1966: Billy and the Bear

It is the nature of most frontiers to have boom-or-bust economies. Alaska is no different than any other frontier, but in some ways that boom-or bust mentality has permeated throughout the whole population in both mind and heart. It brings to mind a bumper sticker I saw on a car in the late 80s when the state was still reeling from a devastating downturn caused by OPEC’s reduction of the price of oil: “Lord, please give us another boom. I promise not to p*ss this one away too.”  I kind of doubt the driver followed through on that oath; as I said that all –or-nothing mindset is totally ingrained in the Alaskan psyche. Private industry investment, purchasing new vehicles, individuals’ spending money –there was rarely any in between. One night you’re sleeping on satin sheets and the next night you’re sacking out on steam grates.

With the Boy Scouts it was a little bit different, but still a matter of cyclic extremes. In the summer of 1965 Soldotna sent two Scout troops to camp: Troops 151 and 262. Troop 262 had been formed when parents of some of the scouts in 151 got perturbed in the petty way in which only a Scout’s parents can, but even if there was a chill between leaders we boys got along great. The friendly competition was a great motivation towards working on advancement as we in 151 vowed to stay ahead of the renegades in 262 …but in the true hot/cold Alaskan manner by the time for camp came around the next summer both troops had imploded. The only way we were able meet the six-scout minimum to go to Camp Gorsuch was to combine the two troops along with a single Scout from Hope (AK) and two boys from Eagle River.

It was not a peak scouting experience. IN addition to being thrown into camp life with people we didn’t know, we did not have the benefit of effective adult leadership.  Oh, we had great leaders – but none of them could stay longer than two days at a time.  We stumbled rather than marched through camp so when I was voted in as patrol leader my first action was to dub our bunch “F Troop” after the western-themed situation comedy popular at the time. It got some laughs, though I doubt the adult camp staff would have appreciated our private interpretation of the letter “F” in the title.  About the only mitigating  factor was our location at Beluga campsite; unlike most of the campsites down in amongst the trees, Beluga was located up on a slight ridge which gave us a constant breeze  which in turn kept the ever-present mosquitoes away

(How bad are the mosquitoes in Alaska? One night I heard two of them talking to each other. One of the skeeters said “Do we eat ‘em here or take ‘em back to the lake?”. The other one replied “Naw. If we take ‘em back to the lake the big guys will take ‘em away from us.”)

The only problem with the campsite was that it was located on a major game trail that large animals used to go up and down the mountain behind to the south of camp – but to date that summer there had been little to no critter problems to speak of, all of which added to severe boredom. The frequent changes in adult leaders left us to fend for ourselves and we were all completely ignorant of the wide selection of merit badge classes available. Consequently camp life was crushingly dull – except when it involved Billy.

Billy was a member of the other Soldotna troop. Billy was a round peg in a square hole at a time when we were all square pegs in round holes. He had a hard time fitting in but was blessedly oblivious to the fact. When I first met him two years earlier he had been alternately obsessed with the German battleship Bismarck and Snoopy the Beagle from the “Peanuts” comic strip. That was all in the past by the time we got to camp that summer. Now Billy was an escape artist.

Because he talked all the time (even in his sleep) you learned early on to tune him out, so at first I didn’t think much of his professed Houdini-inspired talents. It was only after freeing him from several of his self-imposed traps in succession that I began to worry. Without consistent adult leadership I could see problems coming up. I thought I had faced my major Billy-crisis when we had to bandage a second degree burn on his wrist that came from his attempts to melt through the knot in the nylon 550 cord he was tied with (the knot he was supposed to untie) but the true test was yet to come.

It was on the fifth day of camp. Another Scout had gone with me down to the trading post kill some time and as we were walking toward camp we kept running into people on the trail, far more people than usual given our remote site. As we neared the campsite enough people had gathered to form a small crowd so we had to elbow our way in the last couple of yards, and as we were fighting those last few yards to the campsite I overheard the dreaded word:


It seems that in addition to missing out on merit-badge classes I had been missing out on the nightly Senior Patrol Leader’s meeting. Had I been there, I would have known about the bear problem that had cropped up earlier in the week. The nightly ursine forays varied in degree from a simple matter of food taken from a table to an outhouse getting knocked over (with a scoutmaster still in it) but up to this point there hadn’t been any trouble during daylight hours or around scouts actively moving about and making noise. I crept closer. Beluga campsite was in the same semi-organized state of disarray that ‘F troop” usually left it in – with three exceptions.

  1. A medium-sized black bear was rummaging between grease and bits of in the fire-pit and the remnants of a peanut butter & jelly sandwich on the camp table
  2. An adult camp staff member down on his hands and knees whispering to
  3. What looked like a large brown caterpillar slowly rolling about and emitting low moans.

Luckily I had emerged at the edge of the crowd right where another other scout from “F” troop was standing and he filled me in on what was happening. Billy had badgered the other scouts into providing him with a real test of his skill in escape artistry – to which they readily agreed, though more to shut him up more than to test his skill.  They had tied him hand and foot, then put him into a sleeping back head-first and tied a rope around that bag. Next they put him into another sleeping bag feet first, tied ropes around that outer bag, and then took the free end of the rope and tied it to a tree-stump just outside the fire-ring. The slow rolling and low moaning were the result of Billy trying to free himself – and giving a non-stop commentary during the effort.

