store, and local Air Force station, we hadn’t thoroughly checked out the church beforehand. The week before, a larger-than-usual congregation brought about by a missionary farewell took us to the Elk’s Hall, so I was looking forward to seeing the “real” chapel and comparing it to the one we’d just left in Anchorage…but at the moment I was confused because I could see no church. I looked around, but was met with only the lush greenery of 1964 Soldotna, and a rather dilapidated storage building made of grey, weather-beaten plywood. There was nothing to compare with the majestic 11th and E chapel that we’d been attending for the previous two years in Anchorage
…and then I realized with a shudder that the storage building was the church.
As rare as compliments were from Mom, she remarked very loudly at the reverent way her son was walking into church, but little did she know, it was shock rather than religious fervor prompting my reverent manner. “Church” was a single windowless room measuring forty by sixty feet, with a single door at each end, and walls covered with butcher paper. Environmental comfort was provided by what I suspected to be a Soviet heating unit left over from World War Two suspended from the ceiling in one corner. There were no bathrooms, and seating consisted of multiple pairs of old leather covered bus seats welded together, which meant that the first order of business on Sunday morning was moving the seats from the perimeter of the room where they had been placed for the teen dance the night before and lining them up into rows. In the process we would air the place out and sweep up the dirt and detritus left over from the previous evening1.
…not that the seats stayed put for very long. The dispersed geographical nature of our congregation meant that meetings usually held at separate times on Sunday were held back-to-back in order to save time and gas, so the seats were periodically rearranged like a great upholstered square dance changing from pew-like rows for the main worship service to separate clustered squares that would accommodate individual classes in Sunday School.
Life with attention-deficit disorder was already a losing proposition for a kid in the 1960s and attending church in this manner was particularly torturous with Sunday School class as the absolute low point. Four different instruction groups ranging from adults to toddlers were presented simultaneously in that one room, and I had difficulty paying attention, especially as I’d been held back to a church history course that I’d already completed in Anchorage the year before. I was also bemoaning the fact that there was a dead-ringer Debbie Watson look-alike in that class I had just missed2.
“She sets her hair with great precision,
It’s her favorite indoor sport,
And by the light of television,
She can even write a book report.”
So it was that I spent most Sundays leaning over with my head in my hands, fingertips surreptitiously stuck in my ears so I could alternately fantasize about Karen, or the Karen clone in the next class over – that is until the day we had Roberta Jackson for a substitute teacher for Sunday School.
The Jacksons were one of the cornerstone families in our congregation, a family with five sons that made every other young man feel totally inferior. To a man they were muscular, handsome, musically gifted, mechanically talented, and blessed with the coolest haircuts ever, that I was never able to duplicate no matter how much tie I spent in front of the mirror, or how many tubes of SCORE Clear blue gel I troweled on top of my head. I desperately wanted to hate all of them, but I couldn’t because they were just so damn NICE.
Given the family’s musical talents, it wasn’t a total surprise when Roberta brought a guitar case with her when she was asked on short notice to cover our class. At first she was a little hesitant talking to us, until she pulled out an electric guitar from the case and started to sing. I was loathe to halt my internal re-run, but if you’ve ever listened to someone picking an unplugged electric guitar, you’ll know it has a very delicate sound – and as Sister Jackson began to play, it was all too apparent that her sons had inherited their talent from her. Rather than sounding like a musical instrument, the notes were more like the ripple of a wind chime magically blending together in melody.
Fingertips popped out of my ears, and I leaned in as she began to sing.
“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you are mine, I walk the line.”
For a moment I was confused – I knew that Johnny Cash had written and recorded the song a long time ago, and I couldn’t figure out why Sister Jackson was singing it in Sunday School, but then it hit me, and I had to fight the tears. Left to her own devices to teach a mob of unruly brats, Sister Jackson had reached to us in the way she best knew how to express love – through music. It was then that I also realized that she wasn’t singing about her husband, or an old boyfriend – she was singing to someone Higher, and in this context, walking the line entailed more than mortal affections.
…and in that moment the heater kicked into operation, simultaneously deafening and desiccating us all. Scant seconds after that explosion of sound a bell rang, prompting closing prayers, and before I knew it we were on our way home…but for the first time since leaving Anchorage I wasn’t scowling as we bounced and weaved along the thin concrete ribbon that was the Sterling Highway, running through the snags and stumps of a decades old forest fire. To be honest, our family’s church membership was more a matter of appearance than devotion, and I still hated the fact that we’d moved from Anchorage, but this particular Sunday had been different as Sister Jackson’s music, for the first time ever, prompted a spiritual feeling in my heart that was both unmistakable and indefinable. Was it a manifestation of Divine Power? It was a long time ago and I was only eleven, and as I try to conjure up memories of what I felt in my heart my mutant razor memory is for once a little hazy, but I do know that the experience was enough to start me pursuing matters of faith, not just for appearances, but for myself.
…and it was the last Sunday that I hummed a television series’ theme song to myself during the opening hymn.
- Cigarette butts, soda cans, and an item of girls’ underwear during one memorable occasion…as well as other items you really don’t want to know about.
- Her name was Kristi, and I was totally twitter-pated and unable to talk to her. I would daydream about her constantly though, and as a prepubescent eleven-year-old, those dreams revolved around a scenario in which I save her after she falls into the Kenai River only to be rewarded with a kiss of gratitude when she recovers consciousness.
“Karen” written by Jack Marshall, Bob Mosher, and performed by The Beach Boys.