1970: …very early on!

1970sWarriors

I had no idea what I was getting into when I started my training as a “commercial artist”. Few schools offered any sort of specialized training, but I was lucky enough to snag  a spot in Richard Bird’s ground-breaking design program when it first started up at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) in the mid-1970s. Despite my good fortune I remained essentially clueless – while Richard was refining a traditional illustration and graphic design program I was aiming for more adventuresome forms of expression featured in comics and the covers of books and record albums.

…and when I say clueless I mean clueless. I’d struggle with an overwhelming sense of despair as I looked through my collection of cover illustrations knowing that I’d never be able to render such tiny yet perfect images like the ones rendered by Frank Frazetta…never realizing that those gems were the phot0graphically reduced copies of larger  and more manageable works.

While my first tentative efforts were heavily influenced by Frazetta and his contemporaries I made no conscious effort to emulate that work to the exclusion of other styles. I just thought it looked cool and I wanted to see more of the same, even if I had to make the stuff myself.  Sometimes there was some actual risk involved. The vivid colors you see in this drawing were made by Flo-masters inks…which I don’t think are legal to use anymore. The intensity of the colors stemmed from the use of several exotic solvents in the ink’s preparation.

…just to give you a hint of what I was working with: the pens had interchangeable nibs, and when I’d put a used nib back into it’s slot in the carrying case the ink would spot-weld that used nib in place. 

What I Looked Like Once Upon a Time

I wish I had a better copy of this photo. It was taken at Ricks College in the autumn of 1973 during the most successful semester of my collegiate career, but like most of my undergraduate semesters I was flat broke and couldn’t afford any of the photo print packages. This image was scanned out of a yearbook published back when color printing was a luxury rather than the rule.

This is the first time in forty-six years I’ve looked at this closely, and as I look it over two questions come to mind:

  1. Who wrote “Wow!” along the left-hand margin?
  2.  At what time  in those intervening forty-six years did I learn how to correctly fold down my collar?

 

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1973: Rusty Old Tin Cans

It was a message that few people younger than 60 would understand – a T-shirt with a map of Viet-Nam printed on the back with an inscription on the front that said, “Southeast Asia War Games: Second Place”. I couldn’t help but marvel at the change in society’s attitude towards the military over the last fifty years. While the vote on who-beat-who will be out for years to come, at the time there was no question about a young man’s choice to participate.  If you were called up in the draft it was your duty to go, unless you obtained a deferment, failed the physical or took an extended vacation in Canada1.

Evading service never occurred to me. While it was true that our family had a long tradition of military service I also had a healthy dose of transpersonal commitment and a desire to serve my country. Experience as a military dependent convinced me that becoming an officer was the best route to take and while he never let on, my father was pleased to see me pursue a commission. He even attempted to stack the deck for me and through his connections  arranged a way for me to obtain an appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland…and he never got the credit he deserved for not throttling me when I turned the opportunity down because I didn’t want to cut my hair.

Truth be told it wasn’t the length of my hair that sunk my prospects of a naval career. I had thoroughly enjoyed spending Armed Forces Day of 1963 & 1964 at FT Richardson riding on tanks, firing blanks from M60 machine guns and making practice jump exits from the C-130 mock-up.  There was also my marathon viewing of The Longest Day at the Fourth Avenue theater; three consecutive showings of that star-studded epic film about D-Day and the Normandy Invasion insured that my choice of the army over the navy was a slam-dunk affair.

As I was only going to be attending the University of Alaska for two semesters I didn’t sign up as a cadet, but I did occasionally talk to the recruiters downtown and the ROTC cadre on campus. During my application for transfer to Ricks College I noticed that the Army was starting a brand-new cadet program there, so I made sure to include Military Science 101 when registering for my fall classes.

I was totally blindsided by the anti-military attitude prevalent at the school and the surrounding area. Putting on a uniform was an invitation to harassment and we were:

  • Mocked by room-mates.
  • Viewed with suspicion by town merchants.
  • Ridiculed in class by instructors.
  • Intentionally splashed with mud by passing cars.

Even my Best Friend made alarmingly sarcastic comments about my involvement in the “Rusty Old Tin Cans”2 and I soon found that I was not alone. Unfortunately, the harassment got to some of the other cadets who ended up dropping out –  or seriously considering that option but just as prospects for an ROTC program seemed most dire we were assigned a new Regular Army instructor who turned the entire situation around.