…and he had absolutely no clue that there was a bear in camp.

The bear finally moved away from the fire pit, which allowed the adult leader to slowly crab-walk closer to Billy doing his caterpillar-in-the-chrysalis imitation. In a low voice the leader quietly said “Billy – now don’t be afraid but there is a bear in the camp” Billy’s commentary went on for another 10 or 15 seconds – then the light-bulb flashed on:


At this point the written word fails do justice to what happened next (Works better/looks funnier when I can use my hands)
scan0004< The Billy chrysalis started to bounce around like a Mexican jumping bean – but since the bottom of the outer sleeping bag was tied to the tree stump with the remaining six feet of the rope tied around the outer bag Billy couldn’t go anywhere but back and forth around a small circle, with muffled “oofs” interrupting the non-stop muffled screaming each time he hit the ground.

As I was wondering how a rather slender person like Billy (0% body fat) could bounce around like that without breaking a bone I looked over to see that the bear had finally been chased out of camp and along the game trail and up the mountain.  The crowd slowly dispersed, including the adult leaders who gave us a stern warning against leaving food unsecured again, and  right on cue Billy emerged from the second  sleeping bag after the other guys had pulled him out of that first one…and the minute he hit fresh air his non-stop commentary resumed.

At that point we just let him talk, figuring that he’d earned the right after his harrowing experience with the bear, but in retrospect we should have done something to get him to stop. Fifteen months later the alphabetical proximity of our last names doomed me to be his locker-mate during my freshman year of high school and he was still talking about it then – and kept talking about it the entire year.

Twenty years later he stopped by to visit my family and me, and a major portion of the conversation dealt with his escape artistry that year. I live in dread of getting a Facebook request with a picture of a bear attached to it, and when I think about it all I wonder – would it have been that bad had I taken some of that peanut butter and smeared on the outside of the outer sleeping bag when the bear was looking for food?

1972: The Summer of ’72.

Let me stress that I am not trying to cause any embarrassment;  I am trying my best to “sanitize” this post so no one feels uncomfortable – but what I am about to write about was one of the most pivotal events of my life.

In these times metaphors involving vinyl records are lost on most readers but some of you can remember cassette tapes well enough to understand a point I am trying to make: “ghost tracks.” Voices from recordings t you’ve taped over that managed to avoid total erasure. Cassette-tape manufacturers go to great lengths to assure us that taping over something or running a tape through the machine with everything set on “erase” will eliminate that first recording…but it doesn’t. Some recordings will survive and invariably will be revealed, usually when they can be the most embarrassing. With me it involved trying to whistle the instrumental accompaniment to “Here Comes my Baby” by the Tremeloes but I’m leaving that for another post….

First loves are like that too. No matter what imprints you gain on your heart later in life there is something about that first love that never completely lets go of you. Even though you love your spouse so much that you are two halves of the one whole, there are still times when hearing a particular song evokes a memory that turns back the clock in a heartbeat.

Years before I swept my beautiful Saxon princess off of her feet there was another young lady with whom I was very smitten. What made the relationship even more special was the fact that she just wasn’t my girl friend; she was also my best friend – my best friend for two of the most pivotal years of my life. At the time I wasn’t a bad kid   but I wasn’t necessarily a “good kid” either …but her interest (and that of her family) caused a very fundamental change in the nature of my life.

However, the nature of my life at the time was such that we were periodically separated. The reunions were wonderful, but one reunion was very different from all the others and I remember it like it happened last week. I had gone home to my job as a roustabout in the oil field but I had promised to return for a major event. While we were apart we both wrote every day and were both looking forward eagerly to our reunion, but it turned out to be much less romantic event than either one of us expected.

After a long flight following a long day at work I arrived at her home to a living room full of people. For moment I wondered if my Best Friend was even there, but then I saw her curled up on the couch across the room, having dozed off while reading so I gingerly made my way across the sea of people to kneel down by the side of the couch.

At that moment she woke up, looked me in the eyes, smiled – and reality changed.

I use the word “smile” because the word that accurately describes the action and emotion of that moment has yet to be written. The situation in the room was not conducive to any sort of PDA other than fingers curled around in a sort of hand-shake clasp. As I knelt across the end-cushion of that couch we just kept looking at each other and beaming…and then all of a sudden it was like the sun rose again. I was vaguely aware of noise around us but instead of looking into deep brown eyes I was looking simultaneously into the past, the present and the future, andcould feel a source radiating a fundamental “positivity’ just like the sun would be warming us at the beach.

I could feel joy rush all through my body from the top of my head down to the tips of my fingers and toes and it seemed as though my heart was going to burst. It didn’t feel like we were clasping hands as much as it felt like we were fundamentally connected in some way , the thought of it filling me with a joy and happiness that I cannot verbalize. Not “new Neil Young album happy”. Not “touchdown pass happy”.

Joy with a capital “J”.