Gary Tomlinson was a military police major and to everyone’s delight a “southeast Idaho boy” having grown up near Pocatello. He was taciturn but warm, professional, practical and wasted no time in quietly making friends and forging a good working relationship with the school. This soft-spoken diplomacy helped him to develop a solid professional program with the use of very limited resources.3

At the same time, he worked at developing a relationship with the Idaho National Guard and was successful in getting their support for the extracurricular activities that had proved to be the best way to recruit and retain cadets. He put together a regular schedule of alternating recreational and military activities:  One time we’d go rappelling, the next time we’d practice patrol fundamentals, and the third-time orienteering – and so on throughout the year.

One of the first adventures happened on a Saturday early in September and consisted of a float trip down the Snake River starting at the bridge at Swan Valley and ending near our favorite rappelling spot at Heise Hot springs. While we’d be using army issue rafts and life preservers, it wasn’t a tactical exercise but rather just adventure training, a trip casual enough for Major Tomlinson to bring along his elderly father. We were teamed two to a raft and I would be making the trip with Randy Hamblen, a friend of mine from church and one of the very few married students I knew at Ricks College.

It was a warm day when we started out and the moderate current made for a trip that was not over-tiring – the biggest challenge we had was avoiding the deadfall willows that projected into the water along the bank. However, as we got close to noon the sky began to cloud up and a cold wind kicked in  – and as we rounded a bend it became a headwind for us and we stopped making good time. As we beached the rafts to rest at noon a check of the map revealed that we were less than halfway to our pick-up point. Most of the participants had anticipated a quick morning trip and didn’t bring any food or water but in my never-ending state of paranoia I had brought along a  small field pack, which in addition to spare socks,  held several packages of Lipton’s Instant Soup and some Trioxane solid-fuel tablets which I used to warm up as many of my fellow cadets as possible.

Grey skies got darker and began to spit intermittent raindrops at just about the same time the current picked up and we encountered modest rapids. Most of the cadets were not experienced rafters and the rough water separated/spread out the rafts until the bends in the river limited our sight to just a couple of rafts at a time – and vocal communication was dicey as well.

 “THE MAJOR HAS FALLEN IN!”

…. or at least that’s what the distant half-muffled voice seemed to be saying. Randy and I looked at each other and without a word started turning around, a task much easier in the talking than in the doing. Despite our most vigorous paddling we didn’t seem to move backward very quickly, and we decided that it might be best to beach the raft and cross the distance to the overturned raft overland. After looking in vain for a break in the downed willows lining the bank we tried moving close and grabbing at the branches, but then through a combination of such factors as:

  • Wind
  • Current
  • Direction of travel
  • Orientation of the raft
  • Height of the branches above the water

…. Randy and I were swept off the raft and into the river as cleanly as a spatula scrapes off leftover hash browns off a greasy spoon’s grill.

My thinking immediately shifted into Tardis-time where thought happens much faster than exterior events.  My first thought was that partially deflating my life preserver for a more comfortable fit had not been a good idea. Then as I bounced along the bottom of the river my second, third and fourth thoughts came to mind:

  • What I would tell Randy’s wife Maxine if I brought back a drowned husband for her?
  • There were an awful lot of empty beer cans along the bottom of the Snake River, more than I had ever seen in any river back home in Alaska.
  • I really didn’t want to drown and miss the New Seekers concert that evening.

The fifth thought that came to mind was that the cold water was making me fuzzy-headed and I needed to get out of the river as soon as possible.  I managed to kick back up to the surface, take a lungful of air and splash over to the side of the river where I found a just-as-wet-as-me Randy hanging on to the lead rope from our raft.

As we dumped the water out of the raft and tried to shake ourselves dry we could see that we weren’t the only rafters to end up in the water. Three other teams were also up on the banks battling wet clothes and gear, a sight that turned from grim to farcical when the Major and his father finally drifted slowly past us, dry as the moment they got in the raft. It turned out that it had only been the major’s thermos that fell in the river, but the background noise of the river and dispersion of the rafts had distorted the shouted message.

It also turned out that during all the drama we had ended up a lot closer to Heise Hot Springs than we previously thought and it wasn’t long until all the cadets had arrived, the rafts were all deflated and packed and we started our bus-ride back to Rexburg; some of use shivering even  though the heaters were running full blast.