….then just as quickly the spell was gone and the cacophony of the room full of happy people rose again. At the end of the weekend I flew back home and in the fall we went off to school and an emotional roller-coaster that lasted until we parted ways eighteen months later. . My Best Friend and I went on to find marvelous mates and build wonderful families – but there are still sometimes when I stop and think about the day her smile made the sun come up a second time and I learned a vital lesson: that love and joy can transcend these frail physical bodies and that some of the most desperately important things in our young life pale next to other less tangible but more eternal things.

1972: Subterranean Spring Break

There are very few times when the words “Alaska” and “spring break” appear in the same sentence, but the University of Alaska does indeed have a spring break. At least it did when I was a student at The University of Alaska (This was when there was only one university and several community colleges). We got two days off in March, which coupled with the regular weekend gave us a four day spring break. The problem was there was no place to go and as it was a holiday there was no food service. You’d think that we’d have been starved into docile inactivity during that week but as you will see it was one of the most exciting weeks I spent on campus that year.

There was another major drawback to spring break: as a high school student my Best Friend still had to go to school – and keep weekday evening study hours so I was left with my dorm buddies for evening company and entertainment during the break. By this time differences in the value of certain herbal remedies had been resolved so I was getting along well with my room-mate Scott as well as Bernie, Marty, Jeff and other members of the Lathrop Hall basement group. Not that there weren’t still some important differences of opinion: I had absolutely no interest in researching the flammable qualities of flatulence so I had to come up with another activity to pass the time (heaven forbid studying) and as luck (literally) would have it I was presented with one the first night of the break.

I took a slightly different route home from my Best Friend’s house that night as few times during the previous week I had the unnerving experience of being trailed home by a lynx. It’s a common thing and the cats never attack but it still creeped me out to see a pair of shining eyes following me at a fixed distance as I made my way along the shortcut through the woods – that’s  what had me following the sidewalks back to Lathrop Hall. The change in route also took me to the front door instead of the back and as I neared the entrance I noticed that the padlock on the metal door securing the entry to the campus utilidors was missing. The door was located on a low metal box about ten feet square and after a quick scan around I pulled up on the handle – which opened with a slight creak!

I was in!

(For those of you who don’t know what utilidors are– it’s a tunnel system usually found on large spread-out installations like a college campus or military base. The tunnels house electrical lines, steam-heat pipes, water and sewer lines that run from the main physical plant complex out to all the other buildings, eliminating duplication of  heating systems in each building and providing all-weather access to maintenance of all the lines. I had explored the utilidors under my high-school the year before but they were very limited – nothing  like what we discovered under the university.)

I didn’t stay long, quickly climbing back out and bolting inside the dorm to my room where I told the guys about the situation. We immediately geared up, though unfortunately we were short on any sort of light-producing devices ( I think we had two candles) I put on one of my dad’s old flight suits and  filled the pockets with “stuff” like a pocket knife, matches, string, hard candy etc.  I don’t know what I was thinking but for some reason survival equipment seemed appropriate at the time. Once we were all equipped we made our way to the entrance, darting from the front door to the open hatch one at a time like escaping POWs heading for the wire in “The Great Escape”

It was dark. As our eyes adjusted we found that was a little bit of light filtering from the glass windows in the doors that connected the tunnels with each one of the building – just enough light to allow some rough navigation through the passages.  That was one of our first discoveries – that the glass-windowed door in the bottom of the stairwell connected with the utilidors. All of the buildings were connected in that fashion – but unfortunately they were just about all locked as well so there would be a limit to our travels.

The first night’s expedition was limited. . We followed the tunnel down the slope (the tunnels followed the general lay of the land over them) to the athletics building where our big achievement for the night was getting into the observation room adjacent to the pool. The room had a window looking out in the water which was used for filming and critique of the swim teams. It was an eerie sight – there were low-level security lights above the water but all we saw was a silvery undulating “ceiling” as we looked into the pool.

These limitations might seem as though they would be very discouraging but you have to remember that this was 1972 and heroic fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Conan and the like) was very popular. Running through those tunnels was like living out a Robert Howard short story and I half expected bejeweled skeletons swinging swords to come lurching out of a niche in the wall.

We went back into the tunnels and headed up the hill, past our entry point and beyond. We stopped at several buildings, hoping to find an unlocked door but found them all secured. Disappointment was keenest at the basement of Chandalar Hall, one of two residence halls on campus that were girls-only. As the male-to-female ratio on campus ran a little worse than 3 to 2 I was the only guy in the bunch with a steady girlfriend so the others went through every conceivable contortion at the locked door window trying to catch a glimpse – or even just a reflected glimpse of the bare boobs and pillow fights that Playboy would have us believe prevailed amongst coeds behind locked doors.

We decided to explore just another 50 feet and leave the rest of the tunnels for another night. We passed by a very promising air-lock-like door to find the bottom of a flight of stairs at the next break in the tunnel wall. This time there was no locked door and we started up the staircase only to be surprised that it kept going up past where we assumed ground level would be. We kept going on, assuming that  we’d become disoriented by the slight up-slope we’d being climbing as the tunnel followed the contour of the terrain of the campus above – but when I spied a small window to one side I quickly figured out what was going on.

We were 20-30 feet above the sidewalk. Somehow we’d gotten into the old clock tower and the aforementioned terrain disorientation had kept us from realizing where we were. It was all quite funny until we remembered that a) the carillon bells were housed just above us in the tower and B) it was about five minutes before the hour. Not wishing to be anywhere around when all that noise started we ran down the steps to the tunnel and were piling out of the entrance behind Lathrop Hall when the bells actually did start to peal.