Later that evening

“Ils ont change ma chanson, ma / Look what they done to my song, ma”

No wonder it never made sense. The fifth verse in “Look What They Done to My Song” was sung in French –  and I’d have never figured out the reason for my three-year long befuddlement had I missed the New Seekers concert that evening. Not that getting to the show had been easy – my hour-long shower had warmed my body but my toes still felt as icy as they did when we got out of the river …which made the simple act of walking a challenge.

Maxine’s glare had been equally icy when I brought Randy home looking more like a wet rat than the husband she’d sent off that morning.  She vainly attempted a disapproving glare, but she was glad to have us both back safely – and that we’d had a good time.

…but for now, the New Seekers were starting up with a set of slower songs and I started to nod off a bit. “I’d like to teach the world to sing…”  Who cares it started out as a jingle for Coca-Cola – it was a nice song just like today had been a good day. Not exactly what I’d expected but any day you beat the Reaper was a day to put in the win column.

 

 


 

  1. There were even fewer options when the regular draft was replaced by the draft lottery. There were no deferments with the lottery – you finished the current semester then went in the army – and if you didn’t show up they sent people to retrieve you. I had a company commander on active duty whose career started with being “escorted to the entry station.
  2. Probably the least derogatory explanation for the initials R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officer Training Corps)
  3. Another one of my “board of directors” (see blog post Board of Directors Part One: Richard Bird)

1972: Transition From Black & White

The more things change the more they stay the same. In this case the  “same” part was the fact that It was autumn and I was standing with a pretty girl in the waiting line in front of the campus cinema. The changed part? Twelve months earlier I had been taking Molly Dunham to see Castle Keep showing at the University of Alaska student cinema. Now I was taking my Best Friend to see The Wizard of Oz at the Manwaring Center at the Ricks College student cinema.

Also changed? I was really, really not-happy. Not necessarily “unhappy” but there were several places I’d rather be than Rexburg, Idaho.  I had spent the previous academic year at a state school with no real restrictions and my transfer to a faith-based conservative school with precise dress, grooming and conduct codes was something that would have not happened had I not been following my Best Friend, who’d chosen to attend Ricks long before she met me.

The dress and grooming standards weren’t the only drawback though. Up to this point my life had been spent on the Left Coast – California, Alaska and a brief interlude in Washington State. Going to school at Ricks College was like living in an Archie comic and whenever we were on the road I kept looking for signs that read “Welcome to Idaho – Please set your clocks back twenty years”.  People were nice enough but quirky.

However, that quirky behavior wasn’t all bad.  Going out at night was a lot less stressful that it had often been at home when any kind of weekend evening activity could involve navigating around people in various degrees of chemically-induced mental/emotional impairment. That impairment took different forms depending on the chemical involved; if weed was involved people were laid back and pleasant, but if there’d been some heavy-duty drinking, chances were someone would eventually start swinging. As sweet as she was my Best Friend was clueless to these kinds of situations and was baffled at my change in demeanor when walking from the car to wherever we were going. One minute I would be making my usual bad puns but once I was out the door I was as taciturn and alert as John Wayne in Fort Apache (“I don’t like it Cookie. The Indian drums have stopped and it’s too quiet out there!”).

I’d had to deal with some ugly situations with drunks interfering with other dates and there was no way I was going to let something like that happen to my Best Friend, so going to and from most of our activities were more like tactics exercises than anything else. I expected the situation to be much the same in Idaho but fortunately during the few weeks we’d been in Rexburg had been pretty peaceful and pleasant.

…including this particular trip to watch Judy Garland prance around with Munchkins at the student cinema on the third floor of the Manwaring student center. We arrived early but there was already a number of students waiting in line down the hallway. The hallway was a bit unusual:  To accommodate rooms of various size and configuration doors leading off this hallway were set back in varying depths with some of the doors flush with the wall and others inset anywhere from six inches to two feet. We’d parked ourselves in front of one of these inset mini-alcoves when the door at the end of the hallway crashed open and a very cowboyish-looking guy walked in. As he moved down the hall and past the line of people waiting for the movie he brushed shoulders with another young man standing a couple of spaces ahead of us.

AH-OOGAH!

My inner alarm system kicked in at what I figured to be an imminent fight. As the adrenaline started pumping I turned and swept my Best Friend into the alcove behind us, then stood in front with my hands up, ready to push the combatants away if the inevitable fight started to move in our direction.

Then something completely unexpected happened.

“Sorry – I warn’t watching whar I was going” said the cowboy.

“No problem” said the brushee.

“David, what is going on?” said my Best Friend, her muffled voice echoing from the alcove behind me.

I was totally bewildered as the two shook hands and the cowboy kept walking down the hall. I could feel little mental fuses and circuit breakers in my brain burn out and pop. The situation had resolved itself in a manner completely foreign to my experience  – Instincts kicked in and I started to loudly berate the young man in the line ahead of us.

“What are you doing you >expletive deleted<?”

 “He just ran RIGHT into you!  And your girlfriend too!”

 “Kick his a**!”

 A slender hand reached around, grabbed the front of my overcoat and gently pulled me around and away from the others in the line. While she straightened my lapel and brushed non-existent dust off my shoulders my Best Friend quietly said:

David, we’re not in Fairbanks anymore. Things are different here and different doesn’t always mean bad…or worse.”

 …which completely shut me up.

 …and I stayed quiet because I had a lot to think about. The parallel between what had happened outside and what was happening on the screen was sledge-hammer obvious.  I’d come from an environment that was just as black-and-white as the scenes in Kansas up on the screen and I while I wasn’t ready to say that Idaho was “color” in comparison to my home in Alaska, I was finding that “quirky-but-nice” might be just nice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1973: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is like the hot cheerleader’s younger sister –the one that everybody chats up just to get a chance to meet her much lovelier sibling. Stores start putting up Christmas displays right after Halloween and when people discuss a day of that long weekend in November they’re more apt to be talking about the day after Thanksgiving – scoring bargains on Black Friday. That wasn’t always the case and in 1973 my Thanksgiving was infinitely better than my Christmas despite the lack of deep discounts on home electronics.

I was winding up my third and last semester at Ricks College and I was on a roll. I was working hard and doing very well in my classes, I had lost thirty pounds and was in great shape…and in a month, I would be reunited with my Best Friend. The Thanksgiving holiday was almost more a hinderance than a respite and when I told Conrad1 I was staying put and working on a project instead of going to Provo with him he was not very happy. After a few rounds of our usual bickering we compromised on an abbreviated visit with his sister Chris at BYU, after which we’d speed home, so I could finish the project.

The trip started out nicely enough as we sped south on I-15 with two other room-mates who would be riding just as far as Malad ID crammed in the back of Conrad’s Mustang. We laughed, joked and talked about girls until someone pointed to the sky to the southwest at an ominous storm front blowing in. Someone joked about singing hymns to somehow divert the storm but as we passed Pocatello we started to run into real trouble. The Mustang began running rough and within minutes we were stalled.

At this point our two backseat passengers decided to bail, leaving us with a non-personalized check for their share of the gas money. In a string of minor miracles, we waved down a car, rode in wrecker and put the Mustang’s 8-track tape-deck in hock to pay for the services and finally got the Mustang running again. By then it was obvious the Provo trip was a bust, but we were still a long way from home and it was late at night. Luckily our ROTC instructor MAJ Gary Tomlinson lived with his family in Pocatello and kindly put us up for the night.

We woke up to a cold cloudy morning and drove back to our apartment in Rexburg, stopping at a Circle K to buy our Thanksgiving feast: a freezer pizza and an apple pie. We were both thankful we’d gotten out of the predicament losing only the tape deck and not our lives, but with our four other room-mates gone (along with most of the college student body) it was going to be a rather bleak holiday.

It was at that point that an idea came to mind which shortly had me resorting to one of the most bald-faced shameless acts of manipulation in my life. I went upstairs to talk to our landlords the Hansen’s, who were surprised to see us. I responded: “Oh, we had car trouble and had to come back, but we’re OK. We’ve got a freezer pizza and an apple pie between us – and we’re buddies from way back, so it will be just like being home… almost” trailing off into a barely audible sigh as I went back down to our apartment.

Stephen Hansen was a good-hearted man and I could predict almost to the second what he would do after our conversation. I started counting down “Five – four – three – “

Conrad was lost “What’s going on?”

“Shh -two – one! “

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK!

It was Brother Hansen “Now boys, we want you to come upstairs and have Thanksgiving dinner with us” to which both Conrad and I made the requisite protests, which we ceased when he got to “I won’t take no for answer”. We trooped upstairs for a grand feast – and in the process got to know them as individuals with personality and depth and not just one-dimensional characters hammering on their floor when we got too rowdy in the downstairs apartment.