I slept most of the next day, and then spent part of the evening visiting with my Best Friend before our next foray underground. Because she was my best friend  I’d end up telling her everything going on in my life…but she wasn’t very happy my current antics.  Her father was on University staff and in the past there had been some dinner table dialog about students caught in the utilidors and subsequently disciplined severely when they were found to have “lifted” camera equipment.  I changed the subject as quickly as possibly and tried not to look too anxious as I left her house and headed back to the dorm for another expedition.

We were dismayed to find three more “explorers” waiting to join up with us. Two of them – Tideman and Carrini –  were from our floor and most welcome but the third guy was from another dorm and not particularly trusted,  but as  his flashlight and spare batteries were a definite improvement over our candles we took him along.  I was much better prepared information wise as well, having had combined notes from previous nights’ experience with a campus catalog map which was in turn double-checked against surreptitious day-light survey of the school grounds .

I was most interested in the “airlock doors” we’d passed the night before. They were extremely hard to open and at first I thought they were bolted or secured in some manner but after getting through the first one I found there was a strong air current moving that you had to open the door against – which did nothing but pique my interest even more.  Each time we went through another door the current got stronger until we reached a small cube-shaped room with a grill in the top which lead me to believe that the tunnels were part of a ventilation system at some unknown campus location.

It was not unknown for long. I popped up through the grid in finest Whack-a-Mole fashion to find myself in the middle main hall of the student center. Formally known as the William R. Wood Center it was commonly known as the ‘Copper Center” because of the cupreous siding on the front of the building. It was brand new having just opened that semester and was mildly controversial because of the large open interior spaces and “modern” decorating motif designed to combat the long winter nights and cabin fever – conservative critics felt like all the open space was a waste of money. The design included a small platform with dining table sitting atop of an artfully designed 20 foot tall metal framework and staircase which we alternately called “The Stairway to Heaven” or ‘The Stairway to Nowhere”.

The grating I came up out of was located at the bottom of the framework, putting me in the exact middle of this large open area. I was saved by immediate discovery and apprehension only the fact that it was A) well after midnight on a holiday and B) most of the people in the area were baked so bad their eyes looked like a road-map of Los Angeles. The minute I gathered my senses I popped back down the hole and made my way back to the main tunnel, my egress all that much faster with the air currents now acting as a tailwind.

We pushed past the entrance to the clock tower and found a branch that appeared to lead us to the new classroom building being built in front of the old student center. At first we figured that as work in progress there would be no locked doors to that building but in fact the tunnel was boarded up with plywood instead. Bent but not broken  we turned down yet another side tunnel which took us directly to the library sub-basement…at which point I started to get nervous.

There was a lot of (what was for 1972) lot of hi-tech equipment stored in that area, along with large numbers of books on carts to be reshelved the next day. I thought back on the story about the students getting the ax over the stolen cameras and opted to head back to the entrance along with all but two of the party, after which I crashed for the night.

The next day was a repeat of the day before. Bernie and I walked the campus grounds measuring off distances and correcting my map. Early that evening I went to visit my Best Friend again and in typical boorish jock manner scared her with a story about being caught in the tunnels the night before and how I was awaiting expulsion. She failed to see the humor in my story but succeeded in demonstrating a surprising strong right arm when she punched my right arm in bad-joke-retaliation.

Again we assembled in our room and like soldiers on the Western Front preparing for a trench raid we secured our gear, prepared our lights and filed stealthily out to the unlocked access hatch….to find a massive brass lock sealing it securely shut. Given the substances some of the guys had been fortifying themselves with during these incursions finding the lock there was literally a buzz-kill but we had no tools and other than scrambling down the grid below the Stairway to Nowhere we knew of no other access points so we called it a night. It was just as well – it was 1:00 AM Sunday morning; the cafeteria would be back up and running for breakfast and I definitely wanted to have something before hiking back to my Best Friend’s home to catch a ride to church with her and her family.

It wasn’t until later that week that we found out what had happened. It was obvious something was up when the entire floor was blasted awake at 6:00 AM by the stereo in Tideman and Carrini’s room blasting “Lowdown” by Chicago. They were heading back to California (early) and while I was elated when they gave me their bunk-bed components I was mystified by the sudden move. It wasn’t until sometime later when I found out the real story during one of the dorm floor’s “herbal remedy” sessions. That last night when the rest of the group (including me) came home early Tideman and Carrini actually got as far as the campus fire station…and a campus fireman. The tunnel they were in made a sharp left turn into the station’s basement and before they knew where they were they had almost run over a guy. He was startled enough that they got back into the tunnels and far enough down them that they were able to get back home without being caught. Did they get away scot-free? I don’t know – but there was a short note in the campus paper soon after restating the zero-tolerance policy about the utilidors, warning dire consequences for those who may be caught down there

…though at that moment I’d have freely taken those ‘dire consequences” if it meant escape from the umber-colored laser stare that I did get from my Best Friend while reading that particular notice.

1982 A Very Late Aftershock

While assigned as a lieutenant at FT Richardson, Alaska in the early 1980s I was part of a very select group. Rangers?  No. Delta Force?  No. Special Forces?  No. I was a soldier in Alaska who was from Alaska. Not as in “second tour” or “army brat”, but a kid that had grown up in the 49th state. It threw everyone for a loop when I was able to go sheep-hunting three months after arriving – with a resident license and when my sergeants would swear and say: “L.T. (slang for lieutenant) – no one is really from Alaska” – but then I’d pull out my wallet and show them my license with the long-hair photo and a fairly low license number (low 50000’s) and they’d finally ease up.

Because we had moved from California to Anchorage in the summer of 1962 I was witness to a lot of changes and the soldiers around me were always asking questions about the way things were back then and how they’d changed as the city of Anchorage quadrupled in size during the intervening twenty years.  They were particularly interested in the 1964 quake and the fact that my family had lived fairly close to Turnagain when it occurred. I talked about how much the quake shook, ,how we scrambled to find safe places in the house to ride it out, how the topography changed in some areas and how my friends and I tried to sneak downtown to see the damage when school was out for a whole week after the quake.

They particularly liked to hear about the aftershocks, how scared we were when they’d come and how we’d jump and run whenever one hit. Those stories got a lot of laughs, especially when I told one during a break in planning a field training exercise when I was assigned as a battalion staff officer in the spring of 1982. Our operations NCO Master Sergeant Santiago took great delight afterwards in his speculations about how “the lieutenant must have jumped like a little rabbit during the quake.” It was all fun at first, but after the fourth rabbit/bunny comment I started to get a little annoyed

Soon the break was over and we all went back to our offices to continue planning our individual tasks.  Two hours later we met again in the common area between the offices to coordinate…and when we did the ground began to shake.

It was a perfectly timed earthquake. I stood firm with my legs apart, shoulder width and watched the other men as the quake progressed and started to intensify. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Sergeant Santiago looking at me out of the corner of his eye and I could tell what he was thinking just as clearly as if it was written out in a comic-panel thought bubble.

“The L.T. has done this before. He knows what’s going on and what to do. I’ll key on him”

It was evil but I couldn’t help myself. I gave the slightest knee-fake towards the door; much like a wide-receiver would do to deceive a pursuing corner-back. Sergeant Santiago took one look and bolted for the door. (Bear in mind that he was a wiry Puerto Rican infantryman with the gait of a quarter horses).) By the time I got out of the offices and through the front door (less than fifty feet) he was three blocks away and still moving. The sight more than made up for all the bunny jokes earlier that afternoon.

1981: Lieutenant Moonlight!


(Boy, that sounds like a Golden Age superhero titles, doesn’t it? Flyer’s helmet and goggles, short cape, boots and a half-moon logo on my chest.)

Ah, but it is not to be. Rather than fighting criminals or “Ratzis” the subject of today’s post has to do with the amount of freelance art work I did while serving in the Army – and it started the summer before my last year of undergraduate study.

Actually, it had been an issue since the day I signed up for ROTC. I knew that there would be a built-in conflict between the two career fields and I would bounce back and forth between planning for a career in the active army and a career in the design field combined with duty in the reserves. I would like to note that it never was a question of whether or not I would serve, but when I would serve. Too many Deitricks, Wrights, Lairds, and Williams had “taken the king’s shilling” for me to break with tradition.

It was going to be a little easier to do so when I hit the summer of 1978 though. I had one last year of school, a wife and a child on the way. I had put myself through school by way of the best school job ever: working as a roustabout for Chevron Oil at the Swanson River oil field on the Kenai Peninsula in the state of Alaska…and yes, there will be a post on that at a later time.

For some reason my skills took a vacation that summer. Summers before I would crank out drawings all summer long after work and on weekends, but that summer – yeesh. I don’t think I completed one major color piece and I came up with maybe a dozen sketchbook drawings, none of which were very good. I started to get a little panicky – as I said before I was going to be starting a family and was beginning to doubt that I’d be able to support them.

During that summer and the two summers before the head of operations in Alaska personally asked me to consider staying on full-time. (I believe his name was John Rollins). I was a good hand, I liked the people I was working with and it was a sure thing – which made it all that more heartbreaking when my boss T.H. Auldridge and some of the others on the roustabout gang strongly encouraged me to not stay on. They felt that with all the preparation I had made via schooling, mission work and military training I had too much going for me in the future to settle for Swanson River. It meant a lot that they felt s highly for me but at the same time it was hard shutting the door on that option.

So, Lori and I headed south and after a rough start to the school year (late registration, our housing plans falling apart and our truck dying) I went into the ROTC office and put in my application for active duty. Based on my grade point average, leadership and participation at school and my performance at FT Lewis I was given a regular army commission instead of a reserve commission on active duty. I was delighted to also get orders for flight school at FT Rucker for the following autumn so with everything squared away I settled down to just grinding through my school work and getting started on career as an Army officer the next fall.

…but then disaster struck. Whatever was keeping me from putting out decent artwork the summer before left me and I got much better at my work. My grades all went up at a minimum one entire grade level, everything I entered in the student show was accepted and walked away with a major award and I was able to start doing paying freelance illustration for gaming magazines and publishers. I was on my way to a bright future…then April of 1979 hit and that bright future turned into an olive drab one and I began to contend with a life-long dilemma – balancing the life-styles and mind-sets of two very divergent career fields.