The storm that had stranded us left a thick blanket of snow which made our street look like a Christmas card and the bulk of the holiday was quiet and I spent most of the time finishing up projects and studying for tests. We did manage to get out of the apartment a couple of times; stocking up on some groceries, attending a consolidated church meeting and viewing “Willi Wonka and The Chocolate Factory” at the Manwaring Center Cinema more times that I ever cared to. I was surprised at how quiet Rexburg was, but then I’d never been in town when school was not in session.  As I said: the days were quiet, but the evenings turned out a little differently.

Even though I had never seen it in use, our living room was equipped a fireplace complete with a small supply of wood. Midway through the holiday we decided a fire was in order and as we were preparing I noticed  several short lengths of 1”X12” wood in the wood-box, leftovers from a remodeling project. During my brief marital arts training I’d learned if you properly positioned a plank between supports and swung your hand “through the board” with the grain you could break it without hurting yourself.

After demonstrating the process to Conrad by splitting a few boards I coached/coaxed him into giving it a try. I helped him position the plank and stood by while he took several deep breathes, wound up and swung his hand with a deafening cry.

“HI-YAH!”

Thud!

“HI-YAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”  It was like watching the Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon. Conrad jumped up –  board intact – and continued  jumping up and down around the room, grabbing his hand and screaming that he’d broken it. Upon inspection we found that a bad bruise was the extent of the damage and when he calmed down we went back to building the fire.

I laid the kindling and wood in a neat log cabin formation, and when we put match to paper it all started to crackle and flare in a most warm and satisfactory manner. We were most pleased…. until we realized that the smoke was not going up the chimney but in fact was pouring into the apartment.  I quickly doused the fire but not before the smoke had collected along the ceiling which had the apartment looking like a New York City summer afternoon.

…and the smoke didn’t look like it was going anywhere soon, no matter how hard we tried to fan it out the door. We also found out why the smoke had poured out – the fireplace damper had been firmly closed – but we had to clear the smoke and smell out of the apartment before our roommates returned and/or the Hansen’s found out…which is why we both slept fully clothed that night, wearing our winter coats and hats while all the windows in the apartment were left slightly open.

We were lucky – when the other guys started drifting in the next day the smoke was all gone, and the slight woodsy smell was easily explained away as dinner getting burned the night before. Conrad and I listened to everyone’s holiday stories and we all happily went into our usual “night before” drill, cleaning up, setting out clothes and planning the next day’s activities when the final Thanksgiving adventure happened.

“EEEWWWWWWWWWW” It was Syd, pointing at one of our bedroom windows and looking like he’d just lost his lunch. He stammered “It was horrible – I looked out the window and saw the ugliest guy in the world looking in. His face looked like it had been burned or doused with acid and was sloughing off like an old scab AND THERE HE IS AGAIN!” pointing out our window.

I looked over to see the lower torso of a man’s body standing in the snow then turning and bolting away from the window.  I ran for the door and when I reached the sidewalk in front of the house I could see footprints leading from the side of the house out to the street and up the hill. Glancing up I saw a ragged figure briefly illuminated by a street lamp, but the deepening snow ruled out any sort of pursuit…. for which I was grateful. Between Syd’s description and what little I saw of the prowler I was not sure I wanted to confront the guy. . I also kind of wanted to stick close to the neighborhood; channeling as ever for Batman I wanted to keep a watchful eye out after a cursory check revealed that our prowler had been loitering around the windows of two girls’ apartments located nearby.

It was almost midnight by the time I got into bed, but I was too jazzed from the chase to fall asleep. Lying in my bunk, I couldn’t help but think back over the long weekend:  every Thanksgiving before this one had been very predictable and comfortable, either spent with my family or my Best Friend’s relatives, but I felt more thankful than I had ever before. It had been more of a slapstick comedy than a holiday, with one disaster after another, but each disaster had been resolved without serious harm.

It was the best Thanksgiving of my entire life.

 


 

  1. Donald/Don/Donny Thomas: somehow Don acquired “Conrad” as a nickname just before we left for school in the late summer of 1973 and he was known by that name to all our other roommates.  My oldest son Conrad is named after Donny in this manner

Board of Directors Part 1: Richard Bird

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Mentor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1973: Taking One for the Team

Goat picture

As I grew up my father’s changing employment situation had us moving around a lot and by the time I earned my high school diploma I had attended seven public schools. I went on to earn an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s degree and a Master of Fine Arts degree while attending three different universities and one junior college – and when you add those academic institutions to places where I have taught the total comes to sixteen schools with which I have had extensive experience. Of all those bastions of academia Ricks College (now known as BYU-Idaho) was the best, with the fall of 1973 being my best term of my entire collegiate career. I made the honor roll with a 3.8 GPA while carrying 19 credit hours, I was actively involved in the establishment of the first ROTC detachment set up at the school, held multiple responsibilities in my church congregation and earned a small scholarship as the cartoonist for the student newspaper.

As I have learned several other times in my life being actively engaged in so many worthwhile things did wonders for my morale, but that doesn’t mean that semester started out as a happy situation.  I felt out-of-place, having transferred to Ricks the year from the University of Alaska, not because I wanted to go there, but because my Best Friend wanted to go there.  The change from a state school to a private faith-based institution was so abrupt that at times I would break  into hives from the stress. How that rocky start evolved into lofty academic achievement is told elsewhere; suffice it to say that at the time of this story I was starting my third (and final) semester in Rexburg 4000 miles from the most important person in my life while living in an apartment with five strangers who were not particularly friendly.

Initially I handled the situation as any other thoughtful mature young man would – by retreating to my bedroom and throwing a low-grade tantrum. Half my spare time was spent writing letters to my Best Friend, listening to Neil Young on the record player,  and mentally living a year or two in the past. The other half was spent writing more letters, listening to the Moody Blues on my record player, and mentally living a year or two in the future. I had little interest in anything other than marking days off the calendar as I waited for our happy reunion and a new life.

Given this behavior you may ask why we were separated to begin with. The story behind the split is very messy, involving unreasonable pressure from  my family  against the relationship developing any further* but we had patched our couple-hood  together during the summer after I went through a  Saul’s-conversion-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience which left me vowing “never crash and burn again”. Unfortunately my lofty intentions didn’t change the fact that my financial and academic situation required us to spend one last semester separated.

Then wonder upon wonder, things started getting better.  I got off to a good start with my classes, our new ROTC instructor got us out on weekends to go rappelling or rafting… and most important I found out that long distance phone calls weren’t as prohibitively expensive as I’d assumed. It was amazing what an occasional call back to Fairbanks would do to raise my spirits.

…then one of my room-mates mentioned the word “football” and my stress level skyrocketed again.

Football.

When people ask me about my football career I reply  that but for one problem  I could have played  professional football – that problem being that I was just not very good at the game. I was a late bloomer, gaining strength, coordination and general physical ability a couple years later than my team-mates. That didn’t keep me from loving the game, and I made up for lack of ability with enthusiasm. Fans weren’t quite so over the top as they are now – no face-painting or giant foam headgear for us – but I did closely follow my favorite teams during the season, and linebackers were just as apt to show up in my sketchbooks as sword-wielding barbarians or caped superheroes.

It was when I got involved with actually playing or talking about playing that my love for the game that I began to feel  stress. My basic insecurity and paranoia would gnaw at my confidence, so when one of my new room-mates suggested we try to get a pick-up game going with guys from the dorms I was torn between being excited about playing, and fear of demonstrating my ineptitude. Playing with this new set of room-mates brought on its own peculiar challenges as well – I was the only returning tenant that fall and it seemed like the new guys brought with them an undercurrent of criticism and negativity that kept us from bonding in quite the same way we had the previous year. I got the feeling that if I played with them and didn’t do well I’d be the goat for the entire semester.

(Don’t ask me what “being the goat” entailed – I picked up the term while reading an advertisement for a Jonny Unitas plastic model kit)

…but I really, REALLY wanted to play football so shortly thereafter we were lined up against a half-dozen dormitory denizens. We started out with a casual game of touch football but as coeds began to gather to watch, the testosterone level started to rise and before you could say “Vince Lombardi” the captain of the dormitory team challenged us to play tackle ball.

To my surprise and delight I played quite well, operating as a combination guard/tackle on offense and a linebacker on defense. Scoring had started out a bit casual, with the two teams either tied or within one touchdown of each other for most of the game, but got serious about the same time we switched from touch to tackle rule, when the girls started watching.

Despite playing well I was still edgy.  Out of both teams I was the one person who had actually played high school football; most of the others being wrestlers or gymnasts.  For some reason being the only one who’d ever had “scabs on the bridge of my nose” caused animosity and the comments got a more caustic as the contact got harder and more abrupt….and that was from my own team. It got to the point that I considered departing the field for my record player and Mr. Young’s nasal balladering when I heard a yell “Deitrick – watch, he’s coming around your side!”