The process was pretty much the same through all my active duty years. I had to have longer than usual dead-lines in order to accommodate extended hours at various times. Seeing my work in print was also sometimes under unusual circumstances; while taking a chemical warfare course I found my Cobra update illustration in a frame over an NBC NCO’s desk – it was my first experience with autographing work and I was ten days into JRX Brim Frost 1983 when I got my first look at the “kiddie Traveller” box cover I did for GDW while standing next to a C130 being off-loaded at Delta Creek assault strip.

Conditions under which projects were completed varied quite a bit too. While most of them were done as “moon-lighting” work at night and on weekends, some of them were not. I spent 6 months working full-time as an art director at the U.S. Army Aviation Digest while my medical grounding for eye problems was being considered; at that time I was working just like my civilian 9-to-5 graphic design counterparts. The image leading off this post  (which depicts a helicopter, a Lear Jet and a hanger) was one that I had to split in; when reassured that I was not required to go and FTX at FT Greeley (AK) I took on the which was for ERA helicopters (and a major coup!)  The next day I was told that I was in fact going, but with the collusion of my company commander Keith Kernek I was able to spend 4 days at FT Greeley conducting the down-load of the battalion airlift, sped home for 4 days to work on the illustration night and day, then back to Greeley to handle the retrograde airlift, then home when I spent two days finishing and prepping the art…then I collapsed. Incidentally, I bought my first computer with the money I made on that project.

(CPT Kernek used to say: “LTD, this art stuff is your real job. The army is just a hobby for you.”)

As time went by my clientele grew and I picked up a couple of industry awards. By 1983 I felt like I had enough work to warrant going full-time freelance so in May of that year I exchanged my green identification card for a pink one. Looking back I wish I had stayed in the Army and kept at a hobby, especially when computer-assisted illustration and design swept through the industry about ten years after I set up full-time. When asked about digital media I reply that I am of the Quigley: Down Under school of thought only with computers instead of pistols: it’s not that I can’t use them – it’s just that I don’t like to use them. Hindsight is of course 20-20, but I am very glad that teaching became a large part of my livelihood about the time the machines started taking over.


There are two types of posts I make to this blog. The first type is a spontaneous post and usually involves a piece of art. The second type is in essay form, usually 600-1200 words and has been drafted, proof-read edited offline so it comes out exactly right. This post is going to be a mix of both.

While this is not a political blog, and I am not an overly political person I started out with a rant about prescription pain medication. Granted, there is a problem with abuse and diversion in the country but in humanity’s usual mode of over-reaction a lot of deserving people are being not just hurt but permanently damaged.

I was that rarest of anomalies, a drug-free college student in the early 1970s. I didn’t start out with any hard and fast opinions either way, but I made a promise to my girlfriend that I would not indulge, and I kept that promise even though it brought enormous pressure from the other residents of my dorm to include threats of violence. When they finally figured out that (A) I wasn’t a narc and (B) I wasn’t going to cave their attitudes changed and I became the token “straight.” As my good friend The Badger said to me “Deitrick I guess you have character,” and from then on anyone from outside Lathrop Hall risked damage to life and limb if they pushed the drug issue with me.

It’s been that way all my life. I had extremely high security clearances and was selected to control large amounts of money and extremely valuable items of equipment because I have proven myself to be scrupulously honest. When I returned an extra $20 a clerk gave me with change after a purchase she was amazed that I did so, saying, “No one would have ever known” to which I answered, “But I would have”

So, where is this going? Please bear with me.

At the same time that I have been going through life as the living embodiment of Richie Cunningham from Happy Days, I have also been going through sheer physical hell. As the result of a now overwhelmingly disproven SIDS prevention measure known as Thymus Irradiation I was deprived of a healthy immune system. Because of that I have multiple auto-immune problems: advanced rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and multiple skin rashes which are often severe enough to bleed through.

…and did I mention the pain? I don’t have a thesaurus big enough or accurate enough for me to find words to accurately describe the exquisite torture I go through just to get up in the morning. You know that little graph they use to help verbalize pain, the one with the little faces on the number scale? At any given moment I have at least five areas bouncing up at about #7–and there are days when I could tape an extension to the end of that little scale and draw in three additional expressive faces showing pain at level 11 (vomiting) 12 (voiding bowels) and 13 (giving the world the “one finger wave”). I have knuckles that look like walnuts and major joints which possess 20% of the range of motion I had ten years ago. Because of the various non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed to me I’ve gone through pancreatitis twice (usually a one-way trip the first time around). I have gone all the way to “the edge” because of uncontrolled severe pain. The only way I can live anything close to a normal life is by using pain-killers.

OOOOOOHHHH. AHHHHHH. See–already you’re sucking your breath in and looking back over the previous half-dozen paragraphs to see if I ever car-jacked someone or dried a baby off in a microwave. If you use pain medication you are automatically judged as a criminal/addict. Never mind that all these “conditions” are due to massive stupidity on the part of doctors that are all dead now–I am flawed because I need this kind of help. What is bitterly ironic about all of this is the fact that pain-killers don’t really “kill pain.” The pain is still there, but you’re able to ignore it to an extent.