A member of the other team was running the ball around my side of the line with just a couple of yards between him and the goal-line. We seemed to be a match in terms of speed but I wasn’t sure I could anticipate his intentions and stop him in time – and at that point I went into Tardis-time where my internal clock was running much faster than time was passing in the outside world.

My internal monologue kicked in: “Why am I bothering with this. These guys don’t know the kind of injuries you can get playing tackle ball. I do. I have no wish to spend the semester in a cast after killing myself for people that I have absolutely nothing invested in. All I am doing is killing time until my Best Friend and I are back together again. Who cares if they like me – I can just listen to music and live in my head.”

Just then I glanced at the room-mate closest to me and saw an expression that I  couldn’t identity. It was an open expression I had yet to see on anyone’s face in the apartment: hope, pride, friendship?  – certainly not the contempt I was expecting. There was a flash – I don’t know if it was adrenaline or the fear of sustaining a skull fracture but in that moment I had an epiphany –   the disconnection was as much my fault as the new guys; that no matter how badly I missed my Best Friend I had to stop marking the days off my calendar and start living outside my head.  I turned back toward the ball-carrier, bulled my head down and made a text-book perfect tackle.  The runner collapsed like a sack of potatoes and fumbled the ball, setting us up for the winning touchdown a couple of plays later.

It was dizzying. There had been so few times in my life that I had been the hero but in the back of my mind I knew that there was more going on than just grid-iron glory.The walk back to our apartment was not much different than walking to the field had been two hours earlier, but I felt different.  On the surface the dialog continued to be that of brain-dead 18-20 year old young men but the comments were not quite as caustic or clipped.

It was a very small difference – it was a definite improvement and a foreshadowing of the overall change that was just over the horizon for me.

(* I still can’t watch the fifth Season of “That ‘70s Show”)

1973: It’s Hank, Not Hal.

(Yes, this looks slightly different. Thanks to the BYU-Idaho library digital archives I finally tracked down a copy of the comic strip in question which appears at the end of this post. It turns out that I’ve had the two nick-names turned around in my head for the last 40+. It still makes for a funny story…)

The things you do for love.

Ricks College was not a perfect fit for me at first. I had spent the previous academic year at the University of Alaska and in line with most state schools dorm life had no real restrictions. That wasn’t the case with Ricks; as most of you know it was a very conservative school and in order to attend you were required to sign a contract stating you would follow precise dress, grooming and conduct codes. I can’t say that I was delighted about cutting my hair but all things considered a contract is a contract and no one had put a pistol to my head forcing me to go.

…well, not in those exact terms. My Best Friend had decided to go to Ricks even before we met so it is no surprise that I changed my mind about Rexburg, Idaho. What? Oh, the “changing my mind” bit. I had actually turned down a hefty tuition scholarship to Ricks the year before because I didn’t want to cut my hair and no, they hadn’t saved it for me.

That’s actually not even the dumbest academic decision I’ve made. My father was a Navy Man, a retired Chief Petty Officer (CPO)….and a Pearl Harbor survivor. I’m not sure of the exact connection or what it all entailed, but the CPO serving in the Alaska recruiting district for the Navy was also a Pearl Harbor survivor and I ended up with a letter at graduation time informing me that if I wanted a slot at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis it could be arranged. Again,  I didn’t pursue it because I didn’t want to cut my hair.

 …but back to our story

 I made it through the first semester of school at Ricks and actually did well academically – much better than I had while I was at UA. I had been particularly worried about my art classes; while I had always “done art” had not taken any formal training prior to this first semester at Ricks. I had been worried because I knew the foundation classes there wouldn’t include heroic fantasy, super-powered humans, aircraft or British colonial wars on the syllabus – but l was fortunate to study drawing under the marvelous Richard Bird, father of the Ricks/BYUI graphic design program. It was also during a test semester when he placed a much heavier-than-usual emphasis on perspective basics which served me well in later years when I finally did get to draw those super-powered humans and aircraft that I came looking for in the first place.