Long term chronic pain acts almost like a disease in and of itself. As your body copes with the overload on your nervous system it changes and adapts–and not in a good way. To take the pressure off of one joint I have to kind of twist in an otherwise unaffected area-–but which now causes more pain because it has been forced into an alignment it wasn’t made for. The longer the pain goes on, the faster and more intense it becomes as well. One doctor explained to me this simplistic but effective manner: it’s like the pain messages have worn a groove they can zip down.

At one time I longed for a device that would allow someone to experience my life for just thirty seconds–a small hand-held device with a push-button on it–but in the end was glad it didn’t exist. I’d be leaving a trail of people collapsed on the floor, covered with vomit with their bladders and bowels voided.

…and contrary to what thoughtless people have said to me, this isn’t a moderate condition that I am “using.”  As you would expect with growing up in Alaska and life as a soldier, I have experienced other periods of severe pain before all of this set in. At age 10 I walked on three broken bones in my foot for a week before getting a cast. I had my left thumb slashed/dislocated in an industrial accident and I took care of it with aspirin and a butterfly closure. Passed gallstones twelve times before the operation with only ibuprofin to ease the pain.  I know what pain is and what I go through daily equals those brief incidents.

Fortunately there are exceptions in the human race, people with unfeigned compassion.  I have two attending doctors now that both deserve sainthood for what they have done for me but in many ways their hands are tied by government rules and regulations that are just not thought out very well by people who know nothing of the science involved to begin with, much less the misery their actions have inflicted.

I make it through each day only because I have a great support system, with my beautiful Saxon princess at the top of the list. As I mentioned there are my two doctors and their staff who regularly save my life through their care and compassion… and there are the members of The Club.

The Club. I am certainly not the only person in this situation and I refer to those friends of mine in similar straits as members of The Club. I can readily pick those individuals out of a crowd–there is particular combination of a dark exhausted look around the eyes, a careful way of walking and an absence of judgment that comes only from countless sleepless nights, regular spasms and chronic joint pain… and the fear that comes with it. It is something that can only be experienced to be understood and it gives you a compassion that nothing else will.

At the outset of this post I said I didn’t know where I was going or what I wanted to accomplish, and I still don’t have a totally cohesive thesis statement to tack onto the introduction. Just do me a favor please. If you know someone in pain-hell, or in your daily activities encounter someone with a cane, moving in an oddly stiff manner or maybe wincing while moving around at a desk or handling objects, please be kind. No matter the kind of life they’ve lived, they’re going straight to heaven because they’ve already lived in hell.

Adjusting to Sixty

Every day I find out some new aspect to being sixty. Not just the physical aspects – but the social, mental and emotional sides of living at this age. For example, while I was working at the Swanson River oilfield in the summer of 1972 I got hit on the head hard enough to make my knees buckle. I got hit on my head a month ago and the two experiences have been very, very different.

1972: We were pressure testing valves that were to be inserted in a line of tubing being put down a well, the test requiring the use of 36” pipe wrenches. In order to get sufficient force to seal everything off correctly we had to use 48” cheaters – pipes put on the handles of the wrenches to increase leverage so we could make a tighter seal.

Being nineteen and invulnerable – and also of tired & careless because I was working the first overtime of my life I wasn’t wearing my hard hat. You can see the equation working itself out.

(W + M) x E = S + T

W:  36” pipe wrench (with an extension much longer than warranted for)

M:  210-pound young man hanging on one end

E:  An environment covered with oil and water

S: The wrench slipping

T: One tremendous blow to the head.

I got up right away, “shook it off” like nothing had happened then put the wrench down and walked over to the water fountain only to collapse just before reaching it, catching myself n the edges of two barrels located next to the door.

I was a little shaky that night but was just fine the next day.

2013: I either blacked out or “instantly fell asleep” just as I was entering the loo. I had no idea anything was happening until I heard a loud bang and felt the side of my head start to really hurt.  I got up right away – only this time my knees also buckled right away so I got to my bed as soon as possible and spent some time there before trying to go about my regular routine.

What’s it all mean?  While I recognize that I am physically not as capable as I was 39 years ago inside of me is a 20 year old saying “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?” My muscle memory and reflexes still want to follow that old template and it shocks me when I can’t do it. There’s a template in my brain that wants to shift me into “watcher” mode, making sure my wife and children are protected and taken care of. The reality though is that with my age and disability I am the one that has to be watched over with my wife and sons checking on me, following up and making sure that  I “did in fact go to the doctor after all”….

My beautiful Saxon princess is making the transition much better than I am, falling back on the phrase “It is what it is”. Unfortunately I have not been able to be as graceful, falling back on the phrase “it isn’t what I want” but I know that I will eventually make the transition to a life without 36” pipe wrenches with four-foot cheat bars.

1964: Joy – Part One

I missed the whole vampire thing in popular culture – at first,  I’d see students come through my classes that were as obsessed with the “children of the night” motif as former students had been with centaurs ten years earlier and as was the case with the centaurs, I gave the subject short shrift. Even though I work quite a bit in the fantasy and science fiction genre I am adamant that students learn the basics before tackling more complicated projects.