…so you can imagine the delight I felt upon learning that the college newspaper was looking for a cartoonist! You can imagine the further delight I felt when I actually got the job, though that aspect eventually lost some luster when I found out that I had been the only applicant for the position. It became even more luster-less when I found out that it was an unpaid internship; all I would be getting for a semester’s work of work would be a certificate handed out at the rubber-chicken awards banquet at the end of the academic year. Didn’t matter. I was going to be in print just like Jim Steranko, Neal Adams and all my other creative idols. I was “in the business”….not that you could tell it from “Captain Ricks”, the semi-surreal adventure/satire title that I finally came up with twenty minutes before the my first deadline.

Producing a comic strip turned out to be a lot harder than I thought it would be. It was challenge to come up with basic story ideas in the first place and I hadn’t realized that the culture gap would be so broad. I had gotten it into my head that Alaska was at the end of a cultural pipeline and that people got progressively more hip as you moved east – or in the case of the West Coast, south. Two days in Rexburg taught me that this was not true, at least when it came to Southern Idaho and the first story-line I did for Captain Ricks fell flat, most its National Lampoon and Firesign Theater inspired elements totally foreign to my readers. Both of them. Frustrated but resolute I started another story arc about long-haired terrorists attacking the Spori building and kidnapping President Eyring to hold hostage until all the male students at Ricks grew their hair out – or as I penned it “We’re going to keep old Hal here hostage until all your hair is longer ‘n greasier than ours!

I was particularly proud of the little portrait I did of President Eyring, and I happily dropped off the strip at the editorial office before going to my Astronomy class. As astronomy was one of my favorite classes I was just as happy walking home afterwards…until I got back to my apartment and realized that it was as cold inside as it had been outside when I was walking in the snow. A couple of my roommates were there, but no one said a thing other than a cryptic “Did you see the note on your bed?” in the tone of voice usually reserved for morticians and oncologists. I was baffled.

The note read “Gus – President Eyring’s office called and they want you to come down and talk to them?” I crumpled the note up and said in an exasperated tone “just got a haircut” I which was answered with “It wasn’t the standards office – it was President Eyring. The top guy…and they said it needed to be right away!”

Oh boy.

I have never walked a distance as far as the mile or so that separated my basement apartment from the Spori building. “I’m dead meat”. I wondered what my Best Friend would say. I wondered what my Best Friend’s parents would say…then then (gulp) I wondered what my parents would say when my sojourn at Ricks college ended (looking at my watch) in about 45 minutes. I hadn’t given a second’s thought to what might happen by including President Eyring in the strip. My room-mates had all thought it was screamingly funny when I had showed them before turning it in – but thinking back the laughs had been more like the ones you get when you get accidently hit in the groin by a Super Ball than the laughs you get from penning a funny comic.

“I’m dead meat”.

It took me a half-hour to find his office once I got to the Spori Administration building. While I had been there before to pick up financial aid material and to get tickets for concerts, I always figured that there were trap-doors that swept away any student foolish enough to venture past the first floor and up to the offices. I gingerly tip-toes up the stairs to President Eyring’s office door, spent two minutes with my hand clamped over my mouth to slow my hyperventilation down, and knocked.

Called in, I was met by President Eyring’s assistant in the outer office. A handsome middle-aged lady with steel-grey hair, she was very pleasant as she led me to the President’s section, her smile fading only momentarily to an expression of slight bewilderment as I hopped around the square rug in front of her desk.

(“ah, so there’s where the trap doors are” I thought)

I was ushered in just as President Eyring was finishing his lunch. The first thing I noticed was the linen handkerchief and china on the silver serving tray – all being so totally foreign to my Alaskan experience and world-view that they could have been moon rocks retrieved by Apollo astronauts. The second thing I noticed was his tailored and impeccably pressed pin-stripe suit (ditto the moon rock analogy). The third thing? His warm, genuine smile.

“Hello Brother Deitrick! So nice to meet you!”

(I murmured something in response)

He continued: “The editor at the Scroll sent your latest Captain Ricks comic strip over for me to take a look at. You know, when I was sent to Ricks College I was given the charge to raise the academic stature of the school. I suppose there are those people who would think that appearing in a comic strip would run counter to that mission, but it’s been done in good taste and looks fun, so go ahead and run it!”

We talked for a few minutes more but I don’t remember about what. I was stunned. I was no longer dead meat – at least over this issue. I walked in a daze to the door, somehow missing the trap-doors but just as I reached for the door knob:

“Oh – just one thing”

(OK – here it comes. Maybe the trap-doors are manually operated)

“ It’s Hank, not Hal… My nick-name”

CPT Ricks and Hank