However, the TV series ANGEL blind-sided me. I was hooked from the first with the complex character interactions, the believable way the show dealt with “grown-up stuff” like atonement, addiction, dysfunctional family issues…even the in-jokes and humor. I wasn’t the only geezer the show appealed to either; one of the reasons it was canceled rather precipitously at the end of five years was precisely because geezers were tuning in.  ‘Angel’ scored well with the Nielsen ratings but it skewed “old” to my demographic . The network wanted was something to pull in teens and young adults so away it went.

The nature of vampirism is explained a little differently in ANGEL. Instead of the individual turning “eevvviiillll” (said in a spooky voice) when turned into a vampire, in this series when you are turned a demon from another dimension comes and takes up residence inside your body. They have access to all your knowledge and memories – but they aren’t “you” any more. Your soul is gone. It makes it all both less and more scary at the same time for me.

One theme ANGEL came back to time and again was the nature of true joy. That caught my attention because  I am at the point of my life where I wonder if there is such a thing. I get very jaded at lectures or sermons about the contrast between the types of life-styles that bring you transient happiness vs. long-term joy and how it is better to wait for joy. The only long-term emotion I have had in my life has been clinical depression – not because I have been “bad” or lack a positive mental attitude – but because my brain doesn’t make enough of the right kind of chemicals. In the same way a starving man dreams of a steak, I fantasize about what true joy must be like.

Angel is a vampire with a soul – he was cursed with getting his soul back after murdering a band of gypsies so punishment he would live forever realizing what truly horrible things he had done as  ‘Angelus” (the name he went by as a 100% bad-guy vampire). Right off that made me sit up because as I have written before in this blog I have a freakishly sharp memory which means I keenly remember any and all unkind things I have ever done to anyone else. I can understand the exquisite hell Angel lives with.

Most of the time. There are a couple of times when Angel’s soul leaves his body and the totality of Angelus takes over completely – and it ain’t pretty. The first time it happened was when he was with Buffy (yes the Vampire Slayer). During one “interlude” Angel was so overcome with his love for Buffy that he experienced a moment of “pure joy” – which caused his soul to be released to go back to heaven. Angel becomes Angelus for the rest of the season and he is just viciously wicked and cruel. The series almost lost me at that point in fact.

But once again I sat up. A true moment of joy. I thought about it hard, wondering if I had ever had a moment of unqualified true joy – that didn’t blow up in my face afterwards. I have had lots of happiness in my life but it has always been very transitory. I love sitting with my grandson Jayden on my lap while I read – but when he has to go it isn’t long before that mental dump-truck  of distress  starts backing over my brain. If I could ascertain the existence of a moment of true joy in my life, then there was the possibility of more, so I started combing through old letters, journals and artwork – and just sat and thought a lot.

I found three.

1. Discovering comics coincided with discovering that I was different from my friends in terms of artistic talent. Artistic talent usually doesn’t manifest itself until age 11and I was right on schedule.  When I discovered Batman, the Composite Superman and the Crime Syndicate from Earth 3 in the summer of 1964 my first reaction was to try “to make more” though at first it was because there was precious little in the way of licensed items available to buy.  Toys weren’t the huge industry they are now, living in Anchorage, Alaska meant that we were at the end of a very long logistical pipeline – and as we were still recovering from the Good Friday Earthquake (second worst recorded quake at 9.2 on the Richter scale) three months earlier most cargo space coming in from Outside was devoted to more practical items.

Undeterred I went to work. Using every trick I could think of I drew my own adventures.  I used carbon paper (too messy), I used the window as a light table to trace ( too indistinct) so finally I broke down and just drew Batman…and it wasn’t half bad.

Toys were a little harder. I had a set of “Ring-Hand Soldiers” – plastic army men that were molded without helmets, weapons, packs or belts. They sold with accessories that would snap into the hands, which were molded closed in a ring-shaped grip. This arrangement left their uniforms with limited detail allowing me to paint superhero costumes on them.

…which was great until I got to Batman. How was I going to get those ears on his cowl? I thought about just painting the hood without the ears – and I even though about just not having a Batman – but it just broke my heart to leave my favorite out of the set.

I don’t know what exactly happened next but I did notice that the enamel model paint that I was using made my fingers sticky when it would drip. Then I looked over at the sheet of paper I was using for a drop-cloth and the light-bulb went on. I snipped out a small strip of paper with two bat-ears space out along the top, then painted it with blue enamel. Next I took my working figure and painted blue enamel around his head, then took the strip of paper and wrapped it around the head (paint side in) and adjusted the fit until the ear’s lined up. I painted the outside of the ears, then added another coat of blue when I worked up the Batman uniform on the whole figure…when the two coats of blue paint on the ears dried it was as durable as the rest of the figure. I’d made my Batman.

I still remember that moment, sitting back  in the sun coming through the door of our living room in the house on the corner of McRae Road and Barbara Drive in deepest, darkest Spenard. I had my Batman figure, but that wasn’t the real thrill in much the same way that the sunlight wasn’t what was making the warmth and light I was enclosed in.  I closed my eyes and for a minute I had that true moment of joy (and the launch of my creative career) when I realized that I could make any toy  – anything I wanted